Restoration Period: “A Modest Proposal” Close Reading

Satire has been an important genre in literature for hundreds of years.  Satire is used to poke fun at people and their stupidity, and is sometimes used to tell the government the thoughts of the people while trying to make the opposite point.  It is a genre that is still used in literature and entertainment today, and every Saturday by the cast of Saturday Night Live.  Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal during the restoration period in 1729.jonathanswift1  Swift wrote this to convey his feelings about the poverty of women and children in Ireland at this time in history.  He says that the only solution to this poverty is to eat some of the babies that are born in the country; things will get better then, obviously.  Throughout the essay, Swift says damaging things about women and their involvement in the issue, and it is clear that Swift blames women for this poverty in Ireland.

Swift blames women for the poverty in Ireland, and he tells the audience that in the first paragraph.  He writes, “These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in stroling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes” (Swift 140-141).  He is saying that women spend their time strolling the streets with their numerous infants in tow asking for money, when they should really be getting jobs, going to work, and making money to support their families.  The word “honest” in the first sentence connotes the word “real” when paired with “livelihood”.  The women are not making a “real livelihood” when they beg for money on the streets with their children.  When Swift uses the phrase “honest livelihood”, it is like he is saying that what these women are doing is in fact, “dishonest”.  The use of the word “employ” in the next line, though, makes it seem like what the women are doing is a job in itself.  The women are the ones who “employ all their time” into begging on the streets, but what else are they supposed to do if they cannot get jobs?  In the next line, Swift brings the “helpless infants” into the equation with the women.  He says that the children in these situations never turn out “right”.  They leave the country, they become thieves, or “sell themselves” to Barbados.  Swift is blaming all of this on their mothers who never earned that “honest livelihood”.  The children are “helpless”, so they cannot help but turn into thieves because their mothers were not given the opportunities that they should have been given in Ireland at this time. ladiez

Swift continues The Blame Game a couple of paragraphs after the one above.  Swift writes, “There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes, I doubt, more to avoid the expence than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast” (141).  In this passage, he is saying that eating the babies once they are born is better than women aborting them before they are born, as if the babies do not die either way.  The phrase “horrid practice of women” is blaming the women for the abortions that are sometimes necessary to have.  “Of women” says that it is only the women who decide to go through with the abortions, and not anyone else’s choice.  The word “their” is important to look at in this passage, because “their” is connected to “women”.  Yes, these aborted children are apart of these mothers, but men have to be involved in order to make a child.  The phrase “women murdering their bastard children” only amplifies the notion that the men involved in making these children are not to blame for these abortions, and the children are not even technically “theirs”.  The children belong to the women who then decide what to do with these “bastard children”.

The most interesting paragraph to look at in this essay would be the one where Swift talks about how eating the babies would help marriages between men and women.  He writes, “Men would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sow when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of miscarriage” (144).  cattle  In this passage, Swift is comparing women to farm animals.  Men would become fond of their wives in the same way that they are fond of their pregnant farm animals.  Farm owners are fond of their pregnant animals because that will most likely bring them more money, and the men are fond of the pregnant women because the children will be made into goods and make the men more money.  The line “men would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy” is an interesting one because the men are only fond of their wives when they are pregnant, hence the the words “during the time”.  Pregnancy is the only time where the men will even act like they care about their wives, and that is just because they are pregnant with what could potentially make them more money.  The men will not beat or kick them “for fear of miscarriage”.  They will not beat or kick them because they do not want to hurt the child that the mother is carrying; he does not care about whether he hurts the woman or not.  Before that, the words in parenthesis back that up further.  “As is too frequent a practice” brings the thought that the men do hurt the women quite often, but they do not hurt them while they are pregnant.

Jonathan Swift wrote this essay to share his thoughts about the poverty in Ireland.  He says that eating some of the babies, and making others into goods, will make the country more money and be in a better place.  While suggesting this absolutely absurd idea as a solution, he also threw in some real suggestions in disguise.  Swift blames this poverty on the women of the country, though, and blames everything that happens to their children on them.  How could the poverty of women and children be entirely the women’s fault if the country’s poverty is so bad that they cannot find jobs to make an “honest livelihood”?  Swift’s feelings about women are clearly stated in the paragraph comparing women to farm animals.  Yes, this is satire, but Swift is incredibly convincing.  If he does not actually blame women and have harsh feelings towards them, he sure does make it seem like that is true.  This text shows what men’s attitudes toward women were like in the 1700’s, and not just in Ireland, but the world.


Carey, John. “Review.” Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World by Leo Damrosch | The Sunday Times. The Sunday Times, 17 Nov. 2013. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.

N.d. Public Domain Pictures. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.

Scott, Anne Firor, and Suzanne Lebsock. “Virginia Women: The First Two Hundred Years.”Virginia Women: The First Two Hundred Years : The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.

Swift, Jonathan. A Modest Proposal.