A Modest Proposal
by Jonathan Swift
The Proposer (Narrator)
Who is this guy proposing that the Irish eat their own children? Here's a clue: he's not Jonathan Swift. Sometimes called the Proposer, the fictional author of this tract is deadly serious. He's methodical in his analysis of Ireland's poverty and completely unaware that he's suggesting anything ridiculous:
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection. (9)
Yeah, no one should have any objections to a crazy cannibalistic plan. Right? The Proposer is entirely impersonal, which makes his proposal all the more ludicrous. He briefly considers the downsides of genocide, but cheerfully concludes that it isn't really a problem. His money-grubbing philosophy only draws attention to the callousness of the English rulers.
The Proposer methodically addresses just about every argument against devouring innocent babies, other than the moral one. This is where you might see elements of Swift's personality as a writer of sermons and tracts creeping in. The guy knows how to make a good argument:
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 the winter. (11)
Boy does he have the deadpan tone down.
Big Words and a Bigger Ego
The Proposer is slow to come to the main point, mainly because he is so thorough in explaining his reasoning. He hems and haws as he describes the poverty in Ireland, digressing from his proposal again and again. Mainly, the author is trying to demonstrate his superior intelligence by snidely undermining his opponents ("As to my own part […] I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation" ).
Number (and Kid) Crunching
In addition to using big words, the Proposer seems to really like numbers. He throws out so many numbers starting in paragraph 7 that you'd think he's a wannabe mathematician. By adopting the economic language used to justify England's lack of involvement, Swift (through the Proposer) satirizes their greed. Pretty sneaky, right?
Where is Swift?
It can be tough to distinguish Swift's voice from the voice of the Proposer. After all, both are skilled political writers who doggedly stick to their guns. The Proposer is the most cynical version of Swift, fed up with rational analysis that no one reads.
The Proposer even turns up his nose at some of Swift's former suggestions for improving Ireland, like
taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound; of using neither clothes nor household furniture, except what is our growth and manufacture, […] of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing. (28)
That's right, the Proposer pooh-poohs a dozen suggestions that Swift actually thought would be helpful (28). That means a surefire way to pick out Swift's voice is to scan for actual solutions to Ireland's problems.
Swift tries to step back and let the Proposer take the wheel, but our favorite misanthropist sneaks in a comment every now and then. Ladies and gentlemen, behold a Swift trademark zinger:
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. (30)
He just can't help himself. He realizes that satire is a new and effective way to reach his audience, but he also loves to rant against authority. And we love to listen.