David Sedaris

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In David Sedaris's "A Modest Proposal," how does the character face exclusion from his society and then push against the boundaries imposed by society?

In David Sedaris's "A Modest Proposal," the author recounts the events that led up to his proposal to his boyfriend, Hugh, after the Supreme Court ruling on the constitutional nature of gay marriage in the United States. Sedaris cleverly plays on Jonathan Swift's famous title, as the essay concerns a marriage proposal in the most modest way imaginable.

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In David Sedaris's extremely poignant and humorous essay "A Modest Proposal," the author recounts the events that led up to his proposal to his boyfriend, Hugh, after the Supreme Court ruling on the constitutional nature of gay marriage in the United States. Sedaris cleverly plays on Jonathan Swift's famous title, as the essay concerns a marriage proposal in the most modest way imaginable.

As a writer, Sedaris is well known as a brutal cynic and iconoclast, so it is no surprise that he wants nothing to do with the institution of marriage. However, while picking up trash, he finds himself overcome with emotion when the ruling is delivered. He thinks of every rural teen who just got the message that they are every bit as much a person as anyone else, and he recalls his own experience with feeling trapped by being gay. As a child, he had imagined several scenarios involving being married a woman and fantasized about being included in what he considered to be acceptable to his family.

However, Sedaris is mildly, and perhaps ironically, disappointed by the gay community's reaction to the ruling. He had dreamed that gay marriage would become legal so that gay people could disregard it. He wanted it to be "ours to spit on." Sedaris pushes against the boundaries imposed by his society by insisting that he and his boyfriend get married, if only at their accountant's recommendation for tax reasons. Without ceremony or pomp, Sedaris and Hugh are presumably married, allowing Sedaris to continue to push his own boundaries that he feels not only as a member of the gay community but as an individual.

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In his essay from The New Yorker entitled "A Modest Proposal," David Sedaris discusses his life as a gay man and his reaction to the Supreme Court ruling gay marriage legal in the United States.

While living in London, he is shocked to come across two married women. In America, this would never have been accepted prior to the Supreme Court ruling. Sedaris has faced severe exclusion, particularly coming from a southern American state such as North Carolina, where homosexuality is strongly disapproved of. Part of the reasoning behind living throughout Europe for so many years with his partner is precisely because of the exclusion he has endured for so long.

He persists, however, in being an outspoken and open gay man, even back in a time when it was not widely accepted. His position as a journalist for The New Yorker showed that he was going to continue declaring his own rights and his worth as a human in spite of what others thought of him and in spite of the exclusion he felt from society.

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"A Modest Proposal" is a nonfiction essay, not a short story, so the author is presumably writing about himself and cannot strictly be called a character. Written in the first person, the author discusses his reaction to the Supreme Court decision to affirm the lifting of a ban against marriage between two people of the same gender. Sedaris is gay, and he often writes about gender and sexuality issues. He has lived with his partner, Hugh, who he often writes about in his essays, for more than two decades. The boundaries he discusses in the essay are societal attitudes toward gay people and toward marriage.

For a number of reasons, the couple has lived in Europe for most of their time together; he has also written about their lives in France and, more recently, in England. In France, civil partnership has been legal since the 1990s, and in England, prohibition against marriage between people of the same gender was lifted more than two years earlier than in the United States.

Marriage, or being legally prevented from entering into this type of partnership, was not one of the reasons they left the United States. Until the Supreme Court decision, Sedaris claims, marriage had not been near the front of his consciousness. Nevertheless, the public endorsement of this civil rights breakthrough made a strong impression; he was so excited to learn what the court’s decision would be that he took his iPad out while he was walking around so he would not miss the announcement. It got him thinking about what the meaning of marriage compared to other manifestations of commitment.

Thinking of changes in such attitudes also prompted reflections about being gay as a youth in North Carolina, when “queer” was used as an insult—even by his mother—and many people thought that being gay could be “cured” through psychiatry. After he came out to a close friend, however, the need he had felt to deny his identity and the fantasies of “outgrowing” that aspect of his identity faded away.

Reflecting on marriage included, for Sedaris, his overall negative attitude toward weddings, of which he had sat through many; weddings were something gay people did not need to inflict on their family and friends. With this type of overall attitude, he was surprised to find how moved he was when the Supreme Court ruling came down and was published in the London paper.

I read it, and, probably like every American gay person, I was overcome with emotion.

Emotion aside, Sedaris presented the idea of marriage to Hugh as a financial matter, into which he refused to enter. Irritated, Sedaris insisted.

After an estimated 18 proposals over two weeks, once Hugh agreed, “reality set in.” He thought about having a “husband” and having other people speak of Hugh that way—even that the word would be used in his obituary. So he let the marriage question slide, and considers the two of them are “engaged, I suppose, [with] our whole lives ahead of us.”

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