On this day in two different centuries, two great writers and two great satirists were born.
The first was the Irish writer Jonathan Swift born in 1667. Swift wrote two of the greatest satires in the English language; the first is the classic political allegory Gulliver’s Travels, where he employs fantasy to expose human folly. The second is his essay A Modest Proposal, where he takes on the voice of a pompous British politician who blithely proposes an outrageous solution to the problem of Irish poverty.
The second great writer born on November 30th was the American writer Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known to us by his pen name Mark Twain. Born in 1835 and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, Twain’s masterpiece was his novel and satire The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1885. Twain’s innovation in this work was to write in the first person, not using his own voice, but instead making the narrator an uneducated, unwashed outcast named Huckleberry Finn.
As great satirists, both Swift and Twain used humor as a tool to expose and criticize their societies. However, they both knew that the recipe for satire included one other essential ingredient: irony.
Successful satire uses irony to say one thing while meaning the opposite. So, for example, instead of directly criticizing an opponent’s argument, the satirist speaks as though he is agreeing with his opponent while at the same time pointing out the argument’s flaws and absurdities. Satire, therefore, possess a challenge for the reader who must be able to detect the ironic voice and realize that the author actually means the opposite of what he or she is saying.
For example, to truly comprehend Twain’s bitter criticism of a society that would condone slaveholding, we have to see the irony of Huck’s predicament regarding his friend, the runaway slave Jim. By helping Jim to escape, Huck truly believes he is committing an immoral act, an act that will condemn him to hell.
Similarly, when we read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” it is important to realize that Swift is not truly arguing that Irish parents should sell their babies as food. Instead, he is using irony to target the corrupt ways that the English have exploited the Irish.
As the following excerpt demonstrates, Swift takes on the persona (or mask) of a seemingly rational statesman who is using logical argumentation to reach an absurd conclusion:
I am assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London; that a young healthy child, well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food; whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled, and I make no doubt, that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or ragout. (1)
Today’s Challenge: Seeing a Situation Satirically
What are some current societal issues for which you might make a modest proposal? Before you attempt to write satire, read the complete text of Swift’s essay. The complete title of the 1729 essay was A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of the Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to Their Public. Today, the three words “A Modest Proposal” have become synonymous with a satirical approach to addressing an issue, where a writer uses humor and irony to target opposing arguments. Brainstorm some real societal issues that people and politicians are currently trying to solve. Select one, and determine what you think would be the best ways to solve the problem. Then, put on your mask (persona) of satire, and try to capture the voice of someone who believes the exact opposite of what you do. Use humor and hyperbole to reveal the weaknesses and absurdity of the proposal as well as to criticize the kinds of people who perpetuate the problem instead of solving it. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
1-Swift, Jonathan. A Modest Proposal. 1729. Public Domain. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1080.