Before beginning this summary of “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift, it is important to clarify that this is a satire and thus Swift is using symbols and motifs to present the themes he wishes to discuss and is not seriously advocating this demise of children. In short, to summarize, “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift begins by discussing the dire poverty that is rampant in Ireland and hints at how the country’s position is not helped by mighty England. The narrator of “A Modest Proposal” by Swift is very cold and rational, despite his somewhat sympathetic early description of the poverty he witnesses although this narration is the key to the presence of satire and irony in “A Modest Proposal”. He believes in a cycle of poverty where the parents are too poor and thus their children remain poor and thus useless to society and his only offering is that these children be put to use. Shockingly, the “use” these children are designated for is food…yes, that means that they would be eaten. The narrator of “Modest Proposal” backs up this frightening statement with economic rationalization and concludes that the children will contribute to the feeding and clothing of Ireland’s massive population.
In this not-so-modest proposal, the narrator of “A Modest Proposal” goes on to further to suggest all of the ways such a system could work. Since he has the belief that every poor family has a price, he is convinced that mothers would gladly carry and then sell their children for 8 shillings, that the rich would find the youngsters to be an excellent delicacy, and with the extra money going to the landlords (the rich of Swift’s time) the whole economy would be benefit, the population and poverty problems would be solved. The state would no longer be responsible for these poor children’s welfare and Ireland would no longer be reliant on England. Although there have been a few rather gruesome details omitted in this summary of “A Modest Proposal” (such as the passing over of teenagers since they might not taste very good) the general idea one should walk away with is that Swift’s satire is meant to point out the flaws inherent to a strictly rational way of dealing economic and social problems in A Modest Proposal. He is also suggesting that the Irish people are not necessarily the victims—that for personal economic gain they would “sell out” their families and go along with such a disgusting proposal
Although “A Modest Proposal” is a very short satire, it is nonetheless loaded with political, moral, and economic questions worth exploring. In general, I would advise the first-time reader of this text to go over it twice fully. The first time, just try to appreciate the humor and language that comprise the brilliant satire of “A Modest Proposal” …have fun with it without driving yourself nutty thinking about the implications of what the narrator/Swift is saying on a sentence-by-sentence basis. The second time, do a little bit of research beforehand about the Age of Reason, especially as it relates to rationalist approaches to state management. Think about how the Irish are being represented and question whether or not there are any “good” points that the narrator makes. Consider the role of England, the Catholic versus Protestant representations, and the way the poor of Ireland are not shown to have much initiative (or even dignity.)
Other articles and essays in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Analysis and Short Summary of “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift • Comparison of Use of Irony & Satire in “A Modest Proposal” and “Gulliver’s Travels” • Irony and Social Critique in “A Modest Proposal” and Candide
The full title of Swift's pamphlet is "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick." The tract is an ironically conceived attempt to "find out a fair, cheap, and easy Method" for converting the starving children of Ireland into "sound and useful members of the Commonwealth." Across the country poor children, predominantly Catholics, are living in squalor because their families are too poor to keep them fed and clothed.
The author argues, by hard-edged economic reasoning as well as from a self-righteous moral stance, for a way to turn this problem into its own solution. His proposal, in effect, is to fatten up these undernourished children and feed them to Ireland's rich land-owners. Children of the poor could be sold into a meat market at the age of one, he argues, thus combating overpopulation and unemployment, sparing families the expense of child-bearing while providing them with a little extra income, improving the culinary experience of the wealthy, and contributing to the overall economic well-being of the nation.
The author offers statistical support for his assertions and gives specific data about the number of children to be sold, their weight and price, and the projected consumption patterns. He suggests some recipes for preparing this delicious new meat, and he feels sure that innovative cooks will be quick to generate more. He also anticipates that the practice of selling and eating children will have positive effects on family morality: husbands will treat their wives with more respect, and parents will value their children in ways hitherto unknown. His conclusion is that the implementation of this project will do more to solve Ireland's complex social, political, and economic problems than any other measure that has been proposed.