A Modest Proposal


by Jonathan Swift
In his lengthy literary career, Jonathan Swift wrote many
stories that used a broad range of voices and were used to
make some compelling personal statements. For example,
Swift's, "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
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
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
writes 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 wasn't 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 analysis 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 wouldn't 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 today's 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 story.


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