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A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

Published: 12.05.2014, Updated: 05.03.2017
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Hungersnød i Volga-dalen, Russland, 1921-1922

"A Modest Proposal" is a satirical text written by the Irish author and minister Jonathan Swift. It was published under a pseudonym in 1729. Swift was appalled by how the Irish people were subdued by the English government and its local representatives.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was a master of irony and satire. He was  a Protestant minister in Dublin Jonathan SwiftJonathan Swiftand witnessed how the English colonists treated the Irish population, particularly the Catholics. He wanted to alert the public about pompous and self-important aristocrats and politicians whose practice brought misery on the common people. His most famous work is Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

In his essays and pamphlets he wanted to reveal the vanity and often immoral practice of the rich and powerful, including the church. His writing was sharp and his method was satire. Satire is a particularly bold way of exposing blameworthy or suspect phenomena in public affairs. Satire and irony are difficult literary devices, as the writer runs the risk of being misunderstood. In the following essay Swift reveals his satirical agenda already in the title, "A Modest Proposal". (Read the full version or an abridged version.)

 

Abridged Version

Read the abridged version of Jonathan Swift's essay from 1729. The full title is A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of poor People in Ireland from being a Burden to their Parents or Country; and for making them beneficial to the Public.

While reading ponder what is Jonathan Swift's proposal?

 

A Modest Proposal

By Jonathan Swift

I am assured by our merchants that a boy or a girl, before twelve years old, is no saleable commodity, and even when they come to this age they will not yield above three pounds, or three pounds and half a crown at most on the Exchange, which cannot turn to account either to the parents or to the kingdom, the charge of nutriment and rags having been at least four times that value.
    I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
    I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.
    I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males, which is more than we allow to sheep, black-cattle, or swine, and my reason is that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may at a year old be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune throughout the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
    I have reckoned upon a medium that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year if tolerably nursed increaseth to 28 pounds.
    I grant this food will be somewhat dear and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

 

 It is important that you understand these words and expressions:

look here

modest proposal=beskjedent forslag, vær også oppmerksom på at proposal kan bety frieri/ver óg merksam på at proposal kan tyde frieri
merchant=kjøp-/handelsmenn
commodity= råvare/ landbruksprodukt som handelsvare nutriment=næring
rags=filler/fillar
aquaintance=bekjent three pounds and half a crown=eldre valuta; vil i dag tilsvare ca. 270 pounds
ragout=en slags lapskaus/ein slags lapskaus
breed=avl
fore or hind quarter=for-og baksiden av kroppen/for-og baksida av kroppen på et/eit dyr
increaseth=(eldre uttrykk) vil øke/vil auke
solar year= et år med mye sol/eit år med mykje sol

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Read the Full Text

A Modest Proposal 

kylling til frikasse. Foto.Friccasse  Oliver Twist Oliver Twist asks for more food Map over Ireland. Illustration.The Republic of Ireland today  

Tasks

Language

Find words and expressions related to:

  • Food and dishes
  • Economy and money
  • Animals
  1. What connotations do the words related to food and dishes have?
  2. Why do you think Swift makes all these references to food, money and animals?

The Proposal

  1. Look up the meaning of the word proposal in the dictionary.
  2. How is the word ambiguous?
  3. Why do you think Swift chose to characterise his suggestion as a "proposal"?
  4. What is he actually proposing?
  5. Is the proposal modest, do you think?
  6. Why did he call his proposal modest?
  7. Why do you think he chose to focus on children?
  8. Discuss an interpretation of the last paragraph of the text.
  9. What do you think he wants to achieve by his "modest" proposal?

The Addressees

  1. To whom is Swift making his proposal?
  2. What do you think he feels about his addressees?
  3. How does he reveal his feelings about them?
  4. How do you think this text was received by Swift's readers in the 1700s?
  5. Would the reaction be any different today?

Satire and Irony

  1. Why do you think Swift chose to convey his proposal by means of satire?
  2. What do you think motivated Swift to write this text?
  3. Is this satirical essay a way to avoid the contemporary limited freedom of expression?
  4. What is the difference between satire and irony?
  5. Why would we call this text satirical, and not ironical?
  6. Do you know any modern examples of the use of satire in media, literature, music, films or art?
  7. If you were upset and committed about a particular issue, how would you express this if you wanted to go public?
  8. Discuss how satire might be a way to challenge authorities in countries where freedom of expression is limited?

Find Out

What in his contemporary Ireland infuriated Jonathan Swift and made him accuse the English of eating Irish children? Have a look at an Irish Timeline from the 18th century here 

  • What were the relations between the Irish and the English like?
  • What was the relationship between Protestants and Catholics like?
  • Describe the social, economic and political conditions.
  • Do you think Swift exaggerated?

Write

  1. Rap artists like Eminem make use of satire as a literary device. If Swift should make a rap about his concerns for his starving people, what would it look like?
    Transform "A Modest Proposal" into a rap.
  2. Make a fictional posting on Twitter where you as a citizen in a poor country blame people in the Western World for taking advantage of people in the Third World. Use the #shameonyou. (Remember 140 characters.)