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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Discussion Topic

Swift's use of irony and rhetorical strategies in "A Modest Proposal."

Summary:

In "A Modest Proposal," Swift employs irony by suggesting the absurd idea of eating children to highlight the severity of poverty in Ireland. His rhetorical strategies include satirical exaggeration, logical arguments, and moral appeals to provoke readers into recognizing the inhumane treatment of the poor and to advocate for social reform.

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What verbal irony does Swift use in lines 135–145 of "A Modest Proposal"?

Verbal irony is a language technique more commonly referred to as sarcasm. In effect, when a writer uses verbal irony, it means that he or she is saying the opposite of what he or she means. This generally contributes to a sardonic tone and has a comedic effect, as is the case in Swift's famous parody. In the section you have highlighted, Swift first refers to the "dying" and "rotting" of the poor as they succumb to disease, age and illness, and then describes this as a "hopeful . . . condition." Evidently, Swift does not really mean that the condition of these people—or the young laborers he then goes on to discuss—is hopeful. Instead, he is using a word that conveys the exact opposite of what is really meant. Likewise, verbal irony is achieved through the use of the word "accidentally" in reference to these people being hired for labor—his suggestion being that this happens so infrequently that it seems to have occurred by accident rather than by design. Finally, Swift describes the laborers' eventual death as representing both the laborers and the country being "happily delivered from the evils to come." This statement has a dual meaning—the laborers themselves will be dying, although Swift describes that process very euphemistically here; they will certainly not be happy. But will the country be happy to have rid itself of the burden of worrying about these people? The tone of the piece certainly implies that the richer classes will be glad not to have to think about the poor any longer.

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What verbal irony does Swift use in lines 135–145 of "A Modest Proposal"?

The verbal irony in this passage turns on the narrator's misinterpretation of what "persons of a desponding Spirit" mean when they express "concern" about the large numbers of older, diseased and disabled poor people dying in Ireland. What his friends mean, of course, is that they are morally concerned and distressed over the situation and would like the narrator to come up with a plan to end the suffering of the poor by making their lives better. The narrator, however, interprets his friends' "great concern" as wanting to get rid of the poor because they are an economic drain on the system. He interprets their "despond" as the result of the fact that the poor are not dying fast enough.

To the narrator's mind, the people who approach him with this question are unnaturally depressed--ie "desponding Spirits"--because actually there is no problem! As the narrator points out, there's no need for a scheme to rid the country the burden of the poor because they are dying off so fast anyway. The narrator, who defines the "matter" wholly in economic terms, says "I am not in the least pain  upon that matter... [for] they are every Day dying, and rotting, by cold, and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected." The irony, of course, is that the fact that old, sick and disabled people are dying and rotting in cold, hunger and filth is exactly what should cause pain in the narrator's mind. Likewise, the narrator finds the younger workers in a similarly "hopeful condition:" so starved that if they do happen to get work, they can't do it and die anyway, thus "happily" solving the problem of how to get rid of them.

The verbal irony lies narrator's inability to see the poor in anything but economic terms, so that he misinterprets people's "concern" for them not as compassion for their plight, but as an economic desire for the poor to die faster. Thus, the narrator turns morality itself on its head, describing as "hopeful" and "happy" a morally disgraceful situation in which the poor are dying in cruel, horrible and preventable ways. In doing this, Swift hopes to shock people into treating the poor as human beings deserving of empathy and compassion. 

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What rhetorical strategy does Swift use in paragraph 17 of "A Modest Proposal"?

In this paragraph, the speaker mentions another proposal that he heard from a person he holds in high esteem as both a patriotic and virtuous individual. This man suggests that the shortage of venison in the country might be alleviated by selling the bodies of poor children between the ages of 12 and 14 as a substitute form of "venison." He argues that these children are often starving to death anyway, and this sale would both raise money and save the parents or relatives the problem of having to dispose of the children's corpses after they starve. However, the speaker rejects this idea, not out of compassion, but because he believes the meat of the boys will be too tough to be tasty, and he believes the girls are so close to puberty and childbearing that they would be better put to use birthing babies to be sold a gourmet delicacies.

After dispensing with the idea on the basis of its impracticality, the speaker then comments:

Besides, it is not improbable that some scrupulous people might be apt to censure such a practice, (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon cruelty, which, I confess, hath always been with me the strongest objection against any project, how well soever intended.

Swift's essay means to show what happens to a person's moral compass when he begins to look at a certain class of people, such as the "poor," as a problem rather than as fully human beings. Once a group becomes an economic problem to be solved, it is easy to dehumanize them. Swift uses the rhetorical strategy of introducing ever more absurd levels of hyperbole or exaggeration to illustrate this. It is exaggeratedly inhumane to think of using pre-adolescent children for food, and absurd, having proposed cannibalism, to protest that "cruelty" is his "strongest objection" to any project. Swift uses hyperbole so the reader will easily grasp the gap between what the speaker proposes and any normal concept of kindness or compassion. In a bigger picture sense, Swift wants the reader to abandon the idea of having to economically justify aid to the poor rather than simply giving them the help they need.

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What rhetorical strategy does Swift use in paragraph 17 of "A Modest Proposal"?

In this paragraph, Swift outlines a satirically logical argument. Obtaining this idea from a friend, Swift notes that it is possible to replace the overtaxed venison demand with the bodies of children ages 12-14. After all, these children are starving anyway, so this would put their bodies to good purpose. However, he notes that this isn't the most practical age to obtain children for food purposes; the male bodies, he has been told by an American, are simply too lean due to exercise, and fattening them up doesn't change the lean muscle mass. And females of this age, he reasons, don't make an excellent choice for consumption, either; they will soon be of age to become (food) breeders themselves, so it is wasteful to eat them just a few years before they can become of consistent service to the upper classes.

The primary rhetorical strategy Swift uses in this paragraph (and elsewhere in his satirical essay) is logos. He approaches the subject from a place of (false) logic, showing how it just makes practical sense for the upper classes to physically consume the poor since they have been metaphorically consuming them for years. Swift's detached and systematic approach to the advantages of eating the children of the poor shocked readers of his time—which was exactly his intent. Trying to reason with the upper classes on the need for reform in other ways hadn't garnered the attention Swift desired, so he used a logic-filled essay to bring needed attention to the plight of Ireland's poor.

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What rhetorical strategy does Swift use in paragraph 17 of "A Modest Proposal"?

The speaker begins the paragraph by assuring us of the "virtues" of his friend who has offered a "refinement upon [his] scheme." He believes that he can enhance the credibility of his friend by assuring readers that he is "a true lover of his country" and of his expertise on the subjects of meat and children. This virtuous and knowledgeable friend suggests that a lack of venison can be remedied by consuming children between the ages of twelve and fourteen, children who would otherwise starve from lack of work. This friend, apparently, has "frequent experience" consuming this kind of child, and, from speaking with the narrator, the narrator believes that meat from boys is too tough and lean, and it would be inadvisable to eat girls because they will soon become "breeders" who can produce more babies. The narrator also declares that this practice, of eating older children, strikes him as cruel, and this "hath always been with [him] the strongest objection against any project," he claims.

In this way, the narrator hopes to increase his own credibility and enhance our view of the justness of his proposal: this wonderful, intelligent man has proposed something that even the narrator finds somewhat cruel. This argument seems designed by him to elevate him in our estimation by relying on ethos. We see where he draws the line, and he attempts to convince us of the justice of this line, as it makes him appear to be more reasonable. The more reasonable and just and ethical he appears, the more apt we are to agree with his original proposal.

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What rhetorical strategy does Swift use in paragraph 17 of "A Modest Proposal"?

The narrator of this essay develops his plan to single-handedly solve the Irish famine problem through advancing a solution to the shortage of venison. He mentions how an American acquaintance he had assured him that this lack of venison could be solved if teenage children were to be eaten:

He said, that many gentlemen of this kingdom, having of late destroyed their deer, he conceived that the want of venison might be well supply'd by the bodies of young lads and maidens, not exceeding fourteen years of age, nor under twelve; so great a number of both sexes in every country being now ready to starve for want of work and service...

Note the justification he provides for this suggestion: there are so many young boys and girls of this age who are willing to "starve for want of work and service" that this would be a good solution to the lack of venison, as it would take these spare bodies and convert them into a form that would mean they no longer needed to starve and needed to be provided for, because they would be eaten. Rhetorically, Swift uses a monstrous argument conveyed in a serious and sincere tone to point out the monstrous attitude of the British towards the Irish famine. It is this that makes this essay such an effective persuasive document, as it condemns the British through their own indifference to the situation. Swift risks being labelled monstrous in order to point out the monstrosity of his audience.

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