Satire is a genre of literature and the performing arts, as well as a literary device. When writers use satire they analyze human behaviors and human nature to make fun of, criticize, or chastise them. This is done in a humorous and usually dark way. Satire, whether in a book, poem, or film, seeks to reveal something about the characters or events it is depicting. This could be something obvious or something hidden. In some examples, satire points out obvious flaws in society or in a person’s character. These are things that are clearly present to outsiders but less so to those who have grown accustomed to them.
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Definition and Explanation of Satire
Satire is not one thing. A writer creates successful satire by using a combination of other literary devices. These include irony, hyperbole, repetition, and even types of figurative language like metaphor and simile. Through the combination of these devices, humorous stories, poems, and even works of non-fiction can become incredibly amusing. What makes satire different from comedy is that it cuts to the heart of human behavior and uses dark subject matter to reveal a truth about humanity or a particular situation.
Types of Satire
There are generally considered to be three different types of satire. They are:
- Juvenalian. This is the harshest form of the three. It is concentrated on a single target, whether that be a person or a small group of people. Most political satire is Juvenalian.
- Menippean. Menippean satire is less direct and more widespread than Juvenalian. It is directed at a larger segment of the population of a broader set of beliefs or choices. For example, an entire political party rather than a specific politician.
- Horatian. This type of satire is the softest and easiest to deal with if you are on the receiving end. Horatian satire comes closer to parody than it does to the harsh roasting of Juvenalian satire
History of Satire
Satire is one of the oldest forms of writing. It is used to confront problems in society that are too complex, overwhelming, or sensitive to address head-on. There are examples reaching all the way back to the Classical period. It is often difficult for writers, or anyone for that matter, to directly stand up against the actions of a larger group. This could be a governmental organization, a socially popular segment of the population, or even a single leader within a community. Their choices, foolish behaviors, quirks, and character traits have all historically been used to create successful satire.
Examples of Satire in Literature
Example #1 Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
This is one of the most popular examples of satire. It is considered to be one of the most successful in the English language as well. Within the book, Swift speaks on the political parties in England criticizing their values, religion, and politics. More complexly, the story also satirizing the subgenre of literature that it is mimicking, tales of travelers.
It was published in 1726 and was immediately a raging success. The book was written, Swift stated, to “vex” the world. It is an adventure story that tells the tale of Lemuel Gulliver who goes through a series of misadventures as he ends up on unknown islands where everyone and everything is unusually sized.
Example #2 Animal Farm by George Orwell
Another very famous example of satire is Animal Farm by George Orwell. This well-loved short novel satirizes communism, especially that in the Soviet Union and the fall out of the Russian Revolution. The plot is dark, disturbing, and quite complex as anthropomorphized pigs take over a farm. It raises questions of control, power, and the treatment of others. They stage a revolution, throwing off their human masters but the pigs end up being just as cruel as their masters were. One of the most famous lines is “All animals are equal […] but some… are more equal than others”.
Example #3 The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope
In ‘The Rape of the Lock,’ Alexander Pope satirizes the upper classes in 18th century England. He speaks on the purposelessness of their lives, their fascination with societal customs, clothes, and rituals. The most trivial things are elevated, through exaggeration and hyperbole, to the highest level. Pope takes what he saw in the real world and enhances it in order to create an impactful message. The book asks the reader to reconsider what they believe to be important in their own lives while also decreases in the public’s eye the prestige of the upper classes. The moral flaws are made quite clear for all to see.
Example #4 Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
In his best-known work Catch-22, Heller satirizes the US military. He creates characters and storylines that reveal the failings of the military establishment and the true absurdity of war. Rather than paint the soldiers, the battles, and the victories or defeats as brave or glorious, he exposes them for what they are. The suffering the men go through is at the forefront, mixed in with humorous details that lay bear war’s consequences. The book is considered to be Heller’s personal reaction to the Second World Warr
Examples of Satire in Film
Satirical comedy is a popular film genre that works in a similar way to literary satire. The Death of Stalin is a fairly recent film that satirizes Joseph Stalin’s death and the chaos that follows. Although funny, the film also exposes the brutality of the Soviet Union. Borat is a well-known example. The film stars Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat, a Kazakhstani reporter. His character attempts to learn about the modern world and while doing so exposes the darkest corners of American life. Bringing into the light racist, sexist, and otherwise ridiculous practices at the heart of everyday life.
The Interview, a satirical comedy featuring James Franco and Seth Rogan, was made famous by the very real-life implications of its production. In the film, the two play journalists who are given the opportunity to interview Kim Jon-un, the leader of North Korea. Before leaving on their trip, they are recruited by the CIA to assassinate the leader. North Korea was so upset by the film they threatened violence against the United States if it was released.
Why Do Writers Use Satire?
Writers use satire to write about subject matter that is otherwise hard to address. It is often used to criticize foolish behavior or expose someone’s hypocrisy. Depending on the situation, these criticisms might normally be hard to deliver. At its deepest level, satire and satirical comedy are meant as warnings for those reading, watching, or listening.
Related Literary Terms
- Allegory –a narrative found in verse and prose in which a character or event is used to speak about a broader theme.
- Black Humor–a literary device that’s used in all forms of literature in order to discuss taboo subjects in a less distressing way.
- Hyperbole— an intentionally exaggerated description meant to make a specific impact on a reader.
- Irony–occurs when an outcome is different than expected. It is very possible for one situation to strike one reader as ironic and another not.
Other Resources Relating to Satire
- Read: Goliath’s Top 20 Satire Films of All Time
- Listen: What is Satire?
- Read: The Power of Satire in Filmmaking
- Watch: Top 10 British Spoof and Satire Movies