Satirical Voices – Literary Theory

Most authors write about the society in which they live, and often they find plenty to criticize. Not surprisingly, they sometimes choose to satirize or "send up" the foolishness of society’s customs, beliefs or politics. Satirists may mock trivial things, such as the foibles, weaknesses or hypocrisies of individuals; but often they make wider points, angrily using their wit to attack cruelty or injustice, in the hope that they might shock or move people into making changes.
 
Whether they are writing gentle mockery or fierce and bitter criticism, satirists are likely to use a variety of techniques, such as:
 
*  irony, where the writer appears to say one thing on the surface, but means something different, perhaps even the opposite;
 
*  sarcasm, which is usually spoken, expresses scorn or contempt and may also involve irony, but relies more on tone of voice to convey the speaker’s intentions;
 
*  invective – more directly abusive or attacking language;
 
*  other forms of wit – jokes and wordplay, for example;
 
*  exaggeration of something real to draw out its ridiculous aspects;
 
*  inventing a parallel situation or society, which can be used to mock the real target;
 
*  creating a persona and writing in a different voice; this enables the writer to mock the type of person or attitude represented, as well as making other points.
 
In England, a great deal of powerful satirical writing was produced in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, after the restoration of the monarchy and during the reign of Queen Anne. This period is known as the Augustan era, because writers of that time had a high regard for the classical literature of Ancient Greece and Rome, likening their own age to the age of the Emperor Augustus in Rome, when Latin poetry was particularly impressive. Much of their work was in the heroic couplets (rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter) favoured by the Romans.
 
Three of the most important Augustan writers were:
 
John Dryden (1631-1700)
Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
 
All three used satire to draw attention in particular to hypocrisy and artificiality, showing up people or aspects of society that were not what they seemed. In the centuries since then, writers have continued to use satire – Dickens is frequently satirical in his novels, for example. However, it has tended to be less overt and central, until recent times. Today, satirists have a much wider range of media to work with. As well as satirical writing, they can use television, radio and film to mock and criticize. This leads us to an important question about satire: since it often tends to be concerned with the politics or habits or people of a particular time, to what extent will it interest readers or audiences of future generations? Is it of lasting value, or is it merely ephemeral? It seems that satire which is too personal and specific to its time may lose its appeal quite quickly, but if it targets universal situations or aspects of human nature, there is a greater chance that it will hold our interest.
 
 

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