Swift and His Audience
Maggie Barron, English 171 Brown University, Autumn 2003
Beginning with the title "A Modest Proposal," Jonathan Swift uses a familiar, amicable style of writing to disguise his plan's blatant absurdity. His tone is straightforward and easy to read, and almost lulls the reader into agreeing with him before he presents his actual thesis. Throughout his introduction, the reader cannot help but support his statement, that "whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these [poor] 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."
Then, with the cool calculations of a farmer planning for his livestock, Swift lays out his plan to sell young Irish children as meat for the wealthy. Playing the part of a well-meaning (if somewhat misled) social advocate, he uses clear logic and a "modest," conversational tone to gain favor with the readers. Swift proves how easily people can be convinced by false logic, if the evidence is presented in a familiar framework. His essay is as much a comment on how readily people will follow bogus claims as it is evidence of his anger at the situation in Ireland.
1. Is Swift actually advocating any realistic solutions? Is satire a productive means of social change?
2. Besides the fact that eating children is well-established as morally wrong, are there holes in Swift's argument? What does this say about the difference between moral solution and a logical one?
3. Swift speaks of the wealthy English landlords in the third person. What point is he trying to make about them, and if they are not his audience, then who is?
4. How does Swift want his audience to feel after reading this essay? Embarrassed? Ashamed? Enraged? Amused?
Last modified: 8 September 2003