Jonathan Swift's 1729 essay, "A Modest Proposal," brilliantly employed satire to deliver serious political commentary on the abuses inflicted on poor Irish families by their well-to-do English landlords. Swift, writing as if a statistician who had solved the problems of the poor, unveiled the theory that the Irish could sell their babies as food to the English. "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," wrote Swift, who used a standard essay format and irony to drive home his criticism of a system that left the Irish in England barred from owning property, seeking elected office and receiving an education. Swift wrote the essay anonymously and in pamphlet form, which at the time was the format for political rallying cries. He ends "A Modest Proposal" with a disclosure that he has nothing personal to gain from the scheme, since his children are too old to make tasty dishes and his wife is past child-bearing age. The essay remains one of the most shocking satires in print, and a primer for satirical essays, such as those found in publications like "The Onion."
Choose a relatively serious topic, such as a social ill whose resolution is hardly controversial, such as crime, disease or poverty. No one is pro-homicide, pro-starvation of children or pro-terminal disease. Then, jot down some outlandish ideas, such as a law that requires all handguns to be painted in floral designs. Have the argument come from an expert in the field of fashion.
Practice and study verbal irony. Verbal irony is defined as a figure of speech in which the writer says the opposite of what he means. It is more than simple sarcasm. Search for examples of verbal irony on the Web."A Modest Proposal" is available free online, since it is in the public domain for literature. Read it at least twice. Irony is the tool that Swift employed to deliver biting satire. Bearing babies as cattle is horrific and ridiculous, but his choice of images -- a cut of meat on the dinner table -- is darkly hilarious. Swift adds tiny gems, such as the suggestion that babies' skin would make excellent gloves.
Write a two-page essay, employing Swift's idea to take on a fake persona, such as an academic or a theologian. Carefully choose words and phrases that maintain a consistent voice for your character. Also, back up your argument with equally fake sources. For example, Swift's statistician says that an American he knows is the one who told him that babies taste delicious. Satirical writing is not easy. The humor and the point is usually in the delivery. Swift's character is matter-of-fact and calm in tone, and comes up with many examples of why his idea will solve the poverty problem. "A Modest Proposal" never attacks anyone, rather it satirizes the separation of rich and poor through irony.
Share your essay with a trusted friend or another writer and ask him to mark down any changes or fixes they find. Every writer needs a good editor. Do not take any constructive criticism personally.
Revise the essay, after studying your first draft and taking note of any edits or suggestions. Give it a simple title that never reveals the irony included in the essay, in the vein of "A Modest Proposal," which is anything but a modest proposal.
Tips & Warnings
- Study "A Modest Proposal" and other satirical essays.
- Run the first draft by a trusted friend or fellow writer.
- Always rewrite the final draft.
- Avoid personal attacks on public figures.
- Write in the voice of a fictional expert.
- Triple-check your essay and your ideas to avoid plagiarism.