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Satire in English Literature

by Andrew Aarons, Demand Media

    For as long as there has been literature in English, there has been satirical English literature. Satire as a literary device traces its roots to ancient Greece, where Aristophanes used plays to ridicule political leaders. All eras of English literature include satirical works -- from the "Canterbury Tales" to Sue Townsend and with many stops in between. Satire serves a purpose, often a political purpose, in literature.

    What Satire Does

    “Satire is a powerful art form which has the ability to point out the deficiencies in certain human behaviors and the social issues which result from them in such a way that they become absurd," according to the University of Rhode Island’s Megan LeBoeuf. Most literary works of satire make reference to contemporary events with an eye to shedding a new light upon the circumstances.

    An Example of Satire at Work

    One of the most famous works of satire in English is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Swift recommends eating Ireland’s urban poor children to prevent them from being a social strain. The full title of the article, which was published anonymously, gives a hint at its satirical nature: “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.” Satire is often coupled with sarcasm or irony to hide the true meaning of the writer’s work. Swift, of course, didn’t wish that any children be eaten; he was parodying other political solutions to save people from poverty, mimicking the language of other political authors while presenting an absurd suggestion.

    How Satire is Effective

    Satire isn’t overt criticism. In other words, instead of writing a scathing review or direct attack on a political opponent or institution, the satirist can present metaphors or fictional characters as a stand-in for the real thing. When reading satire, the reader is forced to fill in the gaps between the fiction and the truth, forging a deeper understanding of the topic and allowing the reader to feel as if he is in on the joke. In most cases, satire protects the writer from legal action of the person or group being ridiculed as the text works on implications rather than direct statements.

    Satire for Political Change

    “There are specific periods where satire is necessary,” LeBoeuf quotes Canadian media critic John Doyle. During times of political oppression -- or religious oppression, in earlier centuries -- satirists were able to forward political agendas or speak out against church rules through subversive work. Modern versions of this still exist in “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” and the lighthearted approach to serious issues is still effective for informing readers of publications like "The Onion."

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    About the Author

    Living in Canada, Andrew Aarons has been writing professionally since 2003. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Ottawa, where he served as a writer and editor for the university newspaper. Aarons is also a certified computer-support technician.

    Photo Credits

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