A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift: Satire and Social Commentary

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  • 0:02 Satire
  • 1:26 Jonathan Swift: Master…
  • 4:21 Swift's Real Solution
  • 5:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we're going to learn about satire by examining Jonathan Swift's essay A Modest Proposal. We'll see how Swift uses satire to make important social commentary.


You roll your eyes as your best friend starts in again. For the past two days, all she has done is complain about how unfair and hard your English assignment is. You turn to her and say, very seriously, 'Well, you know what you can do, right? You can tear it up into a thousand little pieces, put them on the teacher's desk, and tell her exactly what you think of her monstrous assignment. That would make a statement, right?' Your friend stares at you open-mouthed. She doesn't reply, but she doesn't complain about the assignment any more, either.

You may not know it, but you just used satire to make a commentary about your friend's behavior. What is satire? Satire is a literary technique that uses exaggeration, sarcasm, humor, and irony (saying the opposite of what you really mean) to make a point about a person's behavior, an event, or a situation. Satire aims to make people think critically about human nature and society, recognize problems, and work toward solving them. It raises awareness through its shock value.

That's just what you did. You used irony (saying the opposite of what you really meant), exaggeration, and some sarcasm. You also poked just a little bit of fun at your friend's constant complaining to let her know that it was getting out of hand. It worked, too. The shock value of satire did the trick.

Jonathan Swift: Master of Satire

Writers use satire all the time to make important observations about the world and to shock people into looking at situations in different ways. Eighteenth century writer Jonathan Swift was a master of satire, and he used the technique frequently to comment on the state of England and Ireland in his day.

One of his most shocking uses of satire can be found in his essay A Modest Proposal . Swift was appalled by the poverty and oppression of the Irish people. Their English landlords were often so harsh that common Irish citizens lived in shacks, wore rags, ate what they could scrounge up (which usually wasn't much), and had very little chance to improve their lives and the lives of their children. Swift wrote A Modest Proposal to point out these problems and to shock people into doing something about them.

In the essay, Swift offers a satirical solution to the problem of Irish poverty and oppression. He suggests that Irish parents raise their children to the age of one year (after all, the first year doesn't cost too much) and then sell them to their English landlords for food. He figures that the English would be perfectly happy to consume about 100,000 Irish children every year.

Swift writes, 'I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled . . . '. This delightful fare, Swift suggests, would be perfect for a gentleman's table and could serve several meals for the landlord and his family.

What's more, Swift notes, many 'benefits' would come from this arrangement: the Irish people would have money from the sale of their children; husbands would treat their wives better because they could offer something of value; cooks would have the fun challenge of developing new dishes; the number of bothersome Catholics would decrease; and other types of meat could be saved for profitable export to other countries. His proposal, he firmly asserts, is innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual.

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