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When Words Do Not Mean What They Say - An Analysis Of Swift's "Modest Proposal"

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Jonathan Swift's, A Modest Proposal has become a classic example and much studied work of satire throughout the years. It is interesting not only in the absurdity of it's sly innuendo, but it also acts as a history lesson for the world to see the struggles of people of Ireland. What interests me most about this work is how Swift is able to show compassion through context in a work whose words would normally shock and anger any sane person. It is interesting to see how his careful use of language and imagery manages to both sicken and illuminate the reader. His shock value grabs the careful attention and scrutiny of the reader and, in doing so, accomplishes it's goal, to awaken and alarm those who ignore the tragedy of Ireland's plight.

From the onset Swift tries to establish, visually, an empathy between the reader and the impoverished Irish. "It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors crowded with 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 stroling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants . . .." (Swift, p. __) In having the reader picture the brutal conditions, anguish and despair of Ireland's poor, mainly women and children, he takes the cold and abstract "beggar" term and warms and humanizes it. This image, common enough at that time for all readers to be aware of it, sets up the reader for shock and disdain at Swift's proposal. Swift, by warning that, "I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection." is telling the reader to be ready for something that is likely to cause objection. He says this in a genteel voice that seems cold as it delivers his understatement. "Least objection" is obviously being satirical considering what will follow. Swift does not intend for the reader to ever take him seriously and goes so far as to say he does not have the answers but seeks them when declaring, "whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation." (Swift, p. ___) He apparently does not say that he himself has the answer. Instead, he states that a person who can come up with a proposal that would work would save and be the hero of Ireland. By entitling his "modest proposal" as he did, he is saying that he is NOT going to propose something of heroic dimensions and therefore, he will not be "preserver of the nation."

In a subtle way he says, "get ready", and than proceeds to throw images and words that represent the very thing that England was, at that time, doing to Ireland, devouring the poor. Although the feeding of the rich on the flesh of the poor was described vividly as a tangible reality, it is clear that it was meant to symbolize what England was doing to the people, primarily the Catholics, of Ireland. If the reader had not caught it in the whole context Swift goes so far as to state it outright, "we can incur no danger in disobliging England. . . . although perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it.) (Swift, p. __)

Swift sneaks in practical suggestions for improving the condition of Ireland's economy and helping its people, and this was, in truth, what his modest proposal was. Under cover of the attention grabbing,

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