In“ A Modest Proposal” and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, satire and the use of irony are the primary literary devices. One important way uses irony in which the author engages with the audience is to make them see deeper political, moral, and social truths and problems through his use of irony to create satire. When making a comparison of “Gulliver’s Travels” and “A Modest Proposal” by Swift one sees how Jonathan Swift is using irony, satire and satirical situations to point out problems in society and to comment upon them without directly and seriously addressing the reader. In “Modest Proposal” and “Gulliver’s Travels” Jonathan Swift uses satire and irony to achieve the same goals although because of the differences in the structure of each piece, the use of satire varies in “A Modest Proposal” and “Gulliver’s Travels”
“A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift piece is certainly a satire that is aimed at making his contemporary readers recognize the kind of cold, calculating inhumanity of blunt rationalism when used to address social problems such as poverty as well as overpopulation. Swift presents this irony through characterization in “A Modest Proposal”—in this case, the speaker of the proposal. For instance, the ironic speaker in “A Modest Proposal” can coldly discuss the economic and social benefits of killing and eating children without ever giving much thought to the moral problems. The irony of this character though, is that he can go on to criticize the moral weakness of mothers who have immoral abortions or commit infanticide. In one of his most ironic statements and quotes, the speaker of “Modest Proposal” by Swift balks at the idea of eating teenagers because this is “bordering upon cruelty,” as if all of his other suggestions were not. The speaker in “A Modest Proposal” uses irony and satire as he tells the reader turn a blind eye to other ideas or options and by doing so, represents the worst kind of politician or social planner. This ironic character can make a statement that would seem to be purely economic without seeming to realize the awful nature of it. For instance, at one point he speaks of the selling of babies as food and explained in one of the important quotes from “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift “I grant this food [children] will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.” This is a powerful statement disguised as a blind following of the speaker’s philosophy when in fact, it addresses the very sad notion that England and Ireland’s rich landowners really have milked the poor for all they have. This ironic narrator in “A Modest Proposal” can tell the reader with cold ease about how the skin of children can be used like leather to make… “admirable gloves for ladies and summer boots for fine gentlemen,” as if were something beautiful and simple and this irony makes the reader aware of the dangers of following blindly one philosophy, especially when it has an effect on an entire population.
In “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift one object of satire and irony is the bureaucracy of England. During Swift’s time the monarchy had a direct influence, even in the realm of law although there was a growing bureaucracy developing. This is satirized in “Gulliver’s Travels” by the Lilliputians who take extensive inventory of all of Gulliver’s possessions and are prone to making “official” edicts governing the lives of Gulliver and the rest of the citizens. At one point, amazed with the gall of the little people, Gulliver remarks in one of the important quotes from “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift, “I could not sufficiently wonder at the intrepidity of these diminutive mortals, who durst venture to mount and walk on my body, while one of my hands was at liberty, without trembling at the sight of prodigious creature as I must appear to them” (2338). This overwhelming self-importance is key to Swift’s satire as even the most minute issue is made to be of vast political and bureaucratic importance. For example, a war broke out between Lilliput and Blefuscu because of the proper way to break eggs after an Emperor many years before cut his finger on an eggshell, as stated in one of the quotes, “Whereupon the Emperor published an edict, commanding all his subjects, under great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us there have been six rebellions raised on this account” (3253). This makes the squabbles that resulted in great strife in England seem equally as silly, especially since so much of the debate was based on the “proper” way to interpret which end of the egg was the smallest. Although for the reader, the introduction to Lilliput sounds much like a miniature and more absurd England rather than a distant utopia in “Gulliver’s Travels”, as the description of the land and government continues it becomes clear that although the Lilliputians suffer from the same flaws inherent in English society (pompous government, rebellions over relatively minor issues, and a tendency to over-regulate the more mundane aspects of life, to name a few) they posses many beliefs that allow them to be more utopian—especially when compared to England.
Other articles and essays in the Literature Archives related to this topic include Analysis and Short Summary of “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift • Irony and Social Critique in “A Modest Proposal” and Candide • Realistic Utopias in “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift • Comparison of The Metamorphosis, Gulliver’s Travels and The Death of Ivan Ilych