The Satirical Truths of Swift's "Modest Proposal"

William Goodman, English 171,Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, Autumn 2003

Jonathan Swift's argument in "A Modest Proposal," is not just ridiculous; it is perhaps the most utterly and completely ridiculous argument ever written, and as such, it perfectly fits Swift's intentions. In the essay, Swift shocks the reader with the idea of eating babies to solve the problems of famine and poverty in Ireland. However, Swift was not solely aiming at slapstick comedy. The overstated "proposal" knocks the reader back, but certain passages in the essay seem to carry an undercurrent of real, sustaining anger and iconoclasm. In the following passage, Swift changes his tone from satire to serious compassion, even if there remains a tinge of hyperbole in his statement:

I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and may perhaps be so bold to attempt an answer, that they will first ask the parents of these mortals, whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old, in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes, as they have since gone through, by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor cloaths to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of intailing the like, or greater miseries, upon their breed for ever. [Paragraph 32]


1. How does Swift let the audience know that there is something more to this particular passage than the ridiculous irony of the rest of the piece?

2. How does the language in this passage reflect a sense of victims and victimizers?

3. What effect does the narrator's ethos have on the reading of this passage?

4. What concluding feelings or judgments does the reader take away from this passage -- one of the finalsections of the piece?

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Last modified 6 February 2005