18th Century Satire: a Modest Proposal

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During the 18th century and the Restoration, a new form of literature became very popular, satire. Satire, according to www.dictionary.com, is the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice or folly. Commonly, satire is used to give one’s opinions or commentary about public issues. As a writer it is important to be well educated on current events, politics and the interests of the general public. Writers, such a Jonathan Swift, have commonly used satire to discuss important issues about the follies of governments, persons and social issues. It has been said that “although it (satire) is usually subtle in nature, it is used to bring light to contemporary societal problems and provoke change within a culture” (Friedman). One of the world’s best known pieces of satire is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. This piece of work aimed to expose the flaws regarding poverty in Ireland and the overwhelming and suffocating influence of the British government and Irish land owners. Swift uses satire to explain his “modest proposal”; in other words, he aims to prevent the people of Ireland from viewing children as a burden. In his use of satire, Swift places the blame of the abundant poor Irish population upon the English and the landowners. He also exposes the misuse of Ireland and forced trade, as well as satirizes those who made suggestions to resolve the problem without regard for the human cost involved. Satire is used "not just to remind us of our common often ridiculous humanity, but rather to expose those moral excesses, those corrigible sorts of behaviour which transgress what the writer sees as the limits of acceptable moral behaviour" (Johnston). Uses of satire, such as Swift’s A Modest Proposal, are developed to not degrade an individual directly, but bring light to a sensitive issue that hopefully will inspire change in society. By using satire, writers are also able to appeal to a particular readership or viewership. Those who are educated enough to understand what is trying to be said, hopefully, have enough of a role in society to spread the knowledge. John Dryden says it best, “a witty man is tickled while he is hurt in this manner, and a fool feels it not” (2131). In A Modest Proposal Swift exposes numerous public authorities for their failure to help the poor people of Ireland. He suggests that the use of the children will turn and benefit the country as a response to their greed: “instead of being a charge upon their parents or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives, they shall on the contrary contribute to the feeding, and partly to the clothing, of many thousands” (2463). A child is the responsibility of the parent; it is the parent that conceives a child. In addressing this issue, he also hopes this it will end voluntary abortions and the murdering of bastard children. In most society’s, including our own, these are very touchy issues that evoke strong opinions and emotions. For a person to publicly announce that such actions are wrong could surely end a career, potentially a life in exile. Through satire, such issues can be discreetly spoken upon. Swift’s subtle insinuation of the fault of the wealthy Irish landlords financially crippling families could not be bluntly stated. Swift himself was an Irishman. He reserves respect for the landlords but that does not stop him from pointing out their greed: “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children” (2464). Satire, in this situation prevents added tension being focused on Swift. Also, it clearly states the absurd nature or the landlords “devouring” their tenants as they would children, and cattle; stating that the amount of money being demanded by the landlords is higher than reasonable and makes it impossible for the tenants to have a livelihood. Swift is...
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