A Modest Proposal
The author begins detailing his proposal, saying that he hopes it "will not be liable to the least Objection." He offers the information, derived from an American he knows, that a one-year-old child is "a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food; whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled." Based on this fact, he proposes that the 120,000 Irish children born in a year should be disposed of as follows: 20,000 should be kept for breeding and continuance of the population, but only a fourth of these are to be males, in accordance with the practice common among breeders of livestock ("one Male will be sufficient to serve four Females"); the other 100,000 are to be fattened and then sold as a culinary delicacy. He proceeds to offer suggestions as to the sort of dishes that might be prepared from their meat.
After this quick outline, the author moves on to the specifics of the proposal. First, he discusses the price of the meat. Since a one-year-old baby weighs, on average, only twenty-eight pounds, the flesh will be relatively expensive. These children, therefore, will be marketed primarily to Ireland's rich landlords, who, as Swift points out, "have already devoured most of the Parents" anyway. Second, he speculates that the new foodstuff will be in season year-round--with perhaps a particular surge in the springtime. The cost of nursing a "Beggar's Child" to marketable age is 2 shillings a year. The cost of the meat will be ten shillings, and the profits of the sale will be mutual: the mother will make eight shillings, and the landlord who buys the child will not only have "four Dishes of excellent nutritive Meat," but will also enjoy an increase in his own popularity among his tenants. In times of need, the skin could also be used for leather. The author does not doubt that there will be plenty of people in Dublin willing to conduct these transactions and to butcher the meat.
He then tells of a friend's proposed "Refinement on my Scheme," which was that, in light of the shortage of deer on the estates of Ireland's wealthy Gentlemen, teenage boys and girls might be butchered as an alternative to venison--especially since so many of these young people are already starving and unable to find employment. Swift, however, resists this idea, protesting that "their Flesh was generally tough and lean...and their Taste disagreeable." He also speculates that "some scrupulous people might be apt to censure such a practice (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon Cruelty." The author follows this up with an anecdote about the natives of Formosa and their cannibalistic practices. He then acknowledges a general concern about the vast number of elderly, sick, and handicapped among the poor, who are no more able to find work than the children. Having been asked to consider how the country could be relieved of that burden, Swift declares himself unworried--these people are dying off fast enough anyway.
The irony of Swift's piece turns on the assumption that his audience, regardless of their national or religious affiliations or their socioeconomic status, will all agree to the fact that eating children is morally reprehensible. The reader registers a shock at this point in the proposal and recognizes that a literal reading of Swift's pamphlet will not do. Swift is clearly not suggesting that the people of Ireland actually eat their children, and so the task becomes one of identifying his actual argument. This involves separating the persona of the "proposer" from Swift himself. The former is clearly a caricature; his values are deplorable, but despite his cold rationality and his self-righteousness, he is not morally indifferent. Rather, he seems to have a single, glaring blind spot regarding the reprehensible act of eating children, but he is perfectly ready to make judgments about the incidental moral benefits and consequences of his proposal. The proposer himself is not the main target of Swift's angry satire, though he becomes the vehicle for some biting parodies on methods of social thought.
The proposal draws attention to the self-degradation of the nation as a whole by illustrating it in shockingly literal ways. The idea of fattening up a starving population in order to feed the rich casts a grim judgment on the nature of social relations in Ireland. The language that likens people to livestock becomes even more prevalent in this part of the proposal. The breeding metaphor underscores the economic pragmatism that underlies the idea. It also works to frame a critique of the domestic values in Irish Catholic families, who regard marriage and family with so little sanctity that they effectively make breeding animals of themselves. Swift draws on the long-standing perception among the English and the Anglo-Irish ruling classes of the Irish as a barbaric people. Swift neither confirms nor negates this assumption altogether. He indicts the Irish Catholics for the extent to which they dehumanize themselves through their baseness and lack of self-respect. He also, however, admonishes those who would accuse the poor for their inhumane lack of compassion. And, he critiques the barbarism of a mode of social thought that takes economic profitability as its sole standard.
With the introduction of the idea of cannibalism, a number of associated insinuations come into play. Swift cultivates an analogy between eating people and other ways in which people, or a nation, can be devoured. The British oppression amounts to a kind of voracious consumption of all things Irish--humans devouring humans in a cannibalism of injustice and inhumanity. But Ireland's complicity in its own oppression translates the guilt of cannibalism to a narrower national scale; this is not just humans being cruel to other humans, but a nation consuming itself and its own resources. Swift's aside about the fact that wealthy Irish landlords have already "devoured" most of the poor parents voices a protest against their exploitation of the peasants.
One of Swift's techniques is to let abstract ideas resonate in multiple ways. The word "profit," for example, refers at various points to economics, morality, and personal indulgence. When Swift looks at who stands to profit from the sale of infant flesh, he includes not only the family that earns the eight shillings, but also the landowner who will earn a certain social status by serving such a delicacy, and the nation that will obtain relief from some of its most pressing problems. In this way, Swift keeps reminding his reader of the different value systems that bear on Ireland's social and political problems.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!