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William Watson

Section 40743

Purpose and Pattern of A Modest Proposal

In the 1700’s, Ireland was undergoing a period of tyranny and persecution.

Through unfair legislation, the Catholic population was prevented from buying property,

holding office in government, and getting an education. This was causing many Irish to

leave Ireland, and the ones who remained lived in starvation and desolation, the

downtrodden underclass in the country of their birth. Jonathan Swift identifies the state of

these people and effectively persuades the reader of the extent of their persecution

through the use of statistical evaluation laden with grotesque imagery.

A Modest Proposal is a satire on ways to fix the problem of the downtrodden

underclass of Ireland. He begins by painting a sorrowful picture of the impoverished

citizens of Ireland. Stating these mothers were “forced” into their economic niche by their

multitude of children was contrary to popular belief that it was the beggardly’s own fault

for being poor. Thus he reaches the satirical conclusion that 100,000 of these children

each year should be “stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled” for various reasons. It would give

the poor a saleable commodity, and sold for ten shillings each they would “have

something valuable of their own, which by law may be made liable to distress and help to

pay their landlord's rent, their corn and cattle being already seized, and money a thing

unknown.” Another advantage he states would be the reduction in the number of Roman

Catholics “with whom we are yearly overrun, being the principal breeders of the nation

as well as our most dangerous enemies”. Finally, it would prevent Ireland from having to

undertake any other ridiculous measures, like lowering the insane rent, not importing
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foreign luxuries, learning to love Ireland, or teaching landlord to show any compassion to

their tenets. Instead of any of that, you can just eat babies.

Swift is attempting to persuade all readers the extent that Irish were being stepped

upon by their landlords and those in power. The first element of Swift’s persuasion is his

use of haughty language and personal appeal. This instantly identifies him with the ruling

class and establishes the basis for the rest of his horrifying arguments by attributing them

to the oppressors. The pseudo-arguments he uses demonstrate logic but due to their

satirical nature are emotional appeal. Swift then ties these arguments back to the

aforementioned ruling class. His first point appeals to the emotion of the reader by

identifying the wealthy’s attitude of viewing the poor as merely a way to make money.

For he states, “I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of

a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat”.

In this statement, he identifies those who would be eating babies as the nobles, as well as

the fact that the living children are not worth anything but the money that they will bring.

The idea of “consuming” is important because it isn’t only referring to the children, but

also to the parents as well; they aren’t human beings, just pieces of meat to be

economically eaten. His second point regards the Catholics, and this emotional appeal is

what ties his true propose into the personality of its audience. The fact that they are

“overrun” with papists only would come from the view of an ignorant noble. The

statement that they “stay at home on purpose with a design to deliver the kingdom to the

Pretender” is arrogant beyond belief, when the Irish that were the original occupants of

the nation were all Roman Catholic, and it was the Protestants that were the newcomers,

claiming the country as their own. The most direct example of Swift’s logical appeal is
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located near the end of the essay with the list of actual solutions contrasted with his

solution of eating babies. He emphasizes how the poor can be so downtrodden yet the

rich are unable to undertake the obvious solutions of: “taxing our absentees at five

shillings a pound”, “using neither clothes, nor household furniture, except what is of our

own growth and manufacture”, “learning to love our country”, “quitting our animosities

and factions”, and finally “teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy

towards their tenants.”

Swift conveys his persuasion through the use of evaluation. Using the values of a

poor, underclass, Irishman, critical of his government, Swift passes judgment on the

treatment of the English toward the native Irishmen and Catholics of the country. The

first criterion for judgment is that it is good to see the Irish as actual people. Swift

expresses the landlords have failed at this by treating of the Irish as “meat”, only there to

economically feast upon. The second criterion Swift holds is that tolerance and

acceptance of the Catholic religion is a good thing. He writes the proposal with the

English landlord’s point of view in mind, and thus pretends to view the Catholics as the

“most dangerous enemies” of England. In Swift’s mind the English have made it clear

that they think the nation “overrun” with papists, and thus fail at this criterion. The final

criterion is that the ruling government should sympathize with its lower class and attempt

to fix problems like hunger and poverty. By suggesting the “modest proposal,” Swift

expresses his belief that the English would rather eat babies then institute real solutions to

the Irish’s problems. The English’s treatment contrasts all of these criteria and Swift

judges them as a failed ruling class which will bring down the collapse of Ireland if they

don’t revise their treatment and thinking.


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A Modest Proposal is a satirical masterpiece that convinces the reader through

disgust and horror. The graphic imagery paints pictures of roasting babies, of fat feasting

lords, of starving mothers leading along packs of children, and of a government sitting

idle, cheering them all on. His logical arguments convince the readers mind that “it’s ok

to eat babies” leaving the reader disgusted at himself and feeling sorry for these

hypothetical victims. Swift uses satire on a level above any works before him and

succeeds in alienating the “landlords” as monsters, munching on the lower class without

the slightest care. All together he effectively leaves the reader angry and disgusted at the

Irish’s treatment, and fully aware of all their problems.

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