tablesetting complete with forks, knives, and spoons, and a baby on the plate in the center above the words "A Modest Proposal"

A Modest Proposal

by Jonathan Swift

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Irony in "A Modest Proposal."

Summary:

Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is rich in irony. Swift suggests that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food to the wealthy. This proposal is ironic because it is a satirical critique of British policy towards the Irish, highlighting the inhumanity and absurdity of the exploitation and neglect faced by the Irish people.

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When does the irony/satire become apparent in "A Modest Proposal"?

When Jonathan Swift makes the nature of his proposal clear, a reader would immediately understand that the essay was meant to be satire.

At first, it seems like Swift is really intending to make a serious proposal. He explains the problem—there are many women who have children and no way to feed them—and how it is affecting people. He talks about the state of things in Ireland, which was having a devastating food shortage. For all of this discussion, a reader could easily think he's going to make a real suggestion for a solution. The tone is relatively straightforward.

Then, Swift suggests eating infants in paragraph eight.

No one in their right mind could think that Swift actually believes that eating infants is the solution to the famine in Ireland. So it's clear by this point that the essay is meant to be satire. If someone misses it, Swift's lengthy justification for the idea only gives them more time to be aware of the ironic tone of the essay.

A reader would definitely understand that Swift is satirizing people who are good at understanding things via facts but don't understand actual human logic and emotions. Someone reading it when it was published would probably recognize political and social connections to events taking place. This would help a reader to even more clearly see that his ludicrous suggestion is satire and not meant to be seriously considered.

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When does the irony/satire become apparent in "A Modest Proposal"?

In his essay “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift suggests a way to alleviate poverty and human suffering in Ireland. He begins by writing the first three paragraphs in a formal tone and straightforward manner with specific and somber details (large broods of children, beggars, helpless infants, etc.). Images of offspring climbing all over the unemployed bodies of their mothers and fathers evokes the reader’s sympathy in Swift’s call to arms to help the poor.

By the end of the fourth paragraph, however, the reader wonders what solution Swift has planned: he gives the puzzling suggestion that infants be cared for until the age of one year, when they will “contribute to the feeding, and partly to the clothing of many thousands.” How would this work? In the fifth paragraph, Swift uses the word “scheme” to hint to the reader that his plan might not really be serious, realistic, or ethical. Paragraphs six and seven contain satirical economic calculations of the population (how many kids are born to poor parents, how many will live, etc.) and a cost-benefit analysis of raising a child. Swift points out that they can’t work or even steal until they are six years old; he heard from merchants that kids younger than age twelve don't even command prices that recoup the amount expended feeding and clothing them up to that point.

Having argued the need for a plan, in the eighth paragraph, Swift preps the reader for his proposal with an ironic tone: “I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.” Obviously, what follows is neither humble nor unobjectionable.

Paragraph nine is exactly where the reader can be certain that Swift is being ironic: he proposes using the children as food! This proposal alleviates poverty in two ways; it eliminates food shortage and cuts down the overwhelming number of hungry mouths to feed. He claims that children are tasty and nutritious, “whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasee, or a ragoust.”

Swift continues to detail his absurd, gruesome, and immoral plan by strategizing that of one hundred and twenty thousand children, twenty thousand be saved and set aside for breeding. The other one hundred and twenty thousand children should be sold as food. He suggests fattening up the children like cattle before killing them.

The rest of his essay argues for the benefits of his proposal… only now, the reader knows that Swift is being ironic.

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When does the irony/satire become apparent in "A Modest Proposal"?

It is at paragraph eight that the reader would begin to realize that this essay is satirical. Up until this point, the narrator sounds like a completely reasonable and humane person, concerned with finding a solution to the pressing problem of poverty in Ireland. He opens by describing the poor in moving terms, calling it "melancholy" to see women in rags begging, followed by their children, and explaining the difficult problem people find themselves in when they can't find work and don't want to become thieves or sell themselves into slavery. A normal reader would agree that this is a sad situation, and agree that it would be a good idea to find " a fair, cheap and easy method" of making hungry young children "useful members" of society. This narrator continues to sound compassionate as he talks about wanting to take care of more than just the children of beggars and when he mentions that he has spent many years thinking about the problem of poverty.

The "turn" in the essay comes as the narrator as the narrator "humbly" offers his own thoughts, which he says cannot be in the least objectionable.

Then, in the very next paragraph, having softened us up with his seeming compassion towards the poor, he hits us with the surprise whammy: his "modest" idea is to note that a well-nourished child at a year old is a "most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled." He want to sell babies as food. At this point, a reader, recoiling with shock, would be saying "this can't be serious." Of course, it's not, and from now on the irony becomes heavier and heavier as the narrator goes into greater detail to outline all the benefits of his plan.

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What is the dramatic irony in "A Modest Proposal"?

Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is filled to the brim with verbal irony, not dramatic irony. Verbal irony is when you say the opposite of what you really mean, and Swift uses it to point out that the English should treat the Irish better.

For example, he uses verbal irony to argue that the fact that so many poor Irish people are starving and sick is a good thing because, as they succumb to famine and illness, the problem will essentially take care of itself:

Some persons of a desponding spirit are in great concern about that vast number of poor people, who are aged, diseased, or maimed, and I have been desired to employ my thoughts what course may be taken to ease the nation of so grievous an encumbrance. But I am not in the least pain upon that matter, because it is very well known that they are every day dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected.

In other words, once the impoverished Irish all die off, there won't be an Irish problem anymore. It's an idea that's ridiculous and cruel, and that's exactly the point. Swift's use of verbal irony shines a harsh light on the injustices and injuries inflicted upon the Irish by the English and makes the case that conditions need to change.

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What is the dramatic irony in "A Modest Proposal"?

Let's first define irony and see if there is dramatic irony in this particular writing. 

Irony is what is known as a "figure of speech," which means that words are said, but you cannot take their meaning at face value. This means also that the intended meaning of the word is not the same as its actual meaning; rather, it potentially means the opposite.

Irony occurs in everyday life. In any given situation, irony occurs when the result is completely different from what people thought it was going to be.

In literature, we have a few types of irony:

Verbal is the type of irony explained previously, where words mean something totally different than what their original meaning entails.

If this is the type of irony you are looking for, then Jonathan Swift is your answer. "A Modest Proposal" is neither modest nor should it exist as a proposal. At the same time, it is not intended to be one; it is a macabre, long satire written by Swift in a way that we can equate with the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert ,and all the other sarcastic comedians who say things when they really mean the opposite. In fact, the entire piece is ironic in nature.

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.

Imagine if he were serious about this!

Situational irony is what we also described previously, where something happens that nobody expected to happen because they thought that the exact opposite would result. For example, suppose that a villain is plotting the end of a superhero, only to have the entire plan fall upon him, making him his own victim. This is irony in a situation. 

Now, let's return to your question on dramatic irony. In dramatic irony, something will happen to a character that you, as the audience, are aware of, but the character is not. Think about a play where you already know that the ending will be tragic, but the characters are oblivious to it. 

Like the title says, "A Modest Proposal" is an essay that supposedly attempts to provide a solution to the "Irish problem" and the issues of poverty taking place at the time. It is a satirical speech, which does not include a plot, nor characters. For this reason, there is no dramatic irony in this work, and there could not be unless Swift had told us a tale of someone to which something happens that everyone else expected, except that very person. This being said, the type of irony in "A Modest Proposal" is mainly verbal, and not dramatic. 

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What is the dramatic irony in "A Modest Proposal"?

Readers who don't catch the sarcasm in Swift's A Modest Proposal would think him a cruel and barbaric man, indeed. This type of sarcasm which is used to criticize others' ideas is actually called satire. Swift's target audience included the rich landowners in Ireland who seemed either ignorant to or insensitive to the poverty all around them. Instead of writing with a serious tone and carefully outlining all his main points, Swift uses satire as a different approach in hopes it would sensitize the wealthy to the plight of the poor.

Swift opens by seemingly aligning himself with the wealthy landowners. He notes the many offspring that the poor have and then mentions that they are always begging for money. He notes that all these children contribute to the "deplorable state of the kingdom" and that they should at least find a way to create some use for all these kids who are serving no other purpose.

If the reader pauses here, it is easy to imagine the wealthy nodding their collective heads, ready for a means of lessening the burden of all these poor beggars on their streets. What they likely didn't see at this point is that Swift has drawn them in with satire.

His solution is to have poverty-stricken wives serve as "breeders" and to collect these poor children as a food resource. After all, he notes,

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.

Swift continues with this "plan," noting that skins can be used to make gloves, and he notes that older boys couldn't easily be used because their amount of physical activity would create tough meat.

Shocking, right? And that is just what Swift is hoping for. He hopes the wealthy will see that the poor are suffering and that to ignore them is cruel. Maybe not as cruel as consuming their children, but he creatively uses satire (or sarcasm) to capture their attention and bring light to a relevant issue in his society. Swift wasn't afraid of using the shock value of satire to find solutions for the famine and starvation that he saw plaguing Ireland.

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What is the dramatic irony in "A Modest Proposal"?

Sarcasm is one device that is often employed by satirists in order to draw the attention of the flaws of those individuals who are being criticized. Sarcasm is often hurtful in its purpose, intended to wound its victim, and Swift employs sarcasm through his misguided narrator, who says, of the poor Irish babies as a food source,

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 does not mean that the rich English have literally devoured, or eaten up, their poverty-stricken Irish tenants, but Swift employs sarcasm here in order to suggest that the rich English might as well have done so. Their treatment of the poor Irish is no less brutal or cruel than it would be to go ahead and physically eat them up. If they are going to metaphorically devour them, then, he implies, why not go right ahead and literally do it?

Swift employs similar sarcasm when he has his narrator suggest that the skin from these babies "will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen." Hopefully, such a suggestion would be considered abhorrent by his readers, but Swift seems to want to say, again, that the rich English might as well do this because they've so willingly let these children suffer and perish as a result of their own greed. Is there a significant difference between allowing them to starve to death and wearing their skin as accessories? Swift insinuates that there is not.

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What is the dramatic irony in "A Modest Proposal"?

Sarcasm—or, as it is often called, verbal irony—is saying the opposite of what you think. When a person falls down while walking across the room, a sarcastic response is "Graceful!" or "Good job!"

In his essay, Swift creates a seemingly clueless narrator who expresses the opposite of what Swift believes. This narrator suggests that the problems of the poor in Ireland can be solved if the poor sell their one-year-old babies to the rich English landlords as food for their tables. The narrator suggests that babies, served hot on the edge of a knife, would be a sought-after gourmet delicacy.

While the narrator thinks his is a perfectly reasonable and "modest" idea, Swift found the tendency to treat the "poor" purely in economic terms appalling. He wanted to create a character and a proposal that would shock his audience fully. He hoped in this way to motivate people to come up with a humane solution to the problem of Irish poverty. He meant exactly the opposite of what he had his narrator propose.

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What is the dramatic irony in "A Modest Proposal"?

There is a great deal of sarcasm in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which Swift highlights the extreme poverty in Ireland and criticizes the responses of those who have the power to change the situation for the better.

Consider how Swift’s narrator suggests that one solution to the problem of poverty in Ireland is to eat the children of poor Irish people. He also suggests that the skin from infants will make “admirable gloves for ladies and summer boots for fine gentlemen.” This is an outrageous suggestion, and Swift is not seriously suggesting that this be done. However, by presenting the suggestion sarcastically, and doing so in very logical and reasonable sounding terms, he is showing how current ideas about combatting poverty, or not addressing it at all, are just as ridiculous. The cruelty inherent in his proposal mirrors the cruelty of English society’s indifference toward the suffering of those living in poverty.

Presenting these ideas in the form of a real scientific paper and calling this proposal “modest” is also sarcastic because, of course, this is not a fact-based suggestion or a modest one at all. But in presenting this idea in this way, Swift mocks the scientists of the Royal Society and the way that proper academic language is used to make ineffective, useless proposals.

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How does verbal irony in "A Modest Proposal" help convey the author's point?

Concerning Swift's "A Modest Proposal," Swift had previously tried conventional writing methods in attempts to convince the wealthy English, the wealthy Irish, and the English government that oppression of the Irish poor needed to be stopped.  Near the end of this ironic essay, Swift actually lists the solutions he had previously suggested:  they're in italics, to separate them from his ironical proposal and to let the reader know that these are, indeed, serious proposals.  He lists, for instance, the idea that landlords "have at least one degree of mercy toward their tenants."  The italics are Swift's. 

Since his previous efforts showed little results, he wrote "A Modest Proposal" in an attempt to shock his targets into doing something positive to help the Irish poor.  The verbal irony allows him to do this.  He couldn't seriously propose something like this, people would have just dismissed him as a lunatic, and, since he was on the Irish side of the situation, he couldn't honestly have done so, he wouldn't have wanted to.  So, since it would make no sense to do it seriously, he does it ironically. 

The essay is shocking, but once the reader "gets" the irony, it's also hilarious and entertaining. 

Another benefit of verbal irony is that the reader experiences a feeling of discovery and even superiority.  The reader discovers the true meaning behind the essay, and feels superior because he knows something the "targets" apparently do not.

In the end, however, the last bitter irony was at Swift's expense.  Though the essay is still read and admired today, it accomplished nothing to help the Irish poor.            

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How does verbal irony in "A Modest Proposal" help convey the author's point?

In general people use irony to emphasize a point.  When we use words in ways where we mean the opposite of the words' literal meanings, it for some reason heightens the effect that the words have.

This is why Swift uses verbal irony in this essay.  He is trying to really drive home to us how bad conditions are in Ireland and, more importantly, how poorly the government has done in trying to fix those conditions.  By using verbal irony, he makes his points more vividly than he would by simply using words whose literal meanings coincide with what he's trying to get across to the reader.

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