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In "A Modest Proposal", describe the narrator's real meaning when he asserts that...

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kikiframe10 | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted October 5, 2010 at 4:03 AM via web

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In "A Modest Proposal", describe the narrator's real meaning when he asserts that England will not mind if Ireland kills and eats babies.

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted October 5, 2010 at 4:11 AM (Answer #1)

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Key to understanding this masterful diatribe against English indifference to the Irish famine is irony. In this essay Swift uses verbal irony to get his point across. Verbal irony is a disparity between what is said or written and what is really meant - we use verbal irony all the time in our lives when we comment upon things, for example, "I can't wait to get back home so I can start on my homework", whereas, obviously that is anything but the truth.

To convey verbal irony when we speak we can rely on our tone of voice to alert our listeners to the verbal irony in our speech. Writers cannot depend on tone of voice, so include so many examples of verbal irony that the reader cannot miss the point.

This essay is a classic example of verbal irony stretched to its very limit, from the title, "A Modest Proposal", which is anything but modest, to its ridiculous suggestion of eating Irish babes and comments on the relationships between the Irish and their English overlords. This excerpt is one of my particular favourites:

I grant that this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title for the children.

Here, the humour is based on the multiple meanings of "devoured", which in one sense refers to how the Irish adults have been made poor by rents, but another sense refers to a metaphorical devouring that clearly establishes Swift's opinion of how the English are acting in Ireland. Eating infants, therefore, is the only logical conclusion to such a policy.

In addition, the irony is increased by a constant reasonable tone of modesty, combined with the assumption of a voice of a practical economic planner. The speaker pretends to be full of common sense and completely objective, and at times, even sensitive and kind. This disparity between tone and content gives the essay a real bite (no pun intended).

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted October 5, 2010 at 4:11 AM (Answer #2)

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I assume that you are asking about the passage in which Swift says

I fortunately fell upon this proposal, which, as it is wholly new, so it hath something solid and real, of no expence and little trouble, full in our own power, and whereby we can incur no danger in disobliging England. For this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, and flesh being of too tender a consistence, to admit a long continuance in salt...

If so, what Swift is really talking about is England's policy of what was called mercantilism.  He is saying that England does not like it when Ireland does anything to compete with England economically.

Under the idea of mercantilism, a nation like England wanted to export as much as it could and import as little as it could.  When such a nation had colonies, it wanted the colonies to just buy stuff from the "mother country" and not to compete with it.

This is what Swift is saying in this passage.  He is saying that England won't mind the Irish eating babies because it can't possibly export them.  That way, the Irish won't be trying to get England to buy their exports.

By saying this, Swift is criticizing England for what he sees as their selfish policy of mercantilism that hurts Ireland.

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