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Reading Questions for Swift's "A Modest Proposal"

Vocabulary: epitaph, enlightenment, ethos, persona, satire

Introduction: According to the introduction, what was Swift's childhood like? Where did Swift grow up? Why did he return there after trying to "make it big time" in England? Where is Swift buried? What is the epitaph on his tombstone, and how does it connect with the causes he devoted his life to before he died?

Lecture or Handouts:

Identify the following characters: none

Identify the following places: none

Reading Questions:

  • Summary of Part I:
  • What does the speaker find "melancholy" in Ireland?
  • Note the interesting distinction in the first line. Does the speaker finds it depressing that such impoverished people exist? Or does he find it depressing to see such people? Do you think the speaker's sympathies are with the suffering lower class? Or with the poor rich class that has to look at them everyday?
  • According to the speaker, what will these children do as adults to support themselves?
  • What would the people of the commonwealth do to reward anyone who could think up a solution to dealing with the large number of unwanted children?
  • What problem has the speaker always had with the "several schemes of other projectors" who try to come up with a solution? (i.e., in what way have previous "fixes" been inaccurate, according to the speaker?)
  • In the next paragraph, the speaker notes "another great advantage" to his scheme. What is that advantage?
  • According to the speaker's math, how many children are born to poor Irish parents each year?
  • According to the speaker, how old must an Irish child be before they can pick up a livelihood by theft? What's funny (or un-funny) about this?
  • In the next paragraph, the speaker notes that a boy or girl is not a "saleable commodity" before the age of twelve. What the speaker does not state is why twelve is the cut-off point in age. Think about this issue. Why would young boys and girls suddenly become "valuable" at age twelve?
  • Explain the humor behind the speaker's hope that his suggestion "will not be liable to the least objection."
  • What nationality was the acquaintance in London who first informed the speaker that babies were good to eat if well nursed at a year old? What are some ways this person suggested for the culinary preparation of babies?
  • When the speaker notes that the food will be somewhat "dear" (i.e., expensive), whom does he suggest would be the "very proper" recipient of such food?
  • What seasonal advantages and disadvantages does infant's flesh have? When is the one season in which the markets will be more glutted than usual?
  • What is a "collateral advantage" to the speaker's policy of eating Irish children? Who are these "Papists" he refers to?
  • What social advantages will Squires (i.e., landlords) have from this new policy?
  • What will the skin of babies be good for when it comes to fashion?
  • In the city of Dublin itself, what common-sense measure does the speaker suggest to ensure that the baby meat will be fresh--much like the way pork is kept fresh--before preparation? Why is this rather gross?
  • Explain the disagreement the speaker has with the patriot who argued that the meat of teenage Irish lads and lasses could be used as a replacement for venison. Why does the speaker think it makes more economic sense to let them live and only eat the infants?
  • In the next paragraph, the speaker tells the tale of Psalmanazar in the island of Formosa. What policy did the "Mandarins of the Court" have on Formosa regarding the execution of fat people?
  • Why doesn't the speaker think it necessary to seek a cure for the problem of the sick and elderly in Ireland? How will this problem take care of itself, according to the speaker?
  • In the next section, the speaker lists (depending on how we number them) eight to twelve advantages for eating Irish babies. What are these twelve advantages?
  • The #6 advantage involves marriage. How will the policy of eating Irish babies improve marriages?
  • The eighth advantage involves "improvements" in what "art" or technology?
  • In the fourth-to-last paragraph's opening section, what is the one possible objection that the speaker fears will be raised against his proposal? What's his response to that objection?
  • At the end of the fourth-to-last paragraph, in italicized print, the test lists several solutions to the problem of poverty which the speaker dismisses as stupid or impossible. What are some of these solutions? Do you think Swift himself dismisses these ideas as folly?
  • In the next-to-last paragraph
  • In the last paragraph, why does the narrator end by emphasizing the age of his own children and his own wife? How does this connect with his mock ethos? Why do you suppose Swift wanted the essay to end on that note? Does it provide a sense of closure? Why or why not?
  • "Food" for Thought:
  • Consider the title of the piece. Why a "modest" proposal? Why didn't Swift just use "A Proposal" for the title?
  • Look at the tone Swift uses through his essay. Does it stay the same or change over the course of his discussion? Why does he use the first person? Is this voice identical with Swift's own voice? Or is it How does his tone contribute to the persona he uses?
  • Why would Swift choose to have it be an American who first introduced the speaker to baby-eating? What stereotypes might we be seeing here about eighteenth-century Americans?
  • What makes this essay funny (or un-funny)? Does that change over the course of the essay?



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