tablesetting complete with forks, knives, and spoons, and a baby on the plate in the center above the words "A Modest Proposal"

A Modest Proposal

by Jonathan Swift

Start Free Trial

In what ways does Jonathan Swift use satire to expose the unfortunate issues in "A Modest Proposal"?

In his satirical essay “A Modest Proposal,” Swift uses exaggeration, irony, and a serious tone to humanize the poor. The outrageous and ironic proposal helps Swift show the way the poor are ignored and dehumanized by the upper class. The narrator’s matter-of-fact tone and focus on logic also help Swift show the need for incorporating ethical principles into an argument.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift uses satire to highlight the extreme poverty in Ireland and to critique the response of authority figures. The narrator’s outrageous solution to the food shortage and indifferent tone creates satire that underlines the dehumanization of the poor.

The exaggeration in this essay is what really makes it a satire. The narrator suggests that 100,000 babies born each year in Ireland should be eaten. He explains that this is a practical solution because it would provide food to the hungry, and it would help the economy. This suggestion is of course outrageous, but through it Swift critiques the way the poor are exploited by the upper class.

Swift’s use of irony also makes this essay one of the most famous examples of satire. Irony is present in literature when the outcome of a situation or argument is different than what is expected. For example, in “A Modest Proposal,” the speaker explains that the poor are suffering in Ireland. Then he explains that the solution to this problem is eating children. This is not an expected solution, especially given that the title states the proposal is going to be “modest.”

The narrator also uses a simple, matter-of-fact tone to emphasize that his proposal is reasonable. This adds to the satire because it critiques the indifferent attitude of the people who are actually in charge of making decisions. The narrator also bases his proposal on logic and does not reflect on its morality. This argumentative approach helps Swift show that logic cannot work without moral principles.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team