Literature / A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal (full title: A Modest Proposal 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 Publick) was written in 1729 by Irish satirist Jonathan Swift. It starts off like a modern essay detailing the hardships of the Irish people who are living in poverty and how the current means of fixing the problem are inadequate. Then Swift presents his own idea, ostensibly relayed from an "American friend":

"A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout."

Needless to say many people found Swift's little joke about how the poor could sell their children to the rich for food to be in poor taste. Others were shocked and appalled. Some thought it should be seriously considered. Those two didn't get the joke.

The original can be found here.

A Modest Proposal provides examples of:

  • Black Comedy: A shining example of the genre.
  • Black Comedy Cannibalism: Possibly the Ur-Example.
  • Blatant Lies: Swift insists that he's being serious about his proposal.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: It starts out normally enough...
  • Eats Babies: What Swift modestly proposes.
  • Get Thee to a Nunnery: To Swift's contemporaries, the label "American" would suggest a barbaric person.
  • Heroic Self-Deprecation: The ideas that the author advances as potentially good but practically useless schemes for improving the conditions of the Irish are all ideas that Swift himself had advanced, at one time or another.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Swift regrets that he cannot contribute to the scheme, as his youngest child is nine, and his wife is already past her childbearing years. A friend suggested the selling and eating of children between twelve and fourteen, and Swift decided that this suggestion may be bordering on cruelty, which he is strictly against.
  • Kill the Poor: More like "Make The Poor Sell Their Children For Food," but you get the idea.
  • Let's See YOU Do Better!: A passage near the end can be summarized as "Parliament claims to care about the poor, but when the subject is raised, nobody seems to have any good ideas. Now, I've presented mine. If you don't like it, come up with a better one."
  • Long Title: One would imagine an actually modest proposal would have a much terser title.
  • "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: Part of the reason some people miss the satire is that Swift precedes the eponymous proposal with an elaborate insistence that he's being completely serious.
  • People Farm: Since we already seem to treat the poor this way, Swift argues, why not go the rest of the way and eat them?
  • Poe's Law: Swift's over-the-top satire was taken at face value and discussed as an earnest and feasible solution for the Irish poverty problem.
  • Refuge in Audacity: This gives the satire a good bit of its effect.
  • Sarcasm Mode: Near the end, Swift lists out a series of efficient, intelligent measures that would actually help the entire Irish economy (and the Scots and English economies, come to that), and adds that of course these are entirely too outlandish to ever work.
  • Sarcastic Title: Just a modest little unassuming proposal that we all start eating babies.
  • Stealth Parody: So intricate that it wasn't recognized as such for some time. It helped that the British reading public was so convinced of its correctness in disdaining the Irish that they couldn't see that Swift was attacking that very conviction.
  • Wham Line: You have to start reading from the beginning to get the full impact of the line about eating human babies.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: Swift says that one fourth of the children saved for breeding should be male, and that "one male will be sufficient to serve four females." If one fourth of the children are male, each would have to "serve" three, not four females. It could just be part and parcel of the satire, though, for all we know.