As seen through both “A Modest Proposal” and “Candide”, both Jonathan Swift and Voltaire were committed to exposing the problems inherent to their societies, but instead of making bold proclamations about these issues, they wrote entertaining texts that used irony, especially in terms of characterization, to point them out. In both “Candide” and “A Modest Proposal” (full summary and analysis) there are characters who represent the dangers of blindly following one way of thought over another.
In Swift’s short satirical essay, “A Modest Proposal” the narrator is an ironic character because he is blind to the horrible moral implications of his proposal and favors only economic progress. In “Candide” by Voltaire, there are several characters who are ironic representations of the worst and most dangerous aspects of society. Despite the differences in the two texts, it is clear that both authors get the attention of an otherwise complacent audience by making their criticisms apparent in an entertaining format so that readers are more compelled to engage with the story and hopefully are taking away something in the end to make them understand societal issues better.
In Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal” one important way 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. The essay 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 and overpopulation. Like Voltaire, Jonathan Swift presents this irony through characterization—in this case, the speaker of the proposal. Although Voltaire tends to present many problems of the Enlightenmentby having multiple ironic characters, the effect is the same since the audience is drawn in and made to recognize the flaws of certain ways of thinking. For instance, the speaker in the essay “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 the narrator of “A Modest Proposal” by Swift 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, the speaker balks at the idea of eating teenagers because this is “bordering upon cruelty,” as if all of his other suggestions were not. Like the philosopher, Pangloss in Voltaire’s “Candide”, the speaker in “A Modest Proposal” 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, saying, “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 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.
Throughout Candide, irony is also used to point out problems within society, but instead presenting it by just one narrator’s views on the world, Voltaire makes citizens aware by integrating the irony into a story that is interesting to read. Voltaire uses an entertaining story with colorful characters to engage readers and keep them entertained, all the while creating these characters to reflect issues of theEnlightenment period in Candide such as the hypocrisy and corruption that was rampant in the Church. For example, the inhumanity of the clergy, most notably the Inquisitor, in hanging and executing his fellow citizens over philosophical differences itself shows that ironically, the leaders of the “moral” are actually the ones causing death and pain and are responsible for the least humane scenes in the text. Moreover, the inquisitor orders the flogging of Candide for merely, “listening with an air of approval” which is thus proof that Candide is somehow implicit in blasphemy. Most ironically, the Church officials are depicted as being among the most sinful of all citizens; having mistresses, engaging in homosexual affairs, and operating as jewel thieves.
Perhaps the most absurd example of hypocrisy in the Church hierarchy is the fact that the Pope has a daughter despite his vows of celibacy. While Voltaire is poking fun at the Church and its behavior, there is an element of high comedy about such actions that the reader is engaged with the irony and thus recognizes that the Church could be capable of these things, even if not to the comically obscene extent Voltaire depicts. As seen in the case of the characters belonging to the church, Voltaire uses ironic characters to point out problems with the problem of church hypocrisy and corruption. He creates another ironic character, Pangloss, to point out the problems with thinkers of his time and how they would follow narrow philosophies blindly. For example, Pangloss, an adherent to his own brand of philosophy called, as stated in one of the important quotes from “Candide” by Voltaire, “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology” which advocates the belief that “This world is the best of all possible worlds” actually causes damage to others. This is demonstrated in the scene where the Jacques is drowning (as a result of his own philosophical beliefs in altruistic behavior, no less) and Pangloss attributes the event in typical nonsensical fashion to the fact that “the bay of Lisbon had been formed expressly for the Anabaptist to drown in.” In short, although it does not make logical sense, this ironic character overlooks everything to stick to his own view of the world in much the same way the “Proposer” in Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” does. Both characters have a philosophy (in the case of the proposal, it is rationalism and strict economic theory without heart) and they cannot seem to think about the larger implications of their ideas. Both Swift and Voltaire have presented characters who are portrayed ironically to point out the way actual people in either’s society think.
In sum, through ironic characterization within the larger context of satire in Candide and “A Modest Proposal”, each of these texts seeks to point out the flaws of following something blindly to point out the hypocrisy in society. Both authors use engaging stories with outlandish ironic characters to make these points instead of bluntly declaring dissatisfaction with their societies outright. This makes an otherwise complacent audience more willing to spend time with the text and it seems that both authors thought that if they could make the audience laugh or even horrify them, it would make the lessons in either text even more resonant.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Analysis and Short Summary of “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift • Candide by Voltaire: In the Context of the Enlightenment • Comparison of Use of Irony & Satire in “A Modest Proposal” and “Gulliver’s Travels”