What is satire? Teaching satire is difficult for teachers because students often have difficulty with identifying this abstract concept. Satire is a literary term for an approach to a subject with irony and criticism, which seeks to see changes or reforms in its target. Front loading this list of terms related to satire will help teachers make satire more concrete and easier for students to understand. Follow the links provided to discover valuable literary examples of satire in the different forms students may encounter.
Basic Forms of Satire Defined
Horatian: light and humorous form of satire. An example of Horatian satire would be Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
Juvenalian: dark and bitter form of satire. A notable and famous example of juvenalian satire would be Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, which suggests eating children to solve the problem of overpopulation and poverty in Ireland.
Satire & Literary Style
Parody: a style, which imitates a subject using humor, highlights flaws or follies requiring change. Parody may imitate a subject, person, or style using humor. See some parodies of Shakespeare’s works to serve as literary examples of parody.
Caricature: a literary style focusing on one characteristic, quality, or feature of a person or group of people, exaggerating it to a humorous level. Caricatures are most often and obvious in political cartoons. Find examples of political cartoons for use in the classroom with teacher resources at the Library of Congress website.
Burlesque: a literary term to describe a work that twists a serious issue or subject into a humorous one, or takes a humorous subject and treats it as though it is serious. See Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock for an example of high burlesque.
*** It is not as important for students to identify the difference between parody, caricature, or burlesque as it is for students to identify that a piece of literature is satire. See more examples of these styles used in modern satire to use in class.
Wit: verbal cleverness. Wit suggests intellectual brilliance and delight in its ability to entertain, and requires verbal skill beyond a simple knowledge of words. Wit is often used ironically, or even sarcastically, to ridicule or insult someone. Winston Churchill was noted for his wit on many occasions.
Epigram: short, comic remark typically containing a “surprise” at the end, which makes it humorous. While clever, epigrams are often obscene or nasty in nature. Successful epigrams are used to insult another. See examples of famous epigrams to use in class.
Sarcasm: a form of irony employed to insult or slight. Most likely, students are already effective at identifying and using sarcasm, but noting that sarcasm is frequently used in satirical works will allow students some access to identifying whether a reading is satirical in nature.
Repartee: a person’s ability to respond to an insult quickly and directly, often using sarcasm or wit in the response. “Your Mama” jokes, while not necessarily classroom appropriate, are a solid example of repartee students may be familiar with… An example from one of my more witty students (luckily said after school in the presence of only three other students and me): when told his mama must be a Cubs’ fan because she was a loser, a boy responded, “Well, your mama must be a White Sox fan because every time I see her that’s all she’s wearin.” **Yes, the student was reprimanded for inappropriateness.
Literary Terms & Techniques Frequently Used in Literary Satire
Allusion: a reference to another famous or well-known event, work of literature, person or group of people, film, artwork, etc.
Tone: the author’s attitude toward a subject. In satire, tone is often achieved through diction (word choice) and incongruous juxtaposition.
Irony is broken into three different types: verbal irony, dramatic irony, and irony of situation. Verbal irony is when there is an incongruity between what someone says and what is meant. Dramatic irony is encountered when a reader or audience member knows something to be true contradicts what a character believes to be true. And ironyof situation occurs when there is a difference between what one expects to happen and what actually does happen.
While satirical works typically use irony, not every use of irony indicates satire. Teachers should make a point of highlighting the use of irony does not mean a literary work is satirical; however, if irony is present, searching for other commonly employed literary devices will help students decipher whether an example of irony is or is not being used for satirical purposes.
Language & Satire
In addition to tone, the use of language and word choice factors into deciphering whether a piece of literature is satirical in nature. Students should know the difference between literal and figurative language in order to decide how words are used.
Literal: face value, concrete usage of words and their meanings; uses a word as defined by a dictionary.
Figurative: abstract use of words and their meanings. Figurative language, such as metaphor, simile, personification, oxymoron, hyperbole, or understatement, provides examples of language used figuratively.
Personal Attitudes Used in Satire
Pessimists: people with a gloomy outlook of the world and always expect the worst to happen.
Misanthropes: those who despise and distrust the human race.
Cynics: people who do not trust the sincerity and/or motives of others.
Optimists: counters the pessimist, those who view the world with hope and expect the best outcomes.
Philanthropists: opposed to misanthropes, people who work to better the world and love the human race.
Pollyanna: those who trust “the sun will come out tomorrow” regardless of how many misfortunes they must endure.
Understanding literary terms are the first step for teachers to facilitate understanding of the complexities of satire. While literary terms, definitions, and examples may highlight how to identify satire in literature, cartoons, and media, this list does not cover every technique satirists use to convey their message. Teachers should use these literary terms as they apply to specific lessons and/or readings. Part II of Teaching Satire: Terminology, Tips, and Tools will highlight further literary examples of satire in modern culture to keep students engaged in reading and comprehending satire.
Fox, Steven. (2003). The Write Path II: An Advanced College Preparatory Reading and Writing Program for High Schools. Teacher Guide for English Language Arts. AVID Press.