Section 1: Basic Comprehension

As you read, respond to each of these questions


  • What does the title suggest to you? Be sure you read the whole title–yes, that is all part of the title! From the title, what do you expect this essay to be about?


  • What is the problem, and to what extent is it a problem? What information leads you to your conclusion?


  • What is the proposed solution? In what ways does it appear serious? In what ways is it preposterous?


  • Briefly, what would be involved in implementing the proposal?


  • Who are the persons who appear to endorse the proposal?
  • In what ways do their endorsements help or hurt the proposal? How do you know?


  • What are some of the principal advantages of the proposal? What about possible objections?
  • In what ways does Swift concede and refute some of the objections?


  • What means does Swift use to reiterate his apparent sincerity?

Section 2: Going Further

As you read, respond to 5 of the following questions:

  • Considering this was written more than two centuries ago, there are striking similarities to modern society. What details in the first paragraph relate to contemporary social issues?
  • A paragraph that begins “The number of souls in Ireland”: Up to this point, what words seem particularly derogatory, and why? What do you think Swift’s purpose is in selecting these words?
  • Same paragraph – How are these remarks about stealing ironic? Are these ideas reflected in modern stereotypes?
  • A paragraph that begins “I am assured by our merchants”: What methods of satire are used in this passage about the market value of children?
  • A paragraph that begins “I have been assured by a very knowing”: What does this comment reveal about attitudes of the time? How is it ironic?
  • A paragraph that begins “I grant this food will be”: How does Swift play on the meaning of devoured?
  • A paragraph that begins “Infant’s flesh will be”: According to the speaker, what is another positive outcome of this proposal? FYI – Note Swift’s allusion to Lent. Prolific refers to the alleged capacity of fish to enhance fertility. Catholics observed Lenten practices that would abstain from meat and eat more fish.
  • A paragraph that begins “I have already computed”: How do the mathematical and statistical references enhance the irony of the essay?
  • A paragraph that begins with “A very worthy person” and deep into the paragraph: What is your reaction to this comment? How do comments like this seem to further Swift’s purpose?
  • A paragraph that begins “Some persons of a”: What is the effect of the word “reasonably” in this passage? FYI – Notice how the irony is emphasized with emotionally loaded words such as “filth” and “vermin.”
  • A paragraph that begins “Secondly”: What similar class structures have existed or now exist? FYI – During this period, England treated Ireland like a colony, plundering for resources and exploiting the Irish when the time came to sell the goods made from the resources. It would be important that Ireland circulate money within its own borders and grow and manufacture its own goods to build an independent economy.
  • A paragraph that begins “I can think of no one objection”: Are the other “expedients” listed here constructive suggestions? Why does Swift use them? FYI – This passage reveals some biases of the eighteenth century. Note the cynical references to Laplanders and Brazilians (regarded by the eighteenth-century British as barbarians) and Jews.
  • A paragraph that begins “But as for myself”: What clues tell readers Swift’s true feelings? What are those feelings?
  • From the information in the essay, describe the cycle of poverty in Ireland at this time.

Questions adapted from materials by L. Douglas

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