Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



Satire serves the anti-imperialist as a comedic shield for the writer's assault on the oppressor. The genre proved useful to a variety of ages and writers who produced classic social and governmental criticism, including the Greek fabulist AESOP and his Roman counterpart PHAEDRUS, the French anticolonialist VOLTAIRE, the Trinidadian-British polemist V. S. NAIPAUL, the Javanese anticolonial iconoclast EDUARD DOUWES DEKKER, and the Ghanian playwright AMA ATA AIDOO. Verbal irony and exposes, and mockery of the mighty can take many forms: the Buddhist mockery in Dohakosha (Treasury of songs, ca. A.D. 790), the comedy of Aristophanes (see GREEK DRAMA), the CRUSADER LORE of the trouveres, the aphorisms of the Roman muckraker JUVENAL, the Carthaginian TERTULLIAN'S invectives against Rome, the STORYTELLING of the Nigerian ethnographer CHINUA ACHEBE, the novels of French writer Anatole France, the stage librettos of the English lyricist WILLIAM SCHWENCK GILBERT, and the bitterness of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's gulag novels (see PRISON LITERATURE). Appealing to common sense and reason, satire uses obvious exaggeration to express public acrimony at dominion and to belittle the usurper and overlord. Near the end of Rome's first century of imperial rule, the epic poet LUCAN defamed the imperial family of Nero in Pharsalia (A.D. 63), a venture that cost the satirist his life. In the second century of the Islamic empire, Kitab al-Bukhala (The book of misers, ca. 825) revealed the scampish nature of the Arab encyclopedist and folklorist AL-JAHIZ, who attacked greedy plutocrats. On a more daring scale, the Russian author IVAN ANDREYEVICH KRYLOV mocked Catherine II the Great and the czarist aristocracy in snide FABLES.

Throughout history, ridicule has played a part in culture, language, and national literature. Spaniards quote from TOMAS DE IRIARTE’S fables and the antichivalric jests of MIGUEL DE CERVANTES, author of Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605), source of the term quixotic, meaning “outrageously impractical.” In 1729, the English writer JONATHAN SWIFT’S A Modest Proposal defended the rural Irish against the heartless mercantilism of Great Britain. Before the American Revolution, while the colonies labored under the taxation of England’s George III, the Massachusetts libertarian Mercy Otis Warren allegorized the conflict. Her droll stage plays, a seemingly harmless form of PROTEST LITERATURE, were full of malignant puns and aspersions against the British Crown and its colonial representatives. In Ireland, MARIA EDGEWORTH published the regional novel Castle Rackrent, an Hibernian Tale (1800), England’s first historical fiction, as an attack on vice-ridden British landlords. With a direct sally against the British regime, Edgeworth asserted, “There is no danger in the present times, that any individual should exercise such tyranny as Colonel M’Guire’s with impunity, the power being now all in the hands of government and there being no possibility of obtaining from parliament an act of indemnity for any cruelties” (Edgeworth 2007, 85).

On a broader front, writers satirized the clergy, bureaucracy, and international catastrophe. In The Pickwick Papers (1837), the English social novelist CHARLES DICKENS included episodes mocking missionaries for their fervid soul-saving among the bereft of the British Empire. The Ukrainian author NIKOLAY GOGOL aroused the censor’s ire in the staging of The Government Inspector (1836), a three-act expose of government corruption on the Russian frontier. Even though the play had the approval of Czar Nicholas I, Gogol exiled himself to Rome for 12 years to avoid retaliation. In this same era, parodist William Makepeace Thackeray lampooned European social climbers during the Napoleonic era in the allegorical romance Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1848) (see NAPOLEONIC LITERATURE). At a moment when civilians are desperate to flee, the author tweaks the condescension of Lady Bareacres, who offers to purchase Mrs. Crawley’s horses: “Mrs. Crawley returned a note with her compliments, and an intimation that it was not her custom to transact bargains with ladies’ maids” (Thackeray 1848, 280-281).

Opportunities to caricaturize the interloper cropped up throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. RUDYARD KIPLING, the most prominent surveyor of British imperialism, turned satire into tragedy with the seizure of tribal power by two bumbling army buddies in “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888). The protagonists, tricksters Danny Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, follow the trail of Alexander the Great to Kafirstan (present-day Afghanistan). A blow against fascism by the radical Italian polemist and poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti impugned the foppish dress and militarist posturing of “Il Duce,” Benedetto Mussolini, the Italian dictator during World War II. The Irish-born playwright George Bernard Shaw reached back to imperial Rome to flay the over-zealous Christians and their imperial persecutors in the two-act stage adaptation of the fable ANDROCLES AND THE LION (1912). Like JAMES JOYCE’S Ulysses (1922), Shaw’s play carried a subtextual salute to the Irish, the underdog of the British Isles. In this same between-the-wars era, English humorist Evelyn Waugh ridiculed the efforts of British aid to Emperor Haile Selassie in modernizing Ethiopia in Black Mischief (1932), a jovial send-up set on the fictional isle of Azania. A keen manipulator of allegory and invective, the English novelist GEORGE ORWELL spoke from experience about the alienation of a colonial outsider in Southeast Asia in the novel Burmese Days (1934). More gripping, his classic dystopian animal fable Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (1946) paired irony with pathos in a tableau of Marxism and fascism in an English barnyard.

The rise of the Soviet Union proved fertile ground for humor and more pungent sarcasm. In 1953, the English fabulist, archaeologist, and historian Jacquetta Hopkins Hawkes mocked the Soviet ideal with “The Unites,” a dystopian tale in the collection A Woman as Great as the World and Other Fables. The narrative, an example of modern WISDOM LITERATURE, employs irony using a fragmented inscription, “Unites the Human Race,” a section of the opening stanza of “The Internationale” (1888), the Communist Party workers' anthem. A peaceful dawn illuminates an atomic disaster, the relics of technological advancement, enslavement, and civil war. Additional irony depicts the remnants of humankind eager to establish a pastoral haven. The fable turns to wisdom lore as a sage admonishes the survivors to distinguish themselves from insects and beasts by aiding the weak and devoting themselves to God. His message refers indirectly to the Soviet menace: “Those great men who have been put at the head of society are as grains of dust at the foot of the colossal mystery of this universe” (Hawkes 1953, 169).


Edgeworth, Maria. Castle Rackrent. Edited by Susan Kubica Howard. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing, 2007.

Hawkes, Jacquette Hopkins. A Woman as Great as the World and Other Fables. New York: Random House, 1953.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Satire. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 1996.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. 3 vols.

Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1848.