The Characterization of Swift's Speaker
Xiaojue Hu, English 171 Brown University, Autumn 2003
In a proposal not so modest in scope, Swift attempts to shock the complacent reader into social awareness by presenting an egregiously outrageous solution to Ireland's social ills. At first, Swift's narrating voice almost commiserates with the reader as one upper or middle-class Irishman with another upon the problem of the unsightly poor. It is not until the details of Swift's actual solution is displayed, encased within the same, former overtones of gravity, that the reader realizes abruptly that he is being mocked:
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that 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.
The superficial tone of serious exposition doesn't change, but the content induces the reader into now viewing the narrator as someone who doesn't mean what he says. Both audience and author are now consciously going along with the act of absurdity as Swift's greater purposes are achieved precisely through this play on reader expectation. By setting eating babies as a preferable or equal alternative to allowing them to die on their own, as well as other social concerns of the times, Swift is able to set forth his underlying message in an effective and creative manner.
1. Swift's own voice is thickly veiled beneath ludicrousness until the near end (in the part that beings: "but, as to my self, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts."), when it surfaces more assertively and the satirical act loosens to manifest more protest than pretense. How do these changes in tone affect the delivery of Swift's message to his audience?
2. Can the almost deceptive narrating voice running through the bulk of Swift's proposal be considered so removed from Swift as to be deemed a character?3. In a question of fiction versus nonfiction, who really is this "very knowing American of [Swift's] acquaintance" who apparently inspired this entire charade of infanticide? Although we may assume that the American acquaintance did in fact exist, the odds of logic favor his existence as purely fictional. In this case, if Swift fabricated characters to serve as springboards for the bulk of his discussion, then can his prose be considered nonfiction?
Last modified: 8 September 2003