Definition of Satire
Satire is a genre of literature that uses wit for the purpose of social criticism. Satire ridicules problems in society, government, businesses, and individuals in order to bring attention to certain follies, vices, and abuses, as well as to lead to improvements. Irony and sarcasm are often an important aspect of satire. Satirists also often use juxtaposition, analogy, parody, and double entendre to highlight their points.
Different Classifications of Satire
Within the general definition of satire, there are three main classifications of different types of satire. The first two of these are named after ancient Roman satirists—Horace (first century BCE) and Juvenal (late first century BCE to early second century AD)—while the third is named after the ancient Greek parodist Menippus (third century BCE).
- Horatian: Horace playfully mocked the societal norms of his day, and the satire named after him is clever, yet gentle. Rather than attacking evils, Horatian satire ridicules universal human folly so that the reader might identify with what is being critiqued and laugh at him/herself as well as at society.
- Juvenalian: Unlike Horace, Juvenal attacked public officials and governmental organizations through his satires. He regarded their opinions not just as wrong, but instead as evil. Juvenalian satire thus is more contemptuous and abrasive, and uses strong irony and sarcasm. Polarized political satire is often of this nature, and aims to provoke change. Juvenalian satire is not often as humorous.
- Menippean: Menippean satire criticizes mental attitudes rather than societal norms or specific individuals. This type of satire often ridicules single-minded people, such as bigots, misers, braggarts, and so on.
Common Examples of Satire
There are many different ways that people satirize popular culture. Here are some non-literary examples of satire:
- Steven Colbert: Steven Colbert is a popular media figure who has built his career on pretending to be a self-righteous and highly opinionated commentator. His satire is based on parroting popular opinions or government officials’ ideas and taking them to the furthest extent, thereby revealing their hypocrisy.
- The Onion: The Onion is a fake news source that uses contemporary issues and highlights their absurdity. Some of the most popular headlines they’ve published include: “Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace and Prosperity Is Finally Over,'” “Supreme Court Rules Supreme Court Rules,” and “Clinton Deploys Vowels to Bosnia; Cities of Sjlbvdnzv, Grzny to Be First Recipients.”
- Ig Nobel Prize: The Ig Nobel Prizes are a satirical take on the Nobel Awards. They are a gentle mockery of the kind of scientific studies being done around the world that sound ridiculous to the common observer. Recent recipients of the award have included studies on “Patient Preference for Waxed or Unwaxed Dental Floss,” “training pigeons to discriminate between the paintings of Picasso and those of Monet,” and a discovery that “black holes fulfill all the technical requirements for the location of Hell.”
Significance of Satire in Literature
Satire has been used as social criticism for a very long time, and has been discovered in many different ancient cultures, from Ancient Egypt to Ancient Greece to the Medieval Islamic world. As now, satire was used to ridicule government officials and reigning popular opinions. Satire has a unique ability to confront public discourse and ridicule leaders into changing their policies. Some consider satire to be the best way to understand a culture, as it provides insights into the collective psyche of a people and show who had power.
Examples of Satire in Literature
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift, one of the leading satirists of his day, wrote Gulliver’s Travels as a satire of human nature and especially an anti-Whig satire. Lemuel Gulliver travels to several different lands, including the famous encounter with the Lilliputians, a society of people only a few inches tall. One example of satire in the book is that some Lilliputian men wear high heels and others wear low heels. The men who wear low heels are in power and will only appoint other men to government who wear low heels. Clearly, government appointments have nothing to do with ability—this is a direct attack on the separation of Whigs and Tories in English culture.
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
As is often the case, the satire in Huckleberry Finn is often misunderstood and misconstrued as Mark Twain’s actual opinions. Twain hated slavery and used Huckleberry Finn to point out the inhumane way that slave-owners treated slaves. While some contend that the book is racist, Twain was strongly against racism. He used the characters of Jim and Miss Watson, Jim’s owner, to highlight the hypocrisy of slavery. Miss Watson is called a “good Christian woman” so that readers may realize that what she purports to stand for is in direct opposition to her actions.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
George Orwell’s satire Animal Farm directly echoes the events of the Russian Revolution. He replaces the Russian people with animals on a farm, with the leading figures of communism represented by pigs. At first these pigs are supportive of equal rights for all animals, but gradually they give themselves all the benefits and exclude the other animals from the rewards of the farm. The men who were expelled at the beginning of the story represent the Tsars; by the end of the story, however, men are back on the farm and the animals outside cannot tell the difference between the pigs and the men. Orwell used this satire example to show that the men who came to power after the Russian Revolution were no more “equal” to the common people than the Tsars before them.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Joseph Heller’s World War II novel Catch-22 is a great example of satire. Joseph Heller had flown bomber missions in WWII, just like his main character Captain John Yossarian, and was tortured by the experience. He found the wartime bureaucracy and logic to be incredibly hypocritical. The most famous example of satire in the book comes from the title, the concept of the Catch 22. This is one of those bureaucratic nightmares in which something can only be done when the thing that precludes it from happening happens. Yossarian eventually discovers that the catch doesn’t even exist, but because everything thinks it does it still has the same effect. And, unfortunately, because it doesn’t exist it can’t be repealed. This is a good metaphor for the entire lack of logic in bureaucracy.
Test Your Knowledge of Satire
1. Choose the best satire definition from these statements:
A. A genre that ridicules individuals and/or society through wit and irony.
B. A light-hearted look at minor societal issues.
C. An angry rant about all that is wrong with the world.
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2. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is one of the most famous satirical essays ever written. In it, he attacks reigning opinions of his day in Ireland about poor people and suggests a barbaric option for “fixing” the poverty issue. Which of the following quotes makes it clear that the essay is satire?
It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms.
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that 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.
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3. Which of the satire classifications best fits Jonathan Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal”?
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