A Critique on A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift, the Most Known Satirical Essay in Literature

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Jonathan Swift’s essay, A Modest Proposal is considered to be one of the finest examples of satirical text in the field of literature. Written in the persona of a concerned economist and published in a pamphlet way back in 1729, the tract argues that the problem of poverty and overpopulation in Ireland can best be solved by raising and selling the poverty-stricken children as food for the wealthy. Once you think deeply about it, it absolutely makes perfect sense, following the idea of turning the problem into its own solution. The tract was lengthy and comprises lots of text; I’ve actually read it twice, first for immersion, followed by a detailed scan and evaluation after. My goal is to evaluate and critique the essay in terms of the following: structure or format, style, symbolisms, and lastly, the overall impression or the generality.

Jonathan Swift makes his case in ironically conceiving an attempt to ‘find out a fair, cheap, and easy Method’ for converting the starving children of Ireland into ‘sound and useful members of the Commonwealth”. Then he formulated a proposal, in effect, is to fatten up these undernourished Irish children and feed them to Ireland’s wealthy land-owners. In line with this, the poverty-stricken children could be sold into a meat market starting at the age of one. In which he argues that it’ll solve or will combat overpopulation and unemployment, releasing families from the expense of child-bearing while providing them with a little extra income, enhancing the delicacy choices and culinary experiences of the rich, and granting to the overall economic well-being of the nation. Swift then offers statistical support for his claims and gives specific quantitative data about the population of children to be sold, their mass and price, and the estimated consumption patterns. He also predicts that the tradition of selling and eating children will have benefits on family morality, like husbands treating their wives better and parents will value their children in lots of ways. His conclusion is that the execution of his proposal will do further to solve the country’s convoluted social, political, and economic troubles than any other actions or programs that have been proposed.

In the satirical essay, we all know the message of the text: to call attention to the problems such as poverty and overpopulation that were being faced by the people of Ireland. Even with the addressed crucial issue prevailing in the essay, hyperbole and juxtaposition were also utilized to mock heartless attitudes to the poor, as well also as the British policy to the general Irish population. Even the title of the essay shows irony, it is obvious that his proposal in not modest at all, it’s the opposite. It is even more obvious that the essay is purely satirical when it presented some delicacies and recipes out from the meat of the newfound food source, which was suggested by Swift originating it from his friend. Additionally, the author even spits out the advantages that is heavily supported by rigid economical, logical reasoning and a self-righteous moral stance. All in all, Swift obviously doesn’t sincerely want to sell the poor children as food, he utilized the satirical approach to raise awareness of the dilemma and also to get his point straight to the readers, or in his times, to the Irish people.

Let us tackle with the essay’s structural writing, emphasizing on coherence and cohesion. Swift uses the standard essay format: in which it has a proper introduction, meaty body, and a satisfying conclusion. The introduction, he starts off with the situation of the streets of Ireland, where the smell of poverty reeked everywhere. He then introduced the conflict of his country, where he considers it as a dire situation, after which he proposed a horrific solution. He then started building defenses with his arguments, ending with a conclusion that it will be a good thing for his country. In my opinion, he pulled off the coherence of his writing; his thoughts were logically arranged and well crafted. But in the cohesion of his writing, it was okay but his writing was confusing that novice readers would really had a hard time conceptualizing his thoughts in his text, since some text were repetitive and lots of allusions were found that some just can’t refer to them, resulting to confusion. In some aspects like transitions and grammar, were great. All in all, Swift managed to build his structural essay properly, even with the flaws present to it, it managed to connect ideas together in which the readers can properly read and can just easily flow into his train of thought.

The style used in the essay has a certain tang to it, which was perfectly described by William Monck Mason, in which he states “The cold, phlegmatic style [in A Modest Proposal] of a political projector, who waves the consideration of all the finer feelings of humanity, or makes them subservient, as matters of slight moment, to the general advantages proposed in his plan of financial improvement, is admirably well satirized. The cool, ‘businesslike’ manner, in which the calculations are stated, is equally admirable” (340). For me, I have also felt the economical, businesslike, serious essence and vibe to it, the need of the problem to be solved in order for the country to prosper was recognized and felt as a reader, but at the same time the humor was there, giving off this strange oozing feeling of doubt on the author’s credibility. You would know that it is completely satire since no one is inhumane enough to propose cannibalism as a solution. All in all, Swift absolutely pulled off the style into his essay, word choice and language were excellent but some words were too technical for beginning readers, but still it resulted into having this unique mood, macabre atmosphere, and exquisite imagery.

Symbolisms were also existent in the essay, specifically to deliver the author’s point to its reader. One of the symbolisms that were prevalent in the essay was the mentions of animals, specifically livestock such as swine, cow, sheep, deer, and more. These animals frequently make appearance in the essay and it is, most of the time, are being compared to the Irish children, and degrading the Irish even more. You may have noticed that in the last parts of the essay, the word “children” was subbed as “mortals”. It signifies that the word “mortal” washes out any of the sympathetic portrayal and leaves us with the impression that humans are becoming like animals. Another symbolism is the usage of “food” in the essay. The “food”, when looking to it overtly in the essay, it directly points at the children, but in fact it symbolizes the poor in general. The wealthy eats the poor and plough through resources and throw pennies at the poor have plenty of practice devouring the nation. For me, the symbolisms were perfectly used in the essay; it hides the hidden, contextual, more alarming meaning out from this satirical essay.

My overall impression of the story is that it has this unique humor that I appreciate, but I still do recognize the grim themes to it. It actually made me question at first, “Is this guy serious?” questioning his methods and actually structured his credibility so well that it almost want you to join his side of the argument, meaning that he conveys and convince so well, his words actually makes sense and you, the reader, shocks in awe on how did he do it. But still, even though with his hard-edged economic reasoning as well as from a self-righteous moral stance, I still stand with my beliefs of not killing, or even dare of eating anyone. This is the time I’ve realized the brilliance of the author, he really makes you question about the solution he proposed, morality and rationality, and that is an indication of a good author. It is even much better that the author presented a serious, businesslike tone and at the same relaying a very ridiculous proposal into the tract, in which I found somehow hilarious, at the same time brilliant. Like Inverarity said on his review on the essay on his/her blog, “The rest of the essay continues in an absolutely straight-faced manner, laying out economic and dietary calculations, never once hinting that a proposal to raise Irish children for their meat might be anything less than serious. It is the sober, analytical tone that makes this such a brilliant and famous work of satire” (“Book Review: A Modest Proposal”).

With all these hilarity and shenanigans, it is quite obvious that this satirical essay is also a political essay in disguise, according from Lit Bug, a reviewer from Goodreads, he stated that “Published in 1729, an era when the British and the Irish were sworn enemies and when Ireland was reeling under a severe drought, Swift wrote this as an attempt to criticize heavily the British authorities who did nothing to stave off the plight of the Irish”. This signifies that Swift made this tract to send a message to the people in a severe calamity and criticized the authorities in the past. So basically, it’s not just an essay of one man proposing a “modest” proposal of making poor children into a new food source, but it is also an essay of one man spreading awareness to the Irishmen suffering of poverty and mocking the authorities for their incompetence. Like Rebecca Reid on her review about the essay, “Obviously, Swift’s humorous solutions to the problems in Ireland in the early 1700s were not reasonable; he knew that no one would sell their infants as the next main dish in order to pay their bills. But he saw problems with the way things were: his essay was a call for change in some way”. She’s right, what Swift was trying to do here is to make awareness, and to make this essay as a turning point. This essay was not meant to side on with him, but actually is to against with him, pity the Irish, and recognize the faults of the aristocrats into the problem prevailing in their country. All in all, in my opinion, the essay is a good read for a short ten minutes. Although there’s this ridicule and humor masked to it, once you delve deeper into its meaning and concepts, you will actually understand on what it is trying to convey, utilizing irony to get his point across, which is amazing and awesome.

Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is a gem to its readers, for it is one of the most known satirical essays in literature. It covers hilarity and seriousness in a pack, which is a best read for readers in my demographic. It also has this satirical and political side, in which both conceptualize to form a certain point across its readers. We also have tackled the essay from its structure to the generality, in which there were good points and bad points, but most of it never damages the particular meaning of the essay. The best asset of this essay was the satire, which will end with you questioning your rational and moral thinking due only to a single proposal. I promise to you, I recommend you reading this treasure; you would be horrified by the thoughts of the author of even coming up with an idea of eating children for fighting poverty. But inside to its horrid and absurd core, the author’s idea sifts in. It’s satirical but at the same, political.


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