Study Guide

A Modest Proposal Power

By Jonathan Swift

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Part 1
The Proposer (Narrator)

For we [...] neither build houses (I mean in the country) nor cultivate land. (7)

Although the narrator alludes to having a privileged background in the first paragraph, his use of the word "we" firmly places him as a poor Irish tenant.

Part 2
The Proposer (Narrator)

I profess in the sincerity of my heart that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country […] and giving some pleasure to the rich. (35)

The narrator equates the public good of the country with pleasing the rich. What is wrong with this picture?

[…] and that in his time the body of a plump girl of fifteen, who was crucified for an attempt to poison the emperor, was sold to his Imperial Majesty's Prime Minister of State and other great Mandarins of the court, in joints from the gibbet (18)

Swift lifted this gory little story from George Psalmanazar, a French explorer whose accounts were later exposed as lies.

[…] a well-grown, fat yearling child […] will make a considerable figure at a Lord Mayor's feast or any other public entertainment. (26)

A poor child is only worthwhile as a spectacle of entertainment, the narrator suggests.

He said that, many gentlemen of this kingdom having of late destroyed their deer, he concluded that the want of venison might be well supplied by the bodies of young lads and maidens (17)

Deer were a precious commodity in 18th-century Ireland. If you were eating venison for dinner, you were probably doing pretty well for yourself.

Fifthly, this food would likewise bring great customs to taverns, where the great vintners will […] consequently have their houses frequented by all the fine gentlemen who justly value themselves upon their knowledge in good eating. (24)

The tavern is an epicenter of power where wealthy people congregate. On the other hand, the poor don't seem to be centrally located in A Modest Proposal. They're scattered across the streets and roads. What does this say about the nature of power?

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for the landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children. (12)

The narrator implies that the landlords already have ownership over the children, by merit of their wealth.

Secondly, the poorer tenants will 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. (21)

The narrator suggests that his plan would give the poorer tenants power in the form of leverage for rent and food. Everybody's a winner in A Modest Proposal.

That the remaining hundred thousand may at a year old be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom. (11)

Being able to buy a child is one more way that the wealthy consolidate power.

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