British Literatures Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Modest Proposal

Jonathan Swift's satirical work A Modest Proposal is particularly successful at lambasting careless attitudes towards the poor because Swift's proposal that poor children be sold as food for the upper classes is rendered in the language of pseudo-scientific argument and economics. When deployed elsewhere, this combination of tone, appeals to authority, and abrogation of evidence is precisely the kind of language used to support various misguided, outdated, or bigoted ideologies, such as any number of various "scientific" works purporting to demonstrate the superiority of whites over blacks, or men over women, for example. In Swift's case, however, the tone he adopts and the logical fallacies he engages in function precisely to reveal themselves, so that Swift's use of these common tactics is a means of pointing them out and revealing that they are in fact tactics, or rhetorical methods used to support an otherwise insupportable argument. By performing a close reading of the beginning of Swift's essay, one can see how the particular tone the narrator adopts, the inclusion of numbers and statistics without any evidence, and appeals to upper class authority are meant to criticize the mode of argumentation so frequently deployed by those seeking to promote insupportable arguments; thus, Swift's goal is not only to shed light on the plight of the urban poor, but also to directly challenge the means by which that plight is perpetuated through pseudo-scientific discourse.

The first crucial thing to note about A Modest Proposal is the sanctimonious tone adopted by the narrator which serves to reveal the true concerns of both the narrator and the upper class of which he is ostensibly a part. In the first sentence of the essay, the narrator states that "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" (Swift 1). A cursory reading might suggest that the narrator is concerned with the difficulties of the poor, but a closer examination reveals that the narrator's concern is wholly for the observers "who walk through this great town, or travel in the country," and whose experiences are marred by the "melancholy" they feel at the site of beggars and impoverished children (Swift 1). The problem is not that these people are poor and starving, but rather that their poverty and starvation mars the aesthetic experience of the country. Thus it is only natural that the solution proposed by the narrator does not have anything to do with combating the underlying causes of poverty, but rather concerns itself with making poverty less visible and using the poor in a way that more directly benefits the upper classes. However, by describing the image of beggars and their children in stark detail, the narrator is able to effectively pretend that his forthcoming proposal is oriented towards their well being, in the same way that discriminatory practices and policies are often proposed as being "in the best interest" of the group being discriminated against.

Following the narrator's vivid description of the poor in Ireland and the adoption of a disingenuously compassionate tone, the narrator begins to discuss the situation in pseudo-scientific and economic terms, claiming that "having turned my thoughts for many years, upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation" (Swift 2). He begins claiming that a child may be supported by its mother's milk for up to a year "with little other nourishment: at most not above the value of two shillings" (Swift 2). That he begins by quantifying the cost of raising a child up to a year old not only hints at the full-blown commodification of children that will occur over the course of the essay, but also demonstrates the comedic incongruity between the feigned concern discussed above and the perceived objectivity that comes from the inclusion of numbers. Thus, the narrator begins by playing on the reader's emotion in order to…

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Works Cited

Swift, Jonathan. A Modest Proposal. New York: Forgotten Books, 2008.

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