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Issues in “The Rape of the Lock” and “Modest Proposal” Research Paper

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Introduction

Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal are witty satirical works written in the 18th-century-Britain to highlight various issues that were affecting society at the time. During this period, humor, and reason pervaded literature in different ways, especially in the form of Juvenalian and Horatian satires to debunk the moral corruption and perfunctory follies that characterized British society during the neoclassical era. Writers sought to satirically highlight the many societal shortcomings by ridiculing the generally accepted standards of thought to expose hypocrisy. This paper compares two enlightenment satires – Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal.

Summary

Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is a satirical poem on a small incident in an attempt to merge social happenings with heroic tales of gods and goddesses. The poem borrows much from Greek mythology whereby the theft of a lock of hair mirrors the abduction of Helen of Troy or Sparta. Belinda, the protagonist, has two locks of hair and one of her suitors, Baron, is determined to steal one (Pope), and this incident shapes the entire plotline of the satire. Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal is a satirical narrative suggesting ways that impoverished Irish could solve their economic problems by selling their babies to the rich to be used as food. Swift sought to mock the hardhearted attitudes towards the poor in society and generally the punitive British policies toward the Irish.

Comparison

In both The Rape of the Lock and Modest Proposal, the writers use irony to satirize and mock the socio-political attitudes and values in British society in the 18th century. Swift puts forward a modest proposal that would see the impoverished Irish sell their babies as food to the affluent as a way of dealing with their economic woes. Swift says, “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”. Of course, Swift did not wish the rich to cannibalize one-year-olds, but he wanted to highlight the blasé character that defined society at the time and provoke people to awaken to the suffering of the poor. The rich tended to view the poor as commodities, which explains why Swift chose to use this form of satire to address this problem.

Similarly, in The Rape of the Lock, Pope seeks to satirize the vanity and pettiness of two individuals in society. The poem is divided into cantos with each comparing the superficial bickering between two persons to the epic supernatural world of gods. Pope places the significance of classical Greek mythology epics, such as Homer’s Iliad and Helen of Troy on social standing and vanity to mock the characters’ mindsets and individuals in the British society who had the same inclinations. The ultimate objective of this poem is to let people see the underlying absurdity in their quarrels, perhaps change their thoughts and focus on important issues affecting society. Even though Swift’s work carries more bitterness and weight as compared to that of Pope, the two works use satire to arouse change in the way people perceive and understand social situations.

Contrast

The two works by Pope and Swift differ significantly despite sharing common satirical themes. On the one hand, Pope’s satire is Horatian characterized by witty, amused, tolerant, and indulgent voice. Pope uses gentle ridicule to mock the absurdities and follies of the British society without provoking the anger of a Juvenal. In this poem, he bases the narrative on a well-known incident whereby a lock of hair is stolen involving two lovers, and he compares this to the kidnapping of Helen of Troy. The objective here was to castigate the strict societal laws in England at the time, especially the restrictions placed on all religions except Anglicanism. In other words, Pope writes his satire in the form of banter, which ultimately lulls the reader into a false sense of self-complacency with the mocked subject.

On the other hand, Swift’s satire is Juvenalian as characterized by bitterness and nastiness with his objects being horrible human beings. Swift is outrageous and shocking in his biting and scathing proposal to have the poor sell their children as food to the rich. According to Szwec, when Swift wrote and published this proposal anonymously in 1729, “Ireland was in a state of distraught after essentially being “eaten” or consumed by the British Empire”. Therefore, Swift wanted to highlight this suffering by the Irish at the time. He says, “The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders” (Swift). This claim underscores Swift’s scathing and outrageous satire when addressing serious societal issues.

Conclusion

In Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and Swift’s Modest Proposal satire is used to highlight some of the societal problems that people under the British protectorate faced in the 18th century. Pope’s satire is characterized by humor, gentleness, wittiness, and tolerance, which underscore Horatian satire. However, Swift’s satire is abrasive, scathing, and outrageous, which makes it Juvenalian. Despite these differences, satire in these two works is used as a powerful tool to ridicule people in the hope that they would change for the ultimate betterment of society.

Works Cited

Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock.” The Project Gutenberg, 2011. Web.

Swift, Jonathan. “Modest Proposal.” The Project Gutenberg, 2008, Web.

Szwec, Jonathan. “Satire in 18th Century British Society: Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.” Inquiries Journal, vol. 3, no. 6, 2011, Web.

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IvyPanda. 2022. "Issues in "The Rape of the Lock" and "Modest Proposal"." February 20, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/issues-in-the-rape-of-the-lock-and-modest-proposal/.

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IvyPanda. (2022) 'Issues in "The Rape of the Lock" and "Modest Proposal"'. 20 February.

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