Sell and Eat the Children


An academic paper written while I was attending college.  The paper analyzes Jonathan Swift’s use of rhetoric and satire in his piece “A Modest Proposal.”

Originally written in 2011.  Some MLA formatting may be lost.


“For this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, the flesh being of too tender a consistence to admit a long continuance in salt, although perhaps I could name a country which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it” (Swift 233).  This statement appears towards the end of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” a subtle wink to the audience who at this point would realize Swift was criticizing England’s actions towards Ireland.  In the early 1700’s, Ireland was subjected to a severe famine, one in which England would not act and provide aid (Swift 227).  Left to their own devices, the Irishmen were at liberty to solve what was referred to as the “Irish problem.”  Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, anonymously published his own solution: “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public.”  The satirical essay aimed to propose the best solution for solving the poverty and famine was for the Irish to sell their children as food.  In the end, Swift uses a professional sounding satire, along with regular rhetorical devices, to persuade others that England’s treatment of Ireland was villainous, shocking, and barbaric.

First, the most obvious rhetorical strategy Swift implements is to use satire to get his point across.  For obvious reasons, in a proposal about cannibalism, the subject must be made to sound like food.  “A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter” (229).  In the case of the preceding statement, children are objectified as if they really were a food commodity to be sold.  However, the audience would still be mindful that these are human children.  Given that cannibalism carries such a negative stigma, such objectification of children as food would both shock and horrify the audience.  These emotions serve to draw the audience in at the beginning and keep them reading until the end, if only from disbelief that someone would suggest such barbaric methods.  Once it becomes clear that the essay is meant to satirize the situation, such objectification of children as food serves to connect England to the act.  In other-words, the language implies that it is England who is being barbaric and essentially eating Ireland’s people (as indicated from the opening statement in this essay).  The result is that the audience, by the end, trend towards the opinion that England is at fault.

Of course, objectification of children as food is not the only manner in which “A Modest Proposal” seeks to parody the situation.  Part of the proposal’s “goal” is to establish that it is profitable to the rest of the Kingdom as well (particularly England).  “I compute that Dublin would take off annually about twenty thousand carcasses, and the rest of the kingdom (where probably they will be sold somewhat cheaper) the remaining eighty thousand” (232).  The previous statement suggests that, outside of solving the “Irish problem,” England has nothing but to gain from cannibalism.  Consequently, one effect is that England is automatically degraded from profiteering off of cannibalism in the proposal.  However, this perfectly parodies the real world situation that called the rhetoric of “A Modest Proposal” into existence: England left Ireland to care for itself but expected to profit from its people none-the-less.  Such a satirical representation, paired with the already shocking nature of child consumption, brings it to the attention of the ignorant and reminds the knowledgeable that England is abusing them.  As shown by events like the American Revolution, when people feel abused they are effectively brought together to stand against such tyranny.  Once more, satire was used to connect England to the uncivilized conduct proposed and inspire people to enact change and demands on England for its tyranny.  Additionally, it shows the English people how they look to the Irish.

On a different rhetorical strategy, Swift still poses his satirical essay as if it was a legitimate, academic essay.  Truly, “A Modest Proposal” shines in how it wields humor in its satire to represent England’s actions as cannibalism.  However, there is an important ethos given to the essay in the manner of its academic structure.  For instance, “A Modest Proposal” has common academic essays requirements, such as a thesis statement.  “…I propose to provide for them [children], in such a manner as, instead of being a charge upon their parents, or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives, they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding and partly to the clothing of many thousands” (228).  While the actual proposal sounds absurd, the professional language used to propose it creates an ethos: it does not sound like a crazy man proposing cannibalism to the audience, but rather someone who seems learned and sane in his thinking.  In part, this is what drives the disbelieving emotion into the audience that keeps them hooked, since the actual topic is at such contrast with the professional manner of presentation.  The strong ethos created inevitably enhances the effects the satire creates, since the language shows how England sounds to Ireland: professional while proposing absurd lifestyles.  There are, of course, other instances in the essay that share similarities with essays (such as when Swift starts listing points out with first, secondly, etc.).  All in all, presenting the proposal in such a legitimate sounding way enhances the satire’s effects, hooks the audience into the essay, and inclines people to listen and be persuaded by an author who carries both wit and professionalism.

A brief inquiry can be made into the metabasis device exploited, which mostly enhances effects seen in the other strategies and devices.  “I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection” (229).  Using the word “humbly” helps to emphasis the understated tone that the essay hopes to achieve.  Additionally, there is the fact that this sentence is transitional, which improves the academic sound that the essay also aims to achieve.  The results of this device are that there is then an increased ethos to Swift’s character, since he makes himself clear to his audience.  Being clear is a good show of sanity, which is important for the satire; it would not work effectively if we did not believe in the speaker and thought it was someone academically unrespectable.  In the end, the metabasis simply helps make Swift sound clear, showing that he has ethos and thus provides more effectiveness to show England’s tyranny in the satire by the contrast of the content.

Similarly, there is also a slight ethos and logos appeal in the manner in which numbers and statistics are used within the essay.  As previously shown, part of the satire’s aim was to objectify the Irish people.  While this effect is also achieved with numbers, the numbers serves as their own little rhetorical device that has both similar and separate effects:

The number of souls in Ireland being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couples whose wives are breeders, from which number I subtract thirty thousand couples who are able to maintain their own children, although I apprehend there cannot be so many under the present distresses of the kingdom.  (228)

Again, the Irish are objectified to shame England in the show of how the Irish feel in the English eyes.  However, the numbers themselves aid in the professional sounding nature of the essay.  While “A Modest Proposal” may be from an earlier age, it would not be hard to expect that number facts would still hold sway as it does with contemporary arguments.  Thus, there is not only an ethos appeal from such data, but a logos appeal as well, since numbers are considered “hard evidence” even when they are merely estimations.  The soundness of such data, especially when it is made to sound so beneficial, would create disgust in both the Irish and English audiences from the negative moral implications.  Presenting the Irish as numbers in such an immoral proposal actually brings attention to the fact that the Irish are people.  Thus, it is hoped that the audience, particularly an English audience in this case, would be persuaded to see their error and how their negative treatment is towards people, not commodities.

Continuing on, there was a notable strategy of sentences with a polysyndeton-like device.  While there is some amplification like effects from the numbers, a lot of such exaggeration actually comes from the manner in which the sentences written.  Particularly in the beginning, the device emphasizes the Irish experience at the time.  “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 cabin 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” (227).  Such continual use of conjunctions bombards the audience with all the negatives the famine and poverty of the times are causing.  It emphasizes it by making the negatives seem never-ending, adding more and more negative facts to the sentence.  The amplification, in this way, is intended to persuade the audience that, despite the good humor of the essay, the situation they are in is dire.  Hence, there is an unexpressed need the essay creates that solving the “Irish problem” is imperative and, like the numbers, reminds one that real people are suffering.

Likewise, polysyndeton has its place within the effects the proposal would produce and not just the causes.  “Secondly, the poorer tenants will have something valuable of their own, which by law may be made liable to distress, and help to pay their landlord’s rent, their corn and cattle being already seized, and money a thing unknown” (231).  The statement serves, like with the causes, to emphasize the point of the advantages of the proposal and bombard people with positives (in this case).  However, given that this is still a satirical essay, it has the opposite effect by the end; despite being presented positively, these positives subtly become converted to even more negative points the essay points out.  Having the need for such a conversion, these points are emphasized as aspects that would actually help fix the problem (although by less barbaric methods).  The result is that the audience is persuaded into believing those are their needs and they are the items the people should be demanding for.  While the polysyndeton device does not address and point blame to England, it still expresses the dire, barbaric nature in the treatment of the Irish and creates a community amongst them for their similar suffering.

By the same token, the essay has numerous instances of understatement that serves to emphasize and exaggerate points just as well as the polysyndeton device.  Arguably, the entire tone of the essay is written as an understatement that acts as if the proposal is not an absurd one (thusly making the essay sound even more absurd).  Even the title is called “A Modest Proposal,” already gearing the audience to certain expectations from which disbelief and absurdity can play on when they are not met.  However, one can also examine an example closely.  “Thus the Squire will learn to be a good landlord and grow popular among his tenants, the mother will have eight shillings net profit, and be fit for work until she produces another child” (230).  Compared to some of the other effects (increased trade all around for example), this particular statement is more subdued.  However, this passage is effective in creating a “business as usual” sort of tone.  There is a question, then, of what all this understatement achieves.  The downplayed nature of the absurdity amplifies just how absurd everything in the essay is.  However, the actual historical facts, by association, become just as absurd seeming as the proposal itself.  The association creates the persuasive element that convinces the Irish that they do not have to suffer and that their suffering is essentially crazy.  In turn, it shows the English, too, that their tyranny, business methods, and tones are ridiculous.  Understatement spectacularly demonstrates the horrors and faulty logic involved in the situation.

Briefly, there is something to be said about hypophora within the context of the essay. While unstated, the whole framing for the essay relies on the question of what to do about the Irish and how to solve the rampant poverty and famine.  Therefore, the entire essay is spent answering this question, which draws attention to how important the issue actually is.  There is also an instance of rhetorical question within the essay as well.  “First, as things now stand, how they will be able to find food and raiment for a hundred thousand useless mouths and backs?” (233).  Like the framing device of the essay, asking this question creates importance for it, since the average audience would stop to ponder that question for a moment.  As a rhetorical device, it reminds the audience what the central problem to the situation is.  Asking the question, rather than providing the answer, calls the audience into action in solving it (particularly England since England is the one with the resources to aid Ireland).  Whether hypophora or rhetorical question, such devices serve to persuade action, since at the very least the audience is geared to think about the question themselves and remember the villainous suffering the Irish are enduring.

Quite importantly, there is a rampant amount of analogies present which help draw attention to the barbaric practices.  Certainly, the analogies contain references to well-known people and institutions, which add an associative ethos by showing Swift as intelligent.  Nevertheless, there are comparative properties that aid in the persuasion.  In one instance, Swift discusses a story he heard about a Psalmanazar from Formosa.  The Psalmanazar had informed Swift’s friend that people put to death in his country were normally eaten, as was the case of one 15 year-old girl who sold for 400 crowns (230).  Since the early days of exploration, England has both been fascinated by and fearful of foreigners.  However, numerous texts point to the single fact that England always felt itself superior to other countries, rendering other civilizations as barbaric by their view.  By evoking the Formosa story, Swift compares an Ireland with the proposal to this other foreign country.  Thus, it attempts to bring Irish to the realization that, much in the way England views itself as superior to other countries, it probably shares the same viewpoint as compared to Ireland.  The analogies then become a persuasive element to incite the Irish against that view, since no one likes to think they are inferior.  Inevitably, such comparisons would be meant to draw attention to England as a tyrant, but also to Ireland as the foolish subordinate.  Ideally this method would, like other elements, bring the Irish together in order to stop living under the unfair, negative views the English hold of them.

Lastly, there is an important role played by the device of procatalepsis.  Undoubtedly, procatalepsis is a well-played device in academic essays, since it is usually suggested that contrasting viewpoints be addressed.  Swift, too, seemed to share knowledge of this fact, although arguably because his proposal was not meant to be taken seriously.  “I can think of no one objection that will possibly be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom.  This I freely own, and it was indeed one principal design in offering it to the world” (232).  Of course, the normal audience member would, in reality, have plenty of moral objections to his proposal.  Accordingly, the statement stands as one that momentarily increases the satire.  However, one must consider that after this statement, Swift creates a long list of actual solutions that are, in fact, meant to be taken seriously (of course denying they can actually be achieved for purposes of the satire).  The increase, then, is a purposeful contrast.  As the rest of the essay is so absurd, when one comes across sane objections that actually work, they have all the more persuasive power.  After all, it is generally human nature to pick the less of two extremes when presented with both.  In this instance, then, it is clear that the procatalepsis exists for that purpose in this essay.  Conclusively, the device persuades people to more readily commit to the more salient suggestions of being money conscience and stopping England from oppressing their country.

To summarize, humor can be a powerful tool and persuade people to a variety actions.  In the case of “A Modest Proposal,” Swift uses satire and rhetorical devices to show both Ireland and England that Ireland did not have to suffer and that there were salient solutions to the problem.  Surely, there must have been just as powerful and serious proposals out there at the time, since Swift’s essay was one of many circling around.  However, Swift’s satire effectively draws audiences in, if only for the entertainment value.  Once the audience is drawn in, the other devices are left to work and slowly persuade people into standing against their poverty induced situation.  In the larger picture, the technique stands in contrast to other social cause rhetoric, such as the variety of serious abolitionist essays produced in America.  However, given that having entertainment value is at the basis of advertisement in this age, Swift must have had the right idea about the power of humor.  His text demonstrates how humor can be just as effective, if not more effective, in persuading an audience into action.  Inevitably, the text may subconsciously persuade others to use satire and humor in rhetoric, since Swift’s proposal is effective and not at risk for sounding dry like more serious pieces.  No matter how one feels about satire, rhetorically speaking “A Modest Proposal” uses it, and other devices, to efficiently show England as the absurd tyrant that it was.  Perhaps it was Swift who was the most successful at “finding the available means of persuasion,” even by contemporary standards.

Works Cited

Swift, Jonathan.  “A Modest Proposal.”  Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers. Eds. Paul Eschholz, Alfred Rosa, and Virginia Clark.  Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.  227-233.  Print.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s