The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Satire: A literary genre or mode that uses irony, wit, and sometimes sarcasm to expose humanity’s vices and foibles. Through clever criticism, satirists debunk and deflate their targets, whether persons, groups, ideas, or institutions. Unlike comedy, which is primarily geared toward amusement and entertainment, satire generally has a moral purpose: to provoke a response to correctable human failings, ideally some kind of reform. Predominantly satirical forms include the burlesque, comedy of manners, fabliau, mock heroic, parody, picaresque narrative, and political cartoon.

Satire falls into two major categories — direct (formal) and indirect (informal). In direct satire, a first-person narrator addresses the reader or another character in the work, the adversarius. Types of direct satire include Horatian satire, which pokes fun at human foibles with a witty, even indulgent tone, and Juvenalian satire, which caustically denounces human vice and error. In indirect satire, such as Menippean satire, satiric effect is achieved through the presentation of a fictional narrative in which characters, ideas, or institutions come across as ridiculous. Indirect satire is often as pointed in what it doesn’t say as in what it does.

In Western literature, satire arose in ancient Greece; practitioners included the seventh-century poet Archilochus, said to have written verses so harsh that his targets hanged themselves, and the fifth—fourth century B.C. dramatist Aristophanes. Subsequently, the Romans, beginning particularly with the second-century B.C. satirist Lucilius (Gaius Lucilius), developed satire as a genre. Satire reached its height, however, in the Neoclassical Period; major practitioners included Joseph Addison, John Dryden, Henry Fielding, and Alexander Pope, all in England; Irish writer Jonathan Swift; and French writers Nicolas Boileau, Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin), and Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet). Noted satirists of the nineteenth century included English poet George Gordon, Lord Byron; English novelists Jane Austen and William Makepeace Thackeray; and American humorist Mark Twain. Major twentieth-century satirists included Kingsley Amis, David Lodge, George Orwell, and Evelyn Waugh. Satire remains popular today, particularly in works (including films) whose subjects are political figures, situations, or institutions.

EXAMPLES: Aristophanes’s The Wasps (c. 422 B.C.), on the Athenian court system; Petronius’s Satyricon (c. A.D. 50); Rabelais’s Pantagruel (1533) and Gargantua (1535); Molière’s Tartuffe (1667); Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (1729); Voltaire’s Candide (1759); and Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (1911). Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962; adapted to film 1971), the protagonist of which is a criminal adolescent temporarily “reconditioned” into a “model citizen,” is a satiric dystopia addressing modern violence, police tactics, prisons, politicians, and psychologists. Contemporary examples of satire include Christopher Buckley’s novel Thank You for Smoking (1994; adapted to film 2006), on the tobacco industry; Seth McFarlane’s animated sitcom Family Guy (1999— ), which satirizes American culture; comedian Dave Chappelle’s racial satire, exemplified in his stand-up act “Killin’ Them Softly” (2000); Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004), a collection of gently satirical autobiographical essays in which David Sedaris recalls growing up with his family, mainly in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the 1960s and ’70s; Susan Hasler’s novel Intelligence (2010), a satire on politics and the CIA; The Book of Mormon (2011), a musical by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez that satirizes the Mormon religion; Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (2015), a satire of race and class in the United States; and The Nest (2016), Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s acerbic fictional satire of family life in twenty-first century Manhattan.

Recent film satires include Wag the Dog (1997) and Bulworth (1998), both addressing politics; Best in Show (2000), a mockumentary centered on a dog show competition; Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006), a mockumentary that skewers all comers; and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), which takes on slavery.

Notable journalistic venues for satire include Garry Trudeau’s comic strip Doonesbury (1970— ); Charlie Hebdo (1970—81, 1992— ), a French weekly that has been the target of two terrorist attacks; and two television news programs, The Daily Show (1996— ) and The Colbert Report (2005—14). In its March 23, 2005, edition, the parodic newspaper The Onion (1988— ) satirized the industry-oriented approach of federal government agencies under the George W. Bush Administration:

WASHINGTON, DC — Days after unveiling new power-plant pollution regulations that rely on an industry-favored market-trading approach to cutting mercury emissions, EPA Acting Administrator Stephen Johnson announced that the agency will remove the “E” and “P” from its name. “We’re not really ’environmental’ anymore, and we certainly aren’t ’protecting’ anything,” Johnson said. “’The Agency’ is a name that reflects our current agenda and encapsulates our new function as a government-funded body devoted to handling documents, scheduling meetings, and fielding phone calls.” The change comes on the heels of the Department of Health and Human Services’ January decision to shorten its name to the Department of Services.