What literary devices are used in "A Modest Proposal"?

In “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift uses the literary devices of satire, imagery, hyperbole, wordplay, irony, and paralipsis.

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Jonathan Swift enlivens his essayA Modest Proposal” with some highly creative and interesting literary devices. First and foremost, he employs satire to present his extremely exaggerated and shocking proposal that the poor people of Ireland sell their children to the wealthy for food. As he sets forth...

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Jonathan Swift enlivens his essayA Modest Proposal” with some highly creative and interesting literary devices. First and foremost, he employs satire to present his extremely exaggerated and shocking proposal that the poor people of Ireland sell their children to the wealthy for food. As he sets forth this proposition in all its detail (and he includes plenty of details!), Swift also exposes the oppression faced by the Irish people who cannot provide for their families nor pay exorbitant rents, as well as the corruption of the wealthier ruling classes who demand high rents and refuse to participate in any real solutions to the problem of poverty. Swift extends his forceful satire throughout the entire work and in so doing reveals both the horror and the ridiculousness of the situation.

Swift also employs vivid imagery in his essay. In the very first paragraph, he graphically sets forth the circumstances of the poor as he depicts mothers and their children, dressed in rags, begging alongside streets and in doorways, trying to find enough to eat. Later in the piece, after presenting his proposal, he illustrates it with vivid language that becomes even rather graphic. A “young healthy child well nursed” at about a year old can make “a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.” Such a child would “equally service in a fricasee, or a ragoust,” he continues. Of course this language is shocking, and that's the whole point. Swift wants readers to be so shocked by his ideas that they examine the problem in earnest and commit to better solutions.

Additionally, Swift uses wordplay and hyperbole in “A Modest Proposal.” He acknowledges that “this food will be somewhat dear,” and in so doing, he plays off a double meaning in the word “dear,” which can mean both precious and expensive. Indeed, these children are precious, and that is Swift's whole point. They are too precious to be treated like a commodity, which is all that many wealthy people see them as. Swift continues that the landlords “have already devoured most of the parents,” so they might as well eat the children also. Swift uses hyperbole here, for he means that the landlords have so oppressed their tenants and driven them to the extremes of poverty that they may as well have eaten them.

Notice, too, Swift's use of irony in this essay. The very title is ironic. He says that his proposal is “modest,” but of course it is anything but modest. Also, ironically, the tavern keepers who now turn the poor away from their doors would be happy enough to profit off of their children. The same may be said of other shopkeepers and manufacturers.

Finally, Swift employs a technique called paralipsis in which he argues a point primarily by denying it. “Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients,” he proclaims, for his plan is the best. However, he then goes on to list those other expedients, the real solutions to the problem of Irish poverty.

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