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A Modest Proposal

By khadija24930 Feb 03, 2015 1406 Words
A Modest Proposal

“If we ever become civilized, it will probably be satire… that will have caused it”- Edgar Johnson. Whether we agree or disagree with this quote is highly debatable and depends on our individual opinion of satire in general. Do we believe that satire is an enjoyable compensation for being forced to think or is it a meaningless medium for criticizing people’s vices in the context of politics and other topical issues? Satire is a very important device that is used to expose these faults in certain situations for different purposes. Many mistake it for only being used as a mean to make mockery and turn a serious situation into a humorous one. It is actually applied to get us thinking and to help us understand the point from which the satirist is coming from. One satirist who, gruesomely but effectively, managed to push his point across to us by his shrewd application of satire in his work, is Jonathan Swift. In his widely studied “A Modest Proposal” he used many satirical devices such as irony, juxtaposition and understatement to help his essay’s purpose and theme sound deeper and better thought-out. This technique helps him achieving his goal of swaying us to his side and accepting his opinion. His use of irony is splattered all over the essay and many examples can be found. This helps us have a better understanding of the situation because his irony highlights the underlying events he wants us to take note of. "There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us! sacrificing the poor innocent babes . . . ." This is very ironic because how is killing them to eat at the age of one not "sacrificing the poor innocent babes"? This makes the readers start questioning Swift and his theory but also makes us think that if this is the hypothetical “perfect” solution, then how bad are the actual possible ones that are out there? Then there's the overall irony of the whole piece: Swift actually says what he means, but says it as if he's matter-of-factly defending an unthinkable idea. He points out that the country has no agriculture or industry, that children as young as six are taught to steal, that a member of the ruling class spends more on one meal than it costs to feed and clothe an Irish child for a year or even years, that Irish women are driven to abortion or infanticide because they cannot afford to support their children. The reader needs to look beyond the "proposal" Swift appears to be making to the hard facts he presents. Jonathan Swift could never be accused of writing too simply. "A Modest Proposal" brims over with complex sentences and subordinated clauses, combining and juxtaposing Swift's stated opinions with those of his acquaintances. Swift begins his treatise (essay) by describing, in general terms, the overpopulation and resultant poverty of Ireland and his plan for a solution: “As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years, upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation. It is true, a child just dropt from its dam, may be supported by her milk, for a solar year, with little other nourishment: at most not above the value of two shillings, which the mother may certainly get, or the value in scraps, by her lawful occupation of begging; and it is exactly at one year old that I propose to provide for them in such a manner, as, 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 cloathing of many thousands. [ . . . ] I do therefore humbly offer it to publick consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter. ” Swift then juxtaposes his own proposal with his acquaintance's idea of replacing teenagers' flesh in place of venison within the national diet, admitting that he finds this idea cruel: “A very worthy person, a true lover of his country, and whose virtues I highly esteem, was lately pleased, in discoursing on this matter, to offer a refinement upon my scheme. He said, that many gentlemen of this kingdom, having of late destroyed their deer, he conceived that the want of venison might be well supply'd by the bodies of young lads and maidens, not exceeding fourteen years of age, nor under twelve; so great a number of both sexes in every country being now ready to starve for want of work and service: And these to be disposed of by their parents if alive, or otherwise by their nearest relations. But with due deference to so excellent a friend, and so deserving a patriot, I cannot be altogether in his sentiments; for as to the males, my American acquaintance assured me from frequent experience, that their flesh was generally tough and lean, like that of our school-boys, by continual exercise, and their taste disagreeable, and to fatten them would not answer the charge. Then as to the females, it would, I think, with humble submission, be a loss to the publick, because they soon would become breeders themselves: And besides, it is not improbable that some scrupulous people might be apt to censure such a practice, (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon cruelty, which, I confess, hath always been with me the strongest objection against any project, how well so ever intended.” This juxtaposition has the potential of either confusing the reader as to what Swift is attempting to say or helping the reader see that Swift does not actually mean this but is merely trying to state a fact in an indirect and slightly confusing manner. Swift also makes use of bland understatement to advance his "proposal": the organized cannibalism of poor children. The opening sentence to his introduction, "It is a melancholy object . . . .” is an ironic understatement because the scene he proceeds to describe is more tragic than merely "melancholy." Whether this is sarcasm or not is up to us as readers to decide but it is definitely an understatement. This device could have been used by him to either express how this serious topic is taken lightly or to emphasize on how bad the situation actually is. The same also goes for the title “ A Modest Proposal”, since we can all see that this is the farthest thing away from being modest and in fact being completely preposterous and absurd. The use of satire has been proved to be extremely useful in the example above. This unique technique of expressing one’s opinion indirectly is both thrilling and exciting because of the amount of thought required on both the satirist’s and the reader’s behalf to be put into either creating or understanding a specific satire. Understanding or trying to understand a satire can change our opinions or even beliefs and values on certain controversial topics. Satire most importantly teaches us to look at different perspectives and learn to criticize others in this certain way that is not necessarily mocking and rather has a purpose of learning from other’s mistakes and this is why “If we ever become civilized, it will probably be satire… that will have accomplished it.”

By Khadija Barakat

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