NOTE: You will probably want to read (or at least scan) Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal and Daniel Defoe's The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters before reading this. Swift's proposal has already been assimilated into the database, and Defoe's work can be found here.

Now then...

Bruce Seaton
Professor Mell
Engl 331-Satire

A Modest Exploration
OF Several Perspectives regarding one Proposal by Jonathan Swift
and others regarding a Proposal by Daniel Defoe;
and the reasons such varying Perspectives may exist.

While no two people will ever have identical perspectives on any literary work, few pieces of literature in history have drawn such varied criticisms as Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (1729) and Daniel Defoe’s The Shortest-Way With the Dissenters (1703). Critics have argued strongly in both attack and defense of both pieces, and the lines along which the arguments have run have shifted since their initial publication nearly three centuries ago. It is not the purpose of this essay to resolve either argument, but rather to examine why such wide ranges of reactions to these two works exist.

A Modest Proposal is often cited as an example of the most successful satire. Few will argue that the essay accomplishes its goal, and the elegance and complexity Swift uses in the essay make it a standard work for any course on either Swift’s era or of satire generally. The cool logic of the tone, the population statistics given, and the multifaceted view of The Irish Problem that the nominally sympathetic narrator takes in the work make the shock inherent in its subject matter--the cannibalization of children--all the more extreme.

The problems built into interpreting this work seem to come more from knowledge of Swift than of the work itself--while the irony of the work would suggest the writer to in fact be highly supportive of the Irish generally and of the poor specifically, it is widely known from Swift’s own sermons and writings that he despised the Irish, and felt that beggars had become so because they had led lives deserving of such a fate. This confusing fact has caused widespread disagreement between scholars, especially those attempting to discern when Swift is being ironic, and when he is not.

Another source of confusion is the fact that Swift at first appears to be satirizing the pamphlet format as well, but the only references his author-persona makes are to Swift’s serious work, suggesting that the work is more personal than political. In the “let no man talk to me of other Expedients” section, is Swift actually abandoning his former stance on the matter by ridiculing his own serious suggestions? Is he perhaps giving the reader a clue to his true identity? Or is he perhaps simply making his speaker sound all the more extreme, by listing a series of perfectly plausible solutions? It is difficult to tell exactly what Swift is doing in this section, perhaps all of the above, perhaps something totally different.

Although it seems clear that in this essay Swift is expressing his extreme dissatisfaction with the way the “Irish Problem” had been handled by the English Government at the time of A Modest Proposal’s publication, it is the specifics of the essay which are key to understanding the work’s exact point of view, and it is these details which cause so much confusion in interpretation.

Defoe’s The Shortest-Way With the Dissenters has caused confusion for a much different reason. The central line of argument in this case seems to be whether or not the satire of the piece was a success or a failure. Although it has long been declared a disaster by critics, who argue that its satire was not extreme enough in its hyperbole to be recognized for what it was by the public in its day, more recent scholars have argued that since it eventually accomplished its goal, the piece may have been a greater success than was before considered.

The linchpin of this argument is that no one (either high Tory or dissenter) understood at the time that Defoe’s work was not a serious essay. The apparent rabidity with which Defoe’s speaker attacks the dissenters incited many Tories to quote it in speeches, and frightened the dissenters badly. When it was finally revealed that Defoe (himself a radical dissenter) was the author of the work, the badly embarrassed High-Churchmen had him tossed into prison and subjected to humiliation at the pillory. But this is the point at which some modern critics argue that the piece was a success.

One might even consider that Defoe’s essay was not a pure satire in itself--the real irony occurred after his authorship of the work was discovered. It seems that Defoe’s purpose with the piece was to reveal the blood thirst of the High-Churchmen and to cause a stir in the House of Lords. In both of these goals, the piece was successful. Furthermore, the humiliation intended for Defoe never came to fruition; rather than hurling words and vegetables, the crowds that came to see him there cheered and put flowers out on the pillory in his honor.

Although A Modest Proposal and The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters make very different use of satire, both essays seem to take their subject matter seriously, even if the writers of the essays don’t take themselves particularly seriously. Both essays suggest a bleak outlook on the part of the author, and both writers leave several points up for discussion, forcing the reader to think carefully about his or her own beliefs on the subjects they deal with. Because of these ambiguities, a final verdict on these works may never be reached. Perhaps that is for the best.

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