Writing

What Is Satirical Writing (Definition, How To Write Satire + Examples)

Posted: December 13, 2022
Word count: 1,665 (6 min)

A satire is a literary device poking fun at something with the intention of criticizing as well as generating humor.

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Tomas Laurinavicius

Co-founder & Chief Editor, Best Writing

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We have all used satire knowingly or unknowingly. It is found amply in pop culture, especially with the rise of political cartoons. A satire is a literary device poking fun at something with the intention of criticizing as well as generating humor.

Oxford English Dictionary defines satire in writing as: "A poem or (in later use) a novel, film, or other work of art which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary."

Satire in itself is a literary device used to poke fun and create a humorous effect. When used in literature, satire acts as a social commentary, holding a mirror to human and social flaws, often in a humorous manner.

Satire in literature is also a genre. Literary works which aim to expose flaws and poke fun at human nature and society are called 'satires' - "the genre of literature which consists of satires; satirical writing." (Oxford English Dictionary)

What are the origins of satire?

Satire has a Latin origin. The word satire derives from the Latin word satur meaning "full" (coined by Roman rhetorician Quintilian), and was subsequently prefixed with lanx making it lanx satur meaning "a literary medley". The literal meaning of lanx satur is "a medley of fruits".

With time and use, satire became most popular in three different types: Horatian satire, Juvenalian satire, and Menippean satire.

What are the 3 types of satire?

Notable satirists in literature are Horace (of Roman origin), Menippus (of Greek origin), and Juvenal (of Roman origin), Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, George Orwell, and Zadie Smith, Kurt Vonnegut, of the twentieth century.

Horatian Satire

Horatian satire originates from the ancient Roman poet Horace (writing Roman satire) who used his writing to mock the flawed system of Greece and Ancient Rome. The kind of satire Horace used are light hearted and can help in rectifying the targeted object through soft criticism.

A Horatian satirist is witty, and playful, and indulges in the everyday life of flawed human behavior only to poke fun and reveal its absurdities.

Examples of Horatian satire are:

Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live is a 1975 variety show considered to have a very satirical approach. Various artists, stars, and comedians gathered to perform skits, often targeting upper class intellectualism.

Saturday Night Live ran for forty eight seasons, first airing in 1975.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a good example of Horatian satire in literature. The novel was written in 1884 and was first published in the United Kingdom.

Huckleberry Finn is a literary satire where Mark Twain has poked light hearted but serious criticism on religious (using the Shepardsons and Grangerfords) and racial (using Jim, the runway slave) fronts of the time: "...we was ready to shove off we was a quarter of a mile below the island, and it was pretty broad day; so I made Jim lay down in the canoe and cover up with a quilt, because if he set up people could tell he was a nigger a good ways off."

Rape of the Lock

Rape of the Lock is a long narrative poem written by Alexander Pope in 1712. It shows a light hearted Horatian satire based on a family feud between two noble houses of England.

The feud started with Belinda's hair being cut off during a card game leading to a riff between the two houses. John Carlyll requested Alexander Pope to write something that would bridge the gap between two families, upon which this poem was written.

The book is also a satirical letter on the conventions and pretensions of 18th century England.

Gulliver's travels

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift is a political satire on the contemporary culture of England in 1726. Behind the surface of a travelogue (a very prevalent genre in the 18th century), lies a range of satirical writing and social commentary of contemporary culture. It talks about episodes of the protagonist's interaction with four kinds of people which are in turn representation of humanity and human nature as whole: "Irony is present from the start in the simultaneous recreation of Gulliver as giant and prisoner" (Reilly 167)

Juvenalian Satire

Juvenalian satire is not light hearted and euphemistic. It is not supposed to make the reader laugh. Juvenalian satirical literature is harsh criticism on society and state where no feelings are spared. It is not an indirect satire but very much on the point.

It acquires its name from Ancient Latin satirist Juvenal. A Juvenalian satire is many times also a political satire owing to a revolutionary theme and affected a wide section of people.

Anthony Burgess, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury are well known Juvenalian satirists.

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess is the story of a notoriously rude teenage boy named Alex. Alex is a violent guy who vandalises the community. He is part of a gang of such stature and regularly carry out violent acts.

Eventually the state puts him through a psychological experiment to rectify his behavior. Although it worked on the surface, questions remain of free will and freedom of choice.

The book is a juvenalian satire criticising issues of a totalitarian government in twentieth century England. It was later adapted into a film, directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971 of the same name.

1984

1984 is one of the classical models of juvenalian satire as well as dystopian fiction by George Orwell. The novel revolves around a autocratic government trying to take control of the physical and psychological lives of the citizens. They are spied upon, tied to rules, kept under surveillance, and barred from doing things like fall in love.

1984 was written in 1948, a futuristic novel, and also a satire on utopian books like Utopia by Thomas More.

Animal Farm

Animal Farm is a political satire targeting important political figures of the time. It uses allegory to make social commentary on political figures of the time. It also raises questions of ideas of socialism, communism, and tyranny. 1984 by George Orwell has become a cult classic in this genre of literature.

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 (written in 1953) is also a dystopian novel about a tyrannical government. The government has ordered to burn all houses in which books have been found. Guy Montag, the fireman in the book, eventually questions the job he is doing on moral and ethical grounds.

The book has become a cult fiction and was adapted into a film of the same name in 1966.

Menippean Satire

Menippean satire is found in prose works. It focuses on human nature rather than collective psychology and behavior. The term Menippean satire originates from Menippus, a Greek satirist.

White Teeth

White Teeth by Zadie Smith focuses on the absurdities of human nature. White Teeth, written in 2000 became an instant sensation. It is a story of two friends during wartime, one Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and one Englishman named Archie Jones. The become fast friends and through them we understand the relationship between immigrants and locals in contemporary Britain.

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies by William Golding is a social satire. On the commencing day of World War II, a plane crashes on a deserted island and a number of English boys are left stranded in the middle of nowhere. These boys try to imitate adults, as they have seen back home, but the experiment badly fails and what we see is a dysfunctional society representing the contemporary twentieth century England. It is also a parody.

Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut is a story of the destruction of the earth. The book fictionally documents what people were doing on the day Hiroshima was bombed. Cat's Cradle is a very dark satire on humanity and what we call civilization. It was written in 1971, a time when dystopian fiction was at its prime. Cat's Cradle is a satire, and a parody.

Tristam Shandy

Tristam Shandy by Laurence Stern is one of the key works of Menippean satires. It consists of nine volumes and is based on one 'unfortunate hero' of the same name. The full name of the books is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It goes on to describe annecdotes and episodes in sections, which are humorous and in general celebrates the 'art of fiction'. Tristam Shandy was published in the pre-Victorian England, and a textbook example of Menippean satire.

What is the purpose of writing satire?

The purpose of satirical works is to criticize different aspects of life with the intention of mockery, humor, and rectification.

What are the key elements of satirical writing?

Irony

Irony is a literary device used for mocking someone or something in a humorous way. Irony can be of three types: situational irony, verbal irony, and dramatic irony.

Allegory

An allegory is a symbolic literary device which has more than one level of meaning. Allegory can be used for indirect satire in literature.

Understatement

Understatement is a rhetorical device that downplays something in order to poke fun and satirize things. Euphemism is a literary device that downplays a situation.

Hyperbole

Hyperbole is a literary device that exaggerates in leaps and bounds. This in turn gives a comic effect in writing satire.

Summary

Satire is an effective literary device found in literature, television show, popular culture and many more. Satire can be found in great literary works (like the ones listed above), TV Shows (South Park, Bojack Horseman, Rick and Morty to name a few), movies (including adaptations of satirical literature), political satire via political cartoons, speeches and writing, and music like those of Pink Floyd and System of A Down. Satire uses other literary devices like allegory, parody, irony, to draw attention to topical issues in a humorous and entertaining way.

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