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The Use of Literary Elements and Techniques in a Modest Proposal

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The Use of Literary Elements and Techniques in a Modest Proposal Essay

“A Modest Proposal” was an effective satire written by Dr. Jonathan Swift in 1729. Ireland was facing harsh times during this time period because of the laws and taxes in England. Ireland was becoming the land of poverty and starvation. Swift felt as if people were not doing anything about it and were ignoring it like it was not happening. He felt as if something needed to be done. Therefore, he wrote this satire in hopes he would open the eyes of the Irish and make his point known. He uses cannibalism and a questionable title to intrigue the Irish and spark their interest. Swift was very smart to propose an idea involving grotesque suggestions that he knew would shock the people. Swift also uses logic and statistics throughout his piece to support his ideas that will even further grasp the attention of others.

“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.”

Above is a great example as to how Swift portrayed that it would help Ireland. He states, “Just one child would make two dishes for family and friends. It would help everyone.” When one is to read Swifts proposal this would effectively convince one that it may be possible.

Swift uses various literary elements and techniques throughout his writing to get his point across to his audience. Irony plays a big part in this piece. He wants to make Ireland a better place and better for the people to live. They wouldn’t have to worry about food being sparse and it would help for a better future for this country. However, Swift is referring to eating children as an answer to solve this problem. Cannibalism is completely illegal and breaking every rule. There is also irony in the title itself. The title has the word “modest” as the descriptive word for the proposal. states the exact definition of modest as, “having or showing a moderate or humble estimate of one’s merits, importance; having or showing regard for the decencies of behavior, speech, dress, etc.” However, proposing an idea of cannibalism and grotesque ideas as Swift did, is not modest. There was nothing modest or humble about his proposal even though he states, ‘I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection’.

There is also exaggeration used a few times throughout the piece. One time that it stuck out to me was when this was said, ‘I think that the advantages by the proposal which I have made are obvious and many as well as of the highest importance’.

To start, the advantages are not obvious. Swift has to clearly state the advantages of his proposal because it is not obvious to the public. The next use of exaggeration is when he says it is of the highest importance. It is ironic because this is not of highest importance. However, these are ideas were extremely important to Swift to incorporate in order for him to successfully carry out his motive.

Even though Swift’s proposal is absurd, he does incorporate parts of his argument based on emotion or logic to even further grasp the attention of people.

“Thirdly, Whereas the maintainance of an hundred thousand children, from two years old, and upwards, cannot be computed at less than ten shillings a piece per annum, the nation’s stock will be thereby encreased fifty thousand pounds per annum.”

In this example he is using facts and data to directly support his proposal. He states the nation’s tock will increase by 50 thousand pounds. That is good evidence his proposal would help Ireland. He also used emotional logic by trying to grasp the sympathy of others for mothers and wives,

“Sixthly, This would be a great inducement to marriage, which all wise nations have either encouraged by rewards, or enforced by laws and penalties. It would encrease the care and tenderness of mothers towards their children, when they were sure of a settlement for life to the poor babes, provided in some sort by the publick, to their annual profit instead of expence. We should soon see an honest emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest child to the market. Men would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sow when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage.”

Swift states that it would be a great inducement to marriage and men would become fond of their wives implying men aren’t usually fond of their wives or treat them poorly during pregnancy. He is grabbing the attention of even more people. Swift does a great job here in captivating a woman’s imagination by implanting an image in their head of them being treated greatly from their husband and thought of as being important since now they are contributing to their family’s profit.

The final paragraph of the essay states, “I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the publick good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children, by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.”

Swift keeps the same tone throughout the last paragraph that he had the entire proposal. In my opinion, this is another great tactic in trying to capture the audience’s attention and strike more curiosity. I would expect an Irish person reading this back to in that time period to be expecting this proposal to be a joke. However, when they read the last paragraph and Swift was just as serious as he was throughout the entire proposal they most likely were left with unanswered questions and more curiosity. Was swift 100 percent serious? Could this actually happen? What can we do about it? This is exactly what Swift would have wanted.

Works Cited

  • Shmoop Editorial Team. “A Modest Proposal Analysis.” Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008,
  • “Modest.”,,
  • Johnathan Swift: ‘A Modest Proposal’

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