Satire and the Deployment of Irony in A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift
Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: of taxing our absentees at 5s. a pound: of using neither clothes, nor household furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.
Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, till he has at least some glimpse of hope that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice. (Swift 57-58)
"A Modest Proposal" has been hailed by literary critics as one of Jonathan Swift's greatest satirical works. The essay takes the form of a proposal that sets out to offer a solution to the problems of overpopulation and poverty in 18th century Ireland, albeit a seemingly outrageous one that suggests treating the children of the indigent Irish as gastronomical and economical assets. Swift expertly wields irony as a tool to satirize the many butts of his essay. Although he seems to be taking a swipe at the practices of many people, from the English oppressors and the Americans to the Irish landlords and the poor, oppressed Irish, it may be argued that the main butt of his essay in the above passage are actually the Irish. The above passage can be read ironically or non-ironically but it is possible to view the ironic message in it as the true message that Swift might be trying to convey in his satire of the Irish people.
Before examining the deployment of irony and satire in "A Modest Proposal", it is first necessary to understand the brief historical background of colonial oppression in Ireland and to establish the context of the above passage to the rest of the essay. At the time "A Modest Proposal" was written, Northern Ireland was colonized by England and there was deep-rooted animosity between the oppressed Irish Papists, and their oppressors, the English and their descendants in Ireland, who were mainly Protestants and were by-and-large the land-owners in...