English Language and Literature ETDs

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The recognition of Swift's rhetorical method in "A Modest Proposal" is an initial premise in most criticism of the essay. The satiric effect of the method is generally assumed; however, incomplete or inconclusive definitions of the essay's rhetorical structure have resulted in unsatisfying and unsatisfactory commentary on its satire--one critic finding it totally destructive, others failing adequately to account for the constructive purpose they claim to see. A formal rhetorical analysis of "A Modest Proposal," aimed at reconstructing the essay's argumentative structure and determining the structural bases for its effects, is the purpose of this paper. Because it is basically functional and because it is fundamental to the rhetorical tradition in which Swift received his training, Aristotle's Rhetoric is the primary critical tool. Using Aristotle's three-part division of rhetoric into speaker, reasoned argument and audience, the analysis involves essentially a distinction between the rhetoric of the persona-author of the "Proposal" and Swift's own rhetoric, defining in the process the parts and proofs of each. What the analysis reveals is a dialectic of conflicting attitudes, ideas, and proposals, and a three-part logical development, with a literal level of argument, a refutation of that argument, and a real meaning, becomes apparent. First, there is the persona's proposal for relieving famine and poverty in Ireland by the sale and consumption of infant flesh. The persona's rhetoric relies heavily upon convincing his audience of the intellectual integrity of his argument and of his own virtue, sagacity, and goodwill. However, an underlying pattern of fallacy in his overall approach and general reasoning and in his specific proofs undercut and, by undercutting, refute the argument, at the same time, calling into question the intellectual competence and integrity of the persona as rhetorician. Since Swift as the real rhetorician creates as well as attacks this rhetoric of the persona, the literal level of argument together with its implicit refutation may be seen as a demonstrated untruth or a mocking rhetoric from which the real meaning of the essay, an appeal for moral reform and the adoption of reasonable and humane economic expedients, is to be inferred. The identification of the rhetoric of "A Modest Proposal" as a mocking rhetoric places the essay in the satiric tradition of the Dunciad, MacFlecknoe, and the Shepherd's Week. Swift has "mocked" classical rhetoric by adhering to its structure but filling that structure with debased or perverted material. By shading this satire with the morality and superior intellection of the supra-level of refutative and real argument, Swift as mocker is able to turn the mock rhetoric of "A Modest Proposal" back into a true rhetoric with an ultimately positive and constructive meaning.

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First Committee Member (Chair)

Hoyt Trowbridge

Second Committee Member

Joseph Marshall Kuntz

Third Committee Member

Edith Buchanan



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