Humour and satire


Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal

The seeming objectivity of Jonathan Swift’s “modest” proposal is what makes this piece one of the greatest satirical hyperboles written. More than just an economic argument, Swift proves ridicule is the test of truth byforcing readers to re-examine the deplorable caricature and their own social priorities through his ironic use of metaphor, appeals to authority, ad hominem, rhetoric, and values. Upon closer reading Swift’s piece is a subtle attack on the dispassionate methods and national policies of seventeenth century Irish politicians. The humour is culturally specific, mocking the attitudes of the wealthy: “therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children”, the influence of the English, “we can incur no danger in disobliging England”, and Catholics, “it would greatly lessen the number of papists, with whom we are yearly overrun, being the principal breeders of the nation as well as our most dangerous enemies. 

The logical, calculated, and serious tone of his argument mocks the political arithmeticians who often devised illogical schemes in attempts to fix population and labor issues: “[having] maturely weighed the several schemes of other projectors”. Swift parodies appeals to authority: “a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London” and “the famous Psalmanazar, a native of the island Formosa as well as giving the proposer moral credibility in affirming himself as having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants”. Swift also uses paralipsis, a rhetorical device used to invoke a subject by denying it should be invoked. This device is a subversive and heavily ironic ad hominem attack: “Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither cloaths, nor household furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture… Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients.”

Swift exaggerates rhetoric and pathos in its description of the economic ills of the poor. The detached and cool narration of his scheme serves to alienate the reader from the speaker. The reader is directed to feel sympathy for the poor who are considered a burden on the wealthy: “what course may be taken to ease the nation of so grievous an encumbrance.” Pathos is incredibly effective in the article, arousing disgust in the treatment of children and the greed of the wealthy: “more thrifty (as I must confess the times require) may flay the carcass; the skin of which artificially dressed will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.” Swift is proposing to fatten a starving population to feed the rich, an overt example of irony, which consequently appeals to social values and morality, questioning the reader’s ideologies: relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich”.

Finally, Swift uses metaphor and analogy to highlight the degradation of the Irish poor in the depersonalization of his calculations, reducing people from statistics to economic commodities to animals. Newborn children are “just drooped from its Dam” and women are labeled “breeders”. The speaker not only commodifies the people as livestock, but also uses language reserved for animals in the descriptions of them, converting people into animals, then meat, and then into tonnage worth a price per pound.

(Persuasive Writing – Exercise – 2012)

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