Guide to Literary Terms

Start Free Trial

Does satire aim to ridicule individuals and social follies with a corrective intent?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Satire is definitely writing that ridicules or holds up to contempt the faults of individuals or a society.  To deliver his message, a satirist may use either a sympathetic tone or an angry, bitter tone, and he may use different genres as the medium for his satire.  And, although a satire is often humorous--sometimes it is what is called black comedy--its purpose is serious. 

For instance, after World War II, American author Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22, a satirical novel which has some ludicrous scenes such as he opening one in which a pilot is completely encassed with tubes flowing in and out of each end of his body cast.  Periodically, a nurse comes and without a word, switches the tubes, recycling the fluids.  Of course, one of the most outrageous satires is that of Jonathan Swift,  His essay, "A Modest Proposal," immodestly suggests that the British eat the Irish babies since they were consuming them figuratively.  Several times Swift had tried to get the attention of the British parliament about the penurious state of the Irish, but to no avail.  So, when he proposed that the children of the poor be sold and eaten, he achieved the goal of satire. 

In another instance, authors satirize a philosophy such as Voltaire's Candide which ridicules the philosophy of optimism as promulgated by Gottfried Leibniz.  In his novel, Candide and other characters experience imprisonment, disfigurement, and horrific hardships, but the mouthpiece of Leibniz, Dr. Pangloss contends that "all is for the best."

Of course, an important ingredient of satire is irony, the contrast between what is said and what is meant.  For example, in Gulliver's Travels when Gulliver says that his "color came and went serveral times, with indignation to hear our noble country...the seat of virtue, piety, honor...the pride and envy of the world, so contemptuously treated, Swift is clearly being ironic.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Satire is, indeed, a literary device that is used to ridicule a person, idea or society, in some way. There are several types of satire. Dr. L. Kip Wheeler offers this definition:

Satire: An attack on or criticism of any stupidity or vice in the form of scathing humor, or a critique of what the author sees as dangerous religious, political, moral, or social standards.

A parody is a mellow form of satire, and is usually humorous. Videos that make fun of famous songs are parodies. A TV show that adopts a flashback method so its characters can imitate a famous TV show or movie is a parody.

However, a satire is generally harsh in nature. It holds up to the world the foolishness of a person, government or even religion.

For example, Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift is a political satire direction at the society—especially England's: of which he was a part. In his writing, "A Modest Proposal," he (satirically) suggested that to improve the plight of the starving poor in Ireland, the Irish should fatten up their babies and sell them for food. (He was not serious, but trying to—harshly—make a point that these people needed help.)

Other famous satirists are Geoffrey Chaucer (who wrote The Canterbury Tales, criticizing servants of the clergy who took advantage of the wealthy, and especially the poor); France's Moliere (who in his comedy Tartuffe made fun of people who pretended to be religious and above reproach, but were actually hypocrites of the highest degree); and even Mark Twain (who made fun of several kinds of people in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn who took advantage of others, or tried to present themselves as decent people when they were anything but that.

In fact [Huck's] conscience, warped by the distorted moral world he has grown up in, often bothers him most when he is at his best. Ironically, he is prepared to do good, believing it to be wrong.)

There are many other examples of satirists who have used writing to draw attention to situations or people that he/she believes need to brought to light to convey foolishness, hypocrisy, etc. eNotes reminds the reader that satire is "alive and well" in circles other than literature.

Satire is nowadays found in many artistic forms of expression, including literature, plays, commentary, and media such as lyrics.



See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial