Free Satire as a Literary Genre Essay Sample

2021-05-14Satire is a type of comic genre, which differs from other types (humor, irony) by the sharpness of exposure. At its birth satire was a certain lyrical genre. It was a poem, often significant in terms of content, which contained mockery of certain individuals or events. Satire as a genre originated in Roman literature. The word “satire” is associated with the Latin word “satura” (“lanx satura” is a dish of various kinds of fruits), indicating the mixing of different sizes (Saturnian verse along with the Greek sizes) and the presence in satire of wide variety of descriptions of various facts and events as opposed to other genres of lyric, which were strictly limited by the area of image. Roman satire showed its highest examples in the works of Horace, Persius, and especially Juvenal.

Over time, satire has lost its meaning as a particular genre, as was the case with other classical genres (elegy, idyll, etc.). Criticism and ridicule became major features of satire, defining its essence. This task was performed by satire by means of various literary forms and genres. The comic is the foundation of satire, regardless of genre. Laughter is always a great tool for social impact.

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The social functions of the comic determine its shape: humorous, satirical and ironic. The social function of laughter and satire is an effective tool against something or somebody. This is the difference of satire from humor and irony. Among all forms of the comic satire is distinguished by its active character and consistency of aim. Laughter always contains negation of something. Along with laughter, satire contains therefore strong resentment and indignation. Sometimes they are so strong, that they almost silence the funny elements, pushing them to the background. The weakness of the comic element in satire allowed some researchers to argue that satire could really exist without the comic techniques and could expose something only by indignation. But by itself, indignation at its highest power and strength does not create a satire.

The specificity of satire is not that it reveals the negative, harmful or shameful phenomena, but that it always does this by means of a special comic form, where indignation and criticism make a comic unity; evil is displayed as normal, only to find through laughter, that normal is only an appearance, an overshadowed evil. This is confirmed by the whole history of satire.

Satire against an enemy is the negation of the entire social system. This type of satire was created by the world’s greatest satirists, who at various times offered brilliant examples of criticism and rejection of the social reality of their era. Another type of satire is the call to correct certain defects, but not to destroy the system that spawned these defects. This satire is aimed mostly against way of life, manners and customs.

This paper studies two examples of satire – Ben Jonson’s Volpone and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Creative work of the most notable writer among Shakespeare’s contemporaries is different from the mainstream of English Renaissance drama. It completes the golden age of Elizabethan drama. None of the Elizabethan dramatists has such detailed biography as Ben Johnson, since none of them caused such hatred and love as this man, with a huge erudition, who vigorously defended his views on literature and art. In English literature Ben Johnson is the creator of the comedy of manners. In contrast to the lyrical and romantic Shakespeare’s works, Ben Jonson’s drama is of satirical nature.

In 1606 his comedy Volpone, Or the Foxe was performed for the first time and was a huge success, especially at Oxford and Cambridge universities. Venetian background, designed with great care obviously depicts British reality. Volpone is the biggest comedy of manners, written by Johnson. In it he wanted to “to imitate justice, and instruct to life” and created a brilliant satirical piece, one of the best in the entire literature of the English Renaissance. Jonson gives his characters names, borrowed from the animal kingdom – Volpone (the Big Fox), Mosca (the Fly), Voltore, Corbaccio (the Raven), Corvino (the Carrion Crow). By that he also revives the tradition of folk fables and folk satire (e.g. Reynard the Fox). Depicting the image of a cunning Volpone, who pretends to be a rich dying old man to get presents and, in fact, is ready for any meanness, to commit any crime for the sake of money, which for him is “vertue, fame, honour, and all things else!”. Johnson did his best to show how greed for wealth is ruining all that is human in man: Voltore lies in the court, Corbaccio is ready to poison a wealthy nobleman, Corvino tries to compel his wife to become Volpone’s mistress, Lady Would-Be tries to become his concubine. Volpone himself is not limited to the accumulation of wealth; he tries to seduce Corvino’s wife, gets pleasure from humiliation of applicants for the inheritance, his “moral principles are completely and systematically perverted”. In the end everything is disclosed and villains are punished. The playwright with the expressive means of comedy shows how evil punishes itself.

The satirical works of Ben Johnson, his theory of humor had a strong impact on English writers of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Swift was one the brightest representatives of the genre of satire. He wrote at the turn of the century, when a very varied experience of English literature of the 17th century became subject to reconsideration in light of the new Enlightenment ideas. Swift was a contemporary of and belonged to the great social movement – the Enlightenment.

Gulliver’s Travels (1721-1725) is the highest achievement of the author, the result of all his previous activities. This book is strongly associated with his epoch. It is full of allusions to the topics of the day. In each of the parts of Gulliver’s Travels, no matter how far the action takes place, it directly or indirectly affects England; British affairs are shown by analogy or by contrast. But the force of Swift’s satire is that the specific facts, characters and situations have a common human sense, are true for all times and peoples. Also, “the serious business of Swiftian satire is that it invites (or provokes) the reader to be critical: that is, to judge”.

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The main theme of Gulliver’s Travels is the changeability of the external appearance of the natural world and man, represented by a fantastic and magical environment in which Gulliver finds himself during his travels. The changing image of the fantastic countries highlights—in accordance with Swift’s intention—an unchanging inner essence of manners and customs, expressed in the same range of ridiculed vices. Introducing the fairy-tale motifs of the narrative with their own artistic function, Swift is not limited by it, but extends its significance through parody, which becomes a foundation for a satirical grotesque. A dual function of fantasy fiction – an entertaining parody and grotesque – is developed by Swift in line with the classical and humanist tradition through the story parallels that make up a special layer of sources of Gulliver’s Travels. In line with this tradition, the plot is grouped around a fictional travel scheme. As for Gulliver, his image is based on the English prose of the 17th century, which is widely represented by the narratives of travels and great geographical discoveries. From the descriptions of voyages Swift borrowed the flavor of adventure, which strengthens the illusion of visible reality. This illusion also increases due to the precise ratio of greatness between the Lilliput and Brobdingnag on the one side, and Gulliver himself and his world on the other side. Quantitative ratio is supported by qualitative differences set by Swift between intellectual and moral level of Gulliver and the inhabitants of fantastic countries. The angle of view from which Gulliver sees another country depends on whether its inhabitants are higher or lower than Gulliver mentally or morally.

In the second part of the book Gulliver finds himself in the country of giants. A farmer catches him and shows him for the money. After a series of unpleasant and humiliating adventures Gulliver is bought by the Queen of Brobdingnag and brought to the court as a fun toy. Between the small but life-threatening adventures he discusses European policy with the king, who ironically comments on his stories. Here Swift satirically criticized human and social mores, but not allegorically (in the guise of Lilliput), but directly through the mouth of the king of Brobdingnag.

The king of Brobdingnag is one of the few noble characters in the Swift’s book. He is kind and insightful; he skillfully and fairly rules his country. He indignantly refused Gulliver’s proposal to use powder for wars of conquest and forbade under pain of death any mention of this diabolical invention. In Chapter VII the king says a famous phrase:

…whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.

The country of Brobdingnag has some of the features of a utopia. Gulliver appears as the average Englishman, with all his prejudices and unconscious cruelty. He wants to elevate his motherland, portrays it as the ideal political system, and highlights all that in his opinion can decorate this state. In response to this, the king notices how insignificant human greatness is, if such tiny insects can strive for it. Swift expressed this idea by comparing the Lilliput with Gulliver, and he repeats it by comparing Gulliver with the Brobdingnag. The character of the king seems very attractive. Swift appreciates the social system where politics is not in the degree of science. The king of giants is against state secrets, intrigue and sophistication. The king and queen are great people, great, not only physically but also morally and intellectually.
In the third part of the book Gulliver goes to the flying island of Laputa, then to the mainland Balnibarbi. All the respectable people of Laputa are too passionate about mathematics and music, but utterly absent-minded and ugly. Only the common people and women are different, possess common sense can have a normal conversation. Scientists of the Grand Academy of Lagado are trying to implement a variety of ridiculous pseudo-scientific endeavors. This part of the book contains satire against speculative scientific theories of his time. Swift continues to portray the unjustified arrogance of mankind. In the neighboring country Glubbdubdrib Gulliver meets a caste of magicians capable of summoning the shadows of the dead, and talks with the legendary figures of ancient history to discover that in fact their words contradict historical writings. Also, Swift raises the question of the evolution of humanity, its historical and biological development, the movement of history, life and death.

Gulliver’s Travels united sharp political problematic, philosophy, history, comic situations, fiction, journalism, parody and tragedy, travel, and the ideas of the protagonist. Its outstanding value is defined first of all by formulation and solution of complex and important social and philosophical problems that troubled the European society in the 18th century, as well as in modern times. It is an excellent example of social satire. 


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