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Satire

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English Literature

It's often difficult to tell whether a work of art is genuine or a satire. Many fans of the book Fight Club (1996) by Chuck Palahniuk and its famous 1999 film adaptation didn't get its satirical meaning.


Satire is a mode of writing and a literary genre. Satire has been around for thousands of years, and it is alive and strong today, featuring prominently in contemporary media, satire journalism, satirical films, and of course, in literature.

Definition and meaning of Satire

Literature written in a satiric mode cannot be taken at face value; it must be understood through its intended satirical meaning.

Satire

In literature, satire is a mode of writing that aims to ridicule, expose and critique flawed traits, behaviours and actions. This is often done implicitly through the clever use of techniques such as wit, humour, irony, exaggeration and incongruity.

Let's break this definition down further and categorise satire. Satire has three key functions:

  1. to expose,
  2. to ridicule,
  3. to criticise.

To do this, writers primarily use techniques such as wit and humour, irony, exaggeration and incongruity.

Satire is a literary mode, known as the 'satiric mode'. Texts that consistently use the satiric mode throughout, can be said to belong to the satire genre. A literary work can be considered a satire (noun) when wit is used in a sustained and consistent manner throughout the entire text with the purpose of exposing, ridiculing or criticising folly and vice. Literary texts that are entirely satirical can be called pure satires.

A mode refers broadly to a method of writing; a genre is a way of grouping texts together that share similar traits. In the case of the satire genre, the shared trait is the satiric mode.

Satire can also exist as one part of a text that is itself not a satire, in a satiric scene or subplot (a smaller plot line within the broader plot).

For example, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1602) is a romantic comedy with a satirical subplot. The servant characters play a trick on the self-absorbed and bad-tempered Malvolio. Through this subplot, Shakespeare criticises and ridicules Puritans, a prudish religious group.

Satire can be directed at individuals, groups, institutions, society as a whole and even humanity as a whole.

Difference between satire and comedy

Satire is a type of comedy. What distinguishes satire from comedy is the specific function of laughter in satire. In a comedy, laughter is an end-in-itself, but in satire, laughter is a weapon. In a non-satirical comedy, we are laughing at the text itself, at its comic characters and events. In a satirical comedy, we are not only laughing at the comic characters and events but also at the group of people they represent. Laughter, in this sense, has a moral purpose.

Types of Satire

There are two broad types of satire in literature: direct and indirect satire.

  1. Direct satire is common in satirical poetry.
  2. If a satire is not directly addressed to the reader by a satirist speaker, it is an indirect satire. Indirect satire is the most common type of satire, found in satirical prose and plays.

Satire can be further broken down into three main categories named after ancient satirists – Horatian satire, Juvenalian satire, and Menippean satire.

The main two categories are Horatian and Juvenalian satire. When we say a satire is Horatian or Juvenalian, we are talking about the tone and intent of the satire, rather than its form. Horatian and Juvenalian satires were originally in direct form but most satirists write indirect satires. The third type of satire is Menippean satire.

Horatian Satire

Horatian satire is a light-hearted form of satire that satirises flaws and follies without condemnation. Horatian satire takes its name from the satirical poems of the Roman poet Horace (65 BC - 8BC). As a satirist, Horace was tolerant and witty, preoccupied with amusing his audience and making them laugh out of their flaws and follies.

Poetry: Alexander Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock' (1712) is an example of Horatian satire. The poem gently mocks a feud between two aristocratic families by exaggerating the importance of the theft of a lock of hair.

A wretched Sylph too fondly interpos'd;

Fate urg'd the shears, and cut the Sylph in twain,

(But airy substance soon unites again).

The meeting points the sacred hair dissever

From the fair head, for ever, and for ever!

- Alexander Pope, Canto 1, 'The Rape of the Lock' (1712).

Juvenalian Satire

Juvenalian satire, on the other hand, is all about conveying a serious moral message. The goal of Juvenalian satire is to make the audience feel indignation and repulsion at human vice and error.

Juvenalian satire takes its name from the ancient Roman satirist Juvenal (1st century AD - 2nd century AD) whose satires pessimistically denounced Roman society and invited his audience to share this indignation.

Johnathan Swift's essay A Modest Proposal (1719), his novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and Samuel Johnson's poem 'London' (1738), were Juvenalian satires published in the golden age of satire. These satires were not light-hearted and contained serious messages. We'll be looking at them in more detail below.

Menippean Satire

Satire broadly targets opinions and attitudes, rather than specific groups of people, is known as Menippean satire.

Menippean satire targets mental attitudes and opinions such as bigotry, racism, short-sightedness, etc. Dystopian novels are said to contain elements of Menippean satire, as they are satires of dangerous ideologies and oppressive worldviews and practices.

For example, The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood satirises the idea of a theocratic state (church and state combined) by imagining a technocratic regime, 'Gilead', where women are reduced down to their anatomical functions and forbidden to speaking freely.

Literary history of Satire in English literature

In England, the early 18th-century is regarded as the golden age of satire.

The most notable works to come out of this period are:

  • John Dryden's satire poem 'MacFlecknoe' (1682),
  • Jonathan Swift's essay A Modest Proposal (1729) and his novel Gulliver's Travels (1726)
  • Alexander Pope's narrative poems 'The Rape of the Lock' (1712) and 'The Dunciad' (1728-1743)

These satirists established a tradition of satire that was carried on into the Romantic period with Lord Byron's Don Juan (1819).

The 20th century also produced many satires, many of which can be classed as Juvenalian. The most notable literary works of satire of the 20th century are:

  • Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One (1948)
  • George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) fable and his dystopian novel 1984 (1949)
  • Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace

Satire has also taken off as a form of journalism. The political satire magazine Private Eye has been making fools out of British politicians since 1961. Today, satirical journalism has become a new category of journalism. Popular satire publications like Clickhole and The Onion satirise traditional news reportage with satirical articles.

Satire techniques

Writers employ a wealth of techniques to create satires. The most prominent techniques are irony and parody.

Irony

Irony

Irony is a literary technique that highlights or creates inconsistency between the apparent significance of a statement or event, and its contextualised significance.

Irony is often used in satires to create satirical meaning. Irony and satire are not synonyms, they are separate literary devices. Irony can only be considered satirical if it is used in a text with the intent of criticising a person, group, society, or attitude.

A Modest Proposal (1729) is an ironic, satirical essay by Johnathan Swift. In the essay, Swift proposes that poor families in Ireland should eat their babies. Swift is being ironic, he doesn't really think poor families should eat babies, he suggests this absurd solution to satirise heartless attitudes towards the poor.

Exaggeration

Exaggeration in satire is about improbable scenarios, characters and descriptions. Satire often comes in the form of inflation or diminution.

Inflation

Inflation is the act of exaggerating a trivial event and ironically giving it more importance than it deserves.

Diminution

Diminution is reducing a situation to a few basic elements to ridicule it.

Alexander Pope's famous satirical poem, 'The Rape of the Lock' (1712), inflates a trivial incident of a man stealing a lock of a woman's hair by comparing it to, and ironically giving it the same importance as, the abduction of Helen of Troy.

Pope's poem uses the traditional high stature of classical epics to emphasise the triviality of the incident. The abduction of Helen of Troy becomes here the theft of a lock of hair.

Farce is another common method of satirical exaggeration used by dramatists in satire plays, with highly unlikely events taking place.

Displacement, fantasy and incongruity

When a story is set in a different place than the one it is trying to comment on, it is called displacement. A satire can be set in a foreign or made-up country, or it can be set in a fantastical world. Displacement has been a useful way for writers to avoid censorship and prosecution for attacking powerful individuals and institutions in their satires.

Fantasy also heightens the absurdity of the subject being satirised, as it is a way of exaggerating the subject's real-world qualities to ridiculous heights.

Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) are two satires that take place in displaced settings with fantastical elements.

Parody

A parody is a mocking imitation of a serious original text, or a literary style or genre. As such, parody is not a synonym for satire, but it is used for satirical purposes.

Pope satirises both English society and epic poetry in 'The Rape of the Lock' (1712) by parodying the form. The parody comes from the fact that Pope is using such an elevated art form to deal with a very trivial situation.

The purpose and importance of Satire

The purpose of satire is to help us recognise, and think critically about, follies and vices – our own and those of others. Satire has great revelatory power; it reveals contradictions and injustices underneath shiny surfaces, enabling us to make sense of our world.

Another key purpose of satire is to inspire change in the real world. As satires are always aimed at the real world, they force us to critically examine it and try to change it for the better.

Because satire is an indirect form of criticism, satirical literature has often been able to avoid censorship in ways that overly-critical literature has not been. Satire has the power to conceal important messages behind humour.

Political Satire

Political satire

In literature, a political satire addresses overtly political topics and/or carries an overtly political message.

Satire is a powerful tool to expose and criticise harmful political ideologies or corruption in governments and institutions. Satire's ability to diminish the powerful makes it an important political tool. When we are able to laugh at something threatening, its power is weakened and we feel more capable of facing it head-on.

Political satire most often comes under the category of Juvenalian satire, as many authors have strong oppositions to the powerful groups they satirise. Satire, especially Juvenalian satire, is often a call-to-action, and as such, it motivates readers to engage with political issues and even to take part in activism.

In George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945), the farm is an allegory for the Russian Revolution of 1917. The pigs who lead the rebellion give themselves preferential treatment over the other animals and end up resembling humans, walking on two legs. This satirises the corruption of Stalin's leadership.

Examples of Satire

Having looked at satirical poetry, let's take a look at examples of satirical prose and drama.

Gulliver's Travels (1726) by Johnathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels (1726) is a prose satire written during the golden age of satire in the early 18th century. The novel is written in four parts and it parodies the popular 18th-century genre of travel writing, satirising a multitude of aspects of contemporary British society during the Age of Enlightenment.

Different critics categorise Gulliver's Travels as different types of satire, some think it is a Horatian satire, others Juvenalian and others, such as Northrop Frye, Menippean.

Swift's satire is crafted out of exaggeration through absurd, fantastical elements such as giants and tiny people. Part II, for example, takes place in Brobdingnag, a land of giants, and satirises Britain's over-inflated sense of importance and upper-class decadence.

In the fourth and final part of the book, Gulliver travels to the land of the Houyhnhnms, who are "perfectly" rational horses. The Yahoos, by contrast, behave like apes, except they look exactly like humans.

The beast and I were brought close together, and by our countenances diligently compared both by master and servant, who thereupon repeated several times the word Yahoo. My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abominable animal, a perfect human figure.

- Johnathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels.

It is difficult to pinpoint Smith's satirical message: is it that humans should try to be more rational like the Houyhnhnms? Or is it that pure rationality is unattainable and even undesirable for humans? What is clear is that, through the exaggerated species he invents, Swift ridicules and diminishes the Enlightenment philosophers' obsession with reason and rationality.

The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) by Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest is a satirical comedy by Oscar Wilde. In the play, Wilde satirises the prejudices, decadence and shallowness of British upper-class society in a light-hearted way, making the play a Horatian satire.

The protagonists, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, lead double lives, using their real names in the country and made-up names in the city. His love interest, Gwendolen, is only attracted to him because she likes the sound of his name.

JACK.

Well, really, Gwendolen, I must say that I think there are lots of other much nicer names. I think Jack, for instance, a charming name.

GWENDOLEN.

Jack? . . . No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations . . . I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John! And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude. The only really safe name is Ernest.

- Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest.

Gwendolen's obsession with the pleasantness of the name 'Ernest' is an exaggeration of upper-class snobbishness and triviality that satirises the Victorians' obsession with status. Wilde also uses dramatic irony to further ridicule the shallowness of courtship, as the audience knows that Ernest isn't his real name.

Dramatic irony

Dramatic irony is created in a situation where the reader or audience has access to crucial information about a character's situation that they lack.

The play's satirical tone is distinctly Horatian, as the characters are rewarded for their follies, rather than punished. In a highly farcical turn of events, Jack discovers that his real name had been Ernest all along so Gwendolen agrees to marry him.

Satire - Key takeaways

  • Satire has three key functions: to expose, ridicule and criticise. To do this, writers use wit and humour. Satire is a literary genre, but it can also exist as one part of a text; for example, in a satiric scene or subplot.
  • The main types of satire are Horatian satire, which is light-hearted, and Juvenalian satire, which is scathing and serious.
  • The main techniques used to create a satire are irony, exaggeration, displacement, and parody.
  • The purpose of satire is to create awareness of follies and injustices and encourage us to hold our world up to scrutiny.
  • Johnathan Swift's A Modest Proposal (1719), Gulliver's Travels (1726), Alexander Pope's 'The Rape of The Lock' (1912), and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) are key examples of satires.

Satire

In literature, satire is a mode of writing that aims to ridicule, expose and critique flawed traits, behaviours and actions. This is often done implicitly through the clever use of techniques such as wit, humour, irony, exaggeration and incongruity.

An example of a satire is Johnathan Swift's essay A Modst Proposal (1719) in which he argues that poor Irish families should eat their babies to stave off hunger. Swift's essay is satirical because his meaning is ironic: he does not really want poor families to eat their babies, he is instead criticising upper-class attitudes to poverty by taking their attitudes to the extreme.

The main types of satire are Horatian, Juvenalian and Menippean. Horatian satires are light-hearted satires that gently poke fun; Juvenalian satires, on the other hand, are all about conveying a serious moral message through satire. Menippean satire criticizes mental attitudes rather than specific individuals or groups.

Writers create satires by picking a target to expose, criticise and ridicule. Writers will oftentimes exaggerate real-world situations to comic extremes and use irony to convey an alternative meaning that mocks flawed behaviours.

Irony is not a satire, as satire and irony are two different literary devices. Irony is when inconsistency is highlighted or created between the apparent significance of a statement or event and its contextualised significance. Satire is the use of wit and humour used to expose, ridicule and criticise folly or vice. Irony is often employed in satires to create satirical meaning. Irony is only considered satirical when it is used to criticse a person, group, society, or attitude.

Final Satire Quiz

Question

What is satire?

Show answer

Answer

In literature, satire is a mode of writing that aims to ridicule, expose and critique flawed traits, behaviours and actions. This is often done implicitly through the clever use of techniques such as wit, humour, irony, exaggeration and incongruity.

Show question

Question

What are the three key functions of satire?

Show answer

Answer

  • expose
  • ridicule
  • criticise

Show question

Question

Satire is a...?

Show answer

Answer

  • literary mode
  • literary genre

Show question

Question

Who is satire directed at?

Show answer

Answer

  • individuals
  • groups
  • institutions
  • society as a whole and even humanity as a whole.



Show question

Question

What is the function of laughter in satire?

Show answer

Answer

  • Laughter is a weapon.
  • In a satirical comedy, we are not only laughing at the comic characters and events but also at the group of people they represent. Laughter, in this sense, has a moral purpose.

Show question

Question

What is indirect satire?

Show answer

Answer

  • If a satire is not directly addressed to the reader by a satirist speaker, it is an indirect satire.
  • Indirect satire is the most common type of satire, found in satirical prose and plays.

Show question

Question

What are the three key types of satire?

Show answer

Answer

  • Horatian
  • Juvenalian
  • Menippean

Show question

Question

When was the golden age of satire?

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Answer

The early 18th-century.

Show question

Question

Name two key satirists from the golden age of satire.

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Answer

Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope.

Show question

Question

What are the key techniques used in satire?

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Answer

  • Irony
  • Exaggeration
  • Displacement, fantasy and incongruity
  • Parody

Show question

Question

What is Menippean satire?

Show answer

Answer

Satire that broadly targets opinions and attitudes, rather than specific groups of people, is known as Menippean satire.

Show question

Question

What is Juvenalian satire?

Show answer

Answer

  • Juvenalian satire, on the other hand, is all about conveying a serious moral message.
  • The goal of Juvenalian satire is to make the audience feel indignation and repulsion at human vice and error.

Show question

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