A Comparison of Jonathan Swift and Martin Luther King Jrs Stylistic Devices

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In his satirical essay, Swift employs Rogerian strategy as well as other rhetorical tactics, including specific diction, nuclear emphasis, and multiple double meanings, to highlight the appalling treatment of the Irish by the English aristocracy. Rogerian strategy emphasizes the open exchange of ideas aimed at mutual understanding, with an emphasis on conceding certain points in order to gain an understanding of the opposition and make progress rather than engaging in a hostile exchange of right and wrong (Cooper/Patton 70). Swift meticulously structures his essay in a way that prevents the intended audience, the English Aristocracy, from immediately recognizing it as satire and dismissing its message. Swift starts with a tone that is somewhat believable—a tone of an economist attempting to solve a problem. The current dire state of the kingdom, as calculated by Swift, involves one hundred twenty thousand children who must steal and beg just to survive (Swift 298). Previous attempts to offer practical solutions have proven unsuccessful. The Irish, now stripped of everything except what the English provide them, endure widespread oppression—the crucial issue that Swift seeks to address.

In his essay, Swift employs a strategic approach to establish rapport with the English. He aims to convey the impression that he shares their perspective on the current state of the kingdom. By stating, “I think it is agreed by all parties” and “As to my own part, maturely weighed the several schemes of other projectors but have found them grossly mistaken in their computation,” Swift employs a small element of Rogerian strategy. His purpose is to create an atmosphere of agreement and open-mindedness among the audience before presenting his own proposals. This serves as a warm-up act, similar to how an opening act precedes the main performance. Within the first two pages, Swift effectively warms up the audience by acknowledging the burdens that children impose on their parents and, more importantly, on the parish. Swift’s warming up is crucial for the success of his overall strategy. As he introduces his Modest Proposal, it becomes evident how absurd it is to consider consuming children and exploiting it for monetary gain (Swift 298-90).However, the essay cannot be labeled as satirical yet, as there are no mentions of change or exaggeration, which are necessary elements for determining if an essay is satirical. Swift continues to use Rogerian tactics to make it seem like he is still supporting the English aristocracy.

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Swift specifically emphasizes that the ratio of popish infants is at least three to one and a advantage of his sincere proposal will be the decrease in the number of Papists among us (Swift 300). By narrowing down the population to a specific religious group and using the pronoun us, Swift aligns himself with the English. With this mutual understanding established, Swift proceeds to make a suggestion. After presenting his calculation of the cost of nursing a beggar’s child and the amount a gentleman would be willing to pay for such a child, he asserts that the squire will learn how to be a good landlord and gain popularity among his tenants (Swift 300). Swift subtly implies that, up until this point, the squires have not been good landlords and have not been well-liked by the tenants. Employing the Rogerian strategy, Swift avoids directly stating this criticism, which would likely provoke a hostile response from the English. Instead, he presents his point in a way that encourages consideration. This represents Swift’s initial attempt to address a larger issue: the treatment of the tenants by the English aristocracy.

In his essay, Swift strategically uses certain words to convey his underlying intentions. The choice of the word “deplorable” in the phrase “deplorable state of the kingdom” is significant. By using “deplorable,” Swift expresses disapproval (Swift 298). Instead of opting for a different word, he deliberately selects “deplorable” to give the phrase a double meaning. Initially, Swift aligns himself with the English and their perspective, emphasizing the burden placed on society by an excessive number of beggars with children who roam around and pester people for money. However, as the essay progresses, it becomes clear that the phrase actually refers to Swift’s support for the Irish. Together, they view the state as deplorable because it is the English who oppress the Irish. This irony arises from the fact that the English addressed by Swift reside in Ireland yet consider it their own town. Furthermore, Swift’s use of the word “gentlemen” in paragraph fourteen is deliberate. He states, “I believe no gentlemen would repine to give ten shillings,” aiming to appeal to the English’s self-perception as refined and gentlemanly individuals (Swift 300). The element of double meaning resurfaces when we reach the twentieth paragraph.

In paragraph twenty, a small but significant moment occurs in the essay. Swift acknowledges that he has been digressing for too long and returns to his main subject (Swift 302). The term “digressed” holds a double meaning. According to Webster’s Dictionary, to digress means to stray from the main theme. For the English aristocracy, this implies that he has strayed too far from his proposal. The second meaning alludes to an underlying message that has not yet fully surfaced. Swift briefly touched upon it earlier in the passage when he suggested that the landlords could improve themselves. He also hinted at the mistreatment of the Irish by saying that this food would be suitable for the landlords, as they have already “devoured” most of the parents and seem to have the best claim to the children (300). Here, “devoured” symbolizes how the English, who have immense control over the Irish, have oppressed them so severely that it can be likened to being consumed. Swift initially addressed this underlying issue but then diverted his focus by discussing his friend’s credibility in great detail. However, his use of this specific word signals the emergence of the real problem at hand: the oppression endured by the Irish under the English aristocracy. It is important to note that Swift has not completely abandoned his original Rogerian strategy. It still remains unclear whether his essay takes a satirical approach.

In addition to word choice, Swift incorporates allusions in his essay to evoke pathos and create a sense of empathy with his audience. The initial instance of allusion occurs when Swift asserts that his acquaintance in London confirms that children would make a profitable meal (Swift 300). Although Swift could have chosen any other location, he specifically selects London because his intended audience is the English aristocracy. Swift employs the figure of Psalmanazar, a well-known resident of London, to lend credibility to the notion of consuming children for monetary gain. The fact that Psalmanazar once resided in London is insignificant and unnecessary; however, Swift includes this detail simply to establish a shared connection with his audience.

In Swift’s essay, he utilizes nuclear emphasis and parallel structure in paragraph twenty-nine to create a lasting impression on the reader’s mind. Swift strategically begins nine different sentences in this paragraph with the word “of,” guiding the audience’s thought process. Through the use of nuclear emphasis, Swift controls what the audience retains from the paragraph. In this paragraph, Swift dismisses alternative solutions and instead presents a series of examples, placing slightly weaker suggestions first and gradually progressing to more impactful suggestions (Swift 303). The final two suggestions explicitly address the root issues: teaching landlords compassion for their tenants and cultivating honesty, industry, and skill in shopkeepers (Swift 303). By placing these statements at the conclusion of the paragraph, Swift aims to ensure that the reader recalls them above all else.

Satire is a literary tone that aims to ridicule human vice in order to correct or change the target of the satire (handbook 280). Swift effectively ridicules immoral conduct as defined by Webster’s Dictionary. He accomplishes this by presenting an absurd proposal that explicitly mocks previous proposals and implicitly highlights the seriousness of oppression during that time. In paragraph twenty-nine, Swift suggests various serious approaches to address the issue of oppression.

Finally, Swift offers one last concession. He states that he is not so strongly committed to his own opinion that he would reject any offer proposed by wise men, as long as it is innocent, cheap, easy, and effective. However, he then presents his own suggestion.

In addition, Swift expresses his desire for politicians who oppose his proposal to consider the perspective of the parents of those who would be affected. He suggests that they ask these parents if they would have thought it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old, following the specific manner he prescribes. He argues that by doing so, these individuals could have avoided the ongoing misfortunes they have faced due to oppressive landlords and the difficulty of paying rent without money or trade (Swift 304).

This represents the final use of Rogerian strategy in the text. Swift has transitioned from using subtle concessions to employing larger and more direct statements about his ideals. This strategy was successful because he first engaged his audience by showing willingness to understand opposing viewpoints, and then used this foundation to advance his own arguments.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. addresses two distinct audiences. Firstly, he responds to the eight clergymen who wrote him an initial statement, in which they posed several questions for him to answer. However, his primary focus is on the white moderate individuals, especially those who are indifferent or indecisive regarding the issue of segregation. These lukewarm individuals lack a firm stance and remain undecided, waiting for someone to convince them.

In a similar manner to Swift, King employs parallel structure to enhance the effectiveness of his efforts to persuade various audiences. King emphasizes the urgency of immediate direct action instead of waiting, as this waiting has historically resulted in no progress for many black individuals (King 305). To emphasize the significance of this direct action, King provides multiple instances, each accompanied by vivid imagery depicting immoral acts committed against black individuals. These instances frequently involve children. By specifically focusing on children, King highlights their innocence and their lack of understanding of the harsh world surrounding them. The use of children in these examples evokes empathy from the audience, as the innocent are impacted by adult matters that they had no involvement in. This portrayal aligns with the emotions King intends to evoke in his readers. Like Swift, King aims to create a shared understanding or common ground with his audience, in order to foster progress towards ending segregation.

King utilizes antithesis in conjunction with parallel structure to establish a particular, overall rhythm. According to Smith, antithesis is characterized by a refined equilibrium where the two phrases or clauses contravene each other. King offers two iconic examples of his own: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (King 303). The effectiveness stems from the engaging tone and rhythm of the antithesis, serving as a means for King to impress upon his audience two primary concepts he wishes them to retain.

King effectively uses empathy and parallelism to bring people together, but his letter is overly lengthy. In fact, King admits, “Never before have I written a letter so long. I am afraid it is much too long” (King 314). Even at the end of his essay, King continues to try and persuade readers to empathize with him and the suffering of the black community due to segregation. He suggests that the letter would have been shorter if he had been writing from a comfortable desk, but in his narrow jail cell, there was little else he could do (King 314).

Both of these essays, Swift’s Modest Proposal and King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, have stood the test of time and are still studied by students today. Despite being well-written, it is not solely their writing prowess that ensures their continued relevance. Rather, it is the significant subject matter they tackle – dehumanization, an enduring issue throughout history – that prevents them from being relegated to obscurity. These essays serve as a reminder of this pervasive problem and offer hope for its eventual resolution through the works of authors like Swift and King. By incorporating their writings into education, we honor and celebrate these authors, molding future leaders who will address and confront these issues.

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A Comparison of Jonathan Swift and Martin Luther King Jrs Stylistic Devices. (2022, May 07). Retrieved from


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