Satire, Humor, and Shock Value in Swifts' A Modest Proposal
Swift's message to the English government in "A Modest Proposal" deals with the disgusting state of the English-Irish common people. Swift, as the narrator expresses pity for the poor and oppressed, while maintaining his social status far above them. The poor and oppressed that he refers to are Catholics, peasants, and the poor homeless men, women, and children of the kingdom. This is what Swift is trying to make the English government, in particular the Parliament aware of; the great socioeconomic distance between the increasing number of peasants and the aristocracy, and the effects thereof. Swift conveys his message in a brilliant essay, in which he uses satire, humor and shock value.
Swift pursues his main point in the first paragraph:
It is a melancholy object to those who walk through [Dublin]
. . .when they see . . .beggars of the female sex, followed by
three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every
passenger for an alms. These mothers instead of being able
to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all
their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless
infants, who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of
work or fight for the Pretender in Spain. (2181)
The last statement regarding the Pretender in Spain is a stab at Catholicism, the Pretender, being the Catholic James II, claimant to the English crown. In fact, Catholics are the butt of many sardonic jokes in the essay. Swift viewed Catholics as the main cause of this deplorable state, "being the principal breeders of the nation as well as our most dangerous enemies"(2184). This refers to the Catholic doctrine prohibiting birth control.
Swift estimates that there are 120,000 children of poor parents born annually. These children are a burden on society because " . . .we can neither employ them in handicraft or agriculture "(2183), they have no practical skills or uses. To deal with this problem, Swift makes his "modest proposal," using a device that is timeless in its effectiveness-shock value:
[A] healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious
nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted,
baked or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve
in a fricassee or a ragout. (2182)
Indeed the proposal to eat the poor is a shocking statement, but what adds to the shock value is the delivery. For example, take the last statement regarding a fricassee. This statement is not necessary for the point, but it certainly adds to the appalling nature of the quote. The...