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A Modest Proposal

by Jonathan Swift
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What is the tone of "A Modest Proposal"?

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Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal is a satirical essay which attacks contemporary attitudes in eighteenth-century England towards the poor and, specifically, towards the Irish. When the book was written, in the 1720s, Ireland (which had been under the control of the English for almost five hundred years) was suffering...

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Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal is a satirical essay which attacks contemporary attitudes in eighteenth-century England towards the poor and, specifically, towards the Irish. When the book was written, in the 1720s, Ireland (which had been under the control of the English for almost five hundred years) was suffering significant and increasing levels of abject poverty because of strict trade restrictions imposed by England.

The tone that Swift adopts is, for the most part, mock-serious and deadpan. For example, addressing the issue of poverty in Ireland, he says that he has "been assured... that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food." Ostensibly, the narrator here is suggesting that the poor eat their own children to ameliorate their hunger. The suggestion is of course preposterous and inhumane, and the implication is that the dismissive attitudes of the English towards the poor at this time were equally preposterous and equally inhumane.

At times, however, Swift's tone becomes more earnest and more scathing. For example, Swift writes that "it is very well known that [the poor] are every day dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth and vermin." The tone here is at once hyperbolic and matter-of-fact, scathing and exasperated. Writing about Ireland in a more general sense, Swift proposes that the Irish learn "to love [their] country" and cease their "animosities and factions." In instances like these, Swift seems to abandon, momentarily, the mock-serious, satirical tone that he adopts for much of the book, and instead adopts an earnest, heartfelt, pleading tone. This is, of course, understandable when we remember that Swift was himself Irish and would therefore have had a personal interest in and a pronounced sympathy for the suffering and poverty in Ireland.

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