Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” represents a masterwork of political satire, one that draws attention to the plights of the Irish poor while rebuking a wide range of people, institutions and modes of thought that contribute to the deplorable circumstance. It is marked by its incisive critique on British sociological, economic and political problems, at its sharpest in its details and its descriptions of the road not taken — the “other expedients” his narrator dismisses while simultaneously validating with the only thorough and real arguments of his essay (other than how best to cook a baby, of course). Readers of “A Modest Proposal” are presented with the task of decoding this statement and determining the true targets of Swift’s derision. As his narrator gears up for the big finish of his essay, he points to failures and missed opportunities in British and Irish history, making this long paragraph the crescendo of his piece.

"I can think of no one objection, that will possibly be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged, that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom. This I freely own, and 'twas indeed one principal design in offering it to the world. I desire the reader will observe, that I calculate my remedy for this one individual Kingdom of Ireland, and for no other that ever was, is, or, I think, ever can be upon Earth. Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither cloaths, nor houshold furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it."

Questions

1. What techniques of irony and satire does Swift draw upon, and how does he use them to his advantage?

2. Where is the boundary between Swift himself and his narrator? If it is a fine line, does the similarity of the two voices matter for the piece or change its effectiveness?

3. How important is context here? How can we, as 21st century readers, begin to understand the true intent of Swift’s piece?

4. 4. How many distinct targets can we identify? Is it too many? Do we find the power of the satire is undermined or strengthened by the widely spread attack?

Bibliography

Swift, Jonathan. "A Modest Proposal."


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Last modified 31 January 2011