Jonathan Swift and Satire: Examples and Analysis

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  • 0:04 Swift's Life
  • 2:53 A Modest Proposal
  • 5:15 Gulliver's Travels
  • 11:06 Swift's Themes Summed Up
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

When it comes to English-language satire, few authors can top the legendary Jonathan Swift. Watch this lesson to learn about his two most important works, ~'A Modest Proposal~' and ~'Gulliver's Travels~'.

Swift's Life

So, we're talking about Jonathan Swift (no relation to Taylor - at least, none that I'm aware of). He's actually one of the most famous satirists of the Western literary canon. He held political positions and religious positions in a variety of institutions in both England and Ireland, and that gave him lots of great material to work with. It led to the two really important works of Jonathan Swift's that we're going to talk about today, and that's A Modest Proposal and Gulliver's Travels.

Swift was a child of two countries - England and Ireland - and I think that contributed to his eye for politics and his ability to observe differences between peoples and countries. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1667, but he was born to English parents who had fled the country during the English Civil War. Swift's father died before he was born, and his mother returned to England, leaving him with an uncle who acted as sort of a benefactor, even paying for Jonathan Swift to go to school.

Jonathan Swift was a child of two countries: England and Ireland.
Jonathan Swift

However, in another bout of political upheaval, the Glorious Revolution, Swift returned to England to live with his mother. She helped find him work as a secretary and the personal assistant of a diplomat, whose name was Sir William Temple. Temple was writing his memoirs at the time that Swift joined him, and Swift was able to assist him in that process - sort of an early introduction to his career as a writer.

He had an on-again, off-again working relationship with Temple, and between helping him write his memoirs, he also became ordained as a priest in the Church of Ireland. After Temple died, Swift became a minister in a rural area outside of Dublin. He spent a lot of time during this period traveling back and forth between Dublin and London, championing the rights of poor Irish clergymen. He found sympathy amongst the Tories, which is an oppositional political party in London. It was also during this time that he began to anonymously publish his first political pamphlets, and that's sort of how his writing career got going after working with Temple. You can see, even in those early days, how his interest in writing and his interest in politics started to meld.

A few years later, when the Tories rose to power, Swift was made the editor of their weekly periodical, which was called The Examiner. But, easy come, easy go; when the opposing party, the Whigs, got back into power, many of the Tories were tried for treason, which was a bummer. Because of this, Swift again fled to Ireland, and that gave him the opportunity that he needed to really start his career as a real writer.

It was during this period that Swift produced many of his important works, including the two that I'm about to talk about. One is a satirical pamphlet, and the other is an epic parody of a travel narrative. Both are awesome, and let's go!

A Modest Proposal

Even though Gulliver's Travels, Swift's epic travel parody, was written first, we're going to talk about A Modest Proposal now. A Modest Proposal's full name is A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick (and that's 'publick' with a 'k' - fun fact). The topic of the pamphlet is one that Swift had taken up throughout his life - the conditions of impoverished Irish people. This time, Swift's dark sense of humor led him to suggest a pretty nasty way for the poor Irish to lead a better life - they could sell their babies to rich people to be eaten. Yes - baby-eating.

Of course, he wasn't serious - though not everyone picked up on that. Swift was actually employing a classical Latin form of satire in which an extreme position is taken up to ridicule it, and the audience is never really let in on the joke - they're supposed to figure it out for themselves that Swift is kidding. Of course, not everybody did. But you can even see the satire even in the title because what's so 'modest' about suggesting that people sell their babies to be eaten?

Swift had a few other targets that he was lampooning here as well, like the people of his time who thought that they could offer easy cure-alls to society's problems in just a little pamphlet. He was also pointing out the dehumanization of the lower classes - this is something he saw around him a lot - where poor people were basically reduced to statistics and not actually viewed as human beings.

Swift ultimately does introduce actual notions of reforms that he think would work, though he does this using a tactic called paralipsis, which is introducing a topic by saying it shouldn't be talked about (yeah, there's a word for that). The things that Swift embraces through this mocking tone include using only Irish-made goods, tightening up on personal spending habits and encouraging all Irish citizens to be more peaceful and understanding of their neighbors - relatively reasonable suggestions (much more so than selling your babies to be eaten). Of course, that part of the text hasn't really stuck with people as much as baby-eating. That vivid, unexpected image is what makes A Modest Proposal so famous even today and really one of the best examples of satire ever written because its point of view is so extreme.

Gulliver's Travels

So that was A Modest Proposal, and we're going to move on to Gulliver's Travels, which is really, I think, Swift's most famous work, and it's pretty incredible. It's an epic satire, a parody of a travel novel and also a sort of prototype for the science fiction genre that was to come. Gulliver's Travels is a four-tale story of the adventures of a ship captain named Gulliver. Throughout these books, he will travel to lots of lands and encounter all sorts of strange people and places, and each one is meant to illuminate some folly of the human condition that he's observed in his own life.

I'm going to go through what happens in each of the books, then we'll talk about what it was that Swift was trying to point out with each of these stories. Don't be afraid if you hear a lot of crazy names that make no sense, and if the way I pronounce them isn't the way you would pronounce them, I apologize - I'm really doing my best.

In the first book, Gulliver is shipwrecked and ends up in a place called Lilliput, and it's a land of tiny people that are all under six inches tall - so, of course, Gulliver is a giant because he's what we would consider a regular-sized person. Gulliver takes up a position in the Lilliputian court, where he's put to work attacking their enemies, who are the Blefuscudians. These groups are at war over how to crack an egg. Gulliver refuses to use his massive size to obliterate the enemies completely, which pisses them off. Then he also puts out a fire by urinating on it, and I think that was really the nail in the coffin for Gulliver on Lilliput. He's charged with treason, but because he's a giant, he manages to escape and returns to England for the time being. That's the first book.

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