It is usually done in order to create a comic effect. In literature, a caricatured character has oversimplified and exaggerated personality features. Satire often includes characters of this nature. Using the device also allows writers to comment on a group of people through generalizations, something that’s usually prominent in satire.
Definition of Caricature
The word “caricature” comes from the Italian word “caricare” meaning “to charge” or “to load.” Caricatures in visual arts and the literary arts have a long heritage in Europe, with the oldest found on the walls of Pompeii.
There are many examples of well-known artists who made caricatures leading up to and including the 16th century. These include Hans Holbein and Hieronymus Bosch. As the decades moved on, they gained popularity in high-class circles as ways of depicting politicians and other contemporary celebrities in a humorous fashion. In the 17th and 18th centuries, artists like Hogarth started using them for political satire.
Examples of Caricatures in Literature
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
The character of Mr. Chadband in Bleak House is a classic example of a caricature. Dickens uses the following lines to describe him:
Mr. Chadband is a large yellow man, with a fat smile, and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system. Mrs. Chadband is a stern, severe-looking, silent woman. Mr. Chadband moves softly and cumbrously, not unlike a bear who has been taught to walk upright. He is very much embarrassed about the arms, as if they were inconvenient to him.
In this passage, Dickens uses words like “fat smile” and “train oil in his system.” He’s at once describing the man’s appearance and his personality/morals. His character is represented through this clever characterization.
Discover Charles Dickens’ poetry.
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
One of the primary characters featured in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. There are many varied and problematic depictions of his character and traits within the play. Often, characters use his Jewish heritage as a way to speak poorly about him or to speak down to him. And at the same time, Shakespeare’s other characters allude to a Jewish person’s stereotypical characteristics. Consider these lines spoken by Solanio:
I never heard a passion so confused,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable,
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets.
“My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter,
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice, the law, my ducats, and my daughter!
A sealèd bag, two sealèd bags of ducats,
Of double ducats, stol’n from me by my daughter!
And jewels—two stones, two rich and precious stones—
Stol’n by my daughter! Justice, find the girl!
She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats
He describes Shylock as a caricature of what a close-minded person might see as a Jewish man in these lines. He repeats the words “Oh my ducats! O my daughter” as a way of emphasizing Shylock’s worries and suggesting that these are the only things he cares about. At the end of this passage, he suggests that Shylock is more worried about the stones than he is his daughter, who “Fled with a Christian.”
Explore William Shakespeare’s poems.
Cinderella by the Brother’s Grimm
The classic story of Cinderella is a great example of how a caricatured version of a person can catch on. In this story, Cinderella’s stepmother is depicted as evil and constantly scheming to make Cinderella’s life worse. For example, these lines in which the stepmother is talking to Cinderella:
“You go, Cinderella,” said she, “covered in dust and dirt as you are, and would go to the festival. You have no clothes and shoes, and yet would dance.”
As, however, Cinderella went on asking, the step-mother said at last, “I have emptied a dish of lentils into the ashes for you, if you have picked them out again in two hours, you shall go with us.”
Her cruelty is quite clear here. The story became so popular and so widely read that the image of stepmothers as “evil” has become a caricature of its own. It’s easy to find many other examples of evil stepmothers within fairytales and contemporary film and television.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
In the final lines of Animal Farm, readers can find a great example of a caricature. Orwell writes:
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
Here, he is comparing and equating humans and pigs. As a broader satire on the Russian Revolution, this novel suggests that the Russian leaders already had the characteristics of pigs before they appeared outwardly corrupt.
Explore more books by George Orwell.
Why Do Writers Use Caricatures?
Writers use caricatures for a few different reasons. One of the most prominent is in order to entertain and make the reader laugh. This is particularly effective in comedic works and satire. It’s possible to create a caricature of a recognized person or type of person and poke fun at their characteristics and how they interact with everyone else. This is most often seen in political satire.
Caricatures are also a way of ensuring the reader can easily visualize and understand a character. The example from Bleak House is a good one. Another possible example can be found in Pride and Prejudice with the character of Mrs. Bennet.
Related Literary Terms
- Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
- Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
- Satire/Satirical Comedy: used to analyze behaviors to make fun of and criticize or chastise them in a humorous way.
- Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.
- Read: Caricatures in Visual Arts
- Watch: What is Political Satire?
- Read: A Brief History of Caricatures