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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What does the narrator in "A Modest Proposal" do to appear authoritative?

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Swift starts out his essay by having his persona quite deliberately give the impression that he is compassionate, and that his purpose is actually to alleviate the suffering of the poor in Ireland. He then begins to quote statistics as to the total population, the number of women who are "breeders," the number of couples who can maintain their own children, and so on. The specific data present a veneer of technical authority. There is as well the citation of "a principal gentleman in the county of Cavan," who apparently is an authority on the general inability of children "under the age of six" to practice the art of stealing to support the rest of the family. A reader not already familiar with Swift's piece will have difficulty seeing that all of this is ironically presented as the plan of a supposedly charitable person, when it is actually a prelude to the even more brutally ironic and grisly scheme cooked up (pun intended) by this would-be reformer.

What clinches the "authority" of Swift's persona is the testimony of "a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London" who has told him what delicious food a one-year-old human child is, "whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled." Swift comically invokes the apparently savage nature of Americans as his central evidence of the cannibalistic scheme's practicality. The essence of this type of satire is to draw the reader in gradually, to sound so "reasonable" and authoritative that the reader wishes spontaneously to give his or her assent to whatever idea is going to be presented, and then to spring a kind of trap and reveal the savage irony of the idea. And in this trap, of course, is the implicit criticism that the English, so many of whom have no real empathy for the Irish, are just as cruel in their "civilized" way as Swift's planner is in his barbaric fashion.

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Swift's narrator portrays himself not necessarily as an expert (indeed, this is why he calls it a "modest proposal,") but as a rational, concerned reformer who has consulted a variety of experts in seeking a solution to the social problems he describes early in the essay. For instance, he is informed by a "knowing American of my acquaintance in London" that a "young healthy child" is a "delicious and wholesome food." He considers one person's "refinement" to his scheme (eating teenage boys as a replacement for venison) but rejects it on the grounds that the young men's flesh is said to be too tough.

This said, he claims that he is "wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success." He has sought for years, he implies, to find a rational solution to the problem of poverty among the lower classes in Ireland, and has thus arrived at his  "proposal" after much consideration. While he does not claim to be an expert, however, he does try to show, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek, that the solution makes mathematical (i.e. rational) sense. He calculates the amount of money that would be saved by individuals as well as added to the coffers of Great Britain, and suggests that it would spark a thriving trade. So he is describing himself as a rational reformer with a common-sense solution to a serious social problem.

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