Skip to main content
Toward a participatory Rhetoric: Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal
College English (1968)
  • Charles Kay Smith

This essay is a literary analysis of the special form of satire Swift invented for A Modest Proposal. Some of Swift's more conventional classical figures of speech have already been noted, though more or less in isolation to one another as well as to larger designs and aesthetic aims. Swift's genius in A Modest Proposal is to create a speaker whose monologue keeps two distinct styles operational at all times. The style of which the speaker is aware is constantly opposed by covert and innovative verbal and grammatical techniques which the proposer sets in motion but of which he remains unaware, which slowly but surely turns a reader's sympathies against him and against those who share his callous social views. By playing his proposer's classical rhetoric against Swift's own invention of a covert, more powerful kind of rhetoric, two antithetical points of view are embodied in one monologue. The proposer never seems to understand that the monologue Swift has given him is actually a dialogue that subverts him at every turn. Once our model of Swift's unique form of dual style satire has been built, we can see how similar it is to Michelangelo Antonioni's film satire, Blow-up. Both embody two antithetical styles that allow the more imaginative and positive point of view to move the reader. In both art forms the message is positive rather than negative. In my own classes on Swift, I assign the practical task of using our model as a writing program. Swift's kind of satire can be used with modern subject matter and addressed to a modern audience. In discussing the real problems writers or directors of this kind of satire must face, and considering solutions, students better understand Swift's literary achievement.

Publication Date
November, 1968
Citation Information
Charles Kay Smith. "Toward a participatory Rhetoric: Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal" College English Vol. 30 Iss. 2 (1968)
Available at: