How does "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift use satire?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Among many definitions of "satire" the following is the most compelling regarding "A Modest Proposal":

the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

Hence, this is exactly what Swift does. He exposes and criticizes contemporary politics and the way things are carried out in his society. He particularly attacks the cruel abuse and discrimination against Irish catholics, who are poor, disenfranchised, and still mistreated by English protestants.

Jonathan Swift takes on the voice of an extremely prejudiced English Protestant, and uses the argument of the Irish eating their own children (in order to decrease the amount of Irish Catholics) as an extreme way to exaggerate the usual anti-Irish discourse. This is his way of mocking the people who agree with it:

“For first, as I have already observed, 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 dangerous enemies”

Swift also creates satire by using a medium that is commonly used for serious purposes. Think of an open letter, or rather an editorial in an important publication, or even a thesis. These are often conduits of serious topics of discussion, where educated scholars propose meaningful solutions to current issues.

Just imagine taking that same, erudite tone of voice to propose that a group that disturbs the peace of a bunch of abusive, dominant overlords is encouraged to eat their young for purposes of population control. The very idea is unthinkable, and the exaggerated nature of the treatise itself tells that it intends to make mockery of the anti-Irish protestants.

hmartin17 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift is a prime example of satire. Satire is defined as "the use of humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticise people's stupidity and vices, particularly in the context of politics." Swift wrote his essay in response to the extreme poverty in 18th century Ireland. In it, the speaker or proposer suggests eating the poor Irish children to combat hunger and poverty. The speaker delivers his proposal in a straightforward and logical manner, complete with statistics and reflections on the economy.

To the reader, the proposal is exaggerated and ridiculous - so ridiculous in fact, that one might find the proposal to be humorous. Swift, separate from the speaker, builds layers of criticism which bash the corrupted farming and labor system, as well as the government that put it in place. Irony is present throughout the piece, but also in the title. The word "modest" describes something small, limited, manageable, but killing 100,000 of Ireland's children to be eaten is the exact opposite of those words! Swift's piece is probably the best example of satire in the English language because he artfully and creatively uses "A Modest Proposal" to critique the broken structures of his day. 

gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jonathan Swift's essay employs satire by humorously making an outrageous claim to reveal the abuses on Ireland's lower class citizens by wealthy English Protestants. Swift begins to criticize the upper class by suggesting that out of the 120,000 infants born each year, 100,000 should be sold to the wealthy as food while 20,000 would be spared for breeding purposes. Swift then elaborates on his proposal by pointing out the many positives attached to such a plan using figures, statistics, and demographic data. Swift argues that his proposal would reduce the number of Catholics in Ireland, provide farmers a way to pay their landlords, increase domestic revenue, ease the financial burdens on lower class families, and provide a delightful new cuisine for the wealthy. Swift uses irony and satire to address social issues such as the plight of the lower class, government abuses, and the value of children in hopes of encouraging social change. His explicit, repulsive solution to eating the infants metaphorically represents how the modern government preys on its less fortunate population. His ridiculous, exaggerated proposal is a humorous critique of politics, which categorizes his essay as a satire. 

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A Modest Proposal

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