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Literature / A Modest Proposal

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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":

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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:

  • Acceptable Targets:
    • The Irish were Acceptable Targets for the English. Penned by an Irishman. By a side-effect, eating the Irish will mean reducing the number of Catholics. Everyone wins! And the idiotic youth of the upper class who contribute in no way to society — they can be grilled, too.
    • The English. The Proposal takes the attitudes of the English (let's strip them of their rights, steal their land, burn what they have left, then whine about how poor and lazy they are) and takes them to their logical conclusion. Since we already treat the Irish like animals, why don't we eat them?
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    • Portraying the Proposal as a combination of ideas from an American and the cannibalistic practices of Formosa (modern-day Taiwan) is backhanded criticism of how both groups were dismissed as barbaric by European society.
  • Black Comedy Cannibalism: Possibly the Ur-Example. The work calls for poor Irish to sell their young children as food for wealthy English gentlemen, so they are no longer a burden to society. He was satirizing some prevailing attitudes toward the poor and the Irish in contemporary (18th century) English society. He goes into some detail in suggestions for the preparation and cooking of such children, and the economic "benefits" of such an arrangement for all involved (who are still living of course).
  • Blatant Lies: Swift insists that he's being serious about his proposal.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: It starts out normally enough.
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  • Characteristic Trope: Any (hopefully sarcastic) suggestion of cannibalism for profit will inevitably draw parallels to this work.
  • Eats Babies: What Swift modestly proposes, as described in the page quotes for this trope and this page, is solving overpopulation and the food crisis in one fell swoop by eating poor people's children.
    "I have been assured by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance in London; that 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 Fricasie, or Ragoust."
  • Get Thee to a Nunnery: To Swift's contemporaries, the label "American" would suggest a barbaric person.
  • 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: Swift's proposal includes ideas about how some of the Irish children could be reserved for breeding instead of being eaten, "which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine."
  • 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), which also happen to be ones that he had previously put forth himself, 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: It is arguably the most famous Stealth Parody, and in some ways the Trope Codifier (although there remain many academics who maintain that it was intended seriously, attributing it to Swift's declining mental health). It's 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.

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