Study Guide

A Modest Proposal Suffering

By Jonathan Swift

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Part 1
The Proposer (Narrator)

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)

One of Swift's favorite topics was how everyone in Ireland was as poor and miserable except the tippy-top classes. Check out "Causes of the Wretched Condition of Ireland" (1726) for a quick rundown of his serious thoughts.

I again subtract fifty thousand for those women who miscarry, or whose children die by accident or disease within the year. (7)

Don't let all the stats fool you: the narrator is throwing out random numbers to establish false authority.

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)

The narrator is basically saying that the Irish would rather become traitors or slaves than suffer through poverty. Pretty extreme, right? It's half true: many of the poorest Irish citizens sold themselves to sugar plantations in the West Indies to get out of Dodge.

I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of children in arms, or on backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is, in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance. (2)

Someone needs to hire a babysitter. Note the word choice: Swift is saying that overpopulation is "a great additional grievance" in a nation that's already suffering, not the reason for Ireland's problems.

Part 2
The Proposer (Narrator)

I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and may 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 is a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old in the manner I prescribe and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes as they have since gone through[…]by the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor clothes to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of entailing the like or greater miseries upon their breed forever. (34)

This is the call for action. Do you think this would be convincing enough to sway a stonyhearted reader?

Some persons of a desponding spirit are in great concern about that vast number of poor people who are aged, diseased, or maimed, and I have been desired to employ my thoughts what course may be taken to ease the nation of so grievous an encumbrance. (18)

Swift is definitely warming up his audience with his trademark irony. Swift's tracts on oppression in Ireland went largely unread.

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)

Swift really, really did not like landlords. In "Causes of the Wretched Condition of Ireland" (1726), he likens them to Egyptian slave drivers. Harsh!

And secondly, there being a round million of creatures in human figure throughout this kingdom whose whole subsistence, put into a common stock, would leave them in debt two million pounds of sterling, adding those who are beggars by profession to the bulk of farmers, cottagers and labourers with their wives and children, who are beggars in effect. (33)

Once again, we see how Swift is comparing beggars to farmers and other poor-but-employed folks. If people who work this hard for a living are in trouble, he's saying, something's not right.

First, as things now stand, how they will be able to find food and raiment for one hundred thousand useless mouths and backs. (32)

Swift exaggerates the problem, as usual. This is a direct critique of what he perceived to be English colonialism (source.)

But I am not in the least pain upon that matter because it is very well known that they are every day dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected. (18)

The narrator alternates between appearing concerned and totally unaffected by the examples of suffering. Why do you think Swift uses this strategy?

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