Satire in A Modest Proposal
Jonathan Swift was born in Ireland in the 18th century during an era that has come to be known as the Golden Age of Satire. As a writer, he was profoundly influenced by the political climate of his times, especially the plight of the Irish poor, which spurred him to write the satirical, social commentary “A Modest Proposal. ” The satirical essay addresses the issue of inequality and poverty experienced by the Irish through an outlandish solution that is “beneficial” to everyone. Verbal is present throughout the essay and even in the title.
The proposal is far from modest and is rather shocking which Swift does to grab the attention of the reader. He satirically recommends commoditizing Irish babies to improve the economic outlook by selling poor Irish babies to the rich as a delicious food item. Swift’s proposal in his essay is a technique used to highlight a real issue and bring awareness to it by ridiculing the public (reader) through satire. The definition of satire is the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, and ridicule to expose and criticize people’s vices.
In “A Modest Proposal,” Swift does exactly that through clever social commentary on the issue of poverty among the poor in Ireland through the various forms of satire. Swift differentiates the social classes in his writing through imagery, detailing the differences between the rich and the poor. He states, “Prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers…is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance” (Par 2). Through this quote Swift emphasizes that the multitude of Irish children is a terrible problem aggravating an already “deplorable state of the kingdom.
” After Swift briefly describes the terrible economic and social situation in the Ireland, he then turns to his consideration and development of his “modest” proposal. Although the reader still takes him seriously at this point in the essay, it becomes clear he is using verbal irony as soon as he actually gives his proposal. He writes, “…having turned my thoughts for many years, upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation” (Par 4).
Swift is clever in mixing and using irony along with biting criticism. Swift is ironic in stating he has spent “many years” thinking through solutions proposed by others because he likely has not, but he does so to mock the other solutions. In a twist of verbal irony, Swift hints at how the “problem” of overpopulation of Irish babies is actually part of the “solution” itself when he talks of the babies, “…they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding, and party to the cloathing of many thousands” (Par 4).
Swift still has not offered his exact proposal, but immediately after he does, it becomes clear why the above quote is ironic and a form of satire. The overpopulation of Irish babies is the “solution” when in fact, the proposal is so unreal, shocking and disgusting that we know the “solution” is clearly satirical. Swift is also very keen on economics and provides various calculations as to the number of Irish babies born as well as the cost to society associated (Par 6).
He also adds false credibility, another example of verbal irony, by mentioning various people who have supported his buildup of argument such as “merchants” and a “very knowing American” (Par 7 and 8). Little by little suspense is built up as the reader is interested in his Swift’s proposal which is self-touted and supported by all these fictitious individuals. Finally, Swift proclaims, “…a young healthy child well nursed, is at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust” (Par 9).
Swift proposes an outlandish and bizarre solution of eating one-year old Irish babies which is clearly not a “modest” proposal, but he adds further irony to it by sprinkling in humor. He says the babies might also taste good in a “fricasie” or “ragoust,” making his proposal seem absolutely commonplace and logical, that the he just progresses to other suggestions of “food” preparation. In this manner, Swift regularly uses verbal irony through humor or ridicule for this satirical essay. Continuing his satirical essay, Swift adds more detail about the merits of his proposal.
He writes, “Infant’s flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after… there are more children born in Roman Catholick countries about nine months after Lent… the number of Popish infants, is at least three to one in this kingdom, and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us” (Par 13). The Protestants of Britain stood in contrast of faith to the Catholics of Ireland in both political rule and population.
Swift is using this fact to ironically criticize the British reader. He does not outright call out the British reader for being preferential against Catholics, but he empathizes to their religious partiality by casually saying that it will lessen the number of “Papists. ” Later on, Swift itemizes the “benefits” of his proposal. Each benefit is a clear use of verbal irony, meaning that within his “logical” framework and argument, they seem to make sense, but in fact, they are outright cruel or insulting.
For example, he writes, “Secondly, The poorer tenants will have something valuable of their own… Thirdly, the maintenance of an hundred thousand children, from two years old, and upwards, cannot be computed at less than ten shillings a piece per annum, the nation’s stock will be thereby encreased fifty thousand pounds per annum…” (Par 22 and 23). He continues in this way, ironically building a “logical” argument for his proposal, mentioning “This food would likewise bring great custom to taverns,” (Par 25).
He finishes his disturbing list, by once again sounding “modest,” casual and non-controversial, even though his proposal is anything but those, “After all, I not so violently bent upon my own opinion, as to reject any offer, proposed by wise men, which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual” (Par 32). The way Swift addresses the issue and the solution of eating children can be quite shocking, but it is an effective way of providing real solutions while criticizing and ridiculing other writers and the public of his time.
Through verbal irony in the form of humor and sarcasm, Swift builds a satirical essay which ridicules the British while building a logical argument for his “modest” proposal. Through this building of the logical argument, Swift is actually highlighting real issues such as overpopulation, abortion, lack of education, theft and lack of food. In a final paragraph, Swift proposes real solutions all the way at the end of his essay. By having a whole satirical essay to merely draw attention to the issues and then with one paragraph, mention all the solutions, Swift cleverly and concisely delivers his point.
He proposes, “…taxing our absentees… using neither cloaths, nor household furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture… curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women… quitting our animosities and factions” (Par 29). The actual issues are addressed in a serious undertone beneath the outlandish proposals and considerations of eating Irish babies in this funny yet serious, satirical essay by Swift.