Vexing the world through satire

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Jonathan Swift said, in a letter to Pope, that ‘the chief end [he proposed himself] in all [his] labours [was] to vex the world rather than divert it’. This may be the reason why he chose the satire as the main genre for most of his writings, as it provided him with an especially suitable means for his end. In this essay, I will show the connection between Swift’s aim at vexing the world and hisuse of satire, by analysing the satirical elements and their effects, in ‘A Modest Proposal’ and Gulliver’s Travels, Book IV.
In his attempt to stir up the world, Swift finds in satire a convinient garment for his message, something that becomes evident if we consider Pope’s statement that satire has a social function, and though its tone may be light, its function is wholly serious. In ‘A ModestProposal’ we can have a glimpse of Swift’s voice in the persona of the speaker when he says he has ‘no other motive than the public good of [his] country...’ Although on the surface the intention is to do this by proposing to eat the children of poor people in Ireland, Swift’s real intention is to contribute to the wellfare of his country by criticizing the flaws of its people and institutionsin order that they might be remodeled or improved, quite a serious and important thing indeed. The same purpose is put into Gulliver’s mouth almost at the end of the book: ‘ sole intention was the PUBLIC GOOD (....) I write for the noblest end, to inform and instruct mankind...’ It is important to mention also that in order to fulfil his objective, Swift opted for Juvenalian satire, which inthe combination of comedy and criticism that is satire, tips the balance in favour of the latter. So, for example, we can identify tints of humour in Gulliver’s description of lawyers’ actions during a lawsuit about the ownership of a cow:
...they never desire to know what claim or title my adversary hath to my cow, but whether the said cow were red or black, her horns long or short; whether thefield I graze her in be round or square (...); after which they consult ‘precedents’, adjourn the cause from time to time, and in ten, twenty, or thirty years come to an issue.
Yet, the criticizing element is stronger and more profound than the comic one.
The tone used by Swift’s satire also contributes to his purpose of shaking his readers. It’s characterized by biting sarcasm and bitter irony.Take, for example, the way of referring to children and poor people in ‘A Modest Proposal’; with supposedly good will and “innocence”, the persona of the economist talks about poor people as if they were mere commodities. One cannot feel less than vexed when reading things like “a young healthy child well nursed is at ayear old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed,roasted, baked, or boiled...” and “a boy or girl before twelve years old is no salable commodity”. The message behind the irony is a clear criticism about the way in which poor people in Ireland were treated by the government and those who designed projects to provide for them. Swift’s biting sarcasm puts into the economist’s mouth phrases like “I can think of no one objection that will possibly beraised against this proposal...” or his referring to abortions as “that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas!”. Of course he can think of many objections against this proposal, but he is representing in the figure of the economist the lack of moral values spread all over the society. As regards abortion, Swift is criticizing the way in which the Church treats it, becausein the then-present condition abortion could be in some way justified, according to what we can infer from Swift’s sarcasm. The tone is not only bitter, sarcastic and ironic, but also one of moral indignation and pessimism. This is very clear in Gulliver’s last words, when he has finished telling his story and refers to his present situation:
My reconcilement to the Yahoo-kind in general might...
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