Three Techniques Of Satire Essay

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Not to be confused with satyr.

"Satires" redirects here. For other uses, see Satires (disambiguation).

Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or society itself into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.

A feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm—"in satire, irony is militant"[2]—but parody, burlesque, exaggeration,[3] juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre are all frequently used in satirical speech and writing. This "militant" irony or sarcasm often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack.

Satire is nowadays found in many artistic forms of expression, including internet memes, literature, plays, commentary, television shows, and media such as lyrics.

Etymology and roots[edit]

The word satire comes from the Latin word satur and the subsequent phrase lanx satura.Satur meant "full" but the juxtaposition with lanx shifted the meaning to "miscellany or medley": the expression lanx satura literally means "a full dish of various kinds of fruits."[4]

The word satura as used by Quintilian, however, was used to denote only Roman verse satire, a strict genre that imposed hexameter form, a narrower genre than what would be later intended as satire.[4] Quintilian famously said that satura, that is a satire in hexameter verses, was a literary genre of wholly Roman origin (satura tota nostra est). He was aware of and commented on Greek satire, but at the time did not label it as such, although today the origin of satire is considered to be Aristophanes' Old Comedy. The first critic to use the term "satire" in the modern broader sense was Apuleius.[4]

To Quintilian, the satire was a strict literary form, but the term soon escaped from the original narrow definition. Robert Elliott writes:

As soon as a noun enters the domain of metaphor, as one modern scholar has pointed out, it clamours for extension; and satura (which had had no verbal, adverbial, or adjectival forms) was immediately broadened by appropriation from the Greek word for “satyr” (satyros) and its derivatives. The odd result is that the English “satire” comes from the Latin satura; but "satirize", "satiric", etc., are of Greek origin. By about the 4th century AD the writer of satires came to be known as satyricus; St. Jerome, for example, was called by one of his enemies 'a satirist in prose' ('satyricus scriptor in prosa'). Subsequent orthographic modifications obscured the Latin origin of the word satire: satura becomes satyra, and in England, by the 16th century, it was written 'satyre.'

The word satire derives from satura, and its origin was not influenced by the Greek mythological figure of the satyr.[6] In the 17th century, philologist Isaac Casaubon was the first to dispute the etymology of satire from satyr, contrary to the belief up to that time.[7]


The rules of satire are such that it must do more than make you laugh. No matter how amusing it is, it doesn't count unless you find yourself wincing a little even as you chuckle.[8]

Laughter is not an essential component of satire; in fact there are types of satire that are not meant to be "funny" at all. Conversely, not all humor, even on such topics as politics, religion or art is necessarily "satirical", even when it uses the satirical tools of irony, parody, and burlesque.

Even light-hearted satire has a serious "after-taste": the organizers of the Ig Nobel Prize describe this as "first make people laugh, and then make them think".[10]

Social and psychological functions[edit]

Satire and irony in some cases have been regarded as the most effective source to understand a society, the oldest form of social study.[11] They provide the keenest insights into a group's collective psyche, reveal its deepest values and tastes, and the society's structures of power.[12][13] Some authors have regarded satire as superior to non-comic and non-artistic disciplines like history or anthropology.[11][14][15] In a prominent example from ancient Greece, philosopher Plato, when asked by a friend for a book to understand Athenian society, referred him to the plays of Aristophanes.[16][17]

Historically, satire has satisfied the popular need to debunk and ridicule the leading figures in politics, economy, religion and other prominent realms of power.[18] Satire confronts public discourse and the collective imaginary, playing as a public opinion counterweight to power (be it political, economic, religious, symbolic, or otherwise), by challenging leaders and authorities. For instance, it forces administrations to clarify, amend or establish their policies. Satire's job is to expose problems and contradictions, and it's not obligated to solve them.[19]Karl Kraus set in the history of satire a prominent example of a satirist role as confronting public discourse.[20]

For its nature and social role, satire has enjoyed in many societies a special freedom license to mock prominent individuals and institutions.[21] The satiric impulse, and its ritualized expressions, carry out the function of resolving social tension.[22] Institutions like the ritual clowns, by giving expression to the antisocial tendencies, represent a safety valve which reestablishes equilibrium and health in the collective imaginary, which are jeopardized by the repressive aspects of society.[23][24]

The state of political satire in a given society reflects the tolerance or intolerance that characterizes it,[18] and the state of civil liberties and human rights. Under totalitarian regimes any criticism of a political system, and especially satire, is suppressed. A typical example is the Soviet Union where the dissidents, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov were under strong pressure from the government. While satire of everyday life in the USSR was allowed, the most prominent satirist being Arkady Raikin, political satire existed in the form of anecdotes[25] that made fun of Soviet political leaders, especially Brezhnev, famous for his narrow-mindness and love for awards and decorations.


Satire is a diverse genre which is complex to classify and define, with a wide range of satiric "modes".[26][27]

Horatian, Juvenalian, Menippean[edit]

Satirical literature can commonly be categorized as either Horatian, Juvenalian, or Menippean.[28]


Horatian satire, named for the Roman satirist Horace (65–8 BCE), playfully criticizes some social vice through gentle, mild, and light-hearted humour. Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) wrote Satires to gently ridicule the dominant opinions and "philosophical beliefs of ancient Rome and Greece" (Rankin).[29] Rather than writing in harsh or accusing tones, he addressed issues with humor and clever mockery. Horatian satire follows this same pattern of "gently [ridiculing] the absurdities and follies of human beings" (Drury).[30]
It directs wit, exaggeration, and self-deprecating humour toward what it identifies as folly, rather than evil. Horatian satire's sympathetic tone is common in modern society.[31]
A Horatian satirist's goal is to heal the situation with smiles, rather than by anger. Horatian satire is a gentle reminder to take life less seriously and evokes a wry smile.[30] A Horatian satirist makes fun of general human folly rather than engaging in specific or personal attacks. Shamekia Thomas suggests, "In a work using Horatian satire, readers often laugh at the characters in the story who are the subject of mockery as well as themselves and society for behaving in those ways." Alexander Pope has been established as an author whose satire "heals with morals what it hurts with wit" (Green).[32] Alexander Pope—and Horatian satire—attempt to teach.


  • The Ig Nobel Prizes.
  • Bierce, Ambrose, The Devil's Dictionary .
  • Defoe, Daniel, The True-Born Englishman .
  • The Savoy Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.
  • Trollope, Anthony, The Way We Live Now .
  • Gogol, Nikolai, Dead Souls .
  • Groening, Matthew "Matt", The Simpsons .
  • Lewis, Clive Staples, The Screwtape Letters .
  • Mercer, Richard ‘Rick’, The Rick Mercer Report .
  • Pope, Alexander, The Rape of the Lock .
  • Reiner, Rob, This Is Spinal Tap .
  • Twain, Mark, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn .


See also: Satires of Juvenal

Juvenalian satire, named for the writings of the Roman satirist Juvenal (late first century – early second century AD), is more contemptuous and abrasive than the Horatian. Juvenal disagreed with the opinions of the public figures and institutions of the Republic and actively attacked them through his literature. "He utilized the satirical tools of exaggeration and parody to make his targets appear monstrous and incompetent" (Podzemny).[33] Juvenal satire follows this same pattern of abrasively ridiculing societal structures. Juvenal also, unlike Horace, attacked public officials and governmental organizations through his satires, regarding their opinions not just as wrong, but as evil.

Following in this tradition, Juvenalian satire addresses perceived social evil through scorn, outrage, and savage ridicule. This form is often pessimistic, characterized by the use of irony, sarcasm, moral indignation and personal invective, with less emphasis on humor. Strongly polarized political satire can often be classified as Juvenalian.
A Juvenal satirist's goal is generally to provoke some sort of political or societal change because he sees his opponent or object as evil or harmful.[34] A Juvenal satirist mocks "societal structure, power, and civilization" (Thomas)[35] by exaggerating the words or position of his opponent in order to jeopardize their opponent's reputation and/or power. Jonathan Swift has been established as an author who "borrowed heavily from Juvenal's techniques in [his critique] of contemporary English society" (Podzemny).[33]


  • Barnes, Julian, England, England .
  • Bradbury, Ray, Fahrenheit 451 .
  • Brooker, Charlie, Black Mirror .
  • Bulgakov, Mikhail, Heart of a Dog .
  • Burgess, Anthony, A Clockwork Orange .
  • Burroughs, William, Naked Lunch .
  • Byron, George Gordon, Lord, Don Juan .
  • Cooke, Ebenezer, The Sot-Weed Factor; or, A Voyage to Maryland,—a satire, in which is described the laws, government, courts, and constitutions of the country, and also the buildings, feasts, frolics, entertainments, and drunken humors of the inhabitants in that part of America .
  • Ellis, Bret Easton, American Psycho .
  • Golding, William, Lord of the Flies .
  • Hall, Joseph, Virgidemiarum .
  • Heller, Joseph, Catch-22 .
  • Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World .
  • Johnson, Samuel, London , an adaptation of Juvenal, Third Satire .
  • Junius, Letters .
  • Kubrick, Stanley, Dr. Strangelove .
  • Mencken, HL, Libido for the Ugly .
  • Morris, Chris, Brass Eye .
  • ———, The Day Today .
  • Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four .
  • Orwell, George, Animal Farm .
  • Palahniuk, Chuck, Fight Club .
  • Swift, Jonathan, A Modest Proposal .
  • Zamyatin, Yevgeny, We .
  • Voltaire, Candide .

Satire versus teasing[edit]

In the history of theatre there has always been a conflict between engagement and disengagement on politics and relevant issue, between satire and grotesque on one side, and jest with teasing on the other.[36]Max Eastman defined the spectrum of satire in terms of "degrees of biting", as ranging from satire proper at the hot-end, and "kidding" at the violet-end; Eastman adopted the term kidding to denote what is just satirical in form, but is not really firing at the target.[37]Nobel laureate satirical playwright Dario Fo pointed out the difference between satire and teasing (sfottò).[38] Teasing is the reactionary side of the comic; it limits itself to a shallow parody of physical appearance. The side-effect of teasing is that it humanizes and draws sympathy for the powerful individual towards which it is directed. Satire instead uses the comic to go against power and its oppressions, has a subversive character, and a moral dimension which draws judgement against its targets.[39][40][41][42] Fo formulated an operational criterion to tell real satire from sfottò, saying that real satire arouses an outraged and violent reaction, and that the more they try to stop you, the better is the job you are doing.[43] Fo contends that, historically, people in positions of power have welcomed and encouraged good-humoured buffoonery, while modern day people in positions of power have tried to censor, ostracize and repress satire.[36][39]

Teasing (sfottò) is an ancient form of simple buffoonery, a form of comedy without satire's subversive edge. Teasing includes light and affectionate parody, good-humoured mockery, simple one-dimensional poking fun, and benign spoofs. Teasing typically consists of an impersonation of someone monkeying around with his exterior attributes, tics, physical blemishes, voice and mannerisms, quirks, way of dressing and walking, and/or the phrases he typically repeats. By contrast, teasing never touches on the core issue, never makes a serious criticism judging the target with irony; it never harms the target's conduct, ideology and position of power; it never undermines the perception of his morality and cultural dimension.[39][41]Sfottò directed towards a powerful individual makes him appear more human and draws sympathy towards him.[44]Hermann Göring propagated jests and jokes against himself, with the aim of humanizing his image.[45][46]

Classifications by topics[edit]

Types of satire can also be classified according to the topics it deals with. From the earliest times, at least since the plays of Aristophanes, the primary topics of literary satire have been politics, religion and sex.[47][48][49][50] This is partly because these are the most pressing problems that affect anybody living in a society, and partly because these topics are usually taboo.[47][51] Among these, politics in the broader sense is considered the pre-eminent topic of satire.[51] Satire which targets the clergy is a type of political satire, while religious satire is that which targets religious beliefs.[52] Satire on sex may overlap with blue comedy, off-color humor and dick jokes.

Scatology has a long literary association with satire,[47][53][54] as it is a classical mode of the grotesque, the grotesque body and the satiric grotesque.[47][55]Shit plays a fundamental role in satire because it symbolizes death, the turd being "the ultimate dead object".[53][54] The satirical comparison of individuals or institutions with human excrement, exposes their "inherent inertness, corruption and dead-likeness".[53][56][57] The ritual clowns of clown societies, like among the Pueblo Indians, have ceremonies with filth-eating.[58][59] In other cultures, sin-eating is an apotropaic rite in which the sin-eater (also called filth-eater),[60][61] by ingesting the food provided, takes "upon himself the sins of the departed".[62] Satire about death overlaps with black humor and gallows humor.

Another classification by topics is the distinction between political satire, religious satire and satire of manners.[63] Political satire is sometimes called topical satire, satire of manners is sometimes called satire of everyday life, and religious satire is sometimes called philosophical satire. Comedy of manners, sometimes also called satire of manners, criticizes mode of life of common people; political satire aims at behavior, manners of politicians, and vices of political systems. Historically, comedy of manners, which first appeared in British theater in 1620, has uncritically accepted the social code of the upper classes.[64] Comedy in general accepts the rules of the social game, while satire subverts them.[65]

Another analysis of satire is the spectrum of his possible tones: wit, ridicule, irony, sarcasm, cynicism, the sardonic and invective.[66][67]

Classifications by medium[edit]

Satire is found not only in written literary forms. In preliterate cultures it manifests itself in ritual and folk forms, as well as in trickster tales and oral poetry.[22]

It appears also in graphic arts, music, sculpture, dance, cartoon strips, and graffiti. Examples are Dada sculptures, Pop Art works, music of Gilbert and Sullivan and Erik Satie, punk and rock music.[22] In modern media culture, stand-up comedy is an enclave in which satire can be introduced into mass media, challenging mainstream discourse.[22]Comedy roasts, mock festivals, and stand-up comedians in nightclubs and concerts are the modern forms of ancient satiric rituals.[22]


Ancient Egypt[edit]

One of the earliest examples of what we might call satire, The Satire of the Trades,[68] is in Egyptian writing from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC. The text's apparent readers are students, tired of studying. It argues that their lot as scribes is useful, and their lot far superior to that of the ordinary man. Scholars such as Helck[69] think that the context was meant to be serious.

The Papyrus Anastasi I[70] (late 2nd millennium BC) contains a satirical letter which first praises the virtues of its recipient, but then mocks the reader's meagre knowledge and achievements.

Ancient Greece[edit]

The Greeks had no word for what later would be called "satire", although the terms cynicism and parody were used. Modern critics call the Greek playwrightAristophanes one of the best known early satirists: his plays are known for their critical political and societal commentary,[71] particularly for the political satire by which he criticized the powerful Cleon (as in The Knights). He is also notable for the persecution he underwent.[71][72][73][74] Aristophanes' plays turned upon images of filth and disease. His bawdy style was adopted by Greek dramatist-comedian Menander. His early play Drunkenness contains an attack on the politician Callimedon.

The oldest form of satire still in use is the Menippean satire by Menippus of Gadara. His own writings are lost. Examples from his admirers and imitators mix seriousness and mockery in dialogues and present parodies before a background of diatribe. As in the case of Aristophanes plays, menippean satire turned upon images of filth and disease.

Roman world[edit]

The first Roman to discuss satire critically was Quintilian, who invented the term to describe the writings of Gaius Lucilius. The two most prominent and influential ancient Roman satirists are Horace and Juvenal, who wrote during the early days of the Roman Empire. Other important satirists in ancient Latin are Gaius Lucilius and Persius. Satire in their work is much wider than in the modern sense of the word, including fantastic and highly coloured humorous writing with little or no real mocking intent. When Horace criticized Augustus, he used veiled ironic terms. In contrast, Pliny reports that the 6th-century-BC poet Hipponax wrote satirae that were so cruel that the offended hanged themselves.[76]

In the 2nd century AD, Lucian wrote True History, a book satirizing the clearly unrealistic travelogues/adventures written by Ctesias, Iambulus, and Homer. He states that he was surprised they expected people to believe their lies, and stating that he, like they, has no actual knowledge or experience, but shall now tell lies as if he did. He goes on to describe a far more obviously extreme and unrealistic tale, involving interplanetary exploration, war among alien life forms, and life inside a 200 mile long whale back in the terrestrial ocean, all intended to make obvious the fallacies of books like Indica and The Odyssey.

Medieval Islamic world[edit]

Main articles: Arabic satire and Persian satire

Medieval Arabic poetry included the satiric genre hija. Satire was introduced into Arabic prose literature by the Afro-Arab author Al-Jahiz in the 9th century. While dealing with serious topics in what are now known as anthropology, sociology and psychology, he introduced a satirical approach, "based on the premise that, however serious the subject under review, it could be made more interesting and thus achieve greater effect, if only one leavened the lump of solemnity by the insertion of a few amusing anecdotes or by the throwing out of some witty or paradoxical observations. He was well aware that, in treating of new themes in his prose works, he would have to employ a vocabulary of a nature more familiar in hija, satirical poetry." For example, in one of his zoological works, he satirized the preference for longer human penis size, writing: "If the length of the penis were a sign of honor, then the mule would belong to the (honorable tribe of) Quraysh". Another satirical story based on this preference was an Arabian Nights tale called "Ali with the Large Member".[78]

In the 10th century, the writer Tha'alibi recorded satirical poetry written by the Arabic poets As-Salami and Abu Dulaf, with As-Salami praising Abu Dulaf's wide breadth of knowledge and then mocking his ability in all these subjects, and with Abu Dulaf responding back and satirizing As-Salami in return. An example of Arabic political satire included another 10th-century poet Jarir satirizing Farazdaq as "a transgressor of the Sharia" and later Arabic poets in turn using the term "Farazdaq-like" as a form of political satire.

The terms "comedy" and "satire" became synonymous after Aristotle's Poetics was translated into Arabic in the medieval Islamic world, where it was elaborated upon by Islamic philosophers and writers, such as Abu Bischr, his pupil Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes. Due to cultural differences, they disassociated comedy from Greek dramatic representation and instead identified it with Arabic poetic themes and forms, such as hija (satirical poetry). They viewed comedy as simply the "art of reprehension", and made no reference to light and cheerful events, or troubled beginnings and happy endings, associated with classical Greek comedy. After the Latin translations of the 12th century, the term "comedy" thus gained a new semantic meaning in Medieval literature.[81]

Ubayd Zakani introduced satire in Persian literature during the 14th century. His work is noted for its satire and obscene verses, often political or bawdy, and often cited in debates involving homosexual practices. He wrote the Resaleh-ye Delgosha, as well as Akhlaq al-Ashraf ("Ethics of the Aristocracy") and the famous humorous fable Masnavi Mush-O-Gorbeh (Mouse and Cat), which was a political satire. His non-satirical serious classical verses have also been regarded as very well written, in league with the other great works of Persian literature. Between 1905 and 1911, Bibi Khatoon Astarabadi and other Iranian writers wrote notable satires.

Medieval Europe[edit]

In the Early Middle Ages, examples of satire were the songs by Goliards or vagants now best known as an anthology called Carmina Burana and made famous as texts of a composition by the 20th-century composer Carl Orff. Satirical poetry is believed to have been popular, although little has survived. With the advent of the High Middle Ages and the birth of modern vernacular literature in the 12th century, it began to be used again, most notably by Chaucer. The disrespectful manner was considered "unchristian" and ignored, except for the moral satire, which mocked misbehaviour in Christian terms. Examples are Livre des Manières by Étienne de Fougères (fr) (~1178), and some of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Sometimes epic poetry (epos) was mocked, and even feudal society, but there was hardly a general interest in the genre.

Early modern western satire[edit]

Direct social commentary via satire returned with a vengeance in the 16th century, when farcical texts such as the works of François Rabelais tackled more serious issues (and incurred the wrath of the crown as a result).

Two major satirists of Europe in the Renaissance were Giovanni Boccaccio and François Rabelais. Other examples of Renaissance satire include Till Eulenspiegel, Reynard the Fox, Sebastian Brant's Narrenschiff (1494), Erasmus's Moriae Encomium (1509), Thomas More's Utopia (1516), and Carajicomedia (1519).

The Elizabethan (i.e. 16th-century English) writers thought of satire as related to the notoriously rude, coarse and sharp satyr play. Elizabethan "satire" (typically in pamphlet form) therefore contains more straightforward abuse than subtle irony. The French HuguenotIsaac Casaubon pointed out in 1605 that satire in the Roman fashion was something altogether more civilised. Casaubon discovered and published Quintilian's writing and presented the original meaning of the term (satira, not satyr), and the sense of wittiness (reflecting the "dishfull of fruits") became more important again. Seventeenth-century English satire once again aimed at the "amendment of vices" (Dryden).

In the 1590s a new wave of verse satire broke with the publication of Hall's Virgidemiarum, six books of verse satires targeting everything from literary fads to corrupt noblemen. Although Donne had already circulated satires in manuscript, Hall's was the first real attempt in English at verse satire on the Juvenalian model.[page needed] The success of his work combined with a national mood of disillusion in the last years of Elizabeth's reign triggered an avalanche of satire—much of it less conscious of classical models than Hall's — until the fashion was brought to an abrupt stop by censorship.[a]

Age of Enlightenment[edit]

The Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual movement in the 17th and 18th centuries advocating rationality, produced a great revival of satire in Britain. This was fuelled by the rise of partisan politics, with the formalisation of the Tory and Whig parties—and also, in 1714, by the formation of the Scriblerus Club, which included Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Robert Harley, Thomas Parnell, and Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke. This club included several of the notable satirists of early-18th-century Britain. They focused their attention on Martinus Scriblerus, "an invented learned fool... whose work they attributed all that was tedious, narrow-minded, and pedantic in contemporary scholarship".[84] In their hands astute and biting satire of institutions and individuals became a popular weapon. The turn to the 18th century was characterized by a switch from Horatian, soft, pseudo-satire, to biting "juvenal" satire.[85]

Jonathan Swift was one of the greatest of Anglo-Irish satirists, and one of the first to practise modern journalistic satire. For instance, In his A Modest Proposal Swift suggests that Irish peasants be encouraged to sell their own children as food for the rich, as a solution to the "problem" of poverty. His purpose is of course to attack indifference to the plight of the desperately poor. In his book Gulliver's Travels he writes about the flaws in human society in general and English society in particular. John Dryden wrote an influential essay entitled "A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire"[86] that helped fix the definition of satire in the literary world. His satirical Mac Flecknoe was written in response to a rivalry with Thomas Shadwell and eventually inspired Alexander Pope to write his satirical The Rape of the Lock. Other satirical works by Pope include the Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot.

Alexander Pope (b. May 21, 1688) was a satirist known for his Horatian satirist style and translation of the Iliad. Famous throughout and after the long 18th century, Pope died in 1744.[87] Pope, in his The Rape of the Lock, is delicately chiding society in a sly but polished voice by holding up a mirror to the follies and vanities of the upper class. Pope does not actively attack the self-important pomp of the British aristocracy, but rather presents it in such a way that gives the reader a new perspective from which to easily view the actions in the story as foolish and ridiculous. A mockery of the upper class, more delicate and lyrical than brutal, Pope nonetheless is able to effectively illuminate the moral degradation of society to the public. The Rape of the Lock assimilates the masterful qualities of a heroic epic, such as the Iliad, which Pope was translating at the time of writing The Rape of the Lock

1867 edition of Punch, a ground-breaking British magazine of popular humour, including a great deal of satire of the contemporary, social, and political scene.
"Le satire e l'epistole di Q. Orazio Flacco", printed in 1814.
The satirical papyrus at the British Museum
Satirical ostraca showing a cat guarding geese, c.1120 BC, Egypt.
Figured ostracon showing a cat waiting on a mouse, Egypt
'A Welch wedding' Satirical Cartoon c.1780
  • 1

    Give examples of satire in “A Modest Proposal” and describe why they are satirical.

    Answer: The entirety of “A Modest Proposal” is satirical because it makes fun of other grand ideas that people have proposed to solve big problems in society. The proposal itself—that the Irish should eat their babies—is satirical, too, because it makes fun of people who propose absurd things thinking that they are practical. Swift’s reference to boys and girls as not a “saleable commodity” is a good particular example because it suggests the cold thinking of people who argue for turning everything into questions of economics. A similar moment comes when Swift says that “those who are thrifty” may use the carcass of the infant for ladies’ gloves or gentlemen’s boots; this takes children as animals where the whole animal is used for different purposes. The narrator’s friend, the “very worthy person,” proposes that children of fourteen should be consumed as well, and the honest assessment of this idea is satirical along the same lines; the taste is what matters and, besides, it would limit the number of breeders (which is itself a strange argument if overpopulation or too many Irishmen were the problem). Swift’s final declaration that he has nothing to gain economically from his proposal satirizes the usual protestations of people who are claiming to be altruistic in their proposals.

  • 2

    Discuss the theme of religious prejudice in Swift’s satires.

    Answer: “A Modest Proposal” takes on the theme of religious prejudice with the narrator’s assurance that his proposal that Ireland eat its young will decrease the number of “papists” (Roman Catholics). Assuming the narrative voice of a bigoted English Protestant, Swift says that the Irish Catholics are England’s “dangerous enemies.” Swift exposes the stereotype (taken here as a negative) that Catholics have many children by having his narrator call them the “chief breeders of the nation.” In “An Argument Abolishing Christianity,” too, Swift assumes the voice of someone with religious prejudices in order to expose those prejudices. The narrator says that the abolition of Christianity could invite “papists” (again, Catholics) to invade England or would give Freethinkers a lot less enjoyment in sinning or making fun of Christians. "A True and Faithful Narrative" points out Swift’s own prejudice, shared by many (perhaps because it is basic to human nature), that religious people tend to be hypocritical and unwilling to live up to their own ideals.

  • 3

    Why did Swift publish “A Modest Proposal” anonymously? How does this contribute to the effectiveness of his piece?

    Answer: If Swift had not published his piece anonymously, readers may have been less likely to consider it serious. If readers knew from the beginning that “A Modest Proposal” was written by an accomplished satirist, they would be looking for the joke from the beginning and might not be taken in at all. The proposed solution for the poverty in Ireland might have been believed for just long enough to make readers appreciate the deeper level of satire against cold and calculating arguments that miss the elements of basic humanity. Assuming the guise of a fake, anonymous narrator allowed him to better parody the prejudices that someone like his narrator might have.

  • 4

    What attitude does “A Modest Proposal” take to the trend of answering social questions with mathematics?

    Answer: “A Modest Proposal” mocks the idea that society’s ills can be cured by simple calculations. The piece is full of numbers: the number of people in the entire country, the number of couples, the number of poor couples, the number of children born into poor families, and many more. Swift conducts mathematics with these numbers in his proposal, subtracting, for example, the number of miscarriages or deaths by famine or disease from the total number of children born per year. By turning a tragic thing like the death of children into a math problem, Swift is mocking the tendency in the nineteenth century to view social questions dispassionately in terms of calculations, according to the new advances in science, math, and economics, instead of considering the human element.

  • 5

    Discuss the theme of economic inequality in “A Modest Proposal.”

    Answer: Economic inequality was a chief concern of Swift’s, and he expressed this concern satirically in “A Modest Proposal.” The title itself hints at economic inequality—his proposal applies to “the poor people of Ireland.” The children that will be eaten, under this proposal, are poor children. Specifically, the poor children will be bought and eaten by the rich. This is only right, says the narrator, because the rich have already consumed their parents economically. Swift is making the point that economic exploitation is like actual consumption; the rich feed off the poor.

  • 6

    Why might Jonathan Swift have chosen to write so much satire? What is he able to do with a satirical piece that he is unable to do with a serious piece?

    Answer: If Jonathan Swift had written serious pieces simply espousing his true beliefs—for instance, that the state of the poor in Ireland was deplorable, that something must be done to help them—he would have likely gotten little response, as there were many such pamphlets circulating at the time. It was hard enough to write a lasting piece in any genre, and at least people like to criticize and they like to laugh. A satirical parody (a shocking one in particular) was likely to get the public’s attention in ways that a seriously written piece could not achieve. “A Modest Proposal” surprised people and got them thinking about the condition of the poor in Ireland and what should seriously be done about it. And when very sensitive subjects are involved, such as criticizing the nation’s prevailing religion, it is much safer to be hard to read and to be seemingly joking rather than to directly challenge authority.

  • 7

    Is Swift’s “main objection” to his idea in “A Modest Proposal” a sincere objection? How does this contribute to the effectiveness of the piece?

    Answer: If any reader still thinks that this is a serious piece by this point, the “main objection” ought to persuade them that it is not. The writer says that the main objection to the killing and eating of Irish young is that it will decrease the population. A truly serious objection from a normal human being would be that it is morally wrong to consume human flesh on such a large scale. Furthermore, it is a straw-man objection, since the author reminds the reader that reducing the population is the overall goal anyway. Taking up the real objections would distract the reader by introducing a level of seriousness that the reader already knows how to reply. Besides, Swift introduces indirectly a good objection: that there are better ways to fix the problem, and the narrator even lists a bunch of ideas while saying that he is not interested to consider them. The effectiveness of the piece comes in large measure because the reader becomes engaged in thinking about the real problem and real solutions.

  • 8

    What is going on in the battle of the Ancients and the Moderns in “The Battle of the Books?” Are they truly two separate sides?

    Answer: Although the Ancients and the Moderns appear to be two distinct sides in “The Battle of the Books,” there is evidence in the text of their similarity. They fight in the same world over the same territory, and the librarian, for better or for worse, has mixed the Ancients and Moderns together in the library, presumably on the basis of subject matter. The most worthy Moderns use the best of what can be found in the Ancients. The spider and the bee, the allegorical representations of the two sides, are themselves embroiled; the bee gets caught in the spider’s web. Their sources of disagreement, too, do not seem irreconcilable. The quarrel has a lot to do with those Moderns who turn up their noses at the Ancients and arrogantly go on their own way, and with the great swarm of third-rate Moderns who try to make a name for themselves by tearing down the great works and great ideas of the Ancients, or who like to quarrel with one another about the actual value of the Ancients. Certain characters in “The Battle of the Books” are more successful in battle than others based on how Swift judges their literary quality; despite Swift’s usual preference for the best of the Ancients, sometimes a great Modern overcomes a weak Ancient.

  • 9

    Give examples of Jonathan Swift’s literary parody.

    Answer: “A Modest Proposal” is a parody of pamphlets distributed at the time that professed to have the single cure for all social problems. Swift thought this “can-do” attitude with its prescriptive writing style was naïve. The introductory material and digressions in A Tale of a Tub are themselves parodies of a variety of types of writing: medical texts, religious texts, and political texts, as well as the kinds of things written in introductions and by booksellers. “Meditation Upon a Broomstick” is a parody of the writing style of Swift’s contemporary Robert Boyle. “The Battle of the Books” parodies many scenes in Homer’s war epic, the Iliad. His satires thus not only parody ideas and personalities but also certain ways of expressing those ideas.

  • 10

    Write an essay in Swift’s style.

    Answer: Think of a political or social issue, preferably something relevant to your own place and time. If you choose school uniforms, for example, the next step is to come up with your idea of the problem that is supposedly being solved. Then, decide where you stand on the issue: do school uniforms solve the problem or not? Next, think of a way of expressing this solution that would be extreme (like eating babies in “A Modest Proposal”). For example, if the idea of uniforms is uniformity and you do not think this is a good enough reason for school uniforms, then you could make fun of it by arguing that the students should go to school naked. Your essay will then be in the voice of someone who believes the opposite, arguing for attending school naked for the sake of uniformity (just like Swift’s narrator argued that Ireland should eat its young, but Swift didn’t actually believe this, and like Swift made those in favor of repealing the Test Act seem to be anti-Christianity in “An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity”). Now, choose a method of literary parody. Maybe you will pretend that this is an opinion piece in the school newspaper. This helps establish your audience and the kind of writing you will make fun of. Now comes the hardest part of all: telling all the jokes in the way that Swift does. As you think of the reasons that your extreme solution might be purportedly a good idea, imagine what different people might be thinking—parents, teachers, politicians, prudes, nudists. These reasons can be as silly as you want to make them, and if you have some extra joke to make about these kinds of people, fold them into the arguments. You could say, for example, that going to school naked would mean that parents wouldn’t have to pay for their students’ clothes, which is an expensive thing because students are always trying to get their parents to pay for the latest faddish designers. Or you could say that going to school naked would keep students from developing tan lines, or reduce the need for “sexting” because everyone would already know what each other looks like naked. The more different levels of satire you can get to work at the same time, the more it will be in the style of Swift.


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