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Essay/Term paper: Swift's "a modest proposal"

Essay, term paper, research paper:  English Papers

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In his lengthy literary career, Jonathan Swift wrote many stories that

used a broad range of voices that were used to make some compelling

personal statements. For example, Swifts, A Modest Proposal, is often

heralded as his best use of both sarcasm and irony. Yet taking into

account the persona of Swift, as well as the period in which it was

written, one can prove that through that same use of sarcasm and irony,

this proposal is actually written to entertain the upper-class. Therefore

the true irony in this story lies not in the analyzation of minute details

in the story, but rather in the context of the story as it is written.

One of the voices that is present throughout the story is that of

irony. The story itself is ironic since no one can take Swifts proposal

seriously. This irony is clearly demonstrated at the end of the story;

Swift makes it clear that this proposal would not affect him since his

children were grown and his wife unable to have any more children. It

would be rather absurd to think that a rational man would want to both

propose this and partake in the eating of another human being. Therefore,

before an analyzation can continue, one has to make the assumption that

this is strictly a fictional work and Swift had no intention of pursuing

his proposal any further.

One of the other voices that is present throughout the entire

story is that of sarcasm. In order to understand this further, a reader

has to comprehend that Swift, becoming infamous after Gullivers Travels,

was a member of the upper-class. Right from the first paragraph Swift

attempts to fool his readers by the sarcasm of the dreary scene that Swift

presents. For example, he mentions that it is a melancholy sight to see

beggars and their children on the street. The sarcastic paradox in this

statement is whether it is a melancholy object for him, having to see

homeless people every day, or for the beggars lifestyle? Upon first

reading this one may be led to believe that Swift is a compassionate

writer attempting to feel the pain of the beggars. But as the story

continues, a reader can look back and note that he is using a sarcastic

tone and the only sad sight that he sees is the fact that people of his

status have to deal with commoners. It is a good combination that makes

the reader think twice about any other statements, and the voice used,

after the first paragraph.

This leads to the underlying statements that appear throughout the

story. It is quite clear that Swift has strong feelings of resentment,

bordering on hate, for the poor people that wonder the street. For

example, he tries to qualify his proposal by saying, "it is very well

known that they are dying, and rotting , by cold and famine, and filth,

and vermin . . . they cannot get work and consequently pine away for want

of nourish.". Once a reader understands this, they can see the true

purpose of his proposal. He wants to lower the population of beggars in

his country, so what better way to do it than by putting an end to the

younger generation of beggars? This is also proven since throughout the

story he only mentions that the upper-class of society would be able to

purchase the sacrificial children. The upper-class would also take the

carcasses and use them to, "make admirable gloves for ladies summer boots

for fine gentlemen.". Also, when he makes his calculations as to how

many children would be available for sale, he never takes into account the

children from the rich families. In short, Swifts message is that rich

children serve a purpose, the advancement of Ireland, while poor children

are nothing but a burden to the republic.

One other clear indication that Swift was motivated by his hatred

for the poor is the list of six reasons that he write to qualify his

proposal. In the third statement, Swift explains how by buying the

children and then selling them to their friends, the upper-class can keep

on thriving. This was a plan to get themselves even more rich, as Swift

states, "the money will circulate among ourselves, the goods being

entirely of our own growth and manufacture.". Secondly, he also compares

this type of meal to that of eating a pig. He elaborates by naming a

variety of ways that you can cook the child, use if for bacon, or to make

clothing.He never once mentions what the poor people can gain after they

have been paid the purchasing price. He only mentions the benefits of the

rich. Yet,Swift wants the writer to believe that he wasnt attempting to bring

harm to the people of his country, on the contrary, he was only trying to

make his friends rich. This is another demonstration of the sarcasm and

irony that Swift uses to both persuade and deceive the reader.

Opponents to this analyzation of A Modest Proposal would agree

that there is irony present in the story, but it was intended to

demonstrate the irony that a writer can use to persuade readers in a

different sense. In this case this proposal was intended to make the

upper-class examine the conditions under which the lower class lived. In

fact it was intended to help the lower-class to gain more recognition from

the upper class. If a reader does take his proposal seriously, then the

use irony and sarcasm in Swifts writing is exemplified. But, if a reader

takes note of the irony they will notice the true point of the story; the

assistance that the lower-class needs. Either way, the irony is present

and Swift gets his message across.

In response, one could argue that the whole context of the story

must be taken into account. First of all, one must take into account the

environment in which the story was written. During this time period, the

beggars that Swift describes could not read, much less afford to buy one

of Swifts works. Swift was well aware that his audience was the well-to-do

upper class. He could write proposal like this knowing that there would be

no repercussions since the upper-class would treat this as a comedy.

Actually, the lower class could have revolted fearing that their children

were in danger if they knew of the story. In effect, it is a combination

of both propaganda and humor aimed for the educated audience. Secondly, if

Swift did want to help the lower-class, he wouldnt have created an

exemption for himself in the last paragraph. If he wanted to initiate this

plan to help the lower-class, then he should have been the one to start it

all. Also, why would he propose such a heinous plan that involves both the

sacrifice of another human as well as cannibalism and expect to be taken


Very few authors have had their works analyzed and critiqued as

thoroughly as Swift has. Many of these essays have dealt with the question

of the true purpose of A Modest Proposal. One reason that this is so

difficult to understand is because in actuality there is a dual irony in

this story. Referring back to the example of the first paragraph, a

melancholy object can work two ways. Again the question arises; who is it

sad for? Even in todays world, there are some people that give money to

the homeless, because the homeless are in a sad situation, and there are

people that vehemently refuse to give money to panhandlers and they get

sad because they have to be bothered by the homeless every time that they

walk by. It is difficult to distinguish which one of these dissenting

views of irony is correct, that is assuming that one of them is valid.

This is a difficult task because we do not fully understand the

environment in which it was written, we can only analyze the voice in

which it is written. A personal opinion would be that he wrote this story

purely for the amusement of the upper class. This is qualified because, as

stated before, during the time that this was written the beggars could not

read and could not afford one of Swifts works. Also, demonstrating his

well executed use of irony and sarcasm could have gained him advancement

among his peers.

A reader has to conclude that a work of this nature, from such a

dynamic author, must be read with both some literary awe and criticism.

One can spend many hours trying to analyze the words, the sentences and

even entire paragraphs to find a deeper hidden meaning in this story. Yet,

this story should be viewed as a fictional work and as one of the best

demonstrations of dual sarcasm and irony combined. Anything beyond that

would be purely hypothetical and would distract from the purity of this


Please send feedback on this paper to: dsalguer@gwis2.circ.gwu.edu 

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