A Modest Satire

Jonathan Swift’s writing technique in A Modest Proposal reveals an aggravated sadness about the problem at hand and satiric suggestion of how to resolve the problem. His “invention” is put forth stolidly, addressing the real issue, using understatement to make the proposal logical.

The bitter tone of A Modest Proposal connotes an maddened attitude toward “the persons of quality in the kingdom” who are the so-called-leaders of Ireland. He describes the state of Ireland as “roads and cabin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children all in rags” and “under the present situation of affairs it is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed, for we can neither employ them in handicraft or agriculture.” The intention of these descriptions are to show that there is extreme overpopulation and that there is little future for these surplus masses save for thievery. The numbers of additional people can in no way be feasibly employed and that the Irish economy and industry cannot handle them. Even if these children are kept alive from cold and disease there are burdens to both King and Country, “a boy or girl before twelve years old, is no saleable item” and “either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.” Swift emphasizes the strain the excess population has, emphasizing their need for aid. By casting the harsh reality of the situation with a horrid suggestion Swift condemns the ineptitude and hypocrisy of the upper class in aiding those who they tread upon. He develops this meaning to show the monstrosity of the wealthy so that he can paint them satirically showing their true forms, man eaters.

The author uses understatement to convey satire by reducing human beings to a commodity meant to be traded and consumed. An assurance from “an American” says that “a young and healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food” and “I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.” The understatement is alarmingly profound. Human children are reduced to cuts of meat, and called delicious, and person actually says that they have eaten one year old children with a casual connotation, giving no alarm to this act. Furthermore, “The remaining hundred thousand may at a year old be offered in sale to persons of quality, and fortune, through the kingdom” and “A child will make two dishes alone” serve to reinforce this casual approach to annual genocide. The suggestion of sweeping the murder and cannibalism of one hundred thousand humans annually under the rug is egregious understatement. Human beings are not cattle. Swift paints a satirical picture of serving children to the aristocracy to portray them as infanticidal killers.

Swift uses understatement so well that is is possible to conceive that someone could think that he is serious about his proposal and not just criticizing the apathy of the rich in not helping the poor. His tone shows that he is moved by issue and wants change, but cannot directly say it. He resorts to satire to show that the poor need help. His use of understatement is erudite and so surreptitious that his satire can be viewed literally as    A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.