Analysis on a Modest Proposal Essay

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.

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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 shows a transition in his character from “humble” to pompous, boastful and self assured. It is perhaps this transition, that makes the irony of his actual stupidity even more striking.

The trustworthiness of the persona is further questioned, as he justifies himself by Psalmanazar (another authority), who is known to be a fraud. The persona uses the form of a ceremonial speech to dress his proposal, disgracing the condition of the Irish, in light of his visionary idea. The features of a speech as such would include strategic procatalepsis’[1] (some scrupulous people might be apt to censure such a practice, although very unjustly indeed) adopted by the persona, to disillusion the reader into believing he has taken into consideration all possible objections; reflective of him being both well researched and reasonable.

To an extent the sophistry[2] achieved in this extract through double negatives, “It is not improbable” confuses the reader into agreement with the persona. This is further complemented by his tone of matter-of-fact seriousness, veiling the actual absurdity of the proposal. On a literal level, these persuasive tactics establish him as credible. However, Swift’s deriding undertones expose them as an obvious hoax to sway the audience. It is at this point the audience realizes that the proposal is a satire, as the persona confidently refers to then-current events of known unreliability to assure his credence.

Swift uses this irony to reveal the persona as a sham, and hence awaken the audience to the reality, that the proposal is not meant to be taken seriously. The proposal is further discredited by the persona’s character as a staunch mathematician, who considers humans as commodities and numbers; a replacement “having late destroyed their deer”. The utilitarianism theory, which states that any alternative that achieves the maximum utility without much pain is the best; explains the persona’s overwhelming economic pragmatism.

Simultaneously, it highlights his lack of emotional consideration towards the “diseased, maimed, desponding spirits” of society. Hence Swift shows how the proposal is not beneficial to all, unlike what the persona harps: revealing him as a fake. Swift manipulates word choice using words such as, “females” and “breeders”; likening women to livestock. Hence suggesting the infants be raised and bred, only to be slaughtered for food for the upper classes. This draws attention to the self-degradation of the nation as a whole.

The idea of fattening up a starving population in order to feed the rich casts a grim judgment on the nature of social relations in Ireland. The persona’s glorifies this cannibalism, by convincing the audience, it is practiced by nobility like “Chinese emperors” and the “mandarins”. Swifts mockery of the social disorder in Ireland is evident in his description of the “plump girl” who needs a sedan to take her everywhere, emphasizing the social disparities within the Irish themselves.

Swift creates this visual image of livestock to critique the domestic values in Irish Catholic families, who regarded marriage and family with so little sanctity, that they effectively make breeding animals of themselves. Swift could also be drawing an allusion to the English treatment of the Irishmen as animals, as they were perceived to be barbaric. “Carcass” is another word used repeatedly to illustrate ‘dehumanization’ by Swift prevalent throughout the proposal. The effect on the reader of this word is a visual image of death and decay.

This shocks the reader into the realization, that something must be done. In the last paragraph of the digression, the persona optimistically relates all the death-threatening reasons the Irish will help dissolve themselves, a favorable condition to his proposal. Hence showing the reader, the progress already made as a precursor to his plan. The persona’s optimism in contrast to the intensity of the problems, reveals deep seated sarcasm. Swift enumerates the problems of Ireland by listing them consecutively.

This mimics the speeding pace of the Irish people “dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can reasonably be expected”. The repeated use of “and” and the “f” sound, shows swift’s use of polysyndetons and fricatives to increase the pace at which the degradation will occur. It may also suggest a hint of Swift’s indignation towards the Irish, that even if there is an opportunity of work, (rarely provided by the English) they have no “strength to perform it” due to the country’s poor conditions, which they are still not working to change them.

Therefore, the digression brings the first revelation to the audience, that the proposal on the surface is merely a superficial mockery and holds up a mirror to the reality of Ireland, Swift aims to rectify through his work. ———————– [1] Rhetorical act of anticipating an objection and answering it. [2] The use of complicated language to confuse or disillusion the reader, into believing something untrue.


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