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A Modest Proposal and Other Satirical Works

by Jonathan Swift

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I suppose it makes me a philistine to say that I’m not charmed by Jonathan Swift’s wildly lauded Gulliver’s Travels, but it’s true. It does not seem particularly clever to me to imagine tiny people; nor does it seem particularly winsome to portray your ideological foes as sub-human. Swift’s satire is far too savage to be persuasive.

For those reasons, students using this reading list only briefly meet Swift through his essay “An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity in England.” A little Swift goes a long way, as this essay makes clear. Subtlety, something that seems to me to be crucial for the highest satire, is completely lacking in Swift.

Didn’t you understand his latest barb? Well, he’ll tell it again—in several variations—until even the most dim-witted among us sees his point. Even the title of this essay is a shout: the people I’m satirizing will not stop till they have destroyed religion!

It’s helpful to compare Swift with my favorite satire, The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith. Because Goldsmith prizes subtlety, many careless readers walk away from The Vicar of Wakefield not knowing that their most precious conventions have been undermined. Does this mean that Goldsmith failed to influence those readers? Not necessarily. When we are behaving in a ridiculous way, it often takes time and reflection for the ridiculousness to dawn on us.

But we are rarely snapped out of our foolishness by the Swiftian method of clapping us on the shoulder and yelling, “You’re a fool!” We like to be told a little more gently than that.

by Jeff Baldwin