Characteristics of Satire

  • Satire at its heart is concerned with ethical reform. It attacks those institutions or individuals the satirist deems corrupt.
  • It works to make vice laughable and/or reprehensible and thus bring social pressure on those who still engage in wrongdoing.
  • It seeks a reform in public behavior, a shoring up of its audience's standards, or at the very least a wake-up call in an otherwise corrupt culture.
  • Satire is often implicit and assumes readers who can pick up on its moral clues. It is not a sermon.
  • Satire in general attacks types -- the fool, the boor, the adulterer, the proud -- rather than specific persons.
  • If it does attack some by name, rather than hoping to reform these persons, it seeks to warn the public against approving of them.
  • Satire is witty, ironic, and often exaggerated. It uses extremes to bring its audience to a renewed awareness of its ethical and spiritual danger.
  • Sometime if the satirist is in danger for his or her attack, ambiguity, innuendo and understatement can be used to help protect its author.

Types of Satire:

Horatian (named for Horace): A gentle, sympathetic form of satire in which the subject is mildly made fun of with a show of engaging wit.  This form of satire tends to ask the audience to laugh at themselves as much as the players.
Juvenalian (named for Juvenal): A harsher, bitter form of satire in which the subject is subjected to contempt and condemnation.   This form of satire is more judgmental, asking the audience to respond with indignation to the events it portrays.
Menippean (named for Menippus): A chaotic, often formless satire that satirizes the structure of the world as well as its subject matter.  It tends to mix genres, collapse categories, and intentionally ridicule everything.  Its exact target are often hard to locate because it seems to attack everything, and it often includes a preoccupation with sexual misfunctions and bodily fluids.
Mikhail Bakhtin argues that such satire is inherently dialogistic.   This suggests that there are competing voices in the text that offer a dialogue over the text's position and values.  Such a text has a kind of "authorial surplus" in which the voices in a work may overwhelm any possible authorial intentionality. Instead of either a complete relativism (where no final meaning can be decided on) or finalized system (where only one meaning can be derived), Bakhtin argues for a continued negotiation between the voices that can never be finally closed.