Analysis on a Modest Proposal

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English Commentary – Digression

“ A modest proposal” by Jonathan Swift is a rhetoric piece that satirizes the dismal political, social and economic conditions in 18th century Ireland. As a solution, the preposterous proposal suggests that the Irish eat their own babies; as it is logically viable, and economically profitable: a condition adhering to the rational mentality of the age of reason. Swift develops his argument on two levels: A seemingly intellectual persona, caricaturized on a stereotypical upper class Englishman who promotes cannibalism through the use of subtle euphemisms. And the other, as himself, cleverly veiled in the caustic undertones of the pamphlet who is appalled at the plight of the Irish. Swift uses this dual personality to reveal the falseness of the persona’s credibility, and eventually the proposal suggested by him.

At the time, pamphlets were a popular way to broadcast and persuade people of political notions and ideas, however limited only to the intellectuals in society. Swift uses the conventional classical form of rhetoric (based on Juvenal and Horace’s works), dividing his essay periodically into the exordium, narration, digression, proof, refutation and peroration. In this essay, the digression will be focused on exclusively (inclusive of paragraphs 17-19)

Swift’s intent behind using the classic rhetoric form is threefold. It complements the persona’s characterization as a pedigreed, “conventional” intellectual; quite unlike the creative visionary he sees himself to be. Instead through this rigid structure, he represents the same prejudiced mindset of all the educated generations, who have provided no solution to the overwhelming problems in Ireland. Hence, Swift is lampooning the intellectuals in society who have published similar mindless pamphlets. It also reveals his own eloquent education; eventually being an appeal to other educated individuals in society, like him to arouse to action.

One of the key themes in this extract is the devastating socio-economic conditions of the impoverished Irish peasantry, a result of both Irish complacency and English oppression. Swift goes on to explore the English attitude of ignorance to foreign cultures; and their labels as barbarians. (eg: Native Americans and Irish). He also highlights the crumbling relationship of the Irishmen with each other due to social disparities. Swift mocks this actual lack of national pride by the superficial, overriding patriotism of the persona for his country and countrymen. Finally, the ‘dehumanized’ aspect of the proposal is bought to light by Swift’s word choice for the persona and his economically driven attitude.

The purpose of the digression is to establish a familiarity between the audience and the speaker, which enhances the reliability of the speaker’s statements. Swift uses a conversational tone and anecdotes to achieve this.

His first anecdote talks about an American who has “frequent experience” in this topic. In those days, Native Americans were looked upon as savage barbarians who practiced cannibalism, and the Irish were rumored to be alike. Swift parodies this idea to show the audience how horrifying the proposal of even considering eating another human being is! It could also be figuratively representative of the perversity of the landlord-peasant relationship, where in the peasants were exploited and their wages were eaten up by the powerful landlords. This anecdote is also suggestive of the superior English attitude and is an example to subtly ridicule English arrogance and their imperialistic attempts to civilize places unknown to them.

Explicitly, the persona refers to these authorities to impress the audience with his expertise and connections in distant parts of the world (Formosa, America). He also does so to assure the reader of the success of his proposal, having already been implemented far and wide, even “refined” to make it perfect by his “American acquaintance”. It also...
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