Literary Devices and Word Choices in Paul Auster's City of Glass and Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal

Categories: A Modest Proposal

In the novel City of Glass by Paul Auster and Jonathon Swifts “A Modest Proposal”, the form is changed by content to modify the outcome of the text. Swifts text uses content built off of satire and rhetoric while Austers uses preconceptions of language and meaning to change the chosen form. In the context of this essay form being the mold, base or structure of the text, for example, the pamphlet style of “A Modest Proposal” and the detective fiction of City of Glass.

Content for the purpose of this essay is the literary devices and words chosen in the texts. Texts can use specific manipulation of content to oppose the preconceived notion of the chosen form. The pamphlet style “A Modest Proposal” uses requires it to provide evidence of the “facts”. The text does this by giving testimony and calculations. The pamphlet style of the era was used to spread political, and religious campaigns. The text appears that it will provide a possible solution to the issue of poverty in Ireland.

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“Facts” are added to the text, mocking the pamphlet style.

“A Modest Proposal” provides calculations as to the amount of children viable for consumption and those that will be kept for breeding. (Swift 2-3). The text provides testimony from men who have consumed children, “a most nourishing and wholesome food” (Swift 3). The men quoted believe children to be a good food source and so it becomes a valid argument for the text to use. City of Glass use the structure of a detective fiction novel.

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In a proper detective novel “there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant” (Auster 9). The use of this form sets up a preconceived notion that the mystery is solvable. Every word is important and should have a significant amount of attention placed upon it. If closely read it is assumed any mystery is solvable.

City of Glass has “possibilities, with secrets and contradictions” (Auster 9). It provides possibilities of a mystery, giving many clues, but contradicts that notion as at the end there is no answer, no mystery solved. The text keeps the secret that there is no mystery to be solved. “A Modest Proposal” uses a satirical suggestion to bring attention to poverty. The text uses the three major rhetorical appeals to enhance the arguments made. “A Modest Proposal” uses Logos (logical reason) to legitimize a preposterous idea. The first instance is the production of money for the parents which would then be invested into the economy (Swift 3). Another is the fact that beggars would no longer plague the streets of Dublin (Swift 2). Pathos (an emotional tactic) is used in the opening paragraph.

The essay creates emotions of pity; as “it is a melancholy object to those, who walk through [the] great town” (Swift 2) to see “beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four or six children all in rags”(Swift 2) who have no option but to be on the street. There must be a way to end the pitiful situation. Ethos (creating reliability) is done through the math regarding the amount of children is one example. There is no other motive than the publik good of [the] country” (Swift 6), as the narrator has no children and his wife is too old to have any now (Swift 6). Other literary devices are used in the essay “A Modest Proposal”, irony and metaphors. The text uses irony throughout. The text is “grossly mistaken in [its] computation” (Swift 2).

The text claims schemes that truly make sense are mistaken, this is irony because it obviously proposes an outrageous idea. It is ironic that the text believes it is saving “innocent babes” (Swift 2) from “voluntary abortions and that horrid practise of women killing their bastard children” (Swift 2). The text suggest that keeping babies from being aborted and letting them live a year till they are ready to eat is saving them. This is clearly not saving but postponing the death till they can be of ‘good’ use. “A Modest Proposal” uses a metaphor to indicate that children as a dish are “very proper for landlords, who as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best claim to the children” (Swift 3). When the text was written landlords could tax the tenants whatever they saw fit. They could claim farmed goods, money or both as tax. Most landlords over-taxed their tenants leaving them very little.

City of Glass makes arguments of language being arbitrary. The meaning of words was created, they did not always exist. Modern examples that prove the randomness of language include: ‘selfie’, ‘duck face’ and “threequel”. These words have meaning now but 50 years ago they did not. If language is arbitrary it means almost every word spoken, written or heard has a predetermined meaning behind it. “But words… are capable of change” (Auster 93). The meaning can change, as both texts show. The form of the detective novel changes to just a novel when there is not solvable mystery. The end of the novel provides a feeling of being lost because the expected ending is not there. “Unless we can begin to embody the notion of the change in the words we use we will continue to be lost” (Auster 94).

It is important to recognize the fluidity of language. An example of the flexibility is linguistic signs. A referent is a word. The signified is the image that appears in a person mind when the referent is heard or read. The signifier is the ink the word is printed in or the phonemes spoken from the mouth. Linguistic signs are one of the reasons language is arbitrary. In the last paragraph of City of Glass releases any credibility the novel had. The narrator feels “any inaccuracies in the story should be blamed on” (Auster 158) him; although, he “refrained from any interpretation. The red notebook, of course, was only half the story” (Auster 158).

The text is suggesting it is not reliable. Obviously interpretations were made throughout the novel as Daniel Quinn’s thoughts are written down by the narrator. The text also loses credibility as it only provides half of a story. The majority of the book seems to be in third person narrative, which means the whole story would be presented.

The last paragraph also adds to the preconceived notions of what a detective novel requires. If there is only half a story there is only half the clues to the mystery as well. Which is why the form of the detective novel is lost on City of Glass. The two texts provided insight into the influence content has on form. Use of literary devices have bigger function than just to provide colour or flair to writing. Each choice of word is an important factor in the overall result of a piece of literature. City of Glass and “A Modest Proposal” are equally important in exemplifying the power that content holds over form.

Works Cited

  1. Auster, Paul. City of Glass. New York, 1985, Print.
  2. Swift, Johnathon. “A Modest Proposal”. Dublin, 1729, Online.

Cite this page

Literary Devices and Word Choices in Paul Auster's City of Glass and Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal. (2021, Sep 23). Retrieved from

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