Understanding Different Types of Satire
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.
© 2017 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.