A Modest Proposal
The author now anticipates an objection to his proposal--that it will too drastically reduce the national population. He admits this, reminding the reader that such a reduction was in fact one of the goals. The proposal, he emphasizes, is calculated specifically with respect to Ireland and its circumstances, and is not meant to be applicable to other kingdoms. He offers a catalogue of the various remedies others have suggested: taxing absentee landowners, buying only domestically-manufactured goods, rejecting "foreign luxury," reforming the morality of Irish women, instilling "Parsimony, Prudence, and Temperance" in the people, as well as a healthy patriotism, abandoning factionalism and internal strife, refusing "to sell our Country and Consciences for nothing," encouraging landlords to treat their tenants justly, and enforcing honest practice among merchants. The author disdains these measures as naive and unrealistic. He tells of his own weariness after years of struggling with such impracticable ideas, and his final relief and excitement at hitting upon his current proposal, which "hath something solid and real, of no Expence, and little Trouble," and which will not run the risk of angering England. It will have nothing to do with England, in fact, since the flesh of human infants is too delicate to withstand exportation. He hints that there might be a country that would be eager "to eat up our whole Nation," even without preservatives.
Swift insists that he is not unwilling to hear alternative proposals, if they are "equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual." They should also be sure to consider the two urgent issues that his own proposal addresses so thoroughly. First, it must indicate how 100,000 "useless Mouths and Backs" are to be fed and clothed. And second, it must address the extreme poverty of the vast majority of the Irish population, whose misery is so great that they would "think it a great Happiness to have been sold for Food at a Year old." Swift reinforces that he has only the "publick Good" in mind with this proposal for "advancing our Trade, providing for Infants, relieving the Poor, and giving some Pleasure to the Rich." He is himself entirely disinterested, having no children by which he can earn money, since the youngest is already nine-years-old.
The author's account of his long and exhausting years of wrestling with Ireland's problems might be taken as Swift's own. His catalogue of supposedly unrealistic alternative solutions marks a turning point in the pamphlet and a break in the satire. The ideas the proposer rejects represent measures that Swift himself had spent a great deal of energy advocating, to exasperatingly little effect. They are a set of steps by which the Irish might hope to break out of their cycle of victimization without the need for England's cooperation. Swift's is a program of civic-minded, patriotic, and principled behavior designed to effect change from the inside. The audience is confronted with the fact that there are real and practicable solutions to Ireland's national discomposure, in which they themselves, in their greed and self-indulgence, are culpable.
In emphasizing that this remedy is designed only for Ireland, Swift is calling attention to the extremity of his country's backwardness, as an index of how bad things have gotten. The author's statement that much of the population would have been better off dead is exaggerated, perhaps, but not ironic; it is meant as testimony to the dire national consequences of such rampant civic neglect. Only in Ireland, he seems to say, could a policy of cannibalism possibly be considered a social improvement.
The author's closing statement offers a last scathing indictment of the ethic of convenience and personal gain. We are urged to believe in his disinterestedness not because of his moral standards or his high-mindedness, but because he happens not to be susceptible to the particular fiscal temptation that might compromise his position. The manner of his assertion here reminds us that the author's unquestioned assumption throughout the entire proposal is that anyone with children would in fact be perfectly willing to sell them. This declaration also undercuts, once again, the separation between the level-headed, wealthy, Protestant author and the Catholic masses. What unites the unruly and unscrupulous mob with the social planner is the fact that their priorities are basically economic.
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!