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