The Importance of Being ‘Satire’
From witty to savage, what distinguishes satire is the ability of the satirist to invite societal change. Satire is a wasp sting; laughter with knives, but more importantly it is a mirror to one’s own virtues and vices. Satire as we know it sits across a dichotomous spectrum from Horatian to Juvenalian and all the shades in between. The former is recognisably mild, presenting amusement and entertainment to indulge its audience while the latter is fierce, often bitter and invective. Truth be told, satire does not have to make us laugh in order to effectively and successfully serve its purpose, because the moral agenda of satire is to present the follies of human society in order to “mend” the world, not necessarily to provoke laughter. Two brilliant satirists, Oscar Wilde and Jonathan Swift, play important roles in presenting satire across its spectrum with Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest and Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal respectively. While Wilde sets the audience laughing, Swift’s satirical proposal unleashes a wave of repugnance, but both texts are arguably equally successful in exposing society’s flaws.
Oscar Wilde’s last, but reputedly best play, The Importance of Being Earnest is very comical yet thought provoking. It is centred on two men and their constant efforts to avoid certain social obligations deemed necessary at the height of the Victorian era. The unseen truth is that with the constant pressure to uphold certain values regarding his own sexuality, this play may well be seen as Wilde’s brave effort to satirize the society that condemned him for his double standards. Witty and clever, Wilde satirises the Victorian standards using exaggeration, reversal and farcical comments which sets the audience laughing. One such hilarious instance is the interrogation of Jack Worthing, by the arrogant aristocrat who is at the centre of hilarity, Lady Bracknell. “To lose one parent, Mr Worthing may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness”. Wilde ridicules the upper class’ superficial views on marriage, and as bizarre as it sounds to us, the code of conduct that governed who you were supposed to love and how you were expected to love them. Also, as we delve into the twist of the play, we discover the true nature of characters such as Gwendolen’s ideals. Gwendolen’s trivial upper class nature and her vision of a perfect partner are prominent as she obsesses over marrying a man with the name ‘Earnest’. While such quirkiness evokes a chuckle, Wilde is surreptitiously criticising this materialistic approach to love and marriage so valued by Victorian society.
The deceitful nature of Victorian society is also subject to Wilde’s criticism. According to his friend Algernon, ‘one of the most advanced Bunburyists’, Jack is the master of deceit and disguise. ‘Earnest’ Worthing represents the unattainability of Victorian values. He is viewed as a man of responsibility and honour, while in reality he prefers to pretend he has a brother ‘Earnest’, in order to side step his social obligations. Jack’s character is also used to create the pun in the namesake: The Importance of Being ‘Earnest’. As the play unfolds it becomes clear that he is far from ‘earnest’. All in all, Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest serves up trivial comedy on our plates, while the fierce satirising is cleverly concealed behind his blithe wit and effective play of words.
On a more vicious and contemporary note, Jonathan Swift’s essay, A Modest Proposal does not include any aspects of humour [at least not at face-value], but uses countless other satirical tools to deliver its true message. A Modest Proposal introduces a solution to Irish poverty problems by proposing a systematic selling of and cannibalistic consumption of children of the poor to the wealthy. Swift not only proposes a cannibalistic approach to the poverty problem, but he ensures his readers are informed of how to prepare delicacies from the young children. The essay is an obvious manifestation of Swift’s ridicule of the nature of Irish-English economic and political policies. Swift gives us nothing, and worse, no one to laugh at. He does, however, brilliantly play a satirist’s role by inviting change to the class structure within the English-Irish relationships and more importantly to the poverty issue in Ireland.
The proposal begins with a compassionate tone. Swift describes how the beggars on the streets are ‘forced’ into their poverty which contradicts the view of the upper class who believed the poverty was to be blamed upon the poor themselves. Reversal used here is the key to Swift’s accusations later in the essay. He claims that the landlords’ use of the Irish lower classes for servant-hood is discriminating to a degree that one could justify the owning of children of the poor by landlords, “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.” Savage, but satire at its finest, Swift makes his clear-cut point, with vicious attacks towards his targets. No giggles. Swift accuses the society and its flawed nature for the poverty.
Towards the end, based on the assumption that his audience will accept the cannibalistic approach to the problem as morally reprehensible, Swift uses the irony of the situation to reduce human beings to entities. In terms of satirising, he metaphorically compares young children to old furniture or clothes thereby commenting on the treatment of the poor by the upper classes. If we explore the essay in detail, Swift’s compassion towards the poor can be seen in the text rather than the very immodest literal meaning of it.
Despite the fact that the title is still under criticism, the reader recognizes the pun and therefore the intention of this satire. The serious have chosen to neglect the satirical intentions of Jonathan Swift, but one should understand that although Swift does not present his readers with the opportunity to laugh-out-loud at their flaws, this ‘modest’ proposal also successfully mocks the irrational policies of the Irish-English classes.
Satire is vital to set change in motion. While it may not always be funny, it provides an insight into society. Satirists achieve this by the clever play of words using numerous satirical techniques. While Wilde sets the audience cackling with laughter when mocking the Victorian standards and beliefs, Jonathan Swift satirises the English approach and involvement in Irish affairs with a very ‘modest’ proposal to consume young children. A judgmental line cannot be drawn to define which form of satire is more effective - witty or harsh. Perhaps it is wiser to conclude that both satirical texts use different methods to expose foolishness in all its guises, with the desire to effect reform in society.
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Wilde, Oscar, and Richard Allen Cave. The importance of being earnest and other plays. London: Penguin Books, 2000. Print.