The Use of Irony and Exaggeration in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”
Jonathan Swift is undoubtedly one, if not the most, prominent satirical writers of the eighteenth century. In his writings he presents a blatant social criticism mocking the political, social, and religious norms of Irish society through the use of irony and exaggeration. Via his bizarre story telling in his essay “A Modest Proposal,” he elevates the politics of society to a level of barefaced absurdity which in turn, requires the reader to think logically while reading this work. Swift’s exaggerated use of satire as a device to reveal the corruption of society in his writing has not only contributed to his legacy as a pronounced satirist, but helped shape the literary genre of satire as a whole.
In his writing’s, Jonathan Swift is notorious for using exaggeration to provide political and social commentary. This can be seen throughout his essay, “A Modest Proposal,” in which he suggests that the only way to save Ireland from overpopulation and poverty is to kill the children of the poor families and serve their meat as a delicacy to the nobility of Ireland. Swift goes so far as to think of recipes and ways to make the skin into gloves and handbags. He states, “Those who are more thrifty may flay the carcass, the skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable gloves for ladies and summer boots for fine gentleman” (2433). Swift purposefully exaggerates the idea because the people of Ireland fail to conjure a logical way to reduce overpopulation and poverty. By presenting such a ridiculous way of fixing this problem, Swift encourages the members of society to find a sensible way to reduce the levels of poverty in Ireland.
Here we see an ironic social commentary as well. Swift proposes that we feed the children to the nobility, not the starving parents or the other starving children, but the upper class. While the poor people of Ireland continue to breed, the rich will have elaborate feasts and dinner parties with the meat of peasant’s children. The idea of the poor raising food for the rich as a solution to poverty is ludicrous as well as highly ironic. The rich will continue to enjoy the luxuries of the upper class such as wealth, power, and fine dining, while the peasants raise their meat for them. If Swift’s Proposal were indeed legitimate, one could argue that the rich children should instead be fed to the poor citizens. Subsequently, the rich will have ridden Ireland of poverty, while the poor feast on the fattened children of the upper class. Swift utilizes this same irony in the title of his essay “A Modest Proposal.” Proposing that society should turn to cannibalism as a solution to poverty is anything but modest. However, by asserting from the beginning of the essay that the proposal that he presents is a modest and logical solution, the reader is encouraged to recognize the irrationality of Swift’s suggestions and reevaluate what would indeed be a politically acceptable solution to the problem.
Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2010. 2431-2437. Print.