Menippean satire: A type of informal satire that uses intellectual humor to ridicule broad mental attitudes or behaviors such as bigotry, bragging, pedantry, and social climbing. Menippean satire is named for the third-century B.C. Greek Cynic philosopher Menippus, whose works have been lost, and is often called Varronian satire for the first-century B.C. Roman practitioner Marcus Terentius Varro.
Traditional Menippean satire typically has a loose narrative framework, blends prose and verse, contains multiple narrative voices, features fantastic or otherwise extraordinary situations and settings, and depicts characters engaging in protracted and ridiculous intellectual debates. Characterization is subordinated to the attitudes or ideas the satirist seeks to confront, so characters tend to be flat rather than round, caricatures serving primarily to represent particular viewpoints. Focusing on Menippean satire’s philosophic discourse, archetypal critic Northrop Frye asserted in The Anatomy of Criticism (1957) that the genre, at “its most concentrated,” presents “a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern.” By contrast, in Menippean Satire Reconsidered (2005), theorist Howard Weinbrot argued that its “dominant thrust is to resist or protest events in a dangerous world.”
EXAMPLES: Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii (The Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius), generally attributed to first-century A.D. Roman writer Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca), ridiculing the deification of the emperor upon his death; the Satyre Ménippée (1594), an anonymous pamphlet written by supporters of Henry of Navarre’s claim to the French throne against their opponents, the conservative Catholic League; Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), written as an exhaustive medical analysis of melancholy; Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1872). Twentieth-century examples include Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo (1952), John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy (1966), and Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979). In the New York Review of Books (“When Privacy Is Theft” ), writer Margaret Atwood described Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle (2013) as a Menippean satire, “distinct from social satire in viewing moral defects less as flaws of character than as intellectual perversions.”