Satire has been used in literature for centuries—and there’s a reason for its longevity: Satire is the art of ridiculing or critiquing a person, situation, or social belief system through storytelling. As long as there has been someone or something worth ridicule, there has been satire.
What is satire?
Satire is a story method that exposes flaws in a person or system in power. Rather than realistically depicting flaws, satire emphasizes them, often exaggerating them until they become ridiculous or comical.
You will find satire in all kinds of mediums, from TV (Saturday Night Live), to movies (Don’t Look Up, Sorry to Bother You, Borat), to music (Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born in the U.S.A.”). Since we’re all about the written word here at Grammarly, we’re going to focus on satire as a literary device.
Where does satire come from?
Examples of satire can be found as far back as ancient Greece. The word satire comes from the Latin word satura, which means “full” (think saturated or satiated). The phrase lanx satura refers to a medley of fruits, which corresponds to the mixed quality of early satires.
One of the earliest known satires was written in 441 BCE by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes. His play Lysistrata criticized his nation’s tendency toward war by creating a comical, hypothetical situation in which women deny their husbands sex until they stop going to war.
How to write satire
The first two things to think about when writing satire are relevance and clarity.
The topic that you choose to tackle using satire should have stakes in contemporary society. For example, if you want to criticize the role of mass production in American life, it will be less persuasive if you set it in Model T–era America. A more pertinent satire would take place in a contemporary factory.
Clarity is another key element of writing satire. Unlike compare-and-contrast or explanatory essay forms, satires have no allegiance to neutrality. Satires are explicitly meant to ridicule or criticize from a specific point of view. Your reader must understand what position you are taking in order for the satire to work.
Other elements of satire include:
Humor: Humor allows the writer to address serious, complicated topics in a way that keeps the reader interested. It doesn’t have to be “ha-ha” funny. Satire can be dark, witty, biting, or dry and still be very effective.
Exaggeration: Exaggeration is a great way to take a familiar idea to a ridiculous end. In satire, exaggeration is usually found at the scene or plot level and can form the basis of the entire work.
Irony: Irony is a way of subverting the reader’s expectations. It takes a familiar scene and twists it toward the exact opposite of the expected result. Irony in satire works by taking a situation that people are familiar with and purposely making it go awry.
When to use satire in writing
Use satire when you feel strongly about a particular situation, especially one you believe is being mishandled. Since satire makes use of literary devices like humor, hyperbole, and irony, it is read in a less serious way than a formal complaint or manifesto. Even though it deals with serious situations, it does so in a manner that keeps readers as interested in the narration as they are in the issue.
When NOT to use satire in writing
Satire is a powerful tool for getting a message out to a mass audience, but it comes with risks. One of those risks is being taken literally.
For example, Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club is a satire that criticizes consumer capitalism and excessive (toxic) masculinity. However, after its debut in 1996, real-life “fight clubs” began cropping up around America. Those readers had missed the point of the satire and taken it to a literal, and highly destructive, end.
Another instance in which satire is inappropriate is when the target of the satire is not in a position of power. If the writer is criticizing someone or something that is in a vulnerable position, that’s not satire—that’s bullying. If you’re going to write satire, make sure that you’re punching up.
Three types of satire
There are three main types of satire, each named after the ancient Roman satirist who popularized it: Horace (65–8 BCE), Juvenal (1st–2nd century CE), and Menippus (3rd century BCE).
This satire is lighthearted and often funny. It still prods at serious topics, but it does so in a joking way. Think of political skits on Saturday Night Live or the wry “advice” of writers like Mark Twain.
This kind of satire is a more serious, bitter, or dark critique. Its aim isn’t to be funny outright but rather to hold power accountable and expose immoral behaviors. George Orwell’s novel 1984 is a Juvenalian satire set in a dystopian future that addresses political overreach and the breakdown of critical thinking.
This final type of satire is a form that hearkens back to the original, ancient Greek use of the word. It moves more freely than the other types of satire and might jump around a fragmented narrative or mingle prose with verse. Another characteristic of Menippean satire is that it tends to address attitudes or behaviors more than specific entities.
Allegory: Allegory and satire share many qualities, but differ in some key ways. Allegory layers a symbolic story on top of a more serious, complicated, or nuanced topic. While satire tends to bring real people or events to absurdity, allegory disguises (albeit sometimes thinly) the real events with fictional representations. Allegory has a disguise, whereas satire can but does not need to. George Orwell’s book Animal Farm is an example of a story that is both satire and allegory.
Parody: Parodies and satires also overlap, but they are not the same thing. Parody mimics a familiar style (for example, the way “Weird Al” Yankovic repurposes well-known songs) for a comedic effect. Parodies critique something on a shallower level than satire. Where satire is a way to address a larger topic in society critically, parody is interested exclusively in drawing the humor out of a situation.
Sarcasm: One aim of satire and sarcasm is to point out a situation’s foolishness. Satire does this by following details to an illogical end, while sarcasm zeros in on a specific detail. Shorter than satire, sarcasm is typically just a phrase to illuminate a particular moment.
Examples of satire in literature
“Advice to Youth,” by Mark Twain
This 1882 essay by Mark Twain is an example of Horatian satire, a lighthearted take meant to critique the rules and crack some jokes.
“Go to bed early, get up early—this is wise,” Twain states in the essay. To do so, he instructs youth to get up “with the lark,” a bird known for its early morning songs. He then goes on to suggest they find a lark that they can train to wake up around 9:30 or 10 a.m. Riffing on the conventional phrase “get up with the lark,” he twists it to a comical end.
“A Modest Proposal,” by Jonathan Swift
This 1729 essay by Jonathan Swift is one of the most famous examples of Juvenalian satire, a type of satire that’s more searing and darker than its counterparts. In the essay, Swift proposes that the poor folks in Ireland should sell their children as food for the rich in order to ease their economic troubles. Swift is criticizing the economic maxims of his time (namely, that “people are the wealth of a nation”) and the inhumane treatment of the Irish working class. Also, did you catch the sarcasm in the title?
Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut has an eye for the ridiculousness in nearly every human behavior, and his novels are satirical evidence of that. In his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, the author satirizes the human quest for purpose through all means: religion, science, politics, etc. This broad and heady topic makes it a perfect example of Menippean satire, which picks apart attitudes and behaviors.
What is satire?
Satire is a way of writing about a flaw or failure in society by inflating it to absurdity. Satire as a literary genre uses a wide variety of literary techniques, such as exaggeration, humor, and irony.
How does satire work?
Satire begins by the writer paying close and careful attention to current events and behaviors. If they spot something ridiculous or immoral, they then expand that quality into a storyline that exposes its flaws.
What is the purpose of satire?
The purpose of satire is to leverage a critique of society in a way that’s interesting, useful, and often funny. By creating a clever or surprising storyline around a familiar topic, the writer can point the reader’s attention toward the absurdity of the situation.