“A Modest Proposal”
(1729) An essay by Jonathan Swift, often called a masterpiece of irony. The full title is “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of the Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to Their Public.” Swift emphasizes the terrible poverty of eighteenth-century Ireland by ironically proposing that Irish parents earn money by selling their children as food.
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What is “A Modest Proposal”?
“A Modest Proposal” is the shortened title of a 1729 essay by satirist Jonathan Swift in which he ironically proposes that the people of Ireland sell their children as food. The phrase a modest proposal is now often used ironically to introduce an idea that is radical or outrageous.
The full title of Swift’s essay, considered a masterpiece of irony, is “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of the Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to Their Public.”
Satire is a literary tool used to ridicule human foolishness and evil through humor and irony. A proposal, when in the form of an essay, usually offers a solution to a social or political problem. Modest is an adjective meaning reasonable or humble. It is used ironically in the title of “A Modest Proposal” because the proposal is actually outrageous.
The phrase a modest proposal is often used to suggest something in jest in order to point out a problem by pushing it to its logical extreme. Swift’s essay was controversial at the time but has since become a staple of satire, influencing many writers.
“A Modest Proposal” summary and significance
Why is an essay about eating children so influential? Literary scholars often consider Swift’s essay as one of the first modern pieces of political satire that highlighted injustices by using logical extremes to formulate an absurd argument. It’s a brand of satire that has remained popular and is still frequently used today.
Swift was an Irish author (most notably of Gulliver’s Travels) who often wrote poetry and essays expressing his stance on issues of his day. He wrote “A Modest Proposal” as an attempt to convince the Irish Parliament to improve the conditions of the poor. Swift used the idea of eating children as a metaphor for what he saw as the exploitation of the poor, such as the high rents charged by landlords. The essay satirized other economic proposals of the time that Swift saw as treating people as commodities.
Based on the title of Swift’s essay, the phrase a modest proposal has become a way to introduce an outrageous or very out-there idea, suggestion, or plan, especially one offered in jest. Here’s an example: “A modest proposal—Let’s ban all walking and biking. That way no one will get hit by cars.” (Increasingly, people also use a modest proposal unironically to sincerely introduce somewhat controversial suggestions or even uncontroversial ones.)
Using this phrase is an effective way to put a spotlight on a problem or a situation that you consider worthy of ridicule. Remembering the satirical suggestion that inspired the phrase—selling children as food—will help you to know if you (or others) are using it in a truly satirical way.
Did you know ... ?
The phrase a modest proposal isn’t Swift’s only legacy in the English language. In his novel Gulliver’s Travels, he coined the term Lilliputian to refer to one of the very small people who lived in the place called Lilliput. The adjective lilliputian is now used to mean “very small.”
What are real-life examples of a modest proposal?
Swift wrote his satirical essay in a straight-faced manner, and most people offering a modest proposal today also try to sound serious in order to increase the humor.
A modest proposal: if either manager even thinks about making any decisions based on pitch count, in game seven of the World Series, they should be shot without trial.
Too strong? I say not strong enough.
— John U. Bacon (@Johnubacon) October 31, 2019
A modest proposal: in recognition of the harassment all women will face in their lifetimes, we present each one at birth with a wolf companion.
— Jessica Ellis (@baddestmamajama) March 5, 2019
Is a modest proposal used appropriately in the following sentence?
“A modest proposal: in order to solve unequal access to food, we should just destroy all of the food, and then everyone will have the same amount.”