To what extent is a Modest Proposal a satire specific to its own age?

A general definition of a satire is a piece of writing that is predominantly funny, but has a strong moral message behind it.  Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (1729) can be considered a satire for the same reason.  The text is humorous in how Swift shocks the reader with his proposal that the Irish should make money by selling their children to be eaten.  The moral message within the text is that the English government completely mistreat the Irish nation.  Within this essay, I will be arguing that A Modest Proposal is a satire specific to its own age, due to how it relates to particular events in its social context, such as the Enlightenment Period and Juvenalian satire.

Swift satirises many things within A Modest Proposal.  One such example is the Enlightenment Period and through this, he expresses his anger at the English government for their maltreatment of the Irish population.  Swift identifies that there are “one million and a half people”[1] people in Ireland, “two hundred thousand” (AMP, p.8) of which being suitable for breeding.  By using facts, Swift satirises the emphasis that the Enlightenment placed on scientific knowledge as a way of advancing society.  Primarily, through the methodical, detached tone used here, Swift accentuates how the Enlightenment favoured science over emotion.  By reducing the whole Irish population to nothing more than numbers on a page, Swift reduces them to mere commodities, which reflects the way that the British government perceived them.  Kathleen Williams argues that Swift thought the majority of Ireland’s problems stemmed from when arable land was converted to pasture land on a large scale, which led to those owning country estates profiting greatly, due to how pasture animals such as sheep, required less maintenance and thus less labour.[2] Those who controlled these country estates, the British and Irish landlords, wished to save as much money as possible at the expense of the working class Irish men, many of whom lost their jobs because of this.  This acts as an example of the severe poverty that the Irish were suffering from and serves as justification for the extreme solution that Swift proposes.

A Modest Proposal is generally classified as Juvenalian satire, as is evident by the scornful, hyperbolic language present, such as how Swift describes walking around Irish towns as a “melancholy object.” (AMP, p.1) The use of this adjective presents an incredibly pretentious tone.  Melancholy is generally defined as an intense state of sadness.  Swift satirically uses this adjective to show how the British falsely care about the Irish and that the Proposal is actually for the good of the Irish population.  This is really a pretence for how the Proposer wants to improve Ireland for the sake of Britain and not Ireland itself.  By using “melancholy,” (AMP, p.1) an adjective commonly connoted with an extreme state of sadness, the Proposer is blaming the Irish for bringing this intense sadness upon themselves and ruining things for the British.  This furthers the effect of the Juvenalian satire, because of how it portrays the Proposer’s ideas as evil and ludicrous, which is another common convention of the satire.  D. Singleton wrote in his essay on Juvenal’s fifteenth satire that its “subject, an act of cannibalism […] is a violent, intrinsically, repellent one […] that for many readers is in itself a barrier to enjoyment and perhaps understanding of the satire.”[3] Singleton’s idea of how the “repellent” subject of the satire prevented readers from truly understanding it is comparable to a Modest Proposal.  Swift’s suggestion of cannibalism was one that was so astonishing that the majority of readers believed he was serious.  Regarding this, I argue that a Modest Proposal is a satire specific to its own age, due to the popularity of Juvenalian satire at the time.

Within the Enlightenment period came an attitude that anything could be achieved through the pursuit of scientific, logical solutions.  Through suggesting that the Irish cannibalise their children, Swift is emulating something similar.  Swift legitimatises his claims through his references to logic and science.  For example, the proposer “compute(s) that Dublin would take off annually about twenty thousand carcasses.” (AMP, p. 22) These precise statistics not only give the text an authoritative, definitive tone, but it also satirises the Enlightenment thinkers who heavily emphasised empirical evidence to substantiate their theories.  Through this, Swift is not attacking the Irish conditions that the Irish lived in, but the radical schemes that were being suggested to improve things.  George Wittowsky lists a number of such solutions in his article, where he argues that “during Swift’s lifetime, England and Ireland were flooded with literature dealing with theories about population, labour, unemployment and poor relief.”[4] The Irish economist David Bindon believed that to solve Ireland’s poverty problem, “every City and Town corporate in Ireland, that has a Revenue, might be enabled to erect a lombard for the Benefit of the Inhabitants.”[5] Wittowsky saw this and many other solutions, as a “burlesque on projects concerning the poor.”[6] The plight of the Irish poor had become so publicised that it had become fashionable to pose political solutions to their problems.  Through this, Swift’s A Modest Proposal initially appears to be one in a very long line of reforms designed to help.  I, therefore, argue that A Modest Proposal is a satire specific to its own age, due to how Swift uses this text, as a way of demonstrating how over-saturated the problem with Ireland had become.  Everyone was speculating about solutions, but no definitive action was taken.

Swift continues his satire through the sentence structure of the text.  He intended for a Modest Proposal to strongly resemble other pamphlets of the time.  He achieves this through his use of a long sentence structure.  One such example is;

As to our City of Dublin, shambles may be appointed for this purpose, in the most             convenient parts of it, and butchers we may be assured will not be wanting; although I rather recommend buying the children live, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs.  (AMP, p. 14)

This paragraph consists entirely of one sentence that has been broken up by four commas and one semi colon.  This is effective, as it gives an authoritative tone to the Proposer’s narrative.  The Proposer expresses this great knowledge and confidence about the situation.  Through long sentences and few breaks, the Proposer definitively demonstrates his theories and ideas.  However, I instead argue that Swift is further satirising the great thinkers of this period who wrote verbose, elaborate essays about their chosen subjects.


As well as turning the Irish into commodities and attacking the English, Swift also dehumanises the Irish by comparing them to farmland animals.  When the Proposer is suggesting the advantages of his proposal, he says that “men would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal […] nor offer to beat or kick them.” (AMP, p. 21) The Proposer subjugates the women and attacks the men by implying that women are valueless to men, unless they promise children.  However, the use of the modal verb “would” (AMP, p. 21) demonstrates a tentative tone.  The proposer is merely assuming that Irish men will begin to value their wives, when they are pregnant.  This reflects the over-saturation of solutions at the time, as so many ideas were suggested, because nobody would be sure what would work.  Furthermore, the use of this modal verb, amongst others, serves to contradict the attitudes of the time.  In an era where scientific knowledge was founded upon concrete, empirical evidence, this form of uncertainty would not have been favoured.  Lastly, this uncertainty also undermines the authoritative tone that the Proposer creates through the sentence structure of the piece, as well as emphasising that he is not serious about his ideas, but satirical.  Through how Swift has used language choices to go against the current era, A Modest Proposal is a satire suitable to its time.

One main principle of the Enlightenment was to improve mankind and further society, through the pursuit of scientific knowledge.  The Proposer believes that what he is suggesting is also for the goodness of mankind and he sees himself as a philanthropist.  Nearing the text’s conclusion, the Proposer fancies himself as a patriot, as he argues that he has “no other motive than the publick good of my country, by advancing our trade.” (AMP, p. 35) He appears to be willing to sacrifice children for the greater good.  This notion of philanthropy is completely contradicted by the methods that the Proposer suggest to improve society.  It is ironic that the Proposer would recommend a solution as misanthropic as cannibalism and infanticide.  This then leads to a morally ambiguous situation, where the reader is unsure about the Proposer’s morality.  Is       he a philanthropist or a misanthrope? His misanthropy and lack of empathy is portrayed in this quotation: “I rather recommend buying the children alive and dressing them hot from the knife.” (AMP, p. 14) The proposer demonstrates his coldness and lack of empathy.  Michael Suarez wrote that “the serious business of Swiftian satire is that it invites (or provokes) the reader to be critical: that is to judge.”[7] I agree with this, as Swift created a moral duality, because he wanted the reader to make up their own minds by catalysing them into taking action.  Swift is attacking those who judge, but do nothing, as is evident in the quotation “because it is very well known that they are every day dying and rotting by cold and famine.” (AMP, p. 17) Despite everyone being aware of the problem, hardly anyone took action.  This makes a Modest Proposal a satire suitable to its time, due to how it is commenting on how Enlightenment thinkers just projected without taking action.

Ultimately, I argue that a Modest Proposal is a satire specific to its time, but it also has themes and ideas that can apply to the modern-day.  Even though, Swift was writing about the relationship between Ireland and England, his ideas and themes are applicable to events throughout time.  Similarly to Jacobite times, where politicians and philosophers incessantly conjectured, the same can be said for other periods throughout history, where the ruling classes have endlessly discussed at the expense of the lower classes.  I argue that Swift’s definitive point in writing this pamphlet is to epitomise the notion of Consequentalism.  A Modest Proposal is the ultimate example of how when an outcome is deemed moral enough, any method of action may be used to achieve this goal, regardless of the misanthropy of the solution.

Word Count: 1950


Bindon, David, A scheme for supplying industrious people with money to carry on their trades: and for the better providing for the poor of Ireland, 2nd edition (Dublin, G. Faulkner, 1729), p. 12.

Singleton D., ‘Juvenal’s Fifteenth Satire: A Reading’, Greece & Rome, Second Series, 30 (1983), pp. 187-207

Suarez Michael F., S.J., ‘Swift’s Satire and Parody’ in The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Swift, ed. by Christopher Fox (Cambridge: CUP, 2003), pp. 112-127

Swift Jonathan, A Modest Proposal (Norderstedt: Watchmaker Publishing, 2010

Williams Kathleen, Profiles in Literature: Jonathan Swift (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968)

Wittowsky George, ‘Swift’s Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet,’ Journal of the History of Ideas, 4 (1943), pp. 75-104

[1]      Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal (Norderstedt: Watchmaker Publishing, 2010) All subsequent references to Swift’s work will be given in parenthesis after quotations in the text.

[2]     Kathleen Williams, Profiles in Literature: Jonathan Swift (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968), p. 71

[3]      D. Singleton, ‘Juvenal’s Fifteenth Satire: A Reading’, Greece & Rome, Second Series, 30 (1983), pp. 187-207 (p. 199)

[4]      George Wittowsky, ‘Swift’s Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet,’ Journal of the History of Ideas, 4 (1943), pp. 75-104 (p.85)

[5]      David Bindon, A scheme for supplying industrious people with money to carry on their trades: and for the better providing for the poor of Ireland, 2nd edition (Dublin, G. Faulkner 1729), p. 12.

[6]     Wittowsky, p. 88

[7]     Michael F. Suarez, S.J., ‘Swift’s Satire and Parody’ in The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Swift, ed. by Christopher Fox (Cambridge: CUP, 2003), pp. 112-127 (112)

*Author’s Notes*

This is the third and final essay that I wrote for my Introduction to Literary Studies II module.  It is based off Jonathan Swift’s satirical pamphlet: A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick, in which Swift suggests that the Irish solve their poverty by selling their children to be eaten by the upper-classes.  Yep.  You read that right.  I’m not really one for ‘canonised authors’ but I do like Jonathan Swift.