Verbal irony is a literary device used to draw attention to what a character thinks or feels by having them express the opposite. Verbal irony often takes the form of sarcasm, but it can also be delivered with the guise of sincerity, as it is in Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.
Swift takes a serious approach to a serious subject, the exploitation of the Irish Catholic working class by the Protestant English gentry. He structures his proposal formally, opening with a grim picture of female beggars and their helpless infants, providing rudimentary calculations of the cost to sustain them, and arguing that contributions to their livelihood should be limited to one solar year. To an English landlord burdened by the pitiful creatures, Swift appears to be an ally. Beyond his scheme to limit the financial obligation of the upstanding British landlords to the hapless Irish breeders, he adds a moral component: fewer abortions would be necessary under his plan. The savagery and shame of “sacrificing the poor innocent babes” would no longer be on the national conscience.
Having summarized the grievances of the upper class, he proposes his own thoughts, which he hopes “will not be liable to the least objection.”
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.
The proposal is to provide for the nourishment of infants until they are one year old, at which point they will be sold to “persons of quality and fortune” and eaten. The poor Irish will have a new source of revenue, and the British will have a new delicacy.
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
Swift’s actual target is not the ill-treated Irish, of course, but the British landlords who extort so much in exchange for their services that farmers and tenants cannot afford to feed themselves. Swift holds the attention of the upper class long enough to engage them in his scheme to do away with the wretched poor altogether. One can imagine that having come this far, the reader who finally encounters the objectionable thesis—eating babies—will read on in either anger (at being tricked) or horror (at the maniacal proposal).
Infant's flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolifick dyet, there are more children born in Roman Catholick countries about nine months after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because the number of Popish infants, is at least three to one in this kingdom, and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us.
The antipathy between the Irish and British is not limited to class distinctions. There are also religious tensions. Swift suggests in the above quote that over time, the number of Catholics will be better controlled.
I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar's child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, labourers, and four-fifths of the farmers) to be about two shillings per annum, rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat, when he hath only some particular friend, or his own family to dine with him. Thus the squire will learn to be a good landlord, and grow popular among his tenants, the mother will have eight shillings neat profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child.
Rather than writing an essay that simply tells landlords to treat their tenants better, which would probably get very little attention, Swift tells landlords how they could benefit from being better natured. With a bit of good humor, they stand to get more than “excellent nutritive meat.” With the extra money from selling their child, laborers will also be more fit for work between pregnancies.
Under no circumstances did Swift, a Protestant himself, believe that Irish children should be sold and eaten. He did not think women would happily hand over their babies, or that the best way to prevent the “savagery” of abortion was to kill the child after it was born. His use of verbal irony and hyperbole instead emphasized the heartlessness of reality. Families were starving. Poor people were being dehumanized. A Modest Proposal highlighted the need for genuine proposals to solve terrible problems.