Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, in which he suggests that the problem of Irish poverty can be solved by the sale of the children of the poor for consumption, is above all things a criticism of human faults: extremism of thinking, greed, pride, hypocrisy, intolerance, and insensitivity. His use of ireony is evident even in the title: the idea that not only should poor Irish children be eaten, but that they should be bred for eating is certainly anything but modest. Swift’s plan is that through irony, sarcasm, and exaggeration, the reader will recognize those faults which may not seem so obvious in their more mild forms.
In Swift’s criticism of extremist thinking, he switches back and forth throughout the text between two different methods of thinking: one is purely emotional, the other is purely rational. The faulty logic is obvious in comparisons between the conclusions that both methods reach.
For example, the reasonable thinker, in his discussion of the breeding of the children who are to be consumed, assumes that the mother has no emotional attachment to her children and would be happy to give them up to be slaughtered for the profit. And yet the emotional thinker says that those mothers who abort their children do so for emotional reasons, namely shame. It follows then that those who give birth to their “bastards” must feel enough love for them to raise them in spite of whatever shame they may feel. Also the emotional narrator describes begging as dishonest, whereas the rational thinker uses the term “lawful” to describe it. In this way Swift shows how the two thinkers reach opposite conclusions, neither of which tell the whole story or are entirely accurate. The reasonable thinker is also so simple as to believe that because he is supported by so many “experts” who he keeps claiming he has consulted, that his ideas are justified.
The only paragraph in which both methods of thinking are combined is the one in which Swift makes his true proposals which are reached by a moderate method.
Greed is another human downfall Swift deals with in his proposals, namely the greed of the British landlords and aristocracy which he sees as directly responsible for the poverty of the Irish. This is primarily dealt with in the overall image of the British “devouring” the beggar children of Ireland in order to rid themselves of the eyesore that they pose and which the British have directly caused by displacing them from their homes and starving them with exorbitantly high rents. He describes these aristocrats and landlords as “all the fine gentlemen who justly value themselves upon their knowledge in fine eating” and suggests that since they have already “destroyed their deer” that they might appreciate a substitute for their appetites. Speaking ironically, he attempts to appeal to this sense of greed by describing the children as “a good fat child”, and “excellent nutritive meat.” He even criticizes the greed of the Irish tavern keepers who he assures the reader would “contrive to make it the flesh of children as expensive as they please.
He also accuses the British of pride with his claims that they would be pleased to serve a child’s flesh at “merry meetings, particularly weddings and christenings” and that it would “make a considerable figure at a lord mayor’s feast or any other public entertainment,” suggesting that the meal would serve as a status symbol for the aristocracy. The idea is further supported by Swift’s bold and outlandish claim that the rich would be pleased to wear the flayed carcasses as “admirable gloves for the ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.” The skins would have to be “artificially (skillfully) dressed” however, suggesting that the nobles would have to go out of their way to be able to adorn themselves in this new fashionable symbol of their wealth and privilege.
Swift also deals with the folly of the insensitivity of the British to the plight of the starving Irish. Mocking the “reasonable” Brit, he claims that they would have no problem with having to slaughter the child themselves in order to ensure the freshness of the meat: “I rather than buying the child already .