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Analysis of Jonathan Swift’s Message in a Modest Proposal

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Satire is the use of sarcasm, exaggeration, irony, humor, and ridicule to denounce and expose human vices, especially in modern issues and politics. Often Jonathan Swift must use satire because his ideas have fallen on deaf ears, so to raise awareness about his topic he must write something shocking. The audience might find Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” appalling as he writes in great detail why the Irish should practice cannibalism to boost the economy. He states that Irish families could sell their children starting at the age of one to rich landowners. This would help with overpopulation, famine, and would allow for poor families to have an extra income. Swift gives specific numerical data on the price, weight, amount of children that are consumed, and amount left for breeding. He goes into gruesome detail on recipes for the children and how “vintners will certainly be so prudent as to procure the best receipts for dressing the children to perfection”. Obviously, Swift does not believe that the practice of cannibalism will help Ireland become a better nation. The goal of Swift’s satirical writings in “A Modest Proposal” is to gain the attention of readers to expose the real problem in Ireland – the Irish’s inability to stand up to the British, whether it be nobles who are reluctant to fight because of their incompetence or the commoners who are too naive.

Swift believes that the commoners in Ireland are too naive to defy British power. The commoners live in awful conditions where they are taxed highly by the landlords with “their corn and cattle being already seized and money a thing unknown”. They do little to change their lifestyle as they are not focused on politics or changing their socioeconomic status. However, Swift does not believe that the commoners do so on purpose, but instead are living in such poor conditions that they must only focus on the wellbeing of their family. Kevin O’Rourke gathered first-hand accounts of travelers who visited Ireland. He believes that the “Travellers came, saw and were appalled at the squalor of the housing, the wretchedness of the clothing, and the general poverty they encountered”. With such horrible living conditions, it is easy to see why the poor could not spend much time on social and political reform. Swift understands and acknowledges that the commoners are in poverty which is why he does not blame them for the ineffectiveness to fight against British suppression. Instead, he blames the nobles who put the commoners in the position of poverty through taxes. High taxation causes Swift to plea for “landlords to have at least one degree of mercy toward their tenants”. It is the landowners who choose to continue the line of poverty in Ireland with their unfair lease agreements taking almost everything away from their tenants. Instead of uniting against the common evil, the British, the Irish push one another down weakening the nation.

Swift puts much of the blame for the continued British suppression over Ireland on the nobles who fear standing up to the British because of general incompetence and the fear of losing their power. Swift believes that the nobles are incompetent because of their reluctance to accept new ideas. The author has suggested new ideas but says they have “been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length of utterly despairing of successЭ. This adds to the frustration of the author because his ideas to improve the state of Ireland have not been acted on. Moreover, this is what caused Swift to write using satire as he understood that the nobles would not listen to his genuine ideas so to gain their attention he writes about something as horrific as cannibalism. Swift also believes that the nobles fear their position of power will be taken if they stand up to the British. The British at the time had the strongest military and had great control over the Irish meaning it would have been easy for them to overthrow any Irishman. The British treated the Irish poorly by taxing them greatly and taking away many of their resources leaving the commoners with almost nothing even before the landlord’s taxes. Instead of standing up to the British for the good of the nation the nobles did nothing. In fear that there would be a “danger in disobliging England”.

Swift’s call for action to the nobles is to improve the condition of his native country. His idea that the upper class has a duty to improve a country resonates today. It is important to remember that even though nobles have more to lose than commoners if they rebel against an oppressive power. The commoners lack the experience, education, and time needed to start a rebellion. The noblemen must use their power to fight for a better nation as a whole. It is the job of the educated to help those less fortunate than themselves to improve everyone’s living conditions. Often the educated use their knowledge for nothing but entitlement such as the nobles that Swift describes. Their education is useless unless they use it for the good of the people. Although Swift has been dead for centuries his call for action to the powerful to help lower classes achieve a better life has not been answered. This could most clearly be seen one hundred years after the death of Swift, during the “great potato famine” where Ireland entered a famine and Britain continued to heavily tax the Irish. With a small amount of food and much of it being taken away by the British almost one million Irish died, another million emigrated in search of better opportunities. This left the nobles in Ireland with little to no power. Which shows that eventually if the educated do nothing with their power soon they will no longer have any. 

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