A Modest Proposal - Study Guide A Modest Proposal Summary & Analysis

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The essay begins with Swift describing how the streets are crammed full of female beggars dressed in rags. But what is worse is they often have four to six children with them. At the beginning of a child's life, this is not such a problem since a child can last a year on its mother's milk. Yet as the children grow, it becomes increasingly difficult for the beggar women to support them. Even then, it is to no avail. As soon as the children are old enough, they become criminals. In short, they are no use to society and particularly a society that is going through difficult times.

The author states that in its current state society needs to find a solution that is both cheap and easy.

Swift outline his argument by showing some of his calculations. He has worked out that a poor mother can feed its child on milk for the first year of its life. After that, the mother can give away her child. Secondly, the author says that Ireland has a population of one and a half million people. Of this total, only 200, 000 people could be breeders. However, 30,000 of these breeders are able to maintain their lives of their children. That leaves 170,000 breeders. Of this 170,000 one needs to take away the 50,000 either who miscarry or whose children die of disease. In total, the author states there are 120,000 children in society unable to contribute.

The author says merchants have told him that none of these children is sellable until they are twelve. Even then, they only sell for three pounds and who could possibly live off that?

To help the poor and thus the whole of society, the author proposes that of the 120, 000 children 20, 000 should be reserved for breeding. Of which there will one male to every female. The remaining will sold as meat. This maybe difficult to swallow, but author the states a very knowing American has ensured him a well fed, well nursed child makes for a delicious dish, whether it is fried, stewed, roasted or boiled.

There are many advantages to his proposal. First of all, child meat will always be in season. Secondly, as the number of Catholic children outnumbers the protestant children 3 to 1, it would be a good way to lower their numbers.

Perhaps the biggest advantage is financial. The author has already worked out that keeping a child costs only two shillings per annum. Therefore, if a gentleman pays a mother at the very least 10 shillings for her child then she has made a profit of 8 shillings. Enough to live a reasonable life until she bears her next child. Then with enough money to buy wholesome food, she will be strong enough to join the workforce.

The author recalls a worthy friend telling his contingency considered killing the maidens and young men between the age of 12-14 to make up for the lack of venison. They were dying anyway so they were would have been doing them a favor. The author rejects his idea. His American friend told him above the age of 12 child's meat is tough from too much exercise. Yet at the same time, he understands his friend's point.

A man called Salmanaar must have put the idea in his head. Once a native of the island of Formosa and now a member of London society, he once wrote a book about how his people sold the children's bodies that they execute for crimes. The author doesn't think it's a bad idea, but thinks if children are that old, why not keep them until they can breed.

Having slightly gone of the point, the author goes back to his main argument, listing the six advantages of his proposal.

First of all, as he stated before, his proposal will significantly lesson the number of Catholics in Irish society. The same people that he claims that are plotting against the country while the protestant are absent fighting in other countries.

Secondly, it gives the poor something valuable to sell. In the current environment they are vulnerable to a landlord's wrath, but a valuable commodity would help them not only to pay the rent but the same people would no longer see them as a waste to society.

Thirdly, the idea would create circulation of money from goods made and manufactured within the country. Ireland would be self-sufficient.

Fourthly, the breeders, the beggar women, will not have to look after their children after the first year.

Fifthly, the taverns would benefit greatly. They would have a delicious new meat that gentlemen would pay vast money to eat.

Finally, the author's proposal would help the sanctuary of marriage. Knowing that they will profit from their unborn, the mother will take great care of herself and the father will take great care of the mother. There will be no attempted miscarriage or abortions.

The author foresees one objection since it will significantly lower the nation's population. It is a fair point, but he states the advantages of his idea far outweigh any disadvantages. He proposes the idea only for Ireland because he feels it will help the people to love their country and reignite the dwindling industries. The Irish laborers will find a new pride that will reverberate through the whole of Irish society.

The author says that he is happy to take criticism, but that his critics should consider two things. Firstly, his proposal will feed a 100,000 useless and starving people and secondly, a beggar would have preferred if a merchant had bought him or her at the age of one then to have to have gone through severe poverty.

He finishes the essay by stating that he has no other interest than relieving the poor and giving pleasure to the rich.

To understand the essay it is important to understand the author, the setting and some of the terms Swift uses. The author is an Anglo-Irishman who is a member of the Church of Ireland. This means he is a protestant and by extension a supporter of the British crown. The beggars on the streets are the Catholics. At this point the English had control of Ireland. As the predominant religion in England was Church of England and protestant, the Protestants had power in Ireland. In fact as Swift alludes to in the essay the Protestants saw the Catholic as their sworn enemy, so in many ways it was in the Protestants interests to keep so many Catholics in poverty. In these terms, Swift states the beggar children had two choices when they grow up; they can either fight for the Pretender in Spain or sell themselves to the Barbadoes. The Pretender in Spain was the man fighting the present English king for his throne. The Barbadoes were colonists in the West Indies needing slaves to work on the plantations. If they chose neither of these options, the narrator states they would probably become criminals.

Though the essay is a satirical essay, at the beginning the author makes the reader believe he has a serious and important to make. In these terms, the writer sets it out as one would normally set out an academic essay. After the title, he writes a short hypothesis and to give the essay an authority writes his name as Dr. Jonathan Swift. The first third continues in this vein addressing a very serious issue of Irish poverty, backing up his claims with statistics and what he claims are other authoritative sources such as his American friend.

As the first third of the essay continues, there are hints that the narrator is not the authority that he initially appears to be. For instance, the statistics he throws at his readers, are on close examination, quite ridiculous. After he worked out that there are 120,000 beggars on the streets, he then makes the claim there are only 120,000 children. Surely if the beggars have up to 6 children as he says they have, the number of children would be far greater. Nevertheless, the Swift knows that his authority has a doctor and a writer is enough make the reader believe that he has a relevant point to make.

When he finally, in the second third, proposes to kill beggar children for food, it comes as such a surprise the reader feels compelled to read on. The reader knows that it is a ridiculous idea, but he or she wonders if Swift is proposing a serious idea or not.

Of course Swift is playing with his audience. He is making a serious point, but the point has more to do with the attitudes of the upper class, particularly the attitudes of the Protestants towards the Catholic, than it has to do with helping the poor and mostly Catholic people.

By the time the reader moves into the final third of the essay, he or she understands that the narrator is completely self-serving. He may talk about helping the poor, but the reason he wants to help them is to make the lives of the upper class more comfortable. While the selling of the children's meat will no doubt, in the context of the author's world, improve the conditions of the poor, these same people will be basically serving the needs of the upper classes. As the author states, they will be more inclined to perform better at work and the atmosphere of places like taverns will be fit for gentlemen.

The second issue the essay addresses is the penchant of the upper classes looking for simple solutions for complicated problems. Satire or not, it is obvious that Irish need to address the problem of poor people in the street, but the people in power, from Swift's point of view in this essay, are looking to solve the problem in a way that benefits the present, but has no benefit for the future.

With the references to the Catholics being the enemy, there is an uneasy feeling throughout the essay of a type of ethnic cleansing. Of course in typical political speak it is married with niceties and other propaganda, but basically the author is talking about genocide. At one point he makes the statement that his proposal will make Ireland more self-sufficient and make the Irish people more proud of their country.

In these terms it could be read as warning of the problems of oppressing one view point (Catholicism) in favor of another (Protestantism) and under the guise that this view point is the county's natural way of being. Of course if you disclude everyone else, then it would receive very little opposition.

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