The Use of an Objective Tone in A Modest Proposal, an Essay by Jonathan Swift

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Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is a short satirical literary work, in which Swift shows dissatisfaction with the political situation in Ireland during the Age of Rationalism. In this period of time, Ireland was in a great poverty and was being abused by the English and Swift wrote this piece in order to emphasize the terrible situation. He uses a cold, very objective tone to stress the absurdity of his proposal.

As for the title, that is a big irony straight from the beginning, since Swift’s proposal is anything but modest. In the beginning of his essay, Swift is giving the reader an insight into the situation of poor children and their mothers in Ireland, claiming that their only chance for survival is to beg for food or to become thieves. If they cannot survive by doing this, they have to “sell themselves to Barbados” (801). Swift then says that his solution to the overpopulation of children does not affect only the children of “professed beggars” (801) but all the children of certain age, whose parents cannot take care of them.

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In the fourth paragraph, Swift states that the children will contribute to the feeding and clothing of many people in Ireland. It is probably here, where the reader starts thinking that Swift’s proposal may be a little bit unique. In the following paragraph, Swift uses the expression “wives are breeders”, which gives the reader a definite hint that Swift may not be talking seriously.

Finally, in the seventh paragraph, Swift partially reveals his proposal by letting the narrator say: “I am assured by our merchants that a boy or a girl before twelve years old is no salable commodity.” (802) This gives the reader a quite clear idea of what is Swift about to propose. The narrator then coldly calculates the probable prices of a child could be sold for.

In the ninth paragraph, Swift makes a political point by saying that his American acquaintance confirms that “a young, healthy child…is….a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.” This shows that the Irish considered Americans rather barbaric. Ironically, if the Irish took his proposal, they would definitely be the most barbaric and inhumane. In the following paragraph, Swifts finally reveals his idea to sell the kids as an expensive food for rich people. He claims that it will be a very fitting food for the landlords, who have already sucked up all the money and energy from the Irish. Swift here successfully portrays the inequalities of relationship between the absentee landlords and the poor Irish people, who work their land.

In paragraph fifteen, Swifts comes up with another idea how to utilize the kids; he suggests that their skin could be used for making “admirable gloves for ladies and summer boots for fine gentlemen.” (804)

The seventeenth paragraph is by far the most shocking one. Swift’s narrator claims that the boy’s meat could be a very good supplement for the venison, a very delicious deer meat that only the wealthy eat. There is one problem and that is that the boy’s meat is “generally tough and lean”, as the American acquaintance claims. The fattening up of the boys is then proposed but it is immediately rejected by Swift’s narrator because it might be “little bordering upon cruelty.” (805) Ironically, though the whole proposal is cruel, the narrator seems only concerned with the possible cruelty involved in fattening up.

Swift then goes on to justify his proposal. He declares that an added bonus is that the number of Protestants would be reduced; since Ireland is mostly Catholic, that would be good. Next, the family would have something valuable (the child) and it could help the landlord to pay the rent. The third advantage is that the nation wouldn’t have to support the children; instead, it would make money which would stay at home since the child’s meat would be sold only to the Irish. Also, this proposal would encourage marriages because mothers would make an annual profit of eight schillings. Furthermore, it would improve the treatment of women by men since they would know that the wife brings the money to the family. Lastly, Ireland would be able to export more beef since the child’s meat is much more delicious. Another, very ironic advantage is that child’s flesh would be a great meal at merry meeting, weddings and christenings!

In paragraph twenty-nine, Swift concludes that there should be no objections against his proposal and that there is no need for any other proposals since they are nonsense.

In the thirty-first paragraph Swift says that England wouldn’t have any problems with this proposal since the child’s flesh couldn’t be exported because it is too tender and it would be impossible to salt it. Swift here also uses sarcasm to show how the Irish see the English when he reacts on the fact that the child’s meat couldn’t be salted: “although perhaps I could name a country (England) which would be glad to eat up our (Irish) whole nation without it (salt).” (809)

Swift finishes the proposal by stating that he has no personal interest and that the only motive for him is the common good of his country and nothing else. Since Swift doesn’t have a wife nor any children and this proposal basically doesn’t affect him, he really doesn’t have any personal interest!

In conclusion, Swift masterfully emphasizes the troublesome situation of the Irish during the 18th century by using irony and sarcasm as his tools; he makes political statements and draws attention to the most serious problems of the world.

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The Use of an Objective Tone in A Modest Proposal, an Essay by Jonathan Swift. (2023, Jun 14). Retrieved from

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