Background and Focus Questions for Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”
Irish History to 1729
390-461 St. Patrick brings Christianity to IrelandJonathan Swift, 1667-1745
795-1014 Vikings begin series of invasions
1170 Long-term British involvement in Ireland begins
1541 Henry VIII of England, a Protestant, declares himself King of Ireland
1649 Oliver Cromwell crushes Irish opposition.
By 1703, Protestants own 90% of the country's land.
1695-1728 Penal Laws: Acts against Catholics. Theseo Prevent Catholics from bearing arms and owning horses worth over five pounds.
o Restrict their rights to education.
o Stop them buying land and on death, Catholic property has to be divided among all sons.
o Ban Catholics from serving in the army, holding public office, entering the legal profession, becoming MPs or voting.
• Anglo-Irish Dean of St. Patrick’s
• Author of Gulliver’s Travels, 1726
• THE great prose satirist of the English language.
• His tombstone reads, "He has gone where savage indignation can tear his heart no more."
A hero’s welcome (parades, church bells ringing, bonfires, the whole enchilada) awaited Jonathan Swift when he arrived in Dublin during the late summer of 1726. This because—in addition to his success with Gulliver’s Travels—he had rallied public opinion for the cause of Irish economic and political independence in his role as M.B. Drapier of St. Francis Street (an alias). In his Fourth Drapier Letter, addressed to the “Whole People of Ireland,” he declared that “by the Laws of God, of Nature, of Nations, and of your own Country, you are and ought to be as Free a People as your brethren in England.”
Strangely enough, this was the same man who referred to Ireland as “the most miserable country upon earth” and wrote “I do suppose nobody hates and despises this kingdom more than myself” and described the trip from England to Ireland as “a passage to the land I hate.” Instead of the “fat deanery or lean bishopric” he so assiduously but vainly sought near his literary friends in England, he returned to Ireland for good in 1713 as Dean of St. Patrick’s, to make this “wretched Dublin in Ireland” his permanent home, “a poisoned rate in a hole,” as he vividly describes his situation to his friend Bolingbroke. However, he was constantly role-playing and he just as often praised Ireland and the quality of his own life there.
To prepare for our discussion of Swift, print out the approx. 6 page “A Modest Proposal” from our web page, and consider the following questions as you read and analyze Swift’s rhetoric (i.e., persuasive writing strategies).
1. “A Modest Proposal” is an ironic essay: the author deliberately writes
what he does not mean. What is the real thesis? Is there more
2. A clear difference exists between Swift and the persona who makes
this proposal. Characterize the proposer.
3. Would it be possible to read this essay as a serious proposal?
4. Look closely at paragraphs 4, 6, and 7, and study how the appeals
to logic are put in mathematical and economic terms. Underline those
words and phrases.
5. When does the reader begin to realize that the essay is ironic?
Before or after the actual proposal is made in paragraph 10?
6. Which groups of people are singled out as special targets for Swifts’
attack? Are the Irish presented completely as victims, or are they
also to blame?
7. Does the essay merely function as a satirical attack? Does
Swift ever present any serious proposals for improving conditions?
If so, where?
8. What is the purpose of the last paragraph?