What do The Simpsons, The Onion, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm have in common? They’re all examples of satire — a literary device that uses humor to make a broader point about human nature and modern society.
While it’s easy to find examples, it’s perhaps less easy to come up with a clear and concise definition. That’s because there are a wide variety of genres, types, and techniques, plus a long history of writers, filmmakers, political commentators, and other pop culture figures who have used satire for their own purposes.
Once you get a grasp of what it really is, however, you start to see why it’s so effective. You also get more adept at using it yourself, whether in published work or everyday conversation.
From the origin of satire to common techniques, here’s what to know so that you can master this literary device and use it to strengthen your arguments and insights.
What Is Satire?
Let’s start with a simple definition.
Satire is the use of humor to make a negative statement about a person, society, or political issue. It often takes the form of hyperbole, exaggeration, parody, irony, or ridicule and can be found in all different types of mediums, including literature and the performing arts.
How do you tell the difference, then, between satire and general humor? It’s all about the message that’s being sent. If you come across humor being used to mock someone or something or as a means of highlighting certain ailments of society, it’s safe to assume that the author is attempting to do more than just make you laugh.
As far as stylistic tools go, satire is not just one of the most effective but also one of the oldest. The origin can be traced all the way back to Ancient Egypt and a piece of Egyptian literature known as The Instructions of Dua-Kheti, or The Satire of the Trades. The piece, written sometime between 2025 and 1700 B.C., used exaggeration to paint a negative picture of various trades.
The Satire of the Trades was intended to be purely informational, though by the time we get to Ancient Greece, we start to see it in literature, with Aristophanes’s Old Comedy often cited as a notable first example. The word itself comes from the Latin “satur,” and more specifically, the phrase “lanx satura,” which means “a dish full of many kinds of fruit.” Ancient Roman satirists used the phrase in reference to the same things we call satire today, though it wasn’t until the 16th century that the word found its way into the English lexicon.
Examples of Satire
Looking at examples is a great way to increase your familiarity with the concept. Here are some of its most famous uses in literature and poetry, with several works that serve to exemplify its use and set the bar for how it can be used in writing.
Satire in Literature
Books don’t have to be overtly funny in order to be considered satire. Literary satire is often deeply layered, with themes that don’t always present themselves upon first read. And while you’re more likely to find it in fiction than nonfiction, books of all genres may use it as a means to critique certain subjects—sometimes subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
This satirical novel juxtaposes humor with the tragedy and inhumanity of war to create a piece that has an almost unsettling ability to make the reader laugh and wince at the same time. There is also a heavy dose of religious satire, particularly in regards to the squadron’s chaplain, who gradually loses his faith over the course of the story.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
It might be best known for its whimsical Disney adaptation, but at its heart, Alice in Wonderland is a satirical take on corruption and hypocrisy in Victorian England. Alice is constantly meeting fantastical characters who chastise her for her failure to adhere to the etiquette of the times, and the book itself is considered to be a parody satire of children’s literature.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)
Patrick Bateman, the violent protagonist of American Psycho, is himself an example of exaggeration satire. Although the novel certainly has plenty of legitimate darkness, Bateman is an almost spoof-like representation of Yuppie culture in the 1980s, purposefully taken to the extreme in terms of behavior and never facing any serious consequences for his actions.
Satire in Poetry
Poetic satire has long been used as a tool to subvert contemporary customs and make powerful but veiled statements about the world. As with literature examples, satire in poetry isn’t always obvious, but once you know what you’re looking for, it becomes easier to see how poets have used its techniques to deride the social and/or political realities of their day.
The Dunciad by Alexander Pope (1728-1743)
Pope’s The Dunciad is a parody satire that makes a mockery of what he considered the dull and overly complicated epic works of antiquity. It makes its point in text and in format, encompassing three separate books in a direct but notoriously satirical nod to heroic verses.
Resume by Dorothy Parker (1937)
There’s no denying the dark nature of Parker’s famous poem, which provides a short list of different ways one could go about ending their own life. At the end, Parker uses reversal satire to surprise the reader with an unexpected message of hope, stating “You might as well live” after noting how each method could cause harm.
3 Types of Satire
There are three types of satire, each of which differs significantly in tone. When examining works in literature, poetry, film, and the like, you’ll typically find that they’re defined by one overarching type, rather than weaving together two or more different types. (This is why, for example, a TV show like South Park and a book like Don Quixote can both be satire while sharing very little else in common.)
1. Horatian Satire
This is the lightest form, and there is usually no question of whether the author is trying to be funny or not. An example would be The Colbert Report, in which news was used to poke fun at political topics and figures.
2. Juvenalian Satire
Things take a darker turn with Juvenalian satire, which is as notable for its dark connotations as Horatian works are for their humorous ones. Anger, outrage, and indignation are all found in Juvenalian pieces, as exemplified in Anthony Burgess’s 1962 A Clockwork Orange, which features a gang of youths who turn to violence as a way to combat their own helplessness in society.
3. Menippean Satire
Menippean satire falls somewhere in the middle of the other two types and can be either humorous or dark, depending on what the author intends. What most characterizes it is its use of gentle mockery to cast moral judgment on ideas, rather than specific people. Saturday Night Live is a good example of this type, as is Lewis Carroll’s aforementioned Alice in Wonderland.
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Different Satire Genres
When we talk about the different genres, what we’re really talking about is different types of commentary. It’s not so much about the general format of the work (i.e. fiction or nonfiction, literary satire or poetic, etc.), but the statement behind it and the point that the author is trying to make.
We can probably assume that for as long as there have been political leaders, there have been people using satire to mock them. Political satire exposes hypocrisies and inequities in political systems. It also serves as a way to make fun of leaders in a playful but pointed way. As mentioned above, The Colbert Report was an example, and so was its liberal counterpart, The Daily Show.
News doesn’t have to be real to offer legitimate commentary about the state of our society. Consider “fake news” publications like The Onion and Reductress, which present parody-driven stories that are designed to closely mirror the look of actual news. The goal isn’t to trick anyone into thinking the stories are real but to use humor to rag on contemporary themes. This is done through presenting false narratives on real topics, as well as through stories that are completely fictionalized from start to finish.
Speaking out against religion has been (and remains) a dangerous undertaking at many times and in many places. One way around this danger has been to use satire as a means of commentary, debating the merits of religion without openly appearing to do so. That’s not to say that religious satire uses subversion to hide the message, but that it lends a lighter, more palatable touch to the discussion, even when the commentary itself is quite biting.
Examples include Broadway’s The Book of Mormon, Christopher Moore’s satirical novel Lamb, and the character of Ned Flanders in The Simpsons, each of which takes a slightly unique approach to ridiculing religious institutions and beliefs.
Satire Techniques to Use in Your Writing
Anyone can employ the techniques of satire to critique the moral, social, and political problems of the day. If you’re interested in exploring satire in your own writing, here are some of the techniques that you might want to try out, each of which can help you make a strong statement in a less direct (but no less effective) way.
Exaggeration satire creates a sort of verbal caricature of a person or topic, using devices like hyperbole and overstatement to shine a spotlight on its flaws. And it doesn’t need to be subtle. Take a stab at this technique by taking your subject and exaggerating it as far as you can go, focusing particularly on those aspects that are most worthy of derision.
A reversal is when you flip the script on what’s expected in order to point out the absurdity in something. Reversal satire might take the form of an ant farm filled with tiny humans, or a dog who is walking its caregiver on a leash instead of the other way around.
Incongruity is a satire technique where two things are brought together that seem to be in direct opposition to each other, or where something is clearly out of place. An example of incongruity satire would be a baby running a boardroom meeting, where it goes without saying that the baby is out of place in the scene.
Parody imitates something in order to make fun of it. This can be done with the purpose of making a scathing commentary about the thing being parodied, or it can simply be a way to get some laughs with a joking take on another creative work. Examples of parody include fake commercials and music videos on Saturday Night Live and much of author Christopher Moore’s books, such as Fool, which is a parody of King Lear and Shakespearean writing.
How to Spot Satire
Satire can be obvious, or it can be implied. So how do you know if you’re looking at it? One way to recognize it in writing or other forms of media is to look for one of the techniques mentioned in the previous section. If you know that what you’re engaging with is a clear exaggeration or that something seems purposely out of place, it’s safe to assume that the creator intended for it to be satirical.
Tone can also clue you in. In many cases, satire is used as a device to ridicule or place doubt upon something. You may be able to recognize it, then, by asking yourself what the author’s purpose is and whether they’re mocking something particular with their work.
When used correctly, satire can be an excellent tool for getting your point across. Give it a try in your own writing, and further your understanding of it by reading and watching satirical pieces and attempting to define the type and genre of satire being used, as well as the technique(s).
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