Before writing another word I will announce to the reader, the reviewer, the critic, or anyone else that might happen to glance at this page that I am not a “scholar” or some other species of “intellectual,” but a mere writer that happens to enjoy a good laugh at the follies of mankind and finds that the most reliable source of such entertainment can be found in a satire. Intellectual discussions, for the most part, are to be avoided at all costs because, if they are allowed to exist longer than thirty minutes, devolve into a pretentious sermon delivered to a congregation of the equally pretentious.
With my disclaimer issued, I will now attempt to answer the question “What is Satire.”
My personal definition of satire is that it is a literary device that often uses humor to provoke or prevent a change in its audience’s customs or beliefs. Satire can be presented (although with variable effect) in every popular media of today: printed, broadcast, visual, television, live theater, or cinema. And satire, like any other subject, often has a number of misconceptions attached to it.
The first, and probably the most frequently encountered, is that a satire must be funny. Satire is quite often not funny but tragic by design. As an example of a “non-humorous satire” consider the 1968 movie hit Planet of the Apes. You might find a few amusing lines here and there but it slowly begins to emerge that the dialog of the apes is, with minor changes in wording, mimicking everything from our prejudices to our ideas on religion and society. As a result, the reader of the original book (which is much deeper, intellectually, than the movie) or the viewer begins to see weaknesses in beliefs or actions that were not apparent earlier.
Another misconception is that a satire must be self-apparent, that is to say that it must obviously be a satire. In rebuttal to that contention I offer, in addition to the above cited movie, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” an essay that is still taken literally by freshmen English Lit students throughout the world.
An additional point to consider is that most people have a negative opinion of the satirist, viewing them as cold, bitter, something of a social misfit or outcast. While many satirists could fit into this category (Orwell), there are others were quite socially prominent (Swift, Twain, or even T.S. Eliot).
What Are the Techniques of Satire?
Since satire is quite often used as a tool to advocate a change in a social, moral, or political process, I like to say that the three principle techniques of the satirist are transformation, relocation and, borrowing a phrase from the illusionists, “suspension of belief.”
In satire the “targets” or principles to be challenged are almost invariably transformed from their current complex reality into another, simpler object or idea. As an example, take the situation in Gulliver’s Travels where Swift created a war between the Lilliputians and their mortal enemies, the Blefuscu, that was being fought over which end of an egg should be cracked (simple) as a criticism of the English Civil Wars with its various factions (the complex issue).
This simplification is often accompanied by a simultaneous relocation of the “action” to a milieu that is more consistent or subconsciously supportive with the transformation. In Gulliver this is always an island, which is consistent with Swift’s intended criticisms of various factions of English (an island) socio-political development. A further example can be found in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which tells of Orwell’s bitter disillusionment with Josef Stalin and his henchmen that, to Orwell, were traitors to the principles of Lenin and the Russian Revolution.
Orwell transformed pre-revolutionary Russia into Manor Farm, which became Animal Farm once the animals, under the leadership of a wise pig (“Old Major,” Lenin), overthrow the evil owner (“Mr. Jones,” The Tsar). When Old Major dies, three other pigs, Napoleon, Snowball, and Squealer (Stalin, Trotsky, and Beria) take over leadership and are soon acting out of their own interests rather than for the good of all. Orwell’s transformations and relocations are presented smoothly and with “preparation” of the reader’s mind, which makes the story “seem” to “flow,” which is essential for the development of the last technique: the suspense of belief on the part of the reader.
Any reader knows that there aren’t any islands like those described by Swift or farms run by talking animals but, thanks to their authors’ skills, they are temporarily believable in the same way that an illusionist is incapable of creating objects out of thin air regardless of what our eyes “tell” us we saw.
Why Is Satire Effective?
In response to the above question, I would like to begin my answer with a paraphrase of Jonathan Swift’s preface remarks to his 1708 The Battle of the Books and other Short Pieces:
Satire is a sort of looking-glass, wherein beholders generally discover every body’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for the kind reception it meets in the world, and why very few are offended by it. But if it should happen otherwise, the danger is not great and…