Study Guide

A Modest Proposal Society and Class

By Jonathan Swift

Society and Class

Part 1
The Proposer (Narrator)

The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders, from which number I subtract thirty thousand couple who are able to maintain children, although I apprehend there cannot be as many under the present distresses of the kingdom. (6)

Get ready for a bunch of numbers. This was actually one of Swift's big gripes: people were viewed as numbers and not… well, people.

I am assured by our merchants that a boy or a girl before twelve years old is no saleable commodity […] which cannot turn account either to the parents or the kingdom, the charge of nutriment and rags having been at least four times that value. (8)

Pre-teens: what are they good for? The narrator later contradicts himself to make a halfhearted argument about using them to replace deer meat.

These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg for sustenance for their helpless infants, who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbados. (1)

It's clear that the moms are all about helping their kids survive. The narrator will later insinuate that caring about children is a privilege only awarded to the upper classes.

'Tis true, a child just dropped from its dam may be supported by her milk for a solar year with little other nourishment, at most not above the value of two shillings. (4)

Notice how Swift is comparing a human child to a baby animal. He's buttering up his readers for the big proposal.

It is a melancholy object to walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and all importuning every passenger for an alms. (1)

Who are "they" in this scenario? The narrator is aligning himself with one of the classes, but which one?

But my intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the children of professed beggars; it is of a much greater extent, and shall take in the whole number of infants at a certain age who are born of parents in effect as little able to support them as those who demand our charity in the streets. (3)

There's a fuzzy line separating the children of beggars and the children of poor Irish citizens. In other words, it was pretty common to be poor in Ireland.

Part 2
The Proposer (Narrator)

I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and perhaps be so bold to attempt an answer, that they will first ask the parents of these mortals whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old in the manner I prescribe. (34)

If you couldn't read, you probably didn't get to contribute to the discussion of Ireland's problems.

I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar's child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, labourers, and four fifths of farmers) to be about two shillings per annum, rags included. (14)

Cottagers were generally known as people who lived in the country. If you were a kid who didn't live in the city, you were out of luck.

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males, which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine. (11)

The level of detail is meant to be shocking. You don't suggest that kids can be raised for food without going all the way with the metaphor.

Those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the times require) may flay the carcass, the skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable gloves for ladies and summer boots for fine gentlemen. (15)

Swift brings a new meaning to kidskin gloves. But seriously, one of Swift's pet peeves was spending too much time and money on appearance.

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