Satire has been around for thousands of years, so it’s inevitable it has developed many complexities as a literary genre throughout its evolution. Arguably, the three most common types of satire (Horatian, Juvenalian and Menippean) have now been intermingled and cross-pollinated to the extent where it’s not unknown for a modern work of satirical fiction to be a hybridised mongrel, of sorts.
However, if you’re a writer planning to imbue a satirical flavour to your story, it’s important to understand what the key ingredients behind different types of satire are. These days, writers can afford to cherry-pick elements of one and transition to another within a single narrative, but it’s still important to know the differentials. Learning the key features of different strands of satire will undoubtedly help you choose a direction.
Here is a short primer on the three most common types of satire to help you get started.
1. Horatian Satire
Chances are, if your aim is only to make people laugh, it’s Horatian satire you’re after. Named after the Roman satirist Horace – who started writing satirical poetry in 35BC – his aim was largely to entertain with wry humour, wit and light-hearted mockery, avoiding negativity by refusing to place blame on others for any perceived misgivings. As such then, the objective of Horatian satire is to be clever and knowing, whilst evoking humour by exposing the peculiarities of human behaviour.
A ‘farce’ or a ‘comedy of errors’ could both, for instance, have a Horatian feel, but it’s not unknown for Horatian satires to dabble in satirising prevailing social attitudes (such as poking holes in philosophical positions and societal norms). The way marriage and relationships are perceived in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice would be an example of Horatian satire, as is the farcical social engagements and light wit contained in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
That said, though humorous, Horatian satire is the mildest and gentlest form of satire there is – it is not seeking to change the world. It is merely focused on highlighting human folly in all its myriad forms, perhaps through anecdotes and characterisation more so than plot, and so its chief purpose is, primarily, to amuse.
2. Juvenalian Satire
If anger is your energy – for instance, if you wanted to subvert the status quo and attack the venality of the political class or religious leaders – then Juvenalian satire is your best bet. Freed from the shackles of being outright funny, the mission of Juvenalian satire is often to attack individuals, governments and organisations to expose hypocrisy and moral transgressions. For this reason, writers should expect to use stronger doses of irony and sarcasm in this concoction.
Originating with Roman satirist Juvenal in the late 1st century BC, the bitter edge he infused in his works – with almost contemptuous, abrasive, accusatory, finger-wagging zeal – has influenced a brand of satire which has gifted us the most edgy, provocative and memorable works of literature. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a noted example of this, largely in the way it tackles the absurdity and hypocrisy of politics and religion. Put simply, if there is moral indignation or personal invective fuelling your story, you’ll find yourself drifting into Juvenalian territory.
Unsurprisingly, George Orwell was also keen on embracing Juvenalian satire very often in his novels (particularly Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four). Therefore, if you have a strong point to make and a clear target for your disdain, this type of satire is most effective, albeit often pessimistic and laced with bitterness. As a result, Juvenalian satire is often not as humorous as other types of satire, but it is quite possibly the most daring and revolutionary.
3. Menippean Satire
Instead of focusing on societal norms, Menippean satire tends to satirise an individual character flaw and/or a particular personality trait, such as a mental attitude. Think of it as a slightly more prickly version of Horatian satire, whereby it attacks a specific human fault instead of a directly observable misdeed. For instance, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a Menippean satire in the sense that it’s Alice’s curiosity which ultimately causes her plight.
Taking its name from the Greek philosopher Menippus from the 3rd century BCE, this type of satire is much less aggressive than Juvenalian satire, but notably more judgemental than its Horatian cousin. It’s here where you’ll see sexist views or racist attitudes ridiculed, for example, or pomposity or arrogance (amongst countless other human flaws, more generally). In a nutshell, any viewpoint or attitude which makes a human being worthy of derision can be a target for Menippean satire.
By the manner in which Menippean satire casts moral judgements, it might seem like it’s cut from the same cloth as a Juvenalian tale, but it does not need to be heavy-handed and can be as light and even as cheerful as Horatian satire. As a reader, one should be able to recognise that the reason for amusement in a Menippean satire is ultimately in the portrayal of a characters’ views, lampooning a vice connected to a specific mental drawback or an inherent personality foible. That’s the main thing which separates it from the other types of satire.
What unifies each type satire is a tendency to use irony, sarcasm, humour and ridicule to allow a writer to achieve his or her goals. Perhaps this is why each historical type of satire seems to have merged and overlapped into one another over time – after all, if the techniques are the same, reaching at the same destination can be hard to avoid. Hopefully, however, understanding what makes each type of satire unique will give writers the tools they need to experiment and keep this literary tradition alive. Long may it continue.
Humorous fiction writer, poet and aspiring novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.
Juvenalian And Horatian Satire
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Juvenalian and Horatian Satire
"Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's
face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it
meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it." Jonathan Swift
(1667-1745), Anglo-Irish satirist. The Battle of the Books, Preface (written
1697; published 1704).
Satire is known as the literary style which makes light of a subject,
diminishing its importance by placing it in an amusing or scornful light. Unlike
comedy, satire attempts to create humor by deriding its topic, as opposed to a
topic that evokes laughter in itself. Satires attempt to give us a more humorous
look at attitudes, advances, states of affairs, and in some cases ( as in
Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal ) the entire human race. The least offensive
form of satire is Horatian satire, the style used by Addison and Steele in their
essays. A much more abrasive style is Juvenalian satire, as used by Jonathan
Swift in the aforementioned essay A Modest Proposal. To better understand satire
as a whole, and Horatian and Juvenalian satire in particular, these essays can
provide for further comprehension than a simple definition of the style alone.
Horatian satire is noted for its more pleasant and amusing nature.
Unlike Juvenalian satire, it serves to make us laugh at human folly as opposed
to holding our failures up for needling. In Steele's essay The Spectator's Club,
a pub gathering is used to point out the quirks of the fictitious Sir Robert de
Coverly and his friends. Roger de Coverly is an absolute character. His failure
in an amorous pursuit have left him in the past, which is shown through his
manner of dress, along with his somewhat dubious honor of justice of the quorum.
This position entails such trying duties as explaining Acts to the commoners.
Also present is a lawyer who is more versed in "Aristotle and Cognius" than in
"Littleton and Coke"(Norton, 2193), indicative of lawyers more interested in
sounding learned than being capable of practicing actual law. Near him, a
wealthy merchant whose concerns lie mainly in the wealth of England and himself,
and who views the ocean as his marketplace. Captain Sentry is an old military
man well practiced in the art of false modesty, a trait he detests in others.
Also there is a clergyman who is so frail that he would sooner wait until the
Lord sees fit to smite him than get on with the business of leading his
life.(Norton, 2192-2195). All of these characters present traits present in all
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Satire Literary Style Human Race Placing Everybody Spectator Comprehension Discover Laugh Modest Proposal
humans, but their presentation in such a silly and hypocritical context makes
them humorous. In this way, Steele points out the reader's faults in an
Addison's Sir Roger at Church is a humorous account of Sir Roger de
Coverly and the members of his parish. He gives books to his poorly read
parishioners, "will suffer no one to sleep in [church] besides himself" (Norton
2196), lengthens the Psalms, and pronounces his Amens repeatedly. At one point
he stands and warns "one John Matthews to mind what he is about"(Norton, 2196),
and stop tapping his heels lest he disturb the congregation. The irony here, of
course, is that Sir Roger has caused an even greater disturbance by standing and
calling attention to this poor man (Norton, 2195-2197). An obvious poke at
overly zealous churchgoers and clergymen, this work makes light of the entire
situation. By doing so, readers find their own faults in a more humorous medium,
rather than being affronted by a scathing attack.
The Juvenalian satirist approaches his work in a more serious manner and
uses dignified language to attack erroneous thinking or vice. In this way
Juvenalian satire evokes feelings of contempt, shock, and righteous indignation
in the mind of the reader. It is this form of satire used by Jonathan Swift in A
Modest Proposal. The irony is at once very subtle and very simple; Swift's
proposal is not at all modest. In order to ease the economic burden of his
countrymen, he proposes to eat surplus children in the populace, thereby
creating a new food market and reducing overpopulation. He even suggest to sell
these people by poundage. He uses stern logic to earn the reader's approval even
before the reader knows of that which he is approving. This is done by taking
the standpoint of a concerned humanitarian and patriot, when in fact his
proposal is rather ghastly and inhumane. By ignoring the obvious immorality of
his plan and speaking out of sheer benevolence, Swift makes this absurd
proposition all the more outrageous (Norton, 2181-2187). The style he uses is
quite serious and troubled, but the humor is easily appreciated in the far
fetched jibe directed at those who always seem to have a plan for the common
good and always have a logical explanation to justify their plan. While caustic
and bitterly ironic, the selection exhibits a clever, albeit dry and weird,
sense of humor.
Although satire, whether of the jovial Horatian style or the pitiless
Juvenalian, can be affronting, there seems to be no malice in its mischief.
Addison and Steele's intentions were only to improve the morals and intellect o
their audience by challenging them to change. Thomas Swift even wrote in his
"prehumous" work Verses on the Death of Mr. Swift :
"Yet malice was never his aim
He lashed the vice but spared the name...
The satire points to no defect
But what all morals may correct...
He spared a hump, or crooked nose
Whose owners set up not for beaux..."(Abrams, 187)
In this verse we can see that the true aim of satire is not to ridicule faults
of which a person is not aware or responsible, but to correct them.
1) The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Edition, Volume I;
Copyright 1993 W.W. Norton and Company, pp.2181-2197
2) A Glossary of Literary Terms, M.H. Abrams; Copyright 1993 Holt, Rhinehart and
Winston, Inc., pp. 187-190