When Words Do Not Mean What They Say - an Analysis of Swift's "Modest Proposal"

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Jonathan Swift's, A Modest Proposal has become a classic example and much studied work of satire throughout the years. It is interesting not only in the absurdity of it's sly innuendo, but it also acts as a history lesson for the world to see the struggles of people of Ireland. What interests me most about this work is how Swift is able to show compassion through context in a work whose words would normally shock and anger any sane person. It is interesting to see how his careful use of language and imagery manages to both sicken and illuminate the reader. His shock value grabs the careful attention and scrutiny of the reader and, in doing so, accomplishes it's goal, to awaken and alarm those who ignore the tragedy of Ireland's plight.

From the onset Swift tries to establish, visually, an empathy between the reader and the impoverished Irish. "It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in stroling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants . . .." (Swift, p. __) In having the reader picture the brutal conditions, anguish and despair of Ireland's poor, mainly women and children, he takes the cold and abstract "beggar" term and warms and humanizes it. This image, common enough at that time for all readers to be aware of it, sets up the reader for shock and disdain at Swift's proposal. Swift, by warning that, "I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection." is telling the reader to be ready for something that is likely to cause objection. He says this in a genteel voice that seems cold as it delivers his understatement. "Least...
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