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English Lit/Lang Anthology [A Modest Proposal] Cheat Sheet by

A Level English Lit/Lang [OCR Exam Board] A Modest Proposal has never been sat in an exam before.


About this satirical essay

- First published as a pamphlet in 1729 by Jonathan Swift
- Full title: "A modest proposal for preventing the children of poor people from being a burden to their parents or country and for making them beneficial to the public­"


Genre: Satirical essay
Register: Formal
Audience: Intell­ige­ntsia (educated, political classes familiar with the political essay genre).
Mode: Writing for a public­ation
Purpose: To amuse (outra­geous) and to raise awareness of serious famine and poverty in Ireland.
Subject: Swift's literal argument is that the poor Irish should sell their children as food to solve their poverty. His satirical argument is that the wealthy landowners 'devoured' the Irish with their cruelty.

Discourse & Structure

Discourse: (1)written or spoken commun­­icate or debate. (2) speak or write author­­it­a­t­ively about a topic.

Written in first person
Swift uses a *humble mode of address, referring to his idea as a "­modest propos­al", and repeating the adverb "­hum­bly­" ("I do therefore humbly offer").
However, he portrays a deep-s­eated conceit by his taste for elaborate gramma­tical constr­uctions and by his lack of empathy.

The essay has the structure of a rational argument with each paragraph adding a further step in the logical progre­ssion.

The author seeks to win our trust by first establ­ishing the severity of the problem before revealing the true nature of the proposal (see the first two paragraphs in partic­ular).

Grammar & Syntax

Syntax: the arrang­ement of words and phrases to create well-f­ormed sentences in a language.

Complex sentences, often with two or more subord­inate clauses.

Use of subord­inate clauses to disguise the outrag­eou­sness of the main declar­ative clauses. ("I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquai­ntance in London­")

Conjun­ction: A word used to conenct clauses or sentences or to coordinate words in the same clause (e.g. "­and­", "­but­", "­if")

Subord­inate clause: a clause, typically introduced by a conjun­ction, that forms part of (and is dependent on) a main clause. (E.g. "when it rang" in "she answered the phone when it rang")


Pragma­­tics: the brand of lingui­­stics dealing with language in use and the contexts in which it is used, including such matters as deixis, the taking of turns in conver­­sa­tion, text organi­­sa­tion, presup­­po­s­i­tion, and implic­­ature.

As it is a satirical essay, Swift must rely on his readers recogn­ising that he does not mean what he says.
However, the satire is all the more effective for being delivered with unfalt­ering convic­tion.
Being published anonym­ously would have enhanced the effect (but it wasn't).

The extract of this anthology text that OCR gave us has missed the section where the author dismisses more realistic options that Swift implies ought to be on the agenda.
I'm not sure if this'll help in your exam but no marks would be lost by mentioning it.

Attitudes & Values

People continue to speculate over whether satire ever changes anything: the desperate situation in Ireland didn't change as a result of Swift's essay.
It could be judged purely on exercise of its humour- "A Modest Propos­al" continues to be one regarded as one of the most remarkable satires in English Litera­ture.
But it also remains potent as a challenge to the arrogance and lack of empathy among politi­cians, academics and others with vested intere­stes.
It poses the necessary question, if this isn't the answer, then what is?


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