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Jonathan Swift's 'A Modest Proposal'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1787 words Published: 10th May 2017

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Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ is a perfect example of the biting sarcasm and sharp wit that was exercised in the satire of the early eighteenth century. Through his effective execution of satirical comparisons and ironic overstatements, Swift manages to inflict his cleverness in a way and to a certain extent that was almost unparalleled in works of literature. “A Modest Proposal,” by Jonathan Swift, introduces many insignificant solutions as well as one chief idea for Ireland’s epidemic-like famine to the reader. The leading argument declares that a possible answer for the food crisis would be to feast on the impoverished children of the Irish society, who are destined to a life of stealing, begging, unemployment and famine. Even though this proposal is bound to conjure emotions, the notion is firmly put forth in an orderly and logical fashion in contrast to a moral and more heart felt method. Those who are familiar with Swift’s work are easily able to capture aspects about his essay that could be rather negative to those who have not read Swift’s work because of Swift’s ability to hide truth and powerful messages within his work through masterful use of irony, sarcasm and wit.

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Swift’s use of the word “modest” to define his proposal, presents a hyperbole of epic proportions. The use of such a humble word to refer to a proposal as appalling and horrific as that which is depicted in the proposal is absolutely ludicrous in standard, and this is exactly why it is so successful in its use. A well-executed paradox is a brilliant way to capture the attention of an audience, and Swift shows us why he is often described to be a master of this practice. You only need to read several lines into the script of “A Modest Proposal” before it turns out to be unquestionably clear that the suggestion is anything but “modest.” In brief, his “proposal” is that the country of Ireland’s population issue could be resolved by selling a huge percentage if it’s one year old kids on the market to be used as a new food source, thus providing money for impoverished lower class mothers and making them useful to society. When indicated this way, the shocking nature of the scheme is clear. On the other hand, Swift exercises such masterfully understated and clever language that the reader is almost persuaded to not recognize the clear unacceptable aspects of his proposal and to approve of his arguments.

As mentioned one negative about Swift’s “proposal” is that he is unclear in telling his readers whether his so-called “proposal” is all that “modest” or to be taken into account. Some wonder that the usage of satire may deceive readers, mainly those who aren’t used to Swift’s rhetoric device. Nevertheless, readers can grasp the Swift’s real purpose for his proposal if they focus some attention on several sentences. For instance, “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children (Swift).” Not only is this sentence ironic it is also filled with knowledge. First of all, it shows the landlords’ cruelty and greed. Swift’s use of irony works well and in turn notifies his audience that the landlords of that time were living in a life of luxury and riches, always chasing something exclusive and rare. Furthermore this indirect sarcasm shows us that landlords’ did not care whether they pursued what they want in an ethical way or not, nor were they compassionate about how hard the impoverished people made a living. Swift’s use of indirect sarcasm does the job in getting a message across, that landlords had already exploited the poor. Along with this, throughout Swift’s proposal he never mentions what is to be done with the children of the wealthy class. In short, the message that he is trying to send out by not including the children of the wealthy class is that they serve a purpose in the advancement of Ireland, while the children of the needy are nothing more than a burden to the country. It is pretty simple for any reader to make out that Swift’s intended audience was the upper-class who was at a literate stage unlike the poor at that time who were unable to make what Swift really wanted to express in his “proposal.”

The skillful irony that Swift employs throughout the proposal is most notably clear in the justifications of his arguments. Close to the beginning of the text, Swift clarifies that “it is agreed by all parties” that the overpopulation of children is an issue that is “a very great additional grievance” to the current “deplorable state” of Ireland. He further states: “…and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation (Swift).” Swift’s use of sarcasm and irony here is used well to exposes the absence of morality existing in a society that values wealth rather than the welfare of its citizens.

In putting down the basis for his proposal, Swift puts forth the benefits for all: “But my intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the children of professed beggars; it is of a much greater extent, and shall take in the whole number of infants at a certain age, who are born of parents in effect as little able to support them as those who demand our charity in the streets (Swift).” Swift carries on using unbearable detail, proposing planning for feasting, the proper amount of dinner guests the youth will nourish, and the expense of such a meal. All the while this dark proposal is laid out logically. Jonathan Swift cleverly aims at the uncompassionate English landlords when he talks about the expense of the food, and exactly how it is just since “as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.” His use of detail intentionally removes the reader from the proposed solution to display the cases of how the practice of cannibalism has functioned in other places, only in a satiric attempt to show his audience that this isn’t the right way to better the city of Dublin.

Many satirists tend to use a target to attack which will grab their audience(s) attention. In this case, Swift is clever enough to use poor children as the so-called “target” of his proposal. It is obvious that Swift doesn’t feel that people should turn to a cannibalistic practice of eating children. It is clear that he believes that children are the future, and if they are consumed there’ll be no future. He is also trying to explain that the people of Ireland need to come up with a solution to better the situation, if not they might as well turn to cannibalism and eat their children (metaphor). This brings about another point that Swift makes in making this argument. Ironically he mentions, “…oh, don’t even think about suggesting x or y” when x and y are reasonable solutions that could work (Swift).” Swift says this because of the frustration he has with the public, because he had been working for improvement for a good while, encouraging ideas that no one pay attention to, so now that he has come up with this “modest proposal” and stunned people in order to get their attention, he laughs at the fact that they’ve by no means taken serious or listened to his earlier proposals.

Another technique which Swift uses to get across his message in his essay is that he only mentions the benefits of the rich and not the poor if the plan where to be initiated it. Swift states that “…the money will circulate among our selves, the goods being entirely of our own growth and manufacture (Swift).” Here we find Swift trying to persuade his readers to believe that he was not trying to hurt the people of his country, but was only attempting to make his fellow friends even richer. This is another example of the irony and sarcasm that Jonathan Swift uses to both deceive the reader and persuade him into to thinking that Swift actually wants what is best for the people of the upper-class then the poor.

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Jonathan Swift not only shows to be honest but confident and persistent in his recommended proposal. Swift is so assertive, that he jokingly utters “I can think of no one objection that will possibly be raised against this proposal (Swift).” It is obvious that there are several reasons why his plan would work and how it would better the country at hand and its people. As well drawing his motives for expecting a successful strategy, Swift has several unnamed associates that he uses in his proposal in order to support his case and its potential successes by stating that they agree with the drawn plan. Swift’s use of evidence not only reinforces his argument but makes this satirical peace credible and feasible to those who are unable to read between the lines and capture the notion that Swift is really stating. The notion that since the upper-class of society views the impoverished as a nuisance, they might ironically prefer turn to cannibalism to get rid of the problem at hand and in turn make it a beneficiary for all, then to actually try helping those who need their help in order to remain in existence.

Examining the end of Swift’s proposal it must be understood that Swift’s proposal is not one to be taken seriously. This great use of irony is clearly displayed at the closing of the proposal; Swift notifies his reader(s) that this plan will not have any affect him since his children do not qualify do to their age and also because his wife has reached the age where she is unable to have any more children (Swift). One has to see that it would be quite silly to think that a sensible man would want to both be involved in the practice of cannibalism and even propose this type of solution to fix the crisis at hand.

Without a doubt the satire exercised in Jonathan’s Swift’s “Modest Proposal” is wit at its finest. The ironic exaggerations and sarcastic comparisons, followed by clever language, add a lasting effect to his writing that marks itself upon the thoughts of those who read his proposal in a way that cannot be forgotten.


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