The keystone of Swift's comic treatise is its deadpan tone, a tone that inspires the reader to wonder if, despite the piece's fantastical premise, its author is somehow serious in his claims. By rigorously discussing the method by which yearling children can be taken from their mothers' breasts and placed on the "good tables" of landowners, Swift drives home a thesis on poverty that the most earnest speech-making and polemic could never have achieved. There is one sentence, however, in which Swift tips his hand, in which he abandons his straight face for a winking one. Amidst a dry, wonkish discussion on the market for human flesh, he drops the following pun:
"I have reckoned upon a medium, that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, encreaseth to 28 pounds.
"I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children."
In an essay who audacious language is intentionally framed as literal, Swift's figurative use of the word "devoured" stands out. Although the entire piece is a joke, this line is the only recognizable joke in it.
Why did Swift choose to pun?
Was it to disarm any literal-minded reader who might suspect that "A Modest Proposal" is an actual call to cannibalism?
Was it because he saw to opportunity to pun and could not resist the urge, despite the momentary shift in tone?Does this line detract from or add to the essay?
Last modified 8 February 2005