Satire (SAH-tie-urr) uses humor and exaggeration to criticize something or someone, typically a public figure, social norm, or government policy. The term can describe both the genre of satirical writing and the literary device of satire, which a writer might utilize in a particular scene or passage of a work that isn’t a wholly satirical piece.
Most satires aim to make the reader laugh at the foolishness and absurdities of human nature, but they also possess an undercurrent of seriousness by shedding light on important social issues or commenting on corruption, hypocrisy, or incompetence. Fictional characters and events in satires are often allegorical, symbolizing real people or incidents as a way of critiquing behavior or policies.
The word satire comes from the Latin satira, meaning “poetic medley,” which derives from the earlier Latin term lanx satura, meaning “a full dish of different fruits.”
The Elements of Satire:
Writers frequently use other literary devices to satirize their subjects.
- Anachronisms: An anachronism is a thing appearing in a narrative that belongs to an era different from the story’s setting. It can depict how out of touch a satirical character is. Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a satire of feudalism and the monarchy, and it chronicles the adventures of a 19th-century man named Hank as he time-travels to the sixth century. Hank regularly manipulates those he encounters with anachronistic items he brings from his own day and time, like fireworks.
- Irony: A satirist employs irony to express something different—and often contradictory—to what is actually happening or being said. For example, Jane Austen opens Pride and Prejudice with the line “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” As events unfold, however, virtually none of the wealthy male characters wants to marry, thus adding an element of situational irony to the story.
- Juxtaposition: A juxtaposition places two things side by side to show similarities and differences. Satiric juxtaposition occurs in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel Moonraker. Bond comes across a Shell Gas billboard that’s blinking the message “SUMMER SHELL is HERE.” From where Bond stands, however, tree branches obscure parts of the sign, and all he can see is “HELL is HERE.”
- Overstatement: An overstatement exaggerates the significance of something, usually to illustrate a character’s tenuous understanding of reality. Humorist Dave Barry uses overstatement in his essay “Revenge of the Pork Person” to show how some men have an inflated sense of their own attractiveness:
A man can have a belly you could house commercial aircraft in and a grand total of eight greasy strands of hair, which he grows real long and combs across the top of his head so that he looks, when viewed from above, like an egg in the grasp of a giant spider, plus this man can have B.O. to the point where he interferes with radio transmissions, and he will still be convinced that, in terms of attractiveness, he is borderline Don Johnsons.
- Parody: Parody in satire imitates another literary style for comedic purposes, resulting in an exaggeration of storytelling technique. Satire and parody are often confused for one another, but parodies are generally more direct, have a lighter tone without serious undercurrents, and mimic the voice of their targets. For example, Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies mimics Jane Austen’s literary style to satirically mash up a romantic novel of manners and a zombie thriller. Consider the opening line of the book, a direct parody of Austen’s opening Pride and Prejudice line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”
- Understatement: An understatement is the opposite of an overstatement. It minimizes the significance of something to portray a character’s cluelessness or disconnect from reality. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye contains many satiric elements, including understatement. At one point in the story, Holden Caulfield says, “I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.”
The Types of Satire
There are three primary types of satire: Menippean, Horatian, and Juvenalian.
The oldest type of satire, Menippean is also one of the least common. It gets its name from Ancient Greek polemicist Menippus, who pioneered a sort of indirect satire. This approach satirizes opinions and attitudes rather than people or institutions. Still, Menippean satires can be biting and harsh in their criticism.
Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a classic Menippean satire, chronicling the travels of an everyman character placed in increasingly unusual situations. These situations target human nature and various aspects of 18th-century life, including economics, politics, science, and society—but not specific individuals.
Horatian satire is a much lighter type, inspired by the works of ancient Roman poet Horace. A Horatian satirist is generally more interested in eliciting laughs rather than making bold commentary or stinging criticism. This humor is achieved by targeting flaws and weaknesses common in humanity.
The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce is a Horatian satire presented as a lexicon of alternative definitions to everyday words. These definitions underscore the foibles and absurdities of human nature. For example, Bierce defines love as “a temporary insanity curable by marriage.”
Named for the Roman poet Juvenal, Juvenalian satire leans toward the dark side rather than the overtly humorous. It takes aim at public figures, institutions, and social norms, often with pronounced sting.
Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is a contemporary Juvenalian satire, set in an underground club where members savagely fight one another as a form of venting their frustrations in a misguided idea of therapy. It is a scathing indictment of toxic gender roles and consumer culture.
The Function of Satire
Satire is meant to critique people, power, and society in an entertaining way. Satirists set out to expose the flaws in current systems or ways of thinking in hopes of informing, educating, and improving humanity. Humor is a central component of many satires, but comedy is not the sole purpose of the satire. It’s simply a tool through which the writer can express their criticisms in ways that readers can appreciate. A satirist may make readers laugh, but they also want to make them think. Depending on the subject, the author may set out to change minds, reveal corruption, or illuminate little-known injustices in a society.
Satire and Other Devices of Critique
Satire vs. Sarcasm
Both satire and sarcasm contain some form of critique and, often, humor, but that’s where their similarities end. Sarcasm uses insincere language to criticize someone or something, while satire uses exaggeration to expose flaws or inequities. That exaggeration often has some truth to it, while sarcasm’s insincerity comes from a place of intentional deceit. The result is that sarcasm tends to be taunting and mean-spirited rather than constructive.
A satirical writer might include sarcastic elements in their writing, but this usually isn’t the tone of the entire work. A long sarcastic screed wouldn’t be entertaining to read, as it would come off as sharp and hurtful with little helpful commentary.
Satire vs. Parody
The line between these terms is a bit murkier. The goal of a parody is, first and foremost, entertainment. It imitates the writing style of another work for comedic effect, typically by applying the style to a ridiculous or opposing subject. These elements separate it from satire, which doesn’t encompass any specific type of writing style. Additionally, because satire is meant to say something meaningful about its subjects and what they represent, it makes the satirist’s goal somewhat larger than that of the parodist.
Goodnight iPad by Ann Droyd—a bit of word play in the author pseudonym—is a parody of the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Written in the same simple language but going through all the different technologies holding people’s attention, Goodnight iPad is a silly sendup of Brown’s story.
Compare that to, say, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a Menippean satire written in its own style that follows a girl down a rabbit hole and the oddball characters she encounters on the other side. Rather than spoof another story or style, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an original tale that gently ridicules upper-class intellectualism—albeit it through zany anthropomorphic characters.
Satire in Popular Culture
Many pop culture touchstones feature abundant use of satire. The sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live is perhaps the most instantly recognizable. Since its inception in 1975, the series has often satirized people in positions of power, human idiosyncrasies, social trends, and political issues. Similarly, The Simpsons is an animated satire of the typical American family, and episodes have satirized everything from politics and religion to pop culture and consumerism.
Satirical films include Blazing Saddles, which mocks the western genre; Zoolander, which targets the fashion industry; and Borat, which lampoons American exceptionalism.
Satire and Freedom of Speech
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights protects satire as a form of free speech. However, other legal issues can come into play with the device and genre, such as copyright infringement, slander or libel, and emotional distress. The subject of the satiric work, if said work is clearly reminiscent of a real person, might sue the author for any one of these perceived infractions. The law, though, often comes down on the side of free speech.
For instance, author Alice Randall wrote a 2001 satire of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind called The Wind Done Gone. The storyline critiqued and reimagined Mitchell’s offensive depictions of African Americans in her Reconstructionist-era classic, and the Mitchell estate sued Randall. While the two parties eventually settled the case, a court found that Randall didn’t violate any existing copyright laws and that fair use policies protected The Wind Done Gone.
Satire itself is a form of criticism, but it is frequently the subject of criticism. People don’t like to have their weaknesses amplified and exposed, and this is one of the biggest objectives of any good satire. Satirical writers and performers often find themselves the targets of disparagement or dismissal by those they are satirizing.
- Djuna Barnes, Ladies Almanack
- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
- Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
- Mary Dunn, The World of Lady Addle
- Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho
- Joseph Heller, Catch-22
- Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life, Social Studies
- George Orwell, Animal Farm
- Dorothy Parker, “Résumé,” “Comment,” “A Telephone Call”
- Alexander Pope, “The Rape of the Lock”
- Alice Randall, The Wind Done Gone
- Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
- Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
- Voltaire, Candide
Examples of Satire in Literature
1. Dorothy Parker, “A Telephone Call”
Parker’s short story is a satirical take on love and dating. It reads as an urgent plea, with the narrator, presumably a young woman, revealing her insecurities as she begs God for her boyfriend to call her. Her boyfriend said he would call at 5:00, but it’s now 7:10 and she hasn’t heard from him. Sitting, starting at the phone, the narrator slowly goes into panic mode and reviews virtually every second of her last encounter with her boyfriend, trying to see if she missed some sign or indicator that he was no longer interested in her. She vacillates between declaring her love for him and never wanting to see him again, but by the end, she’s bargaining with God to make her boyfriend call her.
2. Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Catch-22 takes place during World War II and charts the exploits of American antihero Captain John Yossarian, a bombardier in the Air Force. Feeling allegiance to neither nation nor principles, Yossarian spends much of the war angry that his life is constantly in danger. He fakes multiple illnesses to try to avoid battle, and the memory of a dead fellow soldier, Snowden, haunts him. Situations, ranging from the heartbreaking to the ludicrous, challenge Yossarian at every turn until he finally refuses to fly any further missions. The novel satirizes war, religion, bureaucracy, idealism, human suffering, and wartime politics.
3. Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho
Ellis’s novel is set in 1980s New York City, where investment banker Patrick Bateman lives a secret life as a serial killer. He moves seamlessly between the daily routine of work, nightclubbing, snorting cocaine, spending time with his fiancée, and committing murders in the dark of night. Bateman’s grip on reality erodes as the story progresses, but he ultimately takes no responsibility for the killings, is never held accountable, and ends up back with his friends in a Manhattan nightclub. Through Bateman, Ellis satirizes yuppie culture, Wall Street ruthlessness, and ‘80s-era excess.
Further Resources on Satire
Since 1925, The New Yorker has featured satire by some of the world’s preeminent writers.
The Onion isn’t as highbrow as The New Yorker, but its raucous humor illuminates important social and political issues.
Thanet Writers delves deeper into the three types of satire.
What are the limits of satire? The New York Review of Books explores the answer.
Goodreads has a comprehensive list of popular satires.