How did the satire of the 18th century grow and develop?

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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The British have always been well-known for their dry sense of humor, often misunderstood by outsiders and found to be offensive.

In 18th century Britain, there was a need to move away from bible stories or classical literature in order to try and shame the aristocracy and to make it more real by focusing on actual and current issues pertinent to the true ideals of the age. It wasn’t uncommon for the deeper meaning of tales or stories to escape the very people it was aimed at. Satire, whilst in keeping with the British humor and quick wit, was able to do this.  

Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) hoped that by ridiculing the shortcomings of the aristocracy in Rape of the Lock, he would encourage them to shift their obsessions and indeed their infatuation with decorum, mocking situations rather than individuals and exposing flaws; thereby chastising the hypocrisy of the time. Satire was sufficiently removed as to not be personal but sufficiently real as to prompt a reaction  and even a mind-set change.  

Jonathan Swift( 1667 – 1745) found a different means by which to do this and his choice of satire was far more shocking.  A Modest Proposal was published anonymously to avoid repercussions. He intended to expose the flaws regarding poverty in Ireland and the overwhelming and suffocating influence of the British government.   

Through The Rape of the Lock and A Modest Proposal, Pope and Swift respectively aspired to influence the British mindset of their age and inspire it to move forward into a new era of true enlightenment with regards to social and political morality.

At the same time, and using another unique tool, William Hogarth (1697 – 1764) an artist also contributed to the development of the contemporary satire of his time.  In 1743–1745 Hogarth painted six pictures of Marriage a-la-mode in order to demonstrate how miserable and indeed tragic an ill-considered marriage for money could be and highlighting the twisted view of upper-class 18th-century society. Its moralistic standpoint was clear.

Satire became well-entrenched into society and even Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility (1811) used it to great effect.

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Satire grew in the eighteenth century for several reasons. First, many literary critics and historians refer to a "long" eighteenth century, a period spanning 1660 to roughly 1830. In 1660, the monarchy was restored. Under Cromwell and the Puritans, theater had been banned. When Charles II took the throne, theater returned with a great burst of energy and reacted against the pieties of the previous period. Many of the plays produced competed with each other to become more bawdy and humorous, and this included over-the-top satire making fun of social and individual weaknesses. Some playwrights found inspiration in the admired French playwright Moliere, whose comedies satirized people's character flaws, such as greed or hypochondria.

The eighteenth century is also known as the neoclassical era in literature. Many writers admired and were influenced by such Roman satirists as Juvenal. Further, newspapers and periodicals flourished, and in a bid for audience, tried to outdo each other in satirizing the foibles of the age. It was a period of tremendous growth and change for Britain as the country increasingly became a naval power. Britain also became the first country to industrialize, leading to the kind of changes that made people nervous. These included perceived threats to the social order as the new factory owners began to become wealthier than the landed aristocracy. Some of this anxiety expressed itself in satire. 

The novel was developing as well. Starting with Spain's Don Quixote, it made itself distinct from the romance genre by satirizing or making fun of courtly romances with their static characters and unrealistic plots. English novelists picked up on this satiric strain and satirized other literary forms. Sterne's Tristram Shandy, for example, satirized the often pompous autobiography genre, and Fielding's Shamela satirized Richardson's possibly overly virtuous epistolary novel called Pamela.

Under Jane Austen, satire was refined to a sharp and sophisticated point. Austen grafted it to realism in her novels, forging a path for the nineteenth century novel.