Swift's exchange with his audience in "A Modest Proposal"

Xiyun Yang, English 171 Brown University, Autumn 2003

In Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," the multilayered literary device of satire allows Swift to spin a complicated and contradictory relationship with his audience. Through his conversational nonchalance of approaching his subject, Swift at once aligns the reader with the speaker and condescends to the reader from a moral high ground. He is able to dehumanize the reader through his rationality of the grotesque and abhorrent subject. The projected exchange with his audience is as prominent and worthy of discussion as the actual text; his audience becomes a character in itself. In the following passage, Swift jumps from nonchalant rationalization to a more critical tone of his subject. This jump foreshadows a change in tone and in the nature of the relationship between the speaker and the reader that surfaces two paragraphs later in a thinly disguised social diatribe.

This would be a great inducement to marriage, which all wise nations have either encouraged by rewards, or enforced by laws and penalties. It would increase the care and tenderness of mothers towards their children, when they were sure of a settlement for life to the poor babes, provided in some sort by the public, to their annual profit instead of expense. We should soon see an honest emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest child to the market. Men would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sow when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of miscarriage.

1. Who is his audience and how are they related to the "we" that he refers to?

2. How is the subject of the essay connected to the audience of the essay?

3. How does he incorporate his audience into his arguments?

4. What effect is created by aligning the speaker, the literary Swift, with the audience?

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Last modified: 7 September 2003