The entire text of Mr. Swift’s essay can be found here: http://art-bin.com/art/omodest.html
Swift’s intentions in A Modest Proposal are to call attention to the deplorable condition of the poor and the seeming lack of concern of most to come up with, and more importantly, implement, any real, workable solutions in dealing with this issue. In this essay he wants the people of Ireland specifically and his readers generally to take their sociological heads out of the sand and to pay attention to what’s going on around them. He achieves his intentions by assuming a “mask.” He weaves his satirical wit with sarcasm, irony, hyperbole, while also employing incredible imagery. He gets our attention by telling us of his concern for the welfare of the public and the country. He also goes on to attack such things as motherhood, fatherhood, and Catholics. On a much broader scale, this piece can be used as a vehicle by which we can look at society and ask ourselves some very probing questions; questions that have to deal with our own contribution, whether active or passive, to this problem.
Swift begins innocently enough by telling us what a darn shame it is to see so many women with so many children crowding our streets begging to make a living. He further goes on to tell us that it is “agreed by all parties: that this deplorable problem is a very great grievance and that if anyone could find someway to deal with it then that would be a really cool thing indeed! Wouldn’t it? But wait, not only does he propose to help these poor children…he actually has a plan whereby everyone could benefit. We are sold. Not only are we shaking our heads and clicking our tongues at this predicament, but someone has come up with a solution that is fair (everyone benefits), cheap (if I have to give money it probably won’t be very much), and easy (hopefully I won’t even have to get involved). This, however, is where the fun ends. Just as you are about as comfortable as you can get, he hits you with a statement that makes you begin to think that you have begun to listen to someone else. He waxes eloquent for 6 or so paragraphs about how he has thought this out for years and has maturely weighed several other options. He talks about the children being a charge upon their parents and the parish. We squirm as images of “voluntary abortions” and the “horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children” is dangled before us and then with all alacrity he proposes that we kill and eat children?! At this point you would think that we would run for the nearest exit, seek higher ground, abandon ship, but unfortunately for us, we are hooked. Up until now he has made so much sense and has presented the case so brilliantly that we are forced by our own curiosity to press on.
He has masterfully gotten us to think about the poor and their plight, not by preaching or moralizing, but by assuming this mask (of hypocrisy) hidden so well behind logic, and by proposing the absurd and preposterous. For the remainder of the essay he describes how eating children would be perfectly logical and how we can all benefit nutritionally and sartorially. He offers that it would reduce the number of Papists. He attacks the absentee landlords by stating that since they have “devoured” the parents anyway, that they should have first crack at the kids. Here, in particular, he uses the language of cannibalism both literally and figuratively to get his point across. This is one of the instances where Swift’s voice comes out and/or is mixed with that of the Proposer. Sarcasm is used when talking about the rise in the nations stock, the breeders gaining eight shillings per year and being rid of the charge of maintaining their children after the first year, tavern owners serving it to only those with the most discriminating of tastes, and of mothers and fathers being more cognizant of their respective roles because of the profit that they may get. The whole piece is full of irony and sarcasm and many more instances could be listed but I, too, will be studious of brevity.
What Swift is really saying is that we all are to blame for the poor and indigent around us. Is it any worse for the government and for landlords and institutions to overtly take advantage of the poor than for us to step over their huddled bodies on the way to work or to the mall? Can we, in good conscious, stand around at cocktail parties, clink our glasses, and say, “Gee, I hope someone does something about all those poor, poor people?” The poor we have always had and, I suspect, will always have with us. Maybe they are here as a reminder to us all of our own moral poverty. This, I think, is what Swift would have us to chew on.