What is ironic about the sixth advantage in Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal?

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shake99 | Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is a satirical, ironic masterpiece, which is why we subject students to it year after year. Although many students complain about the essay (because of the older vocabulary and writing style), it is one of the best remembered and most referenced texts in both high school and college.

In A Modest Proposal, Swift is making that case that in order to solve the problems of hunger and overpopulation, infants should be sold by their families and used as food. As in any good argument, Swift gives support to his claim with logical (although often laughable) reasons.

Swift’s sixth supporting reason for using infants for food is ironic because it is unexpected and surprising. This is known as situational irony (the same kind of irony we see in so many movies and stories when the bad guy turns out to be the “last guy we ever suspected.”) Swift states in his sixth reason that his idea would “be a great inducement to marriage” because it would make childbirth a profitable event for the married couple. Instead of incurring many years of expensive child-rearing, the couple would sell the child and realize a financial benefit. He extends this argument to say that husbands would now be more kindly disposed to their wives and not “offer to beat or kick them for fear of a miscarriage.”

Part of the irony of the sixth reason and the whole piece in general is the logical, dispassionate manner in which Swift presents his argument. The unspeakable cruelty of the concept is the stuff of nightmares, but Swift writes like it is just a common sense solution to a persistent problem. The absence of emotion is surprising and unexpected (more situational irony).

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faren518's profile pic

faren518 | eNotes Newbie

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Swift says,

"Sixthly, This ("this" being the modest proposal to sell children as food) would be a great inducement to marriage, which all wise nations have either encouraged by rewards, or enforced by laws and penalties."

He goes on to describe how mothers will increase their love and "tenderness" towards their children. The logic is simple: now that the children have become a source of income rather than an expense, they are more valuable and precious in the eyes of their mothers.

Similarly, husbands will become more "fond of their wives", because it is in their best interest to care for the women who raise their children, thereby providing income for the family.

The irony is this: It seems that they would, by acting in an immoral way, somehow gain morality.

A mother's love, or a husband's love, is traditionally associated with a degree of selfless sacrifice. A mother will dote on her child unconditionally, regardless of the financial burden. But Swift has altered the definition of this love by making it dependent upon the literal value of a child's life (in terms of a food), or a wife's ability to have a baby. 

Here, Swift is making social commentary on the prevalence of domestic violence among the poor Irish population. The economic situation of the Irish is so pitiful that they would drastically change aspects of their familial lives in order to ease their suffering.

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