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A Modest Proposal: Jonathan Swift's Satire

Updated on January 14, 2016
James September profile image

James September is a licensed teacher and freelance writer. He obtained his Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Second Language in 2012.

In the article entitled “A Modest Proposal” Jonathan Swift (1979) used satirical move to highlight negative condition of the society. He described the social sphere of Ireland and the struggling economic and moral condition of the people. When Swift stressed that poverty in the family could be solved if the poor families would sell their children for their food, he merely drew ridicule and sarcasm targeting the rich British people who control and manipulate the Irish community. His satirical move by intention conveyed an important message of disappointment and disgust among those who showed injustice among the low-profile members of the society. As Swift’s A Modest Proposal, which contains less than two thousand words, has been the greatest literary masterpiece with sardonic viewpoints, his intention and his modest proposal successfully delivered the message.

Swift’s proposal would intend to wake up the rich British people and their actions why some poor people suffered. He wanted to inform the Irish community on terms how the rich British people made their lives chaotic. He needed to increase social and political awareness so that people would see how difficult life could be if the rich people continued to control and manipulate the entire political and economic system. Swift’s proposal to fatten up those malnourished and underfed children. Swift’s response to this problem was to emphasize a mocking, sardonic approach that the poor children should be sold to the rich people even at the young age in order to earn money (Swift, 1995, p. 34). Swift’s tone of voice based on his writing showed remorse to the growing poverty in the country. Because Swift did not notice the progress of the country due to their behavior and characteristic, he wrote a modest proposal for change even if his language and his message delivery sounded awful and barbaric.

Swift’s proposal forced the British people to act on it. It was because Swift’s approach was offensive. However, readers could not deny the fact that poor people during those times were as good as dead because they suffered from famine and starvation. The poor people were caught in the time when they fought for poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness (Wittkowsky, 1943, p. 4). There had been no proper laws that favored the poor people and that the government provided them with benefits and supports. If there were those means of support given to the people, basically the poor people did not receive them because the benefits of the program directed to the wealthy people and community. When Swift exposed the grim reality of the poor people, the rich British people had to consider the Irish people as part of the community.

Furthermore, Swift’s A Modest Proposal gained a number of readers that advanced dogmatic thoughts and proposed solutions for economic and political problems. Using his satirical style and method, his portrayal of his subjects revealed his personal despair at the failure of his society (Allan, 2003, p. 199). Swift protested his society, but in a form of satirical piece of writing, he was able to create power and voice of his thoughts. He did not like his society, and he wanted to escape away from it. While Swift was wise economic thinker, he articulated his ideas and thoughts to disclose his feelings of disgust about the world where he lived.

In a nutshell, Swift’s A Modest Proposal with its tartly sarcastic essay captured the attention of the British audiences. His aggressive, obnoxious, and direct to the point language conveyed his point depressingly. If the rich British people understood his point and changed their perceptions in life, Swift’s ideas had persuaded them to create a new social and political environments. His words were more than swords that forced the rich British people to react on their actions, policies, moral and ethical values, and laws. Swift’s A Modest Proposal became the greatest literary masterpiece with ironic style of all time.


Allan, J. (2003). A Modest Proposal. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 23(2), 197-210.

Swift, J. (1995, February). A modest proposal for preventing the children of poor people from being a burthen to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public. In Child and Youth Care Forum (Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 5-12). Springer Netherlands.

Wittkowsky, G. (1943). Swift’s Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet. Journal of History of Ideas, pp. 2 – 126.


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