Leading Questions about Eighteenth-Century Authors

Members of Ms. Rosenblum's section, English 32, Brown University, 1998

1. How does language function in Swift's Gulliver's Travels? In Part 4 in particular, language seems to serve to accentuate the differences between British norms and the mode of life espoused by the Houyhnhnms. How does the problem of communication in this part of the narrative enable or play a part in the satirical form? [Rebecca Colesworthy]

2. "A Modest Proposal" is clearly saturated with brilliant examples of irony. But what about parody? Swift's piece parodies the humanitarian who proposes a theoretic plan in an attempt to ameliorate a social catastrophe. How do the form and language work together in this piece to make his "modest" suggestion seem feasible? Look at the way Swift lays down his main points (i.e. Secondly...Thirdly...)and pay attention to the speaker's seemingly elevated, rational voice. [Emily O'Dell]

3. Where do you feel that the reader first has cause to doubt the infallibility of Swift's speaker in Gulliver's Travels? [Kate Erb]

4. In Part I of Gulliver's Travels, there are numerous points during which Gulliver makes reference to his own body parts and natural functions; for example, he extinguishes the fire of the castle with his urine. Why does Swift choose to include such seemingly gratuitous and banal features? Does this serve to weaken or reinforce the issue of human grotesqueness? [Carolyn Shin ]

5. In An Essay On Man, Pope writes that

In pride, in reasoning pride, our error lies;
All quit their sphere, and rush into the skies.
Pride still is aiming at the blest abodes,
Men would be angels, angels would be gods.
Aspiring to be gods, if angels fell,
Aspiring to be angels, men rebel:
And who but wishes to invert the laws
Of order, sins against the Eternal Cause. (123-130)

Is all ambition "reasoning pride," as Pope suggests, and is it wrong to quit one's sphere in aspiring to become something greater than you are? Does Pope want everyone simply to accept his or her lot in life, or does he have a different intent in this passage (and the rest of his work) [David Anthony Tice]

6. The author of A Modest Proposal obviously has a talent for satirical writing and a political bone to pick. How much of the essay is hard-hitting satire and how much (say, the parts in which he goes into detail of the many ways in which a child can be prepared and served as a meal) are simply an exposition of his writing talents. Did he have to dilute his satire in order to avoid government sanctions? How was this work received by his countrymen? Did the piece receive exposure in England? If so, how was it received. Isn't it usually true that those being satirized are usually the last to "get it"? [Matthew Swaye]

7. In several instances in Gulliver's Travels, the main character submitted to the will of people who were many times smaller than himself. For instance, the king purposed a series of laws which forbade the main character to leave the dominion, forced him to fight a war for the dominion in which he resided, as well as perform a variety of other duties. The protagonist complied despite the fact that he greatly desired his own liberty and could overcome their threats. Why is this? Is Swift trying to communicate something about human kindness? [January Wilson]

When an author writes a satire, it is not only the voice of the speaker but also the position of the author that comprises an instrumental part of the effectiveness of the work. In other words, the real author is as attached to the work as his satirical persona. Jonathan Swift employs his postion as a Protestant clergyman to his advantage in "A Modest Proposal": the satire of a speaker who reasonably suggests baby-eating is all the more biting coming from a man of the Church.

8. Alexander Pope, on the other hand, was more on the fringe of the aristocracy he targeted. To be sure, the speaker of his "Rape of the Lock" is a detached observer, one who is delightfully aware of the foibles he exposes, and not THE Alexander Pope. Is Pope's proximity to his subject a flaw in his satire, or does he successfully overcome his background to create a flawless strike at the heart of aristocracy? Even if he is successful, does he nevertheless "hold back" more than Swift? Or could this difference in harshness be related to a difference in theme (the injustice of English oppression versus a gentle parody of the idle rich and human vanity?) [David Moore]

9. Given that Swift's Gulliver's Travels is a satire, who is the target of his criticism? Is it a certain part of society, society as a whole is it perhaps human nature in general? Are there many different layers to his satire? For example:

The Houyhnhnm whom the narrator calls master says to him, "he looked down upon us as a sort of animals to whose share, by what accident he could not conjecture, some small pittance of reason had fallen, whereof we made no other use than by its assistance to aggravate our natural corruptions, and to acquire new ones which nature had not given us." (p.2158)

Do the Houyhnhnms suggest the true sentiments of Swift? If so, how should we regard this in respect to his final chapters in which the narrator then becomes the satirical target because of his disgust towards what he calls the "English Yahoo"? [Lynne A. Gervais]

10. How does Swift's ostensibly simple and transparent style (he uses familiar diction, simple sentences) enhance the effect of his satire? How do the formal characteristics of his writing produce satire? [Jennifer Orrick]

11. Satire is an effective form for criticizing society. Pope paints a picture of a courtly woman adorning herself like a soldier readies for battle while Swift has the wealthy licking their chops for peasant children. We laugh at these jests and then nod at the criticisms they suggest. It seems that this sort of genre occurs today within the forum of late-night television. I see Conan O'Bryan as a master satirist. With this in mind, it seems that satire is a form that stands the test of time. Yet, as I read these satires, I am left wondering if satire is a brave form of literature or is it cowardly? Are Pope and Swift hiding behind humor or is their humor and allegory a bold move in espousing their opinions? [Kara Alexander]

12. What is Swift's conception of alien in his satire Gulliver's Travels — more specifically, of the concept of foreigner Does Swift's narrator treat those people he encounters as one would expect a visitor to treat a foreigner? How is his behavior typical/atypical? Does the reader see Gulliver as a foreigner? In relation to this idea, how does Swift characterize the relationship between self and other in his work? How does Gulliver fare as an author? How does he place himself in his work? How does he characterize himself in relation to those he is describing? Does Gulliver accurately characterize himself? How can the readers place themselves within the text, in relation to Gulliver and to those he is describing?

13. I was curious about that last footnote (6) on page 2011 in "A Description of a City Shower" about the final triplet being a "ridicule" of triplets and that Swift brought about the "banish[ment]" of triplets from contemporary poetry. What else can you tell me about this? How can we tell that this is not a genuine use of a triplet within a generally comic piece? Is it just the subject matter that it is addressing (dung, guts, dead cats, mud) that is degrading it? Or did Swift publish other things specifically ridiculing triplets? Also, why would he care? [Nicholas Reville]

14. The twentieth-century reader of Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal is well aware that the proposed solution "FOR PREVENTING THE CHILDREN OF POOR PEOPLE IN IRELAND FROM BEING A BURDEN TO THEIR PARENTS OR COUNTRY, AND FOR MAKING THEM BENEFICIAL TO THE PUBLIC" (2181) is not realistic. Eighteenth-century readers of Jonathan Swift were not necessarily as well informed about the satirical nature of Swift's diatribe. These readers were more inclined to believe that the speaker is serious about his proposal to kill and eat one hundred thousand one-year old children, as when his fictional speaker concludes, "Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients:...though often and earnestly invited to it (2185-86)." This passage provides solutions that seem significantly more realistic to anyone living in the eighteenth or twentieth centuries who reads A Modest Proposal. These plausible solutions are incorporated into the same text that proposes an absurd solution. Does this act enforce the absurdity of the modest proposal to the eighteenth century reader by juxtaposing it to realistic solutions? Does this act of grouping the absurd with the pragmatic instead convince the unsuspecting eighteenth century reader that the modest proposal, the absurd answer, is in fact feasible because of the association that the speaker creates between the two solutions? [Judd Walencikowski]

15. In Swift's "Phyllis," what does he reveal about his views on love, considering that he also name the work"Progress of Love?" Why does he choose to depict Phyllis the way he does? What response, if any, is he trying to incite from his audience? [Letise Houser]

16. The Rambler by Samuel Johnson discusses certain human necessities for living life to its greatest extent such as removing obstacles in order to obtain happiness, maintaining an open mind allowing one to keep learning, and having an array of diversified tastes so that life does not become monotonous. These topics are not trivial ones that should be omitted from one's life. If Johnson is talking about things that are important, why does he title this piece asThe Rambler which implies aimless writer lacking continuity? Is The Rambler aimless or does it follow a dedicated path of truth? Is Johnson implying that advice regarding living life to its fullest doesn't have real importance or meaning to it? Or does Johnson feel unsatisifed with The Rambler thinking that he is indeed lacking direction or continuity in his attempt to give advice on how to live a better life? [Elizabeth Rubin ]

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