A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift: Critical Commentary

In the prologue of a well-known essay 'A Modest Proposal' Jonathan Swift clarifies his purpose behind writing his proposal. Ireland was a colony under the British Empire. Like other colonies, Ireland was also being exploited badly. Most of the people were poor, unemployed. They were hungry and cloth less.


Jonathan Swift



Their children were uneducated. They were poorly clothed in rags. They were burdened to their parents. They were also burdened to their country. A newly born child was an additional grievance.

Natives of Ireland were much worried about their future. They were looking for ways of getting rescued from their grievance. With bitter irony, Swift presents a modest proposal. Though there is the word "modest" in the title, it is not so. It is very cruel and dangerous satire on the politics of the Great Britain. Swift proposes a way to tackle the miseries of the poor children and their parents. He intends with the proposal to provide for the children of professed beggars and also to support rich people, landlords, and others who expect much from the poor people of Ireland. In a way, ironically, Swift deserves his right to have his statue set up as a preserver of the nation because of his modest proposal. His proposal has several advantages. It can prevent the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents and country. This proposal makes the children beneficial to the public. It has been said that a mother could get eight shillings net profit by selling her one-year old baby. The child's parents would have better treatment from the rich and the landlords. There could be a great inducement to marriage. Food would bring great custom to hotels. The country could export thousands of carcasses to other countries. The nation would have relief from foreign loan. Ironically, these benefits have been enumerated by the speaker.

Swift, in his essay, gives a bitter satire on Irish exploitation by Britain. The main purpose behind the proposal is to give relief to the poor parents and the country as well as benefits to the public by selling of innocent one-year infants to the rich people and to the people of Great Britain. There is humor in his tone as though he takes every detail very seriously.

 Swift shows that he has a personal interest to think of the welfare of the nation which has been destroyed economically and culturally. His motive is to propose for the good of this country and public. This "good" has been proposed to be by the means of sale of infants. Advancement of the trade has been proposed by this sale. By this trade of flesh of infants, other infants can be provided food and clothes for at least one-year, which are on sale and also for those children who are to be grown up for the sake of further breeding. Poor parents will have relief in two ways- by gaining of eight shillings net profit from the sale of infants, and by getting respect and kindness from their landlords those who will purchase the infants. The rich will be delighted to have the delicious meat. Here lies the real irony. He says “giving some pleasure to the rich". This is a pun-having two meanings within the same phrase. In surface meaning- providing the delicious food and pleasure to the rich and in deep meaning- it is only a satire on the cruel attitudes of the rich towards the poor people and their exploitation.

Swift himself gives the purpose of writing the proposal "A Modest Proposal" in the following words—

‘for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public.'

It is not clear from this prologue (introductory note) how he is going to prevent the children from being burdened and to make them beneficial to the public. This is probably to prepare us to go through his plan. While we go through the text, images of poverty and inhumane exploitation render in our mind. At the end of the text, we come to know the attitude of the writer entirely, when he mentions—

‘having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing  our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich.’

Of course, Swift is very bitterly satirical in his essay. His proposal is not modest, rather cruel. Neither the poor will be relieved nor will the rich get any pleasure from the sale and purchase of the infants. Development of the ideas is also interesting. British rulers have been reproached for their nature of exploitation as we can see it from the remark— 'although perhaps I could name a country which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it (salt). This nation is not other than England, which was ruling over Ireland then. This is, in fact, a political satire which gave him immediate popularity. Same issue— exploitation of Ireland by England was dominant in many of W.B. Yeats's poems and plays.

 Target of Swift's satire is Roman Catholics and rich landlords as well. As the part of his plan (proposal), he also wishes that the number of papists (Roman Catholics, a term used by Protestants) can be lessened by the sale of the infants. As they get enough food from the infants, the squire will learn to be a good landlord and grow popular among his tenants. The arguments that have bogs given in favor of poor people, i.e. they will have their own money, cloth and something in possession, receive our sympathy where as  the landlords, English people, and Roman Catholics become subjects of hatred and anger from our side.

Swift's 'proposal' is worthy of appreciation for its technique, monologue or imaginary dialogue. Merchants, doctors, foreign friend, other projectors and others are imaginary participants of interaction. In the form of meditation, calculating the number of infants and children that are of saleable commodity, calculating the profit and loss from the sale, and enlisting different advantages of the sale are appreciable. The writer is not very serious as he seems in the essay about the proposal. Yet from the ideas presented in coherence and the technique of presentation and its satire make Swift the master of prose writing.

Literary Spotlight

Biography of Jonathan Swift

bachelorandmaster.com