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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Does Swift's irony in "A Modest Proposal" risk being taken seriously?

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This certainly is the big danger of such devastating works of satire. Unfortunately, this pamphlet was taken at face value by many during the time of its publication and Swift was indeed accused of barbarism and savagery beyond the imaginings of most people. For me, teaching this essay each year to my AP English Literature students, I normally get one student who doesn't "get" the satire and returns next class with a horrified expression on their face.

However, I believe that we can argue that Swift's irony is effective because his proposal is so exaggerated that it cannot be taken seriously. We need to remember that the success of this essay lies in the fact that Swift makes himself (overtly at least) appear like a monster to highlight the monstrous attitudes and behaviour of others, who have done nothing to help the situation that had taken the lives of so many. Thus, although there will always be the risk of those who read superficially assuming the worst, to have changed this aspect of the satire would have diluted its impact to such a great extent as to rob it of its effectiveness.

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Does the real message of "A Modest Proposal" come across clearly or could Swift's use of irony confuse readers into mistaking the satire for a sincere proposal? 

It is hard to know how every individual will respond to "A Modest Proposal," but it seems very unlikely that many people in Swift's day would have taken it seriously. Remember that Swift's essay was aimed at an educated readership, people who would have been well-versed in both the essay format of argumentation and in the use of satire which Swift carried to new extremes with "A Modest Proposal." In fact, some literary critics have argued that, because its proposal was so patently absurd, Swift's essay was actually less sophisticated a satire than some other works, like those of Alexander Pope. But it is worth noting that it was a powerful satire on a number of levels, criticizing the overly scientific "political economy" solutions to social problems offered by many educated men as well as the effects of British colonialism on the Irish poor. What aspects of the essay resonated with people largely depended on the reader. As a side note, from personal observation, I have used this text with many different students, ranging from high school freshmen to college students, and I do not recall that any failed to "catch on" to the joke at some point. 

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