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A Modest Proposal

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In Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, the tone of a Juvenalian satire is evident in its text. Swift uses the title of his essay to begin his perfect example of a Juvenalian satire. Swift gives a moral justification to the dehumanization of the Irish and attempts to provide ‘logical’ solutions to their problems. Despite Swift’s use of belittling language towards the Irish, he uses positive strategy to make his true point known. Swift declares children as the underlying cause of the parents’ inability to obtain a successful occupation. Swift’s scornful disregard for infants is one ploy in attracting the attention of the population. Swift uses a rhetorical style that causes the reader to loathe the narrator, who is depicted as a member of the ‘upper-class.’ Jonathan Swift truly ascertains the true essence of a Juvenalian satire and parallels it with the text of his essay, A Modest Proposal.

Juvenalian satire uses dark and sarcastic humor over other satirical techniques in order to offer callous criticisms of incompetence or corruption. Even before the essay, Swift implements his ‘dark humor’ with his title. A Modest Proposal is truly anything but modest. The absurdities he uses to portray his solutions to all of Ireland’s problems. For example, offering suggestions of cannibalism is outrageous, yet follows still remains consistent with ‘dark humor.’ The narrator says, “A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter”(385).

He uses this and many other absurd scenarios in order to support his ‘dark humor.’Hidden amongst all the rhetorical tricks, lies a true moral theme. The speaker’s ludicrous solutions to Ireland’s problems cause the reader to become aware of the extent of the dilemma. Tremendously disgusted with the speaker’s solutions, the readers protest to the inhumane living conditions of the Irish lower-class. In order to clear all doubt against Swift’s proposal, he addresses the problem of possibly destroying the Irish race if their infants are all sacrificed. Swift proposes saving a number of children, strictly for procreation.

The narrator says, “I do therefore humbly offer it to the public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed; whereof only one fourth part to be males, which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine; and my reason is that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages; therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females” (384). In the midst of all the absurd proposals, Swift also introduces his genuine reforms. He includes discouraging vanity, taxing absentee landlords, and encouraging domestic trade by purchasing Irish goods and services. By using such ridiculous ideas, Swift enables himself to introduce his actual beliefs. Swift’s real views are considerably more plausible than the ideas of the speaker.

Swift again degrades Irish by depicting them as commodities rather than people. His disregard of the audience’s honor creates an underlying grim mood throughout the essay. Swift obtains the readers’ attention by creating a feeling of hatred toward the narrator, who treats the Irish as objects. The narrator mentions, “But my intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the children of professed beggars: it is of a much greater extent, and shall take in the whole number of infants at a certain age, who are born of parents in effect as little able to support them, as those who demand our charity in the streets” ( ). He depicts the Irish as beggars and unfit parents. Yet Swift’s condescending attitude towards the Irish is merely a ploy in presenting his real concern, which is a criticism of the terrible living conditions in Ireland.

Jonathan Swift establishes a resentful perspective towards children in the beginning of his proposal. He views infants as a hindrance on the adults’ ability to acquire prosperous professions. As the narrator states: “These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance” (383). Swift declares that newborns of poor families automatically cause the mother to become a beggar. As the narrator states: “It is true a child just dropped from its dam may be supported by her milk for a solar year with little other nourishment; at most not above the value of two schillings, which the mother may certainly get, or the value in scraps, by her lawful occupation of begging; and it is exactly at one year old that I propose to provide for them in such a manner as instead of being a charge upon their parents or the parish” (384). Swift uses this situation as another way of obtaining the attention of the reader. It is obviously absurd to blame an innocent child for a parent’s inability to obtain a successful job. Yet Swift takes his ‘dark humor’ to another level by adding that these infants cause their mothers to become beggars as well. Sarcasm and humor can be seen through these accusations.

Jonathan Swift demonstrates his neglect for infants through his program which promotes population control. In Swift’s plan, he advocates a society which accepts a limited amount of males and females. Jonathan Swift justifies this “genocide” of infants by saying, “helpless infants, who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes” (383). Swift’s crazy justification for the consumption of infants portrays them as objects of simple elimination. As Jonathan Swift explains his proposal, he states: “That the remaining hundred thousand may at a year old be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table” (385). Yet again Swift shows his ‘dark humor’ through the absurd treatment of infants. The reader can now truly see the root of Swift’s humor due to the fact that the consumption of babies will never happen.

One of the most unique aspects of Swift’s essay is the use of a speaker who is portrayed as an English aristocrat. The narrator calmly provides absurd solutions to the over-population and economic hardships of the Irish. The speaker proposes the fattening and consumption of the children of the poor, creating a clean and simple solution to Ireland’s over-population. The narrator states, “Those who are 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” (385).

The speaker’s perversion of any moral code and his lack of humanity allow the audience to loathe the speaker. Swift capitalizes on the audience’s disdain towards the English elitist in order to use their emotions. Swift cleverly manipulates the readers with the speaker’s absurdity in order to highlight the extreme living condition of the Irish. By using shock value, Swift generates sympathy from the audience. He alienates the narrator, who addresses the problems with irrationality, from the audience. Swift mocks the English’s dehumanization of the Irish by creating an audience who is disdainful toward the narrator’s outrageous suggestions.

Jonathan Swift accompanies ‘dark humor’ with an analogous essay. His sarcasm and true concern for the state of Ireland are manifested through this essay. He provides obscene scenarios to acquire the attention of the reader and implements his true intent. A Modest Proposal is of true brilliance.


A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

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