Welcome back! Seems that I ‘forgot’ to mention a tiny piece of information needed to understand Swift’s essay. Do not, under any circumstance, take him literally. Let me briefly explain. First, yes, I failed to mention that detail on purpose. The reason was to give you the appropriate emotions when reading A Modest Proposal for the first time. It’s like watching Empire Strikes Back, it just doesn’t have the same impact if you know about the surprise. But, I digress, let us discuss what I mean when I say do not take Swift literally.
Now, I do not mean to disparage the educational level of my readership, instead this is more of a commentary of common mistakes I see all too often. Literal: following exactly the wording of the original (emphasis mine). A common misconception is to use ‘literally’ as an emphatic modifier. The phrase ‘I literally laughed my ass off’ means that you laughed until your bum fell off. I am not sure that is even physically possible but I do know that most likely did not happen. Now, saying ‘I literally laughed out loud’ is a statement that many would find highly probable. Point is ‘literally’ is an actual word with and actual meaning, not something you can just toss around to emphasize a point. You found something funny, but not just funny, exceptionally funny. Saying, ‘I laughed my ass off’ is already emphasizing the point by using hyperbole or exaggeration. It tells the reader something was beyond the usual funny. ‘Literally’ is not only the wrong word to use but even adding an additional modifier is unnecessary and redundant.
So, English lesson one complete, what do I mean when I say not to take Swift literally? Quite simply, it means not to take his proposition seriously. Do not believe what he says. A Modest Proposal is meant to be ironic and satirical. Yep, that means we have two more ‘lessons’ before we can get to the analysis. Let’s start with the easiest one first. Satire. Satire is when ridicule and sarcasm are used to ‘attack vices and follies.’ In other words, using sarcasm to point out another’s misconceptions, wrong doings, or perceived idiocy. History is filled with satirists and Swift is considered one of the best. Satirists also exist in the modern-day, we just call them comedians now. Don’t believe me? What does a comedian do? A comedian uses sarcasm in humorous way to point out the more ridiculous notions of our society. Satire. There is a reason why those in the literary circle consider Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert among the best satirists of the 21st Century. Now, keep the latter (Colbert) in mind because we are going to come back to him a lot.
Sarcasm is not the only tool in the satirists shed. There is also the beautiful element of verbal irony. Ah, irony. Irony is probably the most misunderstood literary device in existence. Personally, I blame Alanis Morissette. The only thing ironic about the song ‘Ironic’ is that it contains 0 examples of irony. Bad luck, sure, but not irony. “Rain on your wedding day,” is bad luck, but not ironic. However, let’s take a look at the opening of the film Catch and Release. Having your wedding cancelled for a funeral…that’s ironic. Irony is the opposite of what you expect would happen. But that doesn’t meant crappy weather is ironic because you wanted sunny. That is just crappy weather. But, a day of celebration turning into a day of mourning…that’s ironic. See the difference. If you don’t you are not alone. There are entire websites devoted to the determination of what is or is not ironic.
To further confuse matters, there is more than one type of irony. Socratic, verbal, dramatic and situational. Scared yet? Don’t be. It is really not that difficult. Socratic irony is simply playing the fool. One pretends to be less intelligent than they are in order to further the debate. A good modern example is the comedian (seeing a pattern yet) Sacha Baron Cohen. Next comes verbal irony. This one is really simple. Verbal irony is simply stating the opposite of what you mean. This is the technique used in A Modest Proposal. Sarcasm can be an example of verbal irony. That is can be, not all sarcasm is ironic and not all irony is sarcasm. Ok, that sounds really confusing, I admit. Sarcasm, is just a form of wit intended to wound. It is simply a scathing, biting comment. For example, in the film The Searchers, John Wayne’s character Ethan Wood, often makes the statement, “That’ll be the day.” The phrase is given as a sarcastic retort. “I hope you die.” “That’ll be the day.” The intent is that the aforementioned will happen essentially, when hell freezes over, which is another sarcastic retort. This is an example of sarcasm without irony. It is a biting comment meant to criticize another individual but not ironic because the statement’s intent is not contrary to its literal meaning. Wow, that was a mouthful.
Now, an example of sarcastic verbal irony. Person A has the idea that in order to receive government assistance an individual needs to pass a drug test. Person B responds with: “Wow, you’re brilliant.” Now, this is either a compliment or sarcastic irony. If person B agrees with person A’s sentiment then it is a compliment. However, if person B thinks the idea is utterly stupid then that comment is sarcastic irony. It is sarcastic because it is a comment meant to wound or insult person A. It is ironic because what person B really means is, “Holy crap, you are an idiot.” I know, it sounds like a lot. But when you break it down it really isn’t that hard.
Dramatic irony is something that exists only as literary device. It occurs in literature, plays or film. Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something a character doesn’t and the lack of such information causes the character to act contrary to the way s/he would if s/he had the information. Again, it sounds a lot more difficult than it is. I know it is probably the most overdone example of dramatic irony but it really is a great example. Take the end of Romeo and Juliet. The audience knows that Juliet is alive, Romeo does not. Romeo kills himself to be with Juliet. This is dramatic irony because if Romeo knew what the audience knew he would not have killed himself. See, simple.
Now comes situational irony. This is probably the most difficult form to explain and understand. Situational irony is the type of irony we were discussing at the beginning. It is the type of irony that Morissette’s song attempts to portray. Situational irony is when the outcome of an action/event is contrary to what was expected. But situational irony is not simply the unexpected. George Carlin was not only a masterful comedian but was also a master at understanding the English language. In fact, some of his sketches on language are considered the funniest in all of comedy. Carlin once described irony this way,
“Irony is “a state of affairs that is the reverse of what was to be expected; a result opposite to and in mockery of the appropriate result.” For instance: a diabetic, on his way to buy insulin, is killed by a runaway truck. He is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering sugar, he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck was delivering insulin, ah! Then he is the victim of an irony.”
Carlin excelled at separating the coincidental from the ironic. Most things are simply coincidental, like the guy who was afraid to fly in Morissette’s song dying in a plane crash. Coincidence, yes. Tragic, yes. Not ironic. What would be ironic is if say a law was passed requiring drug tests to all persons on government assistance for the purpose of saving money by denying those abusing the system and yet ended up costing the system more money than it saved. That being said, it is not ironic for President B to ridicule President A for having a spying program that targets citizens and then expands said program. That is merely hypocrisy. What is irony is a program of deregulation meant to boost economic growth eventually leading to an economic collapse. In short, (too late) our governmental policies are rife with situational irony.
Hopefully, that clears up the meaning of irony instead of making it more confusing. Which would be ironic. Though if it doesn’t we can always revisit the topic later. For now, let us just prepare for our analysis of A Modest Proposal. That means if you haven’t read it yet you can do so now. Or you could just wait for the analysis and not read it at all. Cheaters. In all seriousness, the essay is less than 3500 words. Meaning, it is only twice as long as this article here. And trust me, Swift is much less confusing than a discussion on irony. 🙂