Is"A Modest Proposal" Nonfiction?

Michael Laws, English 171 Brown University, Autumn 2003

There seems to me to be an inherent danger to satirical writing -- especially if that writing is being dubbed "nonfiction"-- of having one's words misconstrued, the irony of the framework mistaken for earnestness, the voice and beliefs of the narrator conflated with the author's. Swift's way of getting around this problem is to give us a first sentence that establishes not only a tone of voice, but also a persona that the attentive reader will not confuse with Swift himself:

It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning ever passenger for an alms.

The clues here are many, and each of them points to the narrator's being an invention, a voice representative of someone, but certainly not Swift himself. From the stylization of the sentence (peppered as it is with clauses and commas), the insistence on Dublin being a "great town" and Ireland a "dear native country" (in the next sentence), and the obvious gap between the narrator and those lowly "beggars" he portrays, we might wager that the narrator is someone of high breeding, an aristocrat, possibly a politician. Swift sustains this voice throughout and-- true to the nature of satire-- uses it at times to couch a direct critique of the grim situation his narrator tries so absurdly to remedy.

My question, then, is this: If the voice Swift adopts is not his-- if it is in fact directly contrary to what Swift actually advocates-- then how can we call "A Modest Proposal" nonfiction? After all, Swift has invented a character: the first-person narrator, complete with a fictional set of beliefs, a fictional plan for improving the lot of the poor in Ireland. Does the fact that this is, in the end, a critique of an actual society outweigh the (fictional) devices used to assert that critique?
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Last modified 7 September 2003