Swift's Rhetoric

by Jim Farrar (1987)

Having far outlived its specific historical references, Jonathan Swift's short essay A Modest Proposal is probably one of the more frequently studied pieces in English literature. Funny in its cruelty, Swift's essay is a model of composition, a paradigm of satirical rhetoric, which no doubt accounts for its continued popularity (especially) in the classroom.

However, for satire to be effective, much less understood, it is first necessary to identify the target or object of ridicule, as well as the audience for whom the piece is written. For the first-time reader of A Modest Proposal, this may not be readily apparent.

Being himself a displaced Englishman living in Ireland, it can be argued that in this tract Swift assumes the persona of an English social planner and is, in fact, writing from the perspective of his intended satiric victim, intentionally distorting British indifference in matters concerning the Irish economy and suggesting an inhumane attitude towards the Irish poor.

Such a conclusion, however, is difficult for several reasons. The voice we hear in this essay certainly is that of its intended target, but, as one critic has observed, the proposal is offered not by an Englishman with the "indifference of a superior foreigner but by an Irishman anxious to please England, the kind of eager collaborator who can outdo the oppressors" (Price 73).

Throughout the text, Swift continually refers to himself as an Irishman. In the last paragraph of the essay, for example, the proposer tells us that his intentions are purely philanthropic, that he has "no other Motive than the publick Good of my Country" (451). Moreover, we are allowed to see, at best, only the consequences of English evil, and it is Irish policy, or rather the lack thereof, in the face of these consequences which occupies the author (Rosenheim 48). The reader sees this in the latter part of the essay, when, seemingly, Swift's own personality peeks through and wags an angry finger at his Irish readers, telling them not to suggest to him ineffectual "expedients," which he then lists and, as we soon realize, are actually serious recommendations.

Of A Modest Proposal, one modern critic has written that the shape of the essay is its most powerful feature. Swift impersonates a reformer like himself offering a plan to save his people. The tone is calm and rational, and the speaker sounds like a wise but cool man who nevertheless feels disturbed by the wretchedness of Ireland. The fascination of the essay depends on the imaginative detail through which Swift supports the characterization--the ingenious provision of curious facts and reasons that keep the reader humorously engaged even while he is detaching himself from the unspeakable evil of the plan (Ehrenpreis 629).

Indeed, it should be emphasized that the power of the essay lies in Swift's straight-faced and reasonable presentation of an utterly unreasonable solution to eighteenth century Ireland's problems.

The essay can be roughly divided into four parts. In the first section, Swift merely describes the problem. He tells us he has observed the poor, that he has considered the matter and has formulated a solution to the problem, a solution that will benefit rich and poor alike.

Having thus defined the problem and establishing a need, he then describes his proposal and enumerates six principal advantages, which he uses to support his argument.

Swift's real proposal, however, comes at the end of the tract, in the form of a cynical denial of other suggestions which the author deems hopeless.

Rhetorically, Swift's argument makes perfect sense. He first tells us there is a problem in Ireland, and that there is an expedient and practical means at hand with which to alleviate it, and then he lists the advantages of such a course of action. In so doing, he presents us with an a priori case for cannibalism.

And what should twentieth century readers glean from Swift's cynicism? Well, perhaps it would be better to ask ourselves why this essay continues to be read, and why its humor can still be understood by contemporary audiences. Aside from being a fine example of satiric composition, A Modest Proposal is also a timeless commentary on human nature in general. Without drawing contemporary parallels with current events, let it suffice to say that Swift captures in this essay a certain truth that seems elemental to our existence as a species: poverty and neglect has followed the human race ever since the beginning of recorded history. Swift merely acknowledged, over two hundred and fifty years ago, the mentality that allows it to exist. It is from this world, between humor and despair and self-righteous anger, that satire emerges.

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