In this essay, I will take a closer look at Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal and its ironic qualities. I will show that these qualities are not obvious at all, and that perhaps ultimately they do not even exist.
Before I begin with the actual analysis, however, we need to establish that there exist at least two distinct general kinds of irony. First we have “reader-bound” irony, which relies on a conflict between text and reader. Then we have “text-bound” irony, which relies on a conflict between elements of the text. The notion of reader-bound irony has significant consequences for the text. A person who has got that system of rules regarding norms, values and world-view, which Swift pretends to have, will not get the irony of his proposed solution or the elaboration that follows. However, it must be admitted that most readers probably find the proposed solution absurd, and therefore assume that Swift is being ironic. Yet, it is important to stress here that it is the conflict between the ethics displayed in the text and the ethics of the reader that causes the reader to assume that the text is ironic. Thus, the text is in no way objectively ironic.
Nonetheless, A Modest Proposal contains further cases of irony. But I would like to stress once more that, although these cases lie in the text itself, the interpretation of them is still pretty much dependent on who the reader is. Here it is helpful to use Wolfgang Iser’s term “implied reader”. The implied reader is “the reader whom the text creates for itself” or rather whom the author creates for the text (I pretty much disregard self-writing texts), i.e. the ideal reader of a particular text. The implied reader of A Modest Proposal is someone who at least knows that Swift was no madman (although apparently this is not entirely true), and who preferably is rather learned. For there is at least one allusion in the text which one must be learned to realise the implications of. This is when Swift speaks of “a grave author, an eminent French physician”, meaning Rabelais, who indeed was not grave at all, but a pioneer of humoristic prose. This clearly implies that Swift is being ironic. But most people would probably not realise that Swift is referring to Rabelais. I for one did not when I read this the first time, and then I had read excerpts from the works of Rabelais only seventeen months ago.
Therefore, it is crucial to find other elements of the text that will cause the reader to assume that it is ironic. There may be a few such elements. First, there is the title, “A Modest Proposal”. This is in no way ironic in relation to itself, but in relation to the actual proposal, which is not presented until after several long paragraphs, it is. This is clearly an example of text-bound irony. Yet, I suspect that this has little influence on the reader who is not careful enough. That reader will be concentrated too much on each new paragraph to keep in mind the title, and will therefore not notice the conflict between the title and the actual proposal. As I recall, this was the case the first time I read the text. Furthermore, the fact that he is ironic in this case does not necessarily mean that he is ironic in any other.
Then there is the statement “I shall now humbly propose my own thoughts /…/”, which is false because, as one finds out if one continues to read, he is not humble at all. He does maintain a neutral tone, but he refutes alternative solutions without telling us what they are, and he also cannot think of any objections to his proposal. This, to me, is not very humble. In this conflict between his humble intentions and what he actually does, lies the first rather obvious irony. However, once again this does not necessarily mean that he is ironic in any other case.
Then there are a number of sarcastic and laconic statements, e.g. “/…/ landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children” and “/…/ a beggar’s child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, laborers, and four fifths of the farmers)”, none of which are objectively ironic, since they rely on a conflict between the text and the reader. This conflict will not necessarily occur, since the system of rules of the reader and that of the text may overlap.
Finally, there is the ending, in which he apparently presents the solutions he would seriously like to propose, while pretending that he finds them unrealistic. One could say that the alternatives are so obviously good that it becomes obvious that Swift has been ironic all through the text. There is also a change in tone that suggests that he actually feels for these solutions. He talks with contempt about “the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women” and of “introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance”. Yet, after this he says that he has been “wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts” and that he “fortunately fell upon this proposal”. This implies that he is actually being serious, even if it is out of resignation and frustration.
Consequently, although a few elements of the text evidently cause irony, it is questionable whether there is an ironic quality to the text in general.