Jonathan Swift: Master of Satire and Social Critic

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Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, to an English family with important connections but little wealth. Through the generosity of an uncle, he was educated at Kilkenny Grammar School and then Trinity College in Dublin. Between 1689 and 1699, he worked as a private secretary to a distant kinsman, Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat. There, he received a first-rate education in politics through contact with Temple and many other well-known politicians, learning much about the vice, hypocrisy, intrigues, deception, and corruption in the political world.

Swift is one of the greatest masters of English prose; his sentences are logical, clear, and well-constructed. He is a master satirist who dared to criticize and mock authorities.

Swift's purpose was to expose and awaken readers to the ridiculous aspects of society that demanded criticism. He often employed an inverse perspective, using irony to highlight societal flaws. For example, in Gulliver's Travels, he satirizes England through the contrasting perspectives of the diminutive Lilliputians and their seemingly insurmountable problems.


  • The Tale of a Tub (1704)
  • Battle of the Books (written in 1679, published in 1704)
  • Gulliver's Travels (1726), his greatest satiric work
  • A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen (1729)

Swift's Character and Literary Style

Swift was a man of great moral integrity and social charm. He harbored a deep hatred for the wealthy and powerful who oppressed others and felt deep sympathy for the poor and oppressed.

His understanding of human nature was profound. He believed that human nature is inherently flawed. While enlightenment was necessary for the betterment of human life, he recognized the immense difficulty in achieving true redress. Swift's intention was not to condemn but to reform and improve human nature and institutions. His works often carry an undercurrent or overtone of helplessness and indignation.

Characteristics of Swift's Satire:

  • Masked Gravity and Earnestness: His satire is often veiled by an outward seriousness and apparent sincerity, which only serves to heighten its impact.
  • Simplicity and Directness: His writing style is characterized by simple, direct, and precise prose. He defined good style as "proper words in proper places." Clear, simple, and concrete diction, uncomplicated sentence structure, and an economical and concise use of language mark all his writings—essays, poems, and novels.

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