115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Jonathan Swift’s Terrae Filius: Visibility through the Carnivalesque and Grotesque in A Modest Proposal

Sonya Gonzales, California State University, San Bernardino

I propose that Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal not only demonstrates the carnivalesque and grotesque in his satirical hoax, but that he also creates a terrae filius persona in the Proposer, who breaks the fourth wall of traditional literary techniques in story-telling as a rhetorical strategy to bring the audience in on the joke, providing readers a sense of sight into our own social and cultural concerns.

Proposal: 

For this presentation, I examine Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, as it applies to Swift’s use of the carnivalesque to create his satirical piece and comment, through his narrator, on the social and cultural issues of the eighteenth century. Robert Phiddian states that A Modest Proposal leans more toward the grotesque than the carnivalesque because the subject matter of mass cannibalism is too serious in nature.  A Modest Proposal displays both the grotesque and carnivalesque, and it is Swift’s exhibition of the serious subject matter as a satirical piece that communicates a carnivalesque narrative. I aim to show that Swift’s Proposer, as a persona of Swift, acts as Terrae Filius – a carnivalesque persona – to relay Swift’s own commentary on the social and cultural issues of the eighteenth century through the use of the carnivalesque.

            My inquiry into Swift’s satirical humor through the use of the carnivalesque is significant in exploring the timelessness of his works and using A Modest Proposal as a way of seeing and analyzing the concerns we are dealing with in our own time, such as environmental, cultural, and social issues. Swift’s Proposer provides a sense of visibility to our own increasing concern about climate change, for example. If we continue to participate in actions and events that essentially will result in depleting Earth of her resources mass famine is probable. In this case, in order to survive and control our rising global population, according to zoologist Bill Schutt, who draws his evidence by observing the animal kingdom and researching human events, mass cannibalism is a hypothetical consequence. Though Swift’s Proposer suggests indulging on the meat of fat one-year-old babies to heal the burdens of Ireland and control the population of poverty-stricken Irish Catholics, his Proposal is presented as a satirical hoax that can facilitate our understanding of our own global concerns.

            I plan to look at the Proposer as a terrae filius in A Modest Proposal to explore the extent to which he breaks the indefinable fourth wall, defined here in terms of literary narration, as an element of the Rabelaisian carnivalesque. The Proposer directly and indirectly addresses the audience, letting the readers in on the secret of which the other characters are unaware. I also intend to observe and evaluate Swift’s imagery and use of language as evidence of both the grotesque and carnivalesque, demonstrating the Rabelaisian elements of the satire. I will attempt to further establish the ways we might apply these concepts of Swiftian satire to engage our concerns in today’s social, cultural, and environmental issues.

            I propose that Jonathan Swift, in A Modest Proposal, not only demonstrates the carnivalesque and grotesque in his satirical hoax, but that he also creates a terrae filius persona in the Proposer, who breaks the fourth wall of traditional literary techniques in story-telling as a rhetorical strategy to include the audience on the joke, and to make his proposed solution of cannibalism more acceptable as a satirical piece. I aim to show that Swift’s Proposer is not very far from hitting the proverbial nail on the head in proposing that the idea of mass cannibalism is plausible. I will further link this to Swift’s satire and imagery of the Proposer’s breaking the fourth wall, Swift’s over-the-top Proposal, and his satirical approach to mass cannibalism that we can see the evidence of the carnivalesque, even as we might use Swift’s satirical humor of the eighteenth century to evaluate contemporary global issues.