Sarcasm and Irony in Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal
Length: 1501 words (4.3 double-spaced pages)
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In his lengthy literary career, Jonathan Swift wrote many stories that used a broad range of voices that were used to make some compelling personal statements. For example, Swifts, A Modest Proposal, is often heralded as his best use of both sarcasm and irony. Yet taking into account the persona of Swift, as well as the period in which it was written, one can prove that through that same use of sarcasm and irony, this proposal is actually written to entertain the upper-class. Therefore the true irony in this story lies not in the analyzation of minute details in the story, but rather in the context of the story as it is written.
One of the voices that is present throughout the story is that of irony. The story itself is ironic since no one can take Swifts proposal seriously. This irony is clearly demonstrated at the end of the story; Swift makes it clear that this proposal would not affect him since his children were grown and his wife unable to have any more children. It would be rather absurd to think that a rational man would want to both propose this and partake in the eating of another human being. Therefore, before an analyzation can continue, one has to make the assumption that this is strictly a fictional work and Swift had no intention of pursuing his proposal any further.
One of the other voices that is present throughout the entire story is that of sarcasm. In order to understand this further, a reader has to comprehend that Swift, becoming infamous after Gullivers Travels, was a member of the upper-class. Right from the first paragraph Swift attempts to fool his readers by the sarcasm of the dreary scene that Swift presents. For example, he mentions that it is a melancholy sight to see beggars and their children on the street. The sarcastic paradox in this statement is whether it is a melancholy object for him, having to see homeless people every day, or for the beggars lifestyle? Upon first reading this one may be led to believe that Swift is a compassionate writer attempting to feel the pain of the beggars. But as the story continues, a reader can look back and note that he is using a sarcastic tone and the only sad sight that he sees is the fact that people of his status have to deal with commoners.
It is a good combination that makes the reader think twice about any other statements, and the voice used, after the first paragraph.
This leads to the underlying statements that appear throughout the story. It is quite clear that Swift has strong feelings of resentment, bordering on hate, for the poor people that wonder the street. For example, he tries to qualify his proposal by saying, "it is very well known that they are dying, and rotting , by cold and famine, and filth, and vermin . . . they cannot get work and consequently pine away for want of nourish.". Once a reader understands this, they can see the true purpose of his proposal. He wants to lower the population of beggars in his country, so what better way to do it than by putting an end to the younger generation of beggars? This is also proven since throughout the story he only mentions that the upper-class of society would be able to purchase the sacrificial children. The upper-class would also take the carcasses and use them to, "make admirable gloves for ladies summer boots for fine gentlemen.". Also, when he makes his calculations as to how many children would be available for sale, he never takes into account the children from the rich families. In short, Swifts message is that rich children serve a purpose, the advancement of Ireland, while poor children are nothing but a burden to the republic.
One other clear indication that Swift was motivated by his hatred for the poor is the list of six reasons that he write to qualify his proposal. In the third statement, Swift explains how by buying the children and then selling them to their friends, the upper-class can keep on thriving. This was a plan to get themselves even more rich, as Swift states, "the money will circulate among ourselves, the goods being entirely of our own growth and manufacture.". Secondly, he also compares this type of meal to that of eating a pig. He elaborates by naming a variety of ways that you can cook the child, use if for bacon, or to make clothing.He never once mentions what the poor people can gain after they have been paid the purchasing price. He only mentions the benefits of the rich. Yet,Swift wants the writer to believe that he wasnt attempting to bring harm to the people of his country, on the contrary, he was only trying to make his friends rich. This is another demonstration of the sarcasm and irony that Swift uses to both persuade and deceive the reader.
Opponents to this analyzation of A Modest Proposal would agree that there is irony present in the story, but it was intended to demonstrate the irony that a writer can use to persuade readers in a different sense. In this case this proposal was intended to make the upper-class examine the conditions under which the lower class lived. In fact it was intended to help the lower-class to gain more recognition from the upper class. If a reader does take his proposal seriously, then the use irony and sarcasm in Swifts writing is exemplified. But, if a reader takes note of the irony they will notice the true point of the story; the assistance that the lower-class needs. Either way, the irony is present and Swift gets his message across.
In response, one could argue that the whole context of the story must be taken into account. First of all, one must take into account the environment in which the story was written. During this time period, the beggars that Swift describes could not read, much less afford to buy one of Swifts works. Swift was well aware that his audience was the well-to-do upper class. He could write proposal like this knowing that there would be no repercussions since the upper-class would treat this as a comedy. Actually, the lower class could have revolted fearing that their children were in danger if they knew of the story. In effect, it is a combination of both propaganda and humor aimed for the educated audience. Secondly, if Swift did want to help the lower-class, he wouldnt have created an exemption for himself in the last paragraph. If he wanted to initiate this plan to help the lower-class, then he should have been the one to start it all. Also, why would he propose such a heinous plan that involves both the sacrifice of another human as well as cannibalism and expect to be taken seriously?
Very few authors have had their works analyzed and critiqued as thoroughly as Swift has. Many of these essays have dealt with the question of the true purpose of A Modest Proposal. One reason that this is so difficult to understand is because in actuality there is a dual irony in this story. Referring back to the example of the first paragraph, a melancholy object can work two ways. Again the question arises; who is it sad for? Even in todays world, there are some people that give money to the homeless, because the homeless are in a sad situation, and there are people that vehemently refuse to give money to panhandlers and they get sad because they have to be bothered by the homeless every time that they walk by. It is difficult to distinguish which one of these dissenting views of irony is correct, that is assuming that one of them is valid. This is a difficult task because we do not fully understand the environment in which it was written, we can only analyze the voice in which it is written. A personal opinion would be that he wrote this story purely for the amusement of the upper class. This is qualified because, as stated before, during the time that this was written the beggars could not read and could not afford one of Swifts works. Also, demonstrating his well executed use of irony and sarcasm could have gained him advancement among his peers.
A reader has to conclude that a work of this nature, from such a dynamic author, must be read with both some literary awe and criticism. One can spend many hours trying to analyze the words, the sentences and even entire paragraphs to find a deeper hidden meaning in this story. Yet, this story should be viewed as a fictional work and as one of the best demonstrations of dual sarcasm and irony combined. Anything beyond that would be purely hypothetical and would distract from the purity of this story.