I was reading a review the other day, when I saw them say “being a satire, I expected it to be funny” which, at the time, really annoyed me: I wanted to become that guy who replies with “I don’t think you get it”. The truth of the matter is I was someone that thought satire was a form of comedy for a very long time too. I think it wasn’t until someone called 1984 a satirical novel did I actually think “hang on, maybe I need to look up this word”. So I thought instead maybe this could make a good blog post.
First of all, while satire can be funny, humour is not the essential component. The main purpose of satire (in a literary sense) is to offer a constructive social criticism or to shame society into improving. Using wit, irony and sometimes sarcasm to put a spotlight on issues the author feels need to be looked at; normally social, political or religion topics. This is only a brief explanation of my thoughts on satire; I might have missed something because it is a lot more complex than this anyway.
Satirical literature is often divided into two different categories as well; Horatian and Juvenalian (although not mutually exclusive). Horatian satire looks at some social vice through playful, light-hearted humour or wit. Named after the Roman satirist Horace, this form of satire uses wit, exaggeration and self deprecation to indentify stupidity (rather than major issues) within modern society. This is the type of satire more people think of when they think about satirical books; examples of this type of satire within literature can include Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, The Giver by Lois Lowry and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.
There is another form of satire named after Roman satirist Juvenal; this is the one that includes books like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Brand New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell. Juvenalian satire addresses social evil through scorn, fury and ridicule. This form of satire doesn’t often involve humour (though a book like Catch 22 by Joseph Heller would be included) but more a pessimistic, ironic or sarcastic nature towards moral and social indignation.
So, as you can see, there are two very different types of satire within literature, there is a lot more to look at regarding these types of novels. My hope with this post is that people understand the difference between Horatian and Juvenalian satire. Not only should we remember that satire is not always funny but we need to remember that it is not an indication of the satirist persona. Criticising Mark Twain as racist and calling Huckleberry Finn offensive is to miss the point completely. Jonathan Swift was not really suggesting that Ireland can ease their economical troubles by selling their children as food for the rich in A Modest Proposal (1729) and if you read it any other way what would you think of the author? He does say children are a delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; do you really think Swift was proposing cannibalism and infanticide?
I’m a big fan of satire, there are times where it is in bad taste or misses the mark but this is not the fault of the literary genre but the delivery of the message. I personally prefer Juvenalian satire in my literature but when it comes to movies and TV I think maybe a combination of both. I would really love to hear other people’s thoughts on satire; am I missing anything? Is there anything you feel needs to be added? Or what novels do you like in both Horatian and Juvenalian satire.