An Analysis of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”
Satire as a form of discursive practice may be properly understood if it is contextualized within a particular culture, institution, attitude, or belief. It is only by placing the satire within a particular setting [as presented by the elements mentioned above] that a satire will garner the “non-linguistic components covering the preparatory preconditions necessary for the construction of satirical discourse” (Simpson 70). An example of the satire as a form of discursive practice is evident, for example, in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.
In the aforementioned work, Swift presents a situation wherein the persona of his text urges the population on acts of cannibalism in order to lessen the problems caused by Irish overpopulation. The persona starts his proposal with an initial description of his surroundings. He notes, “It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town…when they see the streets…crowded with beggers of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for alms” (Swift 52).
It is important to note that such a description is characterized by the persona’s detachment towards his surroundings. Note for example, the manner in which a two senses of the concept ‘object’ is used. The aforementioned passage thereby portrays not only the persona’s ‘objective’ appraisal of his surroundings but also the persona’s ‘objectification’ of the individuals encompassed within that area.
Such an objectification is further evident in the following passage: Some persons of a desponding spirit are in great concern about the vast number of poor people, who are aged, diseased, or maimed…But I am not in the least pained about that matter, because it is very well known that they are everyday dying, rotting, by cold, and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected. (Swift 56)
The persona’s use of the two senses of object, in this sense, may be understood as a manner in which Swift portrays the irony evident in the context of the text. The irony is evident if one conceives of “A Modest Proposal” as a text which presents a delimited view of the world. As opposed to a satire’s ironic presentation of a particular situation [in fact an ironic portrayal of a particular mindset], humor, on the other hand, portrays the manner in which worldly interests are given more credence as opposed to lofty ideals.
An example of this is evident in Samuel Beckett’s writings wherein Beckett focuses the text to the importance of existence [as well as the importance of the meaning of existence] in relation to the ordinary objects. As opposed to a satire which might present a bland ethnocentric perspective regarding racial discrimination, the emphasis on modern humor would be on the problematic construction of such concepts that enable racial discrimination to exist [e. g. opposition of black and white].
In line with this, Colebrook notes, “both irony and humor play off the gap between concepts and world” (241). The difference, however, lies in the difference of presentation noted above.
Colebrook, Claire. Irony in the Works of Philosophy. Nebraska: U of Nebraska P, 2003. Simpson, Paul. On the Discourse of Satire: Towards a Stylistic Model of Satirical Humor. Philadelphia: John Benjamin’s, 2003. Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal. ” A Modest Proposal and Other Satirical Works. New York: Dover, 1996.
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