What are some examples of the effective use of parallelism, appeals to logic, and appeals to emotion in Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal"?

Expert Answers
davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"A Modest Proposal" is a satire couched in the kind of logical, scientific language used in publications by the Royal Society. Swift was profoundly skeptical of the value of many of the proposals emanating from Britain's leading scientific academy. He satirizes its work in Gulliver's Travels when Gulliver reaches Laputa, a society in which, among other things, absent-minded scientists conduct pointless experiments such as attempting to extract sunbeams from cucumbers.

It's entirely appropriate, then, for Swift to use the rhetorical device of logos in the "Proposal," as this would've been how scientists of the Royal Society would have presented their findings. Examples abound:

The question therefore is, How this number shall be reared, and provided for? which, as I have already said, under the present situation of affairs, is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed.

This makes it seem that the author of the pamphlet has thought long and hard about the solution to this "problem" and that the proposal he's about to make will be set out with impeccable logic. Again, the tone of disinterested curiosity lends the proposal the necessary air of scientific respectability.

One of the elements of Swift's critique of scientific discourse is the way it turns human beings into objects to be studied, manipulated, and controlled. This process of de-humanization allows the author to resort to unflattering comparisons between poor women and breeding animals. This is an example of parallelism:

Men would become as fond of their wives during the time of their pregnancy as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, their sows when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage.

Under the terms of the "modest proposal," men would come to value their wives much as they value their animals, as their womenfolk would, by giving birth and selling their children for meat, contribute greatly to the household's prosperity.

But "A Modest Proposal" doesn't simply rely on cold logic to make its point. There's also considerable room for pathos, or an appeal to the emotions. The author wants to make it clear that he is motivated by the very purest of intentions in advancing his radical solution to such a seemingly intractable social ill:

These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their 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.

The fact that such an appeal to the emotions comes in the very first paragraph is instructive. The author is trying to play on his readers' heart-strings, to soften them up in order to make them more amenable to the somewhat distasteful proposal he's about to put forward. If he gives this proposal a clear moral objective from the outset, that will make it more difficult for opponents to attack his ideas as the product of cold-hearted, dispassionate logic.

vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jonathan Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal” is widely regarded as one of the most effective pieces of satire ever written. Among the elements that help make the essay effective are its appeals to logic and emotion as well as its use of parallelism.  Examples of these three methods include the following:

Appeal to Emotion

  • The very opening sentence of the essay is a superb example of Swift’s appeals to emotion:

It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms.

This sentence immediately makes us lament the fates of these poor mothers and children and immediately makes us assume that the speaker will try to offer some compassionate and sympathetic solution to the problem he describes. Instead, of course, he ironically suggests that the children should be sold and eaten!

  • Another example of Swift’s appeal to emotion appears when the speaker mentions

those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes . . .

Such phrasing makes us sympathize with the babies and perhaps even with the mothers, although the speaker’s ironic solution is to treat the babies as potential meals.


Appeal to Logic

  • Swift’s speaker makes himself seem very logical when, for instance, he very carefully calculates, mathematically, the number of children who will be available for his scheme. His use of logic seems flawless, but it is logic (as Swift knows) in support of a horrendous project.  The paragraph beginning “The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half” is a perfect example of this kind of impeccable but disgusting logic.
  • In general, whenever the speaker mentions numbers and statistics, he is displaying a kind of perverse logic.


  • Early in the essay, the speaker refers to a

prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers ... [emphasis added]

Here the parallel phrasing helps emphasize the omnipresence of this children, who can be seen almost everywhere. The phrasing also emphasizes that these children are both literal and figurative burdens to their parents. It is partly for this reason that the speaker proposes a

fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth . . . [emphasis added]

Here the parallel uses of these very simple words helps emphasize how simple is the (shocking) solution the speaker proposes.