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A Modest Proposal

The following text is an abridged version of an article which was published in 1729 and written by Jonathan Swift. Its full title was: “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”

Jonathan Swift. Tegning.

A Modest Proposal is a masterpiece of ironic logic and its scientific approach clearly puts it in an enlightenment tradition. It the text Swift is suggesting a “remedy” for the poverty and overpopulation in Ireland. Swift was a minister in Dublin, Ireland, and he was strongly appalled by how the Irish people were subdued by the English government and its local representatives.

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.

Working with the text

  1. Satire is a subtle style to criticise questionable practice, often political or public affairs. Check the related material “Satire – Definition and Approach” and compare with Swift’s article.
  2. Do the same with the related excerpt from Gulliver’s Travels, and compare with this article. Do his technique and approach differ in the two texts?
  3. Find examples in the article of Swift’s style and language that classifies him as an Enlightenment writer.
  4. Discuss an interpretation of the last paragraph of the article.
  5. Swift hopes that his thoughts would “not be liable to the least objection”. How do you think this text was received? Would the reaction be different today?
  6. Consider both this article and the related excerpt from Gulliver’s Travels; what do you think was Swift’s agenda with his writing, and what do you think of his approach?

Another approach to A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

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