Swift's ironies in "A Modest Proposal"
Jane Porter, English 171 Brown University, Autumn 2003
Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," is permeated throughout with irony. In his opening, Swift's speaker misleads readers by emphasizing the humble and selfless intentions of his proposal. Before being made aware of his outrageous proposition, the reader is gently coaxed into seeing him as an empathetic individual. This ironic tenderness is perhaps most evident when Swift states:
There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes, I doubt, more to avoid the expence than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.
However, Swift only paragraphs later seems to contradict this point of view in saying:
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 use of children as "a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food" is clearly not a realistic solution to problems of overpopulation in Ireland. What then are Swift's intentions in writing this piece and what reaction is his frank proposal meant to draw from the reader?
Swift makes reference to the modesty and humbleness of his proposal, which strongly opposes the ridiculous and bold solution he offers. Does this juxtaposition serve to initially mislead the reader or is Swift's irony there to further enhance the absurdity of his proposal?
The speaker's views become increasingly ridiculous as the text progresses, even stating this solution will contribute to "the improvement in the area of making good bacon." What is the role such humor plays in this piece when examining the message Swift is trying to get across?
After outlining his points, Swift writes: "I can think of no one objection, that will possibly be raised against this proposal." Are we as readers being confronted by Swift who seems to be opposing the obvious or is this type of language meant to evoke some other response?
Last modified 8 September 2003