Thursday, March 14, 2013


Satire – Is it simply just a story with a twist?
How does the humour in satire disguise a serious message?

In times like these, it is difficult not to write satire,”

Juvenal, a Roman satirist said a long time ago. In difficult times, satirists write to voice their opinions, drawing attention to public issues. Satire in literature has one particular purpose: to focus on and criticise the problems of society and persuade people to change. In many cases satire is used, not only to create laughter, but also to show us the hypocrisy and absurdity of many authority figures.

Have you ever thought about why artists draw political cartoons? And why politicians let them do it? The artists target particular politicians because of the negative effects of their actions on society. By over-exaggeration, these artists create laughter, but often within the laughter hides a knife: a knife that cuts through the lies, making us think about what needs altering.

Rounded Rectangular Callout: “Often within the laughter hides a knife: a knife that cuts through the lies, making us think about what needs altering”it is all too easy to underestimate the importance of satire and the serious intentions of satirists to bring about change. Some people may consider satire as just simple humour; satire is much more. Satire makes us laugh, but have you ever thought about the message that is masked behind the humour?

There are many synonyms for the word “satire”, such as irony, sarcasm and wit, but some say that the best synonym for “satire” is Oscar Wilde himself. Oscar Wilde, the author of the famous play, “The Importance of Being Earnest”, was born into the upper class during the reign of Queen Victoria. The strict rules she lay down for marriage, morality and sexuality impacted on Wilde’s life. He was considered an outsider and was targeted by his society due to his homosexuality.

 Wilde disliked the authority figures of his society as they controlled what people could and could not do, therefore in many of Wilde’s works, criticism of the upper echelons of society were seen.  He wanted to bring about change and “correct” the problems that he believed were contrary to his beliefs.

In his play, Wilde’s use of the gentle styled Horatian satire not only makes the readers laugh at the hypocrisy of authority figures, it also makes them consider what can be altered to “mend” this problem. In the Victorian Era, the upper class assumed that they were entitled to enforce their rules on society. Wilde’s use of subversion, and reversal successfully targeted the upper class and its hypocritical attitudes, especially through the character of Lady Bracknell.

Lady Bracknell is a farcical character in a farcical comedy. She is used to portray the typical upper class doyenne of the time. A self-appointed matriarchal figure, she controlled those around her, dictating their actions.

Wilde showed hypocrisy in the character of Lady Bracknell, as she said that, “I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance” (Act I, page 132) It is ironic that she dislikes ignorance, considering she is known as an ignorant character.

“Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her.” (Act III, page 179) Lady Bracknell shows her hypocrisy when she completely changes her attitude towards Cecily as soon as she hears that she’s wealthy. This shows the superficial personality of Lady Bracknell revealing that her main focus was money and status. During this era, the aristocracy put money and prospects before all else; keeping their eye on what would benefit them most. Wilde exposed this ingrained attitude and openly criticised the authority figures through his satire, twisting the knife.

During the Victorian Era, satire was a popular literary form. People in that era were not permitted to openly criticise society as the rules were very strict and repressive. By writing satirical literature, Victorian authors used humour to cloak their dissatisfaction with the flaws and hypocrisy they saw within their society.

Lewis Carroll, author of the famous book “Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland” also lived and wrote during the Victorian Era. Similar to Wilde, he was considered an outsider. It was said that Carroll was always nervous and awkward around adults, but around children, he became energised. Unlike Wilde, Carroll accepted being the outsider, content with writing about the flawed and absurd society he lived in.

Carroll’s distinctive understanding of children’s minds allowed him to write remarkable fiction that was very popular among young people. When “Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland” was first published, people criticised this book as being full of nonsense, but over time, Carroll’s use of complicated logic and satire assured this book a place amongst the great classics.

The “Wonderland” in Carroll’s novel not only mirrors Alice’s real world, it also mirrors the Victorian Society that Carroll lived in. The “Wonderland” is an absurd society full of nonsense, where strange creatures lived. By using these absurd characters and dialogue which made no sense, Carroll created humour, which masked his criticism of the aristocracy.

In Carroll’s novel, his use of Juvenalian satire created a biting and bitter quality, his knife not so subtle as Wilde’s. Carroll’s character, The Queen, is  very severe and dominating. She constantly demands people to be beheaded if they commit the tiniest mistake. Carroll’s use of exaggeration and subversion makes The Queen an absurd character. She expects everything to go her way and throws an almighty tantrum whenever something displeases her.

“The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed “Off with her head! Off--”” (Chapter 8) Through his satirical text, Carroll criticised the attitude of the elite society, who believed in their superiority, hoping he could “mend” the world that so displeased him.

During the Victorian Era, it was accepted that the upper class were in control of the all aspects of society. ““I see!” said the Queen, who had meanwhile been examining the roses. “Off with their heads!”” (Chapter 8) We all know how it feels to be controlled by those in authority, so Carroll’s message allows the readers to relate to being controlled and also understand the subversion that Carroll has used to criticise authority.

Both Carroll’s Queen of Hearts and Wilde’s Lady Bracknell mirror the supreme authority figure of the Victorian era, Queen Victoria. As Queen Victoria ruled over the whole society, the Queen of Hearts and Lady Bracknell were self-appointed officials who assumed that they were entitled to rule others while living as they pleased.

Literature is a tool that authors use to tell us different stories; stories created by imagination, stories from their own experience. In the context of satire, the messages that are given by the authors are often about problems they want to change.

Two famous Victorian-era authors, Oscar Wilde and Lewis Carroll have written satirical works which not only make us laugh at the hypocrisy and absurdity of the authority figures, they also show us the flaws and distorted side of their society. By doing this, they make us mindful about what should be altered to “mend” our society’s faults. If someone ever asks you, “what is satire?” you can answer them “satire is simply the author telling a story with a small twist, making everything absurd but meaningful at the same time.”

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