An Introduction to Satire: A Modest Proposal

by Kellie McGann | 34 comments

I was a junior in High School when I was first introduced to satire. I had been fluent in sarcasm for some time, but it was in my AP English class that I first became very, very confused.

Introduction to Satire

We were instructed to come into the class, sit at our desks, and read the paper on our desks without speaking to one another. This wasn't abnormal, as our teacher often conducted weird class experiments. There on our desks was a thick packet with the cover page facing up, “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift.

A Modest Proposal: The Perfect Example of Satire

For those of you who have not read this piece, you must. (I found a free version online here.)

While the class read through it, heads turned and concerned eyes met from students around the room. I remember rolling my eyes at a friend muttering how crazy our teacher was. (I had no idea why we were reading this or what it meant.)

Swift's, “A Modest Proposal” outlines the solution for the famine in Ireland in the early 1700's. The solution proposed by Swift is that poor families should sell their newborn babies to rich families to eat. He explains how logical it would be for poor families to make money, have less children to feed, and for rich families to have a high quality protein source. Swift is as kind as to include different ways and suggested recipes for cooking these babies.

When we finished reading our teacher asked us what we thought of the piece. Students began commenting, “What is this?”, “Is this real?”, and then “Hey, doesn't sound like such a bad idea.”

Before we got too far into our heated debate, our teacher introduced that this was satire. We still smiled blankly, but he finally began to explain the concept.

The Definition of Satire

Here is the definition of satire according to Google:

The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

In this case, Swift used satire as a way to express the issue of poverty in Ireland and to mock the rich's view towards the poor during the famine.

To be clear, Swift is not saying that eating children is a reasonable solution to the problem, rather he is demonstrating the heartless and cruel attitude of the rich, while pointing out the issues he sees with the Irish government.

Want to Write Satire?

Me too. Looks fun, and you get to make ridiculous arguments. Here are two techniques and tips to write great satire.

1. Use a Serious Tone

In “A Modest Proposal” Swift uses an intense, serious tone throughout the entire piece. One of the most important things about using tone is that we make sure we choose the correct tone to convey the message we so desire.

In satire, most commonly, the most effective tone to use is the serious tone. This is because the serious tone creates this confusion within the reader, just like my junior class was confused the first time we read satire. If the author was using joking language, we would understand that this wasn't real and lose interest, but because of the intense serious language, we couldn't stop talking about it.

Be definitive. Say crazy things.  Give detail. Eat babies. (Just kidding, don't do that.)

2. Use Sustained Irony

Irony is saying one thing, while meaning the other, or in situations when the outcome is contrary to what is expected. “A Modest Proposal” is often hailed as one of the greatest examples of sustained irony in the English language. Swift accomplishes this by starting the piece highlighting the problem of starving families in Ireland, and then proposing his solution.

A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”

How's that for irony?

Where You Can Read Satire

If you want to write satire, one of my biggest tips is that you read satire. Satire is a different way of thinking, and in order to understand it better and write it better, you must become acquainted with it's style, prose, and voice.

Check out a few of these satirical sites:

Do you enjoy satire? Have you ever written it? Let us know in the comments section.

Need more grammar help? My favorite tool that helps find grammar problems and even generates reports to help improve my writing is ProWritingAid. Works with Word, Scrivener, Google Docs, and web browsers. Also, be sure to use my coupon code to get 25 percent off: WritePractice25

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PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes and practice writing some satire! Choose a popular subject and make your point. Don't forget to use irony and tone! Make sure you share your practice in the comments below!

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Kellie McGann is the founder of Write a Better Book. She partners with leaders to help tell their stories in book form.

On the weekends, she writes poetry and prose.

She contributes to The Write Practice every other Wednesday.

34 Comments

  1. LilianGardner

    I enjoy satire, to read and to view in a play or show, as long as it is ‘satirical’ and not mean or cruel, but subtle and humorous.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      I agree Lillian!

  2. LilianGardner

    This is a challenge. I’m curious to read posts from members.

    Reply
  3. PJ Reece

    Great topic! Here’s how I began a “humorous” speech recently. I guess this is satire:

    When my mother turned 92, she told me: “If I’m still alive in two years… shoot me.”
    When she turned 94 she said the same thing. And this time she meant it. “Honour Thy Parents,” they say. It’s the Fifth Commandment, but wait a minute!

    I CAN’T SHOOT MY MOTHER. Or can I?

    Logically, we should shoot everyone over 80. The evidence against longevity is overwhelming: 1) Old people wish they were dead, and, 2) Old people can’t afford
    longevity!

    I’ve done the research on longevity, done my due diligence, and I’m wondering now if perhaps I should just…go ahead and shoot her.

    (NOTE: Some people in the audience were totally freaked out. They’re still talking about it. They keep asking how my mother is.)

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Ha! PJ that’s great!

    • LilianGardner

      This is good, P J Reece. I must confess, my husband and I have been talking about no 1) and 2) and old people. He looked at me and said, “What am I doing here?”
      What could I say except, “We don’t have a gun.”

    • Traci Tse

      This is great, PJ. Old people take up so much space, and it’s only logical to shoot them while they’re ahead.

    • PJ Reece

      Absolutely. The worst part of this mother business is that my mother is now 101 and has no intention of surrendering. She has transcended fate. It’s scary.

    • Charlotte Hyatt

      Now that is satire! Was Jonathan Swift your ancestor?

    • I'm determined

      Mind you, it would have been apt to shoot my father – at a much longer age! Mind you, I wouldn’t have actually done it, no matter how much he merited an abbreviated life span, but to have written a satire on the topic would have been so comforting! But is this really the wrong approach for this writing exercise? Pity.

  4. Milena Rangelov

    Wow, awesome topic. I come from Serbia and we LOVE satire irony and dark humor! And I love your point about writing in “serious” tone. That is the very thing that makes people think and scratch their heads in astonishment. “Wait a minute, this guy is not serious!” That moment of confusion and re-thinking is the precious gift for a reader. Thank you for this call, i will definitely try to write satire and let you know how it went.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Milena, I agree! It’s so fun to watch people scratch their heads 🙂
      Can’t wait to read your satire!

  5. alexpenland.wordpress.com

    Love this. Satire can also be an amazing tool for dealing with personal stuff, as I’ve found out over the past few months. It’s oddly refreshing.

    Reply
  6. Jay Warner

    It’s interesting to note that Swift tried to get his point across in more conventional essays but was largely ignored. It wasn’t until he wrote A Modest Proposal and used pamphlets to distribute it widely, that it received any notice. Sometimes satire is the most powerful tool.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Wow Jay, interesting! I did not know that.
      Satire can be the most influential it seems.
      Thanks for sharing!

  7. Frank Fusco

    The United States Air Force has a number of B-17 bombers that could be used to destroy any ISIS stronghold. Fill the bombers with garbage and drop the waste. If ISIS tries to shoot down the falling garbage, it becomes more garbage. We now solve the ISIS problem and eliminate the need for garbage landfills. The bombers fly at a very high altitude and are out of harms way.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Great job Frank!
      Thanks for sharing.

    • Charlotte Hyatt

      Great solution, bury them in garbage!

  8. Gary G Little

    A Proposal of Modesty, spoken in the voice of Foghorn Leghorn

    Let us propose to move all the Gays, Lesbo’s and Queer mutha-fuckas to Canada. Lots of room up there, mostly penguins, deers, and polar bears. Perhaps them polar bears can eat some of those queers and Lesbo’s and help take the penguins off the endangered species list. Ya know whut they say, “If it ain’t got antlers!” Damn son, I kill my self sometimes. Of course if we do this, we will have to find something for Pat Robertson, southern congress-folk — you know them representatives and senators — and nearly all of the Christian folk to blame things on. Well, not the Presbyterians. Of course there might be room in Canada to ship all the Presbyterians as well. Think we could include the Lutherans?

    Reply
    • PJ Reece

      I’m neither gay nor Christian nor a penguin, but there’s something not quite right about this satire. I offer up this criticism, Gary, just to point how difficult it is to write good satire. I’d love to see you rewrite this.. but according to what principles of satire, I’m not sure. Anybody have some insight into this?

    • Gary G Little

      Mostly I believe if I have to explain things, I got it wrong. Having said that, I have made some changes, and I too would be interested in other insight.

    • PJ Reece

      What I see mainly in your piece, Gary, is the courage to throw something on the page, because it’s a potent starting point. Yes, where’s the insight we’re looking for? Help!

    • Gary G Little

      I don’t know how much U.S. news you are familiar with. There has been a huge flack over same sex marriages here with the fundamentalist and a couple blaming everything from global warming and the fall of the economy on homosexuality. It’s gotten ridiculous. Foghorn Leghorn would have been the spokesman. Anyway that was the intent.

  9. M.FlynnFollen

    Here is a short start to some satire I have had in mind for quite some time.

    I realized something long ago. When I was young boy and my father was telling me how lucky I was that I had my whole life ahead of me. He told me about my schooling ahead and how much there was going to learn. He told me that I would see the world from north to south, west to east. He teared up as he told me about the life i had coming. “What I wouldn’t give to be your age again” he told me. It was then I realized: Life is too long.

    I began smoking at once. Two birds one stone cigarettes are, You kill time now AND later. I stared into the light of my phone, flicking my thumb up, down, left and right. I counted stars. I actually counted how many breaths I took in an hour once.

    I began to write a book in my late twenties called “mediations on passing time”

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      This is great, I would love to hear more!
      I think your irony is great!

  10. Traci Tse

    I chose to use a very light, whimsical tone, almost a caricature, instead of a serious tone in my prose poem on “woman on woman combat” or competition among females.

    A bowl of chili explodes in the microwave. Office girls, run
    and see, gather round. Who left it there? How rude. Quite uncivilized. Remove
    it at once. Ouch, it’s hot! My hand!

    Let’s run your hand under water until the paramedic arrives.
    A creamy white hand holds a pink, blistered one under water. A voice, so deep
    and calm, I’m here to save you. Thank you, Creamy Hands, for holding the Blistered
    Hand until I got here. You must say that to all the girls. Not all girls have such
    smooth, creamy hands.

    What about me? I’m the one who’s hurt, Blistered Hand pouts,
    glancing knowingly at the circle of hands waiting round the cauldron. So you
    are, Deep Voice says, turning toward Blistered Hand as Creamy Hands tucks her
    tail and retreats to her desk.

    Threat! She’s an irredeemable flirt. Her hands are so creamy!
    She’ll steal our boyfriends. Creamy Hands cannot have both creamy hands and
    flirty lips. It’s too much! It’s overwhelming. We must stop her. She’ll take
    over the office! Blistered Hand heals all afternoon, secret texts sent and
    received by her bandaged hand. Creamy Hands checks her email one last time,
    just before five. Subject: Indian night delayed. 7pm instead of 6. Shimmy your
    ta-tas to my place for a night of exotic curries and sangria!

    A creamy hand knocks on the door at one minute to seven,
    cumin-scented rice balls the only thing brighter than her skin. Stand and wait,
    but no one’s home. The glances, the texts sent from under the desks. Creamy Hands
    begins to cry, the coven gathering round the cauldron at the bar down the lane.

    Tears in her eyes, she mounts her motorcycle, cumin balls in
    her purse, tail tucked once more to retreat home in shame. Crash! Vision
    blurred, in a ditch, the blood drips from her creamy leg. She surrenders to the
    dirt, alone and outcast, and begs the siren to leave her be.

    Deep Voice arrives. Creamy Hands, I think you missed me. How
    did you end up in this ditch, m’lady? Deep Voice, is that you? I made these
    rice balls for girls’ night, and the girls ditched me. Only jealous girls do
    the ditching. If you’ll hold my strong hand with your creamy one, I’ll pull you
    out of this ditch. Shall we? We shall, Deep Voice. Where to, Creamy Hands? To
    the bar down the lane for sangria.

    Shall I order for us, Creamy Hands? Say, isn’t that Blistered
    Hand there with the ladies from round the cauldron? Wait a minute. Did you
    bring me here to make them jealous, Creamy Hands? But only as an afterthought, Deep
    Voice. I do like you! Creamy Hands, I’ll not be flaunted like a piece of deep-voiced
    meat. Leave me be to nurse my beer at the bar.

    Ladies, I miss you, and I still have the cumin-scented rice
    balls I made for you. Hesitant glances abound, sizing up creamy-handed, flirty-lips
    when one of the coven spots Deep Voice leaving. Who is that? A cougar! Blistered
    Hand points to grey hair. He’s leaving with a cougar! But she’s so old and
    wrinkly, Creamy Hands pouted. There, there, dear, have a sangria. Some women!
    So cheap and easy! Blank stares round the cauldron. Creamy Hands breaks the
    silence. Did you see what curly hair wore to work today?

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      This is really funny Traci! You did a great job!!
      Pretty true..

    • Traci Tse

      Thank you, Kellie! Sad, but true. I think a large dose of humour helps when we confront the dark parts of ourselves. Great article!

    • Charlotte Hyatt

      How silly! Very cute though.

  11. Thomas Furmato

    This is a plan that I’m putting forward to maintain the balance in our modern culture of tolerance.

    There have been numerous legal accounts of business owners being ridiculed, sued, and then forced to respect the acts of clientele that are not of their personal interest. This is my solution.

    At every Gay event, there is a tent meeting for biblical revivals and soul winning. The tent meeting should be allowed to be as large and as loud as they want.

    Christian clothing companies should be allowed to stretch fabric along routes of Gay parades, to advertise their products. This of course might block the view of the parade itself, but that is a right the companies should have.

    All businesses, from Starbucks cafes, to Apple’s corporate lobby will have a table available for any bible believer the right to drink coffee and hand out biblical tracts. The tracts might condemn the behaviour of homosexuality, and not show any acceptance to Gay marriage, but these bible believers should have the right.

    These are just a sample of the many suggestions that I am proposing to alleviate this burden on our society. To read the complete proposal please got to http://www.thebibleisthewordofgod.com

    Reply
  12. Sean

    I am currently writing a modest proposal essay for school and i cant think of anything to write about please help me!!!

    Reply
  13. Joe Volkel

    OK – I’ll bite. Here’s my practice piece:

    Well, it looks like the Grammar Police will finally take some action. Last week they made a proposal to revoke the literary licenses of people who constantly use the the wrong “there” in there writing. There licenses would be torn up and there fingers would be taped together, or better yet, Crazy glued together. There serious about this and are confident that this one step will improve the quality of the stories that we read. I believe that this is a good first step, but in step to, they should go after those who use the wrong to, to! Next they could go after the people who write “Wah Lah!”, problem solved.

    Reply
  14. I'm determined

    I’m reading these entries, and stressing out that I’m not going to be able to write satire. Then read Jay Warner’s from a year ago –

    It’s interesting to note that Swift tried to get his point across in more conventional essays but was largely ignored.
    Okay, I can work with that. Give me time. Thank’s Jay, and thanks to Kellie. I’m really stretching out of my comfort zone!

    Reply
  15. Richard Heagy

    I have published several satire blogs recently on http://www.satireandmore.com about the U.K. and U.S. elections, E.U. Regulations, Greek financial crisis and other odds and ends.

    Reply

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