The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Frank Palmeri

Satiric narratives have been crucial for the development of novelistic forms in the West; Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote (1605, 1615) provides the paradigmatic instance of this relation between satire and novel. Nevertheless, satire stands in a vexed relation to novelistic forms. They may be closely related, but there is a general consensus that satires such as Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) differ from novels in their typical plot, treatment of character, and mode of representation: generally, the interior life of characters in satires is not available as it is in most novels; satires also tend to conclude inconclusively, without a change in the condition of the world that led to their composition (Kernan); finally, satires do not provide the same level of verisimilitude in the detailed depiction of objects (but may employ long and wildly heterogeneous lists instead). Although these distinctions may seem well established, they would not be accepted by Mikhail bakhtin, one of the foremost theorists of novelistic forms, whose extremely expansive understanding of novels encompasses almost any long fictional narrative (except epic), including ancient Greek romances, thousand-page-long seventeenth-century French romances, and satires such as François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532—52), as well as eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century novels of contemporary life, bildungsromane, and historical novels. Bakhtin considers the romances and psychologically realistic narratives to belong to one line or tradition of the novel and parodic satires to be characteristic of a second line. Individual fictional narratives can be placed along a spectrum on which the two types approach each other: William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1848) is a novel with strong and sustained satiric implications, while Gustave Flaubert's Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881) is a satiric narrative with some novelistic features.

Parodic Satire and Novelistic Forms

This strong relation between satire and novels results from the crucial role that parody plays in satiric narrative. It would be more accurate to speak of parodic satire, rather than pure satire, at work in many or even most satiric narratives, because the capacities of narrative representation complicate the kind of unidirectional attack on a single object that is characteristic of poetic satire. Parody introduces ironic distance between an implied meaning and the overt statements of a narrative voice, or of any characters who participate in a dialogue or dramatic situation, and the irony may move in various directions in different chapters or parts of a long narrative. Parodic usage does not employ conventions straightforwardly, but aslant, with a difference. Without an overt statement of position having been made, the distance emerges between the previous form or position and the parodic implication, which usually carries a critical and satiric charge. Thus, in Don Quixote, the actions and speeches of the impoverished knight who takes literally the values and conventions of romances of adventure that had been popular for several centuries reveal the gap between the world of those conventions and the early modern world in which he expects to find them. Moreover, if the strategy of the first chapters of pt. 1 is to show the inadequacy of the conventions of the older literary and social form, successive chapters critique the modern by comparison with the ideals of another time, without offering the possibility of return to such a past. Finally, after numerous episodes, intrusions of other genres, a shift to a metanarrative level in pt. 2, and the multiplying of ironies almost beyond reckoning, Don Quixote concludes as the knight emerges from his delusion only soon thereafter to die: the narrative moves beyond satire toward novelistic form (see METAFICTION).

Perhaps even more insistently than the first part of Don Quixote, the Satyricon, written by Petronius (ca. 60 CE, in the reign of Nero), was probably composed almost entirely of parodies interwoven with parodies. On the evidence of the hundred-page fragment that survives (perhaps one-eighth of the original), Petronius parodically satirizes declamatory rhetoric, and especially the conventions of epic poetry. The curse of Priapus that afflicts the narrator, Encolpius, parodies the curse of Poseidon that prevents Odysseus's successful homecoming. In addition, satire of the outrageous nouveau-riche dinner host Trimalchio turns against those who consider themselves superior to him, Encolpius, and his crowd of hollow con-men, leaving readers without a position to occupy (Palmeri, 20031990). Although Petronius's narrative did not lead to a tradition of novelistic forms in antiquity, it does demonstrate that novels could be constituted by adopting a thoroughly irreverent and leveling relation to epic, as well as other high, serious forms.

Like the Satyricon, Rabelais's Gargantua and Swift's Gulliver's Travels open up new ways of thinking through the use of parodic satire, and both stand in a close relation to later novelistic forms. Through his folkloric giants, Rabelais mocks the narrow learning of the medieval scholastics and celebrates a new world of thought to be explored through the rebirth of the classical languages and literatures; but he also undercuts the self-importance of the high Renaissance through his praise of drink and exuberant celebration of the functions and products of the body. Rabelais's encyclopedic learning, combined with his earthiness, opened up wide prospects for European novelistic prose. Gulliver's Travels parodies and satirizes travel narratives, but does not authorize a return to a classical Stoic ethics, such as might have been embodied by the Houyhnhnms and their passionless reason. Swift's satire of narratives such as Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719—22) also implies a critique of the emerging culturally dominant constellation of empiricism, capital growth, and colonialism (McKeon), and prepares the way for such eighteenth-century comic novels as Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749), Tobias Smollett's Roderick Random (1748) and Humphry Clinker (1771), Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759—67), and Denis Diderot's Jacques le fataliste et son maître (1796, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master) (Paulson).

Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1818) satirizes the gothic novel, associated with women readers, but like Rabelais and Swift she also points to the limitations of a presumed alternative, in this case the male-dominated genre of historical narrative. Distinguishing her narrative from gothic and from history, she clears a space for a form that can accurately represent modern social and individual experience: the comic novel of contemporary manners, the form that Austen explores and makes her own in her later works (see COMEDY). Thus, in all these instances, the satiric parody of literary, cultural, and/or social forms clears the way for new forms of thought and literary practice, even if a clear novelistic tradition does not proceed directly from the narrative satire.

Although the satiric critique of established institutions often carries progressive political implications, the form may also express a more conservative ideology. Austen, for example, is moderately conservative in her implied attitude toward property, the social hierarchy, and marriage, although she also contests many reigning pieties concerning gender. Among other satiric novels by women from the same period, Elizabeth Hamilton's Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800) adopts a more hard-edged conservative position than does Austen, while Elizabeth Inchbald's Nature and Art (1796) implies a radical and ironic critique of most English social institutions.

Nonparodic Satire

Characteristic of conservative satires, Hamilton's Modern Philosophers almost entirely lacks a parodic or ironic dimension: non-parodic satires generally tend to be more unidirectional and less interested in opening up new possibilities in form and thought. However, as Bakhtin observes, by the nineteenth century in Europe and North America, the more psychological line of the novel and the more satiric line became less distinct, as many novels included elements of each, and as irony broke off from and often replaced satire and parody. Austen's later novels illustrate this point: they are not parodic or strongly satiric, yet a knowing irony attends characters, plot, and dialogue, and the narrator's formulations raise questions about some accepted opinions and established hierarchies.

Vanity Fair is a late example of a strongly accented satiric novel in England and France, where, for almost the next half-century, satire played only an episodic and subordinate role in European novels. The late novels of Charles Dickens, for example, usually contain some recurring objects of satire, but even where the satire is strongest, as in Bleak House (1853) and Little Dorrit (1858), it remains episodic, subordinated to novelistic concerns such as the revelation of characters' identities and relations, and the final disposition of protagonists in marriage. Similarly, Anthony Trollope's novels, such as The Eustace Diamonds (1873) and The Way We Live Now (1875), often satirize elements of contemporary social life, raising questions about the condition of women, the conditions of publishing, the established Church, and the stock market; still, however liberal and fair-minded such questions might be, the novels do not seriously undermine conventional proprieties and hierarchies of value in mid-Victorian England. Thus, if in some major periods and instances, satire can serve a generative function for novelistic forms, in other circumstances, satire serves only as a subordinate and accompanying element of an established novelistic form.

Victorian novels did not break out of this bind, this marginalizing inclusion of satire, until the 1890s, but Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1871) provides an anticipatory, early instance of one direction satire would later take in its satiric representation of a utopian society. Here, the strange country the narrator discovers seems at first to have utopian possibilities, although its laws and values soon prove to be based on what seem to be bizarre inversions of common sense and rationality: sick people are treated as criminals, while those who have violated laws are sentenced to medical treatment. It turns out that this culture in fact bears a strong resemblance to the culture of England. Finally, having realized the illogicality and bankruptcy of all the major institutions of Erewhonian and English society, the narrator implies that there is nothing to be done but to conform, observing the customs of the country and the code of a gentleman.

Butler's work and others, such as Flaubert's Bouvard et Pécuchet, anticipate the return of satiric narrative to prominence in the twentieth century; in fact, there has been an explosion of satiric fictions and forms since the turn of the twentieth century in modernist, postmodern, and postcolonial varieties, in speculative fiction, and in various subgenres. A series of dystopian novels has registered satiric critiques both of communist and of capitalist utopian visions (see SCIENCE FICTION). Works in this strain include some novels that had a great impact on twentieth-century fiction and culture: Evgeny Zamyatin's My (wr. 1920—21; pub. U.S. 1924, We), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), George Orwell's 1984 (1949), Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974), and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985). The first half of the twentieth century also saw a large number of satiric novels make use of animals to communicate their satiric vision. Among such works can be numbered Natsume SImageseki's Wagahai wa Neko dearu (1906, I Am a Cat), Anatole France's L'Île des Pingouins (1908, Penguin Island), Mikhail Bulgakov's Sobach'e serdtse (wr. 1925; pub. U.K. 1968, Heart of a Dog), Lao She's Mao Ch'eng Chi (1932, Cat Country), Karel Imageapek's Válka s mloky (1936, War with the Newts), and Orwell's Animal Farm (1945). Expanding the ancient form of the animal fable to novelistic length, these works disguise their satiric critique in order to evade censorship or attack. The allegorical nature of such works, in which the animals' behavior resembles that of humans, aligns them with satiric allegory, another longstanding combination of forms, which can be allied with a religious vision, as in both Apuleius's The Golden Ass (second century CE) and Wu Cheng-en's Xiyou ji (1592, Journey to the West).

Postcolonial and Postmodern Satiric Novels

Not only can long narrative satires prepare the ground for novelistic forms, but also novellas and short stories: Nikolai Gogol's tales, especially “The Nose” (1836) and “The Overcoat” (1841), prepared the way for Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novels by focusing satirically on characters who experience extreme states of deprivation and debasement. Gogol's “Diary of a Madman” (1834) also provided a model for Lu Xun, whose own “A Madman's Diary” (1918), A-Q zhengzhuan (1921, The True Story of Ah Q), and other narratives represent twentieth-century China as a society whose people have become so morally and psychologically degraded that it is barely possible to retain both one's decency and one's sanity among them. Similarly, the tales of Jorge Luis Borges, such as those in Ficciones (1944, Fictions), opened the way for novels of MAGICAL REALISM—notably Gabriel García Márquez's Cien Años de Soledad (1967, One Hundred Years of Solitude), but also the Boom in Latin American fiction in the 1960s and 1970s. Borges's melding of fictional and nonfictional elements, fantasy and essay, utopia and history, proved well suited to expressing the sometimes phantasmagoric history and reality of previously colonized societies, as can be seen also in works such as Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981). Rushdie's novel not only provides a history of India in the twentieth century through its allegorical and fantastic protagonist, the son of an English father and a poor Hindu mother raised in a well-to-do Muslim family; it also parodies famous English novels as it demonstrates the fantastic nature of history. In this latter effort at historical representation often outside the constraints of realism, Rushdie is joined by many authors of satiric historical novels in the last half-century, among them E. L. Doctorow, John Barth, and Günter Grass. The satiric novels of Thomas Pynchon—V. (1963), Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Mason & Dixon (1998), and Against the Day (2006)—all of them constructed almost entirely of parodies, perhaps most clearly demonstrate the possibilities for increased cultural self-understanding opened up by the satiric historical novel, a distinctive postmodern genre. The conjunction of parody and satire in fiction is still generating new and important novelistic forms.


1. Bakhtin, M.M. (1981), Dialogic Imagination, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist.

2. Elliott, R.C. (1960), Power of Satire.

3. Frye, N. (1957), Anatomy of Criticism.

4. Guilhamet, L. (1988), Satire and the Transformation of Genre.

5. Hutcheon, L. (1985), Theory of Parody.

6. Hutcheon, L. (1988), Poetics of Postmodernism.

7. Kernan, A. (1965), Plot of Satire.

8. McKeon, M. (1987), Origins of the English Novel.

9. Palmeri, F. (1990), Satire in Narrative.

10. Palmeri, F. (2003), Satire, History, Novel.

11. Paulson, R. (1967), Satire and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England.