The Literature of Satire

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Ranging from the classics to the present, Charles Knight provides illuminating readings of such satirists as Horace, Lucian, Jonson, Molière, Swift, Pope, Flaubert, Ostrovsky, Kundera, and Rushdie in this study of satire in plays, novels, newsprint and verse. His broad examination sheds new light on the nature and functions of satire as a mode of writing.

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"When, after many years of reading, thinking, teaching, and writing, a scholar leaves us a handsome record of what he has learned, we ought to be grateful. It is with such gratitude that we should welcome Charles A. Knight's The Literature of Satire." - Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Leon Guilhamet, CUNY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521834605
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2007
  • Pages: 340
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Knight recently retired as a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, of which he was one of the founding faculty, and where he still continues to teach. He is a specialist in eighteenth-century British literature; he has written Joseph Addison and Richard Steele: A Reference Guide (1994) and numerous articles for journals such as Modern Language Review, Philological Quarterly, Modern Philology, Comparative Literature and Eighteenth-Century Studies.

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Cambridge University Press
0521834600 - The literature of Satire - by Charles A. Knight

Introduction: the satiric frame of mind

Any attempt to account for satire in a general way is caught between two undesirable alternatives. A strong reading of satire is likely to produce sharp and stimulating definitions and distinctions that, if not actually fallacious, are reductive and incomplete. A general, conventional description is likely to be more various and open but also to seem familiar or superficial or disconnected. If the present study fails to steer a safe course between these hazards, it is more likely to become grounded on the shoals than wrecked on the rocks. Although it proposes a governing view of satire, encapsulated in the phrase "the satiric frame of mind," it is more concerned to uncover what satire does than to make authoritative statements about its essential nature. Its explorations begin with linguistic assumptions, though not technical ones, and tend to focus on the pragmatics of satire. Its scope is shamelessly broad: Archilochus to Zoshchenko implies the alpha and omega of the study, although I actually have nothing to say about either author. The selection of examples is based primarily on their relevance to my topics and their interest to me. But others will note relevant and canonic examples that I cannot include, and I could not make room for many satires and authors that I like. Thus I have little to say about A Tale of a Tub, although I recognize it as a central and almost defining satire, and I neglect a number of recent Russian satirists - Aksyonov, Zinoviev, Sokolov, and Aleshkovsky, among others - whose work strikes me as significant. I have not set out to cover a circumscribed body of satiric material. Given the indirection of satire, it seems appropriate to begin not by explaining what this book is about but by meditating on a useful emblem of satire - the Greek philosopher Democritus as represented in the seventeenth century by Diego Velásquez. He suggests the shape of the satiric frame of mind, and that shape in turn will suggest the shape of this study.


Democritus as laughing philosopher, as polymath, and even as atomic theorist reflects salient characteristics of satire itself, and he has been called as a satiric witness by Juvenal, Burton, and Johnson, among others; the portrait of Democritus by Velásquez intensifies the satiric force of representation. The fact of representation and its non-verbal nature open a range of interpretive possibilities. The portrait, apparently from the painter's early years at court, is, like many of his earlier Seville paintings, almost entirely in brown. It shows a black-haired, profusely mustached, large-nosed man smiling broadly and pointing with his left hand at a globe that sits on a table, along with several books. I have seen at least one reproduction of the painting entitled "The Geographer." The painting may not be a representation of Democritus; the name Democritus may be a representation of the painting. The subject of the painting may actually be one of the jesters or servants that Velásquez loved to paint. (The model appears in a similar painting, probably but not certainly by Velásquez, entitled "Court Jester with a Wineglass.") If the painting represents a geographer, the globe is literal, a tool of the geographer's trade. If it represents Democritus, human nature has been globalized. The representation of Democritus, or of a court jester pretending to be Democritus, changes the nature of the discourse and opens it to satire. (Viewers who are aware that the painting may not be read literally might be tempted to see it, for example, as a mockery of Spanish imperial ambitions.) The painting represented by the name "Democritus," characteristically in the style of  Velásquez, thus represents a jester representing Democritus, who points to and laughs at a globe that at least represents humanity but may as well represent (among other targets the viewer might suggest) the folly of imperial ambition. The experience of looking at and interpreting the painting, with its multiple layers of representation, parallels the laughing interpretation of Democritus the painting's subject. The books on the table may indicate the sources of the philosopher's knowledge or may be inaccessible to the jester. Laughter may be the result of knowledge or of ignorance. The laughter of Democritus may suggest that naive viewers are part of the world he mocks or that sophisticated viewers are mockers themselves as well as objects of mockery. The painting is unusually and disturbingly intimate. The jester Democritus invites us with a smile to contemplate the globe at which he points. He shows us his geographic discovery that all the world is foolish. But he laughs directly at us.

There is a close relationship between Democritus the laughing philosopher and Democritus the atomic theorist. Physical reality, he contends, is not the world as we perceive it but rather atoms and their movement. What we see is not what is. The same is true of human behavior, his laughter implies. The skeptical but observant satirist recognizes that some people are evil, but all are foolish not only because they do foolish things but because they are unaware of their folly. They are errant in action but blind in perception. Hence they are incurable unless perception is changed. The effect of the Democritian satirist - the jester pointing his finger at the globe - is to correct perception. But the correction of perception is not effected by admonition - by the translation of behavior into abstract moral language - but by a form of representation so skewed as to allow recognition to take place and to force a new judgment on it, so that viewers recognize that they are what is represented and that what is foolish is them. We become both the subject and object of satire. Democritus as represented by Velásquez manipulates forms and images that engage perhaps unwary viewers and that multiply levels of meaning.

The satiric frame of mind, of which Democritus is an emblem, comprises complex and even paradoxical qualities. Like Democritus, the satirist is a skeptical and bemused observer. Like the jester portraying Democritus, he may be a trickster, an agent as well as an observer, proclaiming truths disguised as lies and directing the action to bring about the ends he has proclaimed (a pattern that will be a matter of major concern in my consideration of satiric performance in plays). As is the case with the portrait, these tricks may engage the ironies of reader or viewer involvement. The satirist is on one hand the dispassionate observer of humanity and, on the other, the irate attacker of particular individuals. His mode of both observation and attack is representation.

The qualities of satiric representation thus echo the paradoxes embodied by its emblematic figure. Satire takes the form of a specific attack, even when the real subject of the satire is not the object of attack. The element of play that usually marks the attack may make matters worse, insofar as, from the victim's point of view, being mocked may seem more distressing than merely being disagreed with, however strongly or publicly, or it may, to the audience, make the attack more tolerable by making it entertaining. The satirist operates not only by representing the satiric victim but by imitating a conventional genre. But satire also imitates what M. M. Bakhtin refers to as speech genres, the characteristic or conventional utterances developed in various spheres of communication, and it imitates these in ways that are rather different from their imitation in non-satiric literature. When satire imitates speech genres, it characteristically makes them ironic, thus opening them to possibilities of meaning that are not usually noticed in ordinary usage. (William Gaddis's novel JB is a particularly rich instance of a lengthy work constructed almost entirely out of ironized speech genres. Josef Hašek's The Good Soldier Šwejk consists largely of stories, speeches, and scenes where the speech genres are ironic in respect to the speaker or listener or the context: Šwejk, for example, tells stories that are entertaining to the reader while maddening those to whom they are told.) Both literary genres and primary speech genres thus become both objects and instruments of satiric attack.

Satire is thus pre-generic. It is not a genre in itself but an exploiter of other genres. Nor is it quite a mode in the usual sense. In what I will come to call its Quixotic phase, satire is modal, and the identifying genre - the genre that provides readers with the richest set of signals as to how to read the work - is the novel. In contrast, Lucianic or Menippean fiction is satire that takes the form of a novel. As a pre-genre, satire is a mental position that needs to adopt a genre in order to express its ideas as representation. Satire, like Satan, as "a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour" (I Peter 5.8). It is a predisposition to find an appropriate object of attack that embodies its sense of human evil and folly and to utilize effectively a pre-existent form in order to represent that object in such a way as to make its objectionable qualities apparent. Its characteristic element of attack is often formal: the satirist means the attack but may also use the attack to imply further meaning. Satire's complex manipulations of forms and language in order to arrive at and present its negative representation establish the nature of its frame. Its skeptical attitude towards life, directed at historical examples, makes it a frame of mind. Its character as a frame cannot be separated from its mental qualities because they are linked by perception. The satirist's manipulation of forms may enhance his perception of the object thus framed, but clearly that frame allows the reader to arrive at a parallel perception. Because this parallelism of perception lies at the heart of satiric exchange, a rhetorical approach is inescapable in studies of satire. Satire's often intense concern for historical problems is framed by its imaginative play; the relationship between history and imagination is paralleled by the relationship between perception and communication.

The satiric frame of mind can be located negatively as well. Outside that frame lie some traditional suppositions about satire that, to my mind, do not follow from my description. Primary among these are assertions about the intrinsically moral function of satire. The idea that satire is justified in its nastiness by its moral or didactic functions has run through the history of satiric theory from Casaubon and Dryden to Edward and Lillian Bloom. Dryden summarizes Casaubon: "Moral Doctrine, says he, and Urbanity, or well-manner'd Wit, are the two things which constitute the Roman Satire. But of the Two, that which is most Essential to this Poem, and is as it were the very Soul which animates it, is the scourging of Vice and Exhortation to Virtue." Edward and Lillian Bloom take a milder position on the morality of satire: "What we suggest, rather, is the capacity of some satire to effect a gradual moral reawakening, a reaffirmation of positive social and individual values." Wyndham Lewis articulates the opposite position: "It could perhaps be asserted, even, that the greatest satire cannot be moralistic at all: if for no other reason, because no mind of the first order, expressing itself in art, has ever itself been taken in, nor consented to take in others, by the crude injunctions of any purely moral code." Of course, as Lewis himself admits, some excellent satire is moral, but many of the qualities revealed by satiric representation - ugliness, clumsiness, foolishness, bad taste, or stupidity - could not reasonably be thought of as immoral. In conventional terms, some satire would be considered decidedly immoral, designed to violate the norms of a moral code it regards as restrictive or wrong-headed. Some satire sees morality as hypocritical, or as a presumptuous effort to assert a social control to which the moralist has no right.

Satire, then, is independent of moral purpose. Its purpose, as I will maintain in discussing Horace's satiric performances, is perception rather than changed behavior, although change in behavior may well result from change in perception. Dustin Griffin appropriately argues that the functions of satire are inquiry and provocation rather than moral instruction and punishment. If the notion that satire is intrinsically moralistic falls, so also does the criticism that satire fails to achieve its purposes because it does not change people's behavior (a criterion that is, of course, virtually impossible to measure). A further corollary that no longer seems tenable is the assertion that satire requires norms and is thus no longer possible in a culture which no longer accepts agreed-upon norms. Individual satirists and satires, acting either as speakers for their communities or as individuals seeking to castigate them for their betrayal of traditional values, may insist quite strongly on norms. But although satires may have norms, norms are not essential to satire, which may make judgments by internal shifts of perception that do not appeal to external values or by identifying the satiric object as ridiculous rather than immoral. Insofar as satire is moral at all, it tends to create its own values. But if it insists on such values, it must give them enough force to encourage readers to transfer them beyond the text. Because of its concern with the actualities of history, satire, more than most literary forms, exists both on the level of text, appreciable aesthetically in its own terms, and on the level of experience, engaged with its audience, whether by sharing the immediate situation of its readers or by arriving at a level of general significance that bridges the remoteness of history.

A further generic complication of satire is its relationship to a variety of analogous or overlapping forms. Satire's relationship to comedy will demand my attention in considering satiric plays (chapter 4), though I cannot pretend to establish a definitive distinction. But I will not undertake the task of distinguishing satire from irony, burlesque, caricature, lampoon, travesty, pasquinade, raillery, billingsgate, diatribe, invective, imitation, mimicry, parody, jokes, hoax, and spoof. Critics of satire might be tempted to see many of these forms as sub-genres within satire itself, as weapons by which satire wages its attacks. But many of them, perhaps all of them, have an independent status and emerged in the critical vocabulary independently of satire. Thus while I am making rather broad claims for satire, I do not want simply to establish satire as the governing genre of a large literary territory. Citizenship in that territory, it seems to me, does not require much proof, and its inhabitants come and go with the appropriateness of the occasion. But irony of perspective and the parody created by satiric borrowing seem central qualities of the satiric frame of mind. Irony corresponds to the dislodged perspective from which the subject of satire is perceived within the formal frame, and parody corresponds to the imitated or borrowed form of the frame itself.

One further quality of the satiric frame of mind needs to be noted, and that is its apparent gender exclusivity. Women, of course, are prominent enough groups within the satiric frame; their status as satiric victims, from Juvenal's sixth satire to the present, is familiar. The lineaments of the female satiric victim in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have been traced by Felicity Nussbaum. What makes satire more-or-less a masculine genre is not a gender exclusivity (satire and tragedy for men, comedy and lyric for women) as it is the fact that women as a gender were treated as an identifiable group, while men (as men all know) are merely people. Satire of men is thus satire of human nature, but satire of women is satire of a particular variety of people. I discuss satire of groups as an aspect of satiric nationalism (chapter 2), but not as an aspect of satiric gender, largely because Nussbaum has discussed gender so well. Nussbaum has little to say, however, about the relative silence of women as satirists. That men should treat women as a group distinct from general (that is, masculine) humanity is regrettable but not surprising. What demands more attention is why women did not respond in kind - why there is so little satire written by women, and why so little of that satire is written against men. The question is important in itself, but it also serves as a reminder of some salient features of satire.

There are two major elements that seem to discourage the emergence of satire written by women. Satire is not, on the whole, private and domestic. It tends to be concerned with public issues and with public examples of those issues. Thus in societies in which women are confined to the private sphere and in which writing of any sort by women is considered unusual or inappropriate, women's writing of satire seems virtually unthinkable. Moreover, satire is a transgressive genre, based on the socially objectionable element of attack, often personal attack. If it often requires male satirists to take a defensive, apologetic position, it places women, who assume a suspicious position even as writers, in a nearly untenable role. Thus it is not surprising that for most of western history, women have not been part of the main stream of satiric writers. Women who did write satire before the twentieth century, either did so privately or anonymously (Lady Mary Wortley Montagu), or were in other respects more-or-less notorious figures already (Aphra Behn, Delarivière Manley). Satire among women authors tends to take the form of a mode, so that women who wrote for the stage (as in the case of Behn's attack on the social and sexual pretensions of City merchants in The Lucky Chance) or who wrote socially significant novels (Burney, Edgeworth, Austen) could introduce satiric elements. Perhaps the most successful satire by a woman in the eighteenth century, Jane Collier's An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting (1753), adopts the mock advice form of Swift's Directions to Servants to apply it, with several layers of irony, to anyone interested in stimulating domestic discomfort. Collier effectively applies ironic satire to private life, but most satire by women takes the form of satiric fiction.

Perhaps the most salient example of satire that addresses specifically the issue of gender from a feminist point of view is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, in which a young man writes what turns out to be a parody of a boy's adventure story recounting his journey with two friends to a hitherto unknown land of women. The land is utopian, and the satiric force not only derives from the contrast of "Herland" to the rest of us but from various misunderstandings by the young men. Satire in the twentieth century often takes the dominant form of fiction, where, as I will struggle to suggest in chapter 7 on satire and the novel, the genres overlap considerably. Such writers as Edith Wharton, Stella Gibbons, Muriel Spark, and Fay Weldon indicate the range of satiric fiction open to women. The emergence of women as reporters and columnists means that women assume a place as journalistic satirists. The emergence of women as recognized practitioners of a genre is followed by the emergence of women as satirists in that genre. The virtual absence of women as satirists before the twentieth century (and hence their absence from much of this study as well) seems an instance of the historical exclusion of women from authorship, from public activity, and from controversy.


The form of my book follows the two dimensions I have suggested for the satiric frame of mind: ironic perspective on the historical subject and parodic borrowing of a literary form. The first half of the study deals with "satiric boundaries." The first chapter, on definitions of satire, somewhat prolongs the present introduction (thus violating a boundary) by considering the efforts of various definitions of satire - especially figurative ones - to mark off the boundaries of satire itself. But in the course of that exploration, the function of satire to make and protect boundaries is discovered. In the two chapters that follow, on satiric nationalism and satiric exile, boundaries become literal, and I try to determine satire's perspective on its historical subject by looking at the position of the satirist, in the case of nationalism, within large historical communities or, in the case of exile, excluded from them. In keeping with the historical focus of these chapters, the first looks at satire in relation to emergent nationalism in eighteenth-century France and England, and the second considers satiric exile in the last half of the twentieth century.

The second half of the study looks at "satiric forms," the relationship between pre-generic satire and the genres which it uses as its frames. I have used the most conservative delineation of genres - drama, poetry, novel, and journalistic prose - to identify some of the possible connections that I found interesting. The temptation of this approach is to use the pattern of classification and exemplification that I have found of limited value in other studies, and I think I have successfully avoided or disguised this method by concentrating on particular relationships between satire and its host and by reading exemplary texts in ways that allow me to build theory from interpretation. In discussing dramatic satire, or satiric performance, I pay little attention to contemporary performance theory that takes performances rather than texts as the subjects of critical scrutiny. I am particularly interested in tracing a dramatic pattern by which central characters, who may or may not be sympathetic, become satirists themselves by undertaking or staging a performance designed to expose the hypocrisies that otherwise dominate the play. In chapter 5 I extend the idea of satiric performance by seeing verse satires in the long eighteenth century (1660-1830) as a series of performances that were significantly modeled by Horace. The concept of performance, as I see it, is a useful way of replacing the familiar satiric persona with a more flexible (and more historical) approach that accounts simultaneously for satiric sub-genres and satiric speakers. I develop this approach by pairing Horatian satires with eighteenth-century poems, usually not conscious imitations of Horace, that represent similar performances.

The relationship between satire and the novel, the subject of chapter 6, is difficult to sort out, in part because both genres are so broad and vaguely defined and in part because any connection between the two defies the distinction, which I find questionable in itself, between satire as an independent form and satire as a mode. Despite the difficulty of working out a stable notion of their relationship, the overlap between satire and the novel suggests a series of topics - the treatment of the "other" in novels and satire, the nature of Menippean satire, and the historical movement of satire into the novel in the eighteenth century and, in part, of the novel into satire in postmodernism. The function of satire outside the traditional genres of imaginative literature is the subject of my final chapters. Because satiric prose is such an extensive subject, I have limited my consideration to satiric treatment of the press by the press, and that limitation returns me to the pragmatic models I discuss in my second chapter. Examination of a relatively obscure political debate in the early eighteenth century (involving, among others, Swift, Steele, Defoe, and Manley) generates the notion that such satire operates not primarily by attacking the positions, behavior, and arguments of antagonists but by attacking their authority and capacity to communicate. That notion is both extended in significance and narrowed in scope by a consideration of attacks on the press by the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus. Kraus serves a further function for this study: as the great twentieth-century exemplar of the figure of the satirist, he brings it to a fitting conclusion.

Although the boundary I draw between boundaries and forms grows from my view of historical irony and formal imitation as essential constituents of satire, that boundary is permeable, and satires I consider under the category of forms frequently establish, violate, and play with boundaries both real and figurative. But this is inevitably the case in a kind of literature that is identifiable by both the drawing of boundaries and the imitation of forms. Whatever else may be accomplished by the critical movement through satiric boundaries and forms, I extend the scope of satire beyond the customary concentration on formal verse satire and Menippean satire by discussing novels, plays, and journalism. I have tried as well to incorporate a variety of figures absent from standard treatments of satire. My understanding of satire, I thought, might be expanded by considering unfamiliar examples and seeing what conclusions I could draw from them, as I sought not merely to apply external theory to texts but to see what theoretical implications could be drawn from texts themselves. This approach, of course, has various limitations. In some cases obvious canonic satirists (Wyndham Lewis, for example) and canonic satires (A Tale of a Tub) go virtually unconsidered here, though their full consideration in other studies provides some consolation. Although I have tried to deal with Latin, French, and German texts in their original languages, the scope of my study exceeds the range of my linguistic abilities, and where I have had to rely only on translation, my discussion tends to shift to a somewhat higher level of generalization. The breadth of my study necessarily implies its incompleteness, but completeness seems illusory in describing a form as various and shifting as satire. Although the description is incomplete and tentative, it seeks to suggest a complex portrait of the satiric frame of mind.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; Introduction: the satiric frame of mind; Part I. Satiric Boundaries: 1. Imagination's Cerebrus; 2. Satiric nationalism; 3. Satiric exile; Part II. Satiric Forms: 4. Satire as performance; 5. Horatian performances; 6. Satire and the novel; 7. Literature and the press: the Battle of Dunkirk; 8. White snow and black magic: Karl Kraus and the press; Conclusion; Notes; Bibliography; Index.

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