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Exploring Satire with The Simpsons
|Grades||9 – 12|
|Lesson Plan Type||Standard Lesson|
|Estimated Time||Three 50-minute sessions|
Students are introduced to the idea of The Simpsons as satire by comparing what they did on a typical day to the things the Simpsons do in the opening segment of the show. They use the character profiles on the The Simpsons Website to analyze six characters, identifying satirical details that reveal the comment or criticism of society that the cartoon is making through the character. Finally, students use a graphic organizer to record and analyze specific examples of satire as they watch a full episode of The Simpsons. A list of other modern shows that provide examples of satire is included in the lesson.
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Analyzing Characters from The Simpsonscharacter list: This handout provides instructions and character choices for an analysis of characters on The Simpsons.
Analyzing Characters from The Simpsons blank chart: Students can use this chart as they analyze the satirical role of various characters on The Simpsons.
Analyzing an Episode of The Simpsons: Students can use this graphic organizer as they analyze an episode of The Simpsons.
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FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE
Popular culture, in the form of the episodes from The Simpsons, provide an introduction to and extended exploration of the literary techniques that are commonly used in satire. This pairing of popular culture with traditional literary instruction provides what Meg Callahan and Bronwen E. Low call "a meeting place where students and teachers can share their expertise" (52). Through their extensive research with secondary students, Callahan and Low concluded that "many students identified the use of popular culture in the classroom as a catalyst for complex thinking" (57). Callahan and Low identify popular culture as "a site where students can experience competence at the same time that the teachers provide appropriate challenges through careful support, reframing, and questioning" (57).
Callahan, Meg, and Bronwen E. Low. "At the Crossroads of Expertise: The Risky Business of Teaching Popular Culture." English Journal 93.3 (January 2004): 52-57.
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NCTE/IRA NATIONAL STANDARDS FOR THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS
Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
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Resources & Preparation
MATERIALS AND TECHNOLOGY
- "Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish." The Simpsons: The Complete Second Season. Episode #7F01.
- Television, and DVD Player or VCR
- Headphones for each student (recommended)
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- To review the techniques of satire, you can complete Exploring Satire with Shrek before beginning this more detailed exploration of satire.
- Make an overhead or copies of the Opening Sequence from The Simpsons, or copy the info to a sheet of chart paper. You might also write the list on the board while students watch the opening segment in Session One.
- Make copies of additional handouts, or make overheads that students can refer to as they work on these sessions.
- If possible, obtain headphones for students to use during Session Two. Because students will be exploring a Website with many audio features, the classroom will quickly be filled with competing audio clips. Headphones will help you control the room and keep students focused.
- This lesson focuses on the "Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish" episode of The Simpsons; however the activity works well with many other episodes. Additional suggestions are included.
- If you are not already familiar with the show, The Simpsons Official Website, The Simpsons Archive, and the Wikipedia entry on The Simpsons can provide you with background information and sample episodes.
- Test the Interactive Character ProfilesfromThe Simpsons Official Website on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tools and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.
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- identify the four techniques of satire in a satirical work.
- explain how the four techniques of satire contribute to the comment or criticism being made by a satirical work.
- analyze a satirical work to determine the comment or criticism being made about the subject it is ridiculing.
- use visual literacy skills to analyze, interpret, and explain non-print media.
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Session One: Analyzing the Title and Opening Sequence of The Simpsons
- Before class begins, cue the the opening credits of "Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish" from The Simpsons.
- Explain that you are going to show a video clip and ask students to compare what they see in the clip with life in a typical family.
- Ask students to respond in their reader response notebooks or journals to the following question to gather their ideas before they see the clip: "Brainstorm a list of things that happened yesterday after school."
- Emphasize that students need only gather a jotted list, rather than fully detailed descriptions. Provide a few examples from your own day (e.g., left school, went to the gym, picked up kids).
- While students work, circulate among the class, monitoring student work. If you notice students deeply involved in specifics, redirect them toward a simpler list of activities.
- Once students have written their lists, set up the clip by explaining that you will show the opening sequence from The Simpsons and ask them to pay attention to the things that happen to this family during the sequence.
- Show the opening segment of The Simpsons and pass out or post the following parts of the opening segment:
- Bart writing on the blackboard
- Bart on his skateboard
- Homer leaving and driving home from work
- Marge at the supermarket checkout
- Lisa playing the saxophone
- The family racing for the couch in front of the television
- Bart writing on the blackboard
- Ask students to compare the events in the opening sequence to their own lists of after-school activities, inviting conjecture on why the cartoon begins with these events rather than others that might be chosen. If students identify satire as a purpose, encourage that line of discovery.
- If students have not already suggested it, explain that The Simpsons is frequently described as a highly satirical program.
- Review the definition of satire:
A work that ridicules its subject through the use of techniques such as exaggeration, reversal, incongruity, and/or parody in order to make a comment or criticism about it.
- Ask students to identify the subtle or secondary meaning of the show's title, The Simpsons. Technically, the etymology for the name is "son of Sim," which is short for Simon. The possible pun, however, is the play on the word simple.
- Revisit the parts of the opening segment and consider what they may be satirizing. Below are examples of how students might respond to the second question:
- Bart writing on the blackboard: Public education
- Bart on his skateboard: The riddles of childhood
- Homer leaving and driving home from work: Plight of the working man
- Marge at the supermarket checkout: Consumerism (Note: Maggie costs $847.63)
- Lisa playing the saxophone: Restrictions of public education and free thought
- The family racing for the couch in front of the television: Impact of television on the modern family
- Bart writing on the blackboard: Public education
- Encourage students to share specific examples from different episodes that address each of the areas that are addressed in the opening segment.
- Before concluding the session, identify the students who are not familiar with the show and encourage them to view an episode of the show before the next session. All students can be encouraged to watch the cartoon for homework; however, you may want to prepare a note for families, explaining that students are using the cartoon to explore satirical techniques in class.
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Session Two: Analyzing Characters from The Simpsons
- Explain that during this session of the class, students will explore information about characters from The Simpsons online and analyze the details for satirical techniques.
- Pass out the Analyzing Characters from The Simpsons sheet, which includes instructions and a list of characters.
- Choose one character from the list to analyze as a class, in order to demonstrate the process. Since you'll do this character as a class, ask students to remove that character from the list of choices. Character Analysis Examples are available for several characters.
- Using an LCD Projector, visit the Interactive Character Profiles on The Simpsons Website.
- Locate the profile for the character you've chosen in the filing cabinet.
- Explore the information for the character, being sure to talk about everything that is included. Each file includes a biography with background information, pictures of the character, and other related information. Pages for human characters also include quotations from the character. Find the "Click It!" link(s) on the right side of the folder as well.
- As you work through the information for the character, ask students to look for and identify satirical details that reveal the comment or criticism of society that the cartoon is making through the character.
- Encourage students to think-aloud about the reasons for the kinds of information that are included. Ask leading questions such as "Why do you think they included this quotation for this character?" or "Why do you think this picture is included instead of another one?"
- Record observations the character that the class is exploring on the board or on chart paper. To simplify the process of exploring the profile and recording the information, ask a student volunteer to record information while you guide the exploration of the site.
- Reinforce the labeling of satirical techniques by extending students' observations. For instance, if a student notices that something is exaggerated, build on the observation by asking students to identify other examples of exaggeration that are used in the character's profile and personality.
- Once you've explored the profile for the character, review the information that has been recorded and make any additions or corrections.
- In light of all the satirical information that you've gathered from the character's profile, ask students to identify the comment or criticism about society that the show is making through the character.
- Answer any questions that students have about the sample character you've explored then pass out the blank character analysis chart that students will use to record their findings on the characters that they choose from the Analyzing Characters from The Simpsons sheet.
- Encourage students to use headphones, if available, to help control the noise level of the class.
- Remind them that they need to explore profiles for at least six characters during the remainder of the session.
- Acknowledge that it will be easy for students to be distracted by the fun of the site, so you'll call out reminders every five minutes to help them pace their work. If they change to a new character every five minutes, they should be able to complete their analysis before the session ends.
- Circulate through the classroom while students work. Pay attention to students' progress on the character analysis charts to notice any students who fall behind and need to catch up in order to finish by the end of the session.
- Collect completed character analysis charts at the end of the session and review them for evidence of students' understanding of the techniques of satire.
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Session Three: Analyzing an Episode of The Simpsons
- Before class begins, cue the "Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish" episode of The Simpsons.
- Explain that during this session of the class, students will analyze an entire episode of The Simpsons for satirical techniques and commentary.
- Share the summary of the episode with the class.
- Ask students to predict the themes that will be the subject of satire in the episode. Students should easily be able to identify nuclear power (or environmental issues) and political campaigns, but may come up with additional themes.
- Note the themes on the board or on chart paper.
- Pass out the episode analysis chart and ask students to choose two satirical themes to focus on while watching the episode. Have them write their choices at the top of the columns.
- Ask students to look for satirical techniques in the episode that relate to the themes they have identified. They should find at least three examples for each theme. Refer to the sample responses handout for examples of how students might respond to this assignment.
- Show the episode of the show, while students take notes on the satirical techniques that are employed.
- After the episode concludes, arrange the class into small groups to discuss their observations and draw conclusions about the comment or criticism made about the themes that are satirized.
- Once groups have drawn their conclusions, bring the class together and invite groups to share their examples and observations. Reinforce the labeling of satirical techniques and use of literary terminology.
- Collect completed episode analysis charts at the end of the session and review them for evidence of students' understanding of the techniques of satire.
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- Ask students to find an example of a work in print media or on the Internet that uses the techniques of satire to make a comment or criticism about a subject from contemporary society. To complete this assignment students should include the following in writing: title of the work and bibliographic information, a short summary of the work (or a copy of the work), two examples of satirical techniques in the work, and the comment or criticism being made about a subject in contemporary society. One of the best sources for students to use when completing this assignment is the satirical newspaper, The Onion. For an example of political satire, share the short cartoon, "This Land Is Your Land". This film takes a satirical look at the campaigns of John Kerry and George W. Bush during the 2004 Presidential election. Be sure to review sites that you suggest to students to ensure that they are appropriate for your classroom and community. Begin the assignment by exploring a list of popular satire that students can use as resources for their selection.
- Ask students to write an essay that explains how individual techniques of satire are used in an episode of The Simpsons to make a comment about a subject from contemporary society. The essay should include a summary of the episode, an explanation of the main comment or criticism the episode is making, and identify three different examples of satirical elements used in the episode. For each example, the paper should describe the example in concrete detail, explain what the subject, idea, or issue was like before it was satirized, explain how a satirical technique (such as exaggeration) is used in the example, and explain how the example contributed to the main comment or criticism about contemporary society. Share the list of additional episodes as possible starting places for this activity.
- Ask students to create an original piece of writing that uses the techniques of satire to make a comment or criticism about an issue in contemporary society. The written piece must be original and include at least three different types of satirical techniques. Responses can include a parody of a newspaper reporting a news event that might appear in The Onion or on The Daily Show, a parody of a popular song that might be sung by someone such as "Weird Al" Yankovic.
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Informal assessment works best for this activity. As students work, circulate among students, observing students analytical process and their understanding of satirical techniques. Provide support and feedback as you move through the room. To guide more formal feedback on the activities, use the Character Analysis Rubric and the Episode Analysis Rubric.
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Grades 8 – 10 | Lesson Plan | Standard Lesson
This lesson enables students to define the three types of irony, identify and differentiate among examples of the types of irony, and demonstrate their understanding of each type.
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Grades 9 – 12 | Calendar Activity |  February 21
Humorist Erma Bombeck was born in 1927.
Using lines from Bombeck's newspaper column, students identify allusive or satirical humor. Older students can rewrite the passages for a different audience.
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Grades 7 – 12 | Professional Library | Journal
At the Crossroads of Expertise: The Risky Business of Teaching Popular Culture
Two professors argue that incorporating forms of popular culture into the classroom provides a meeting place where students and teachers can share their expertise. They support the argument with examples of activities and projects.
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November 15, 2012
it would be helpful to know which episodes the sample answers are based on.
November 28, 2010
The Simpsons does attack social institutions and reveal flaws. There is more emphasis on the social criticism itself than a call to action, as in almost all satirical entertainment aside from documentaries, because a direct "call to action" within a comedy would fall flat.
November 13, 2010
Using a similiar lesson with the movie Sherk, I received nothing but positive results from my students. I work in an inner city school where many of my students view television and movies as strictly entertainment. This lesson and the Sherk one, allowed me to show my students how television can be used to convey messages about society and cultural norms. Forme, having my students learn that there is more to television than meets the eye, helped me to open up a discussion about the "realness" of what many of my students see on television.
April 01, 2010
I teach a course on Satire & Humor in America wherein we define satire as "the use of irony, derision, or wit to attack a social institution; it reveals flaws and intends to move the reader/viewer/listener to action." I would argue that there is no such intention on the part of The Simpsons. It's simply a parody and caricature. If it results in any sort of viewer action meant to change a social institution, it's purely accidental.
The Purpose and Method of SatireRobert Harris
Originally published: August 20, 1990
Version Date: October 24, 2004
It seems to me a contradiction in terms to say, as some have (see, for example, Clark 498-505), that satire need have no moral lesson or didactic purpose, for the essence of satire is aggression or criticism, and criticism (previous to the era of existentialistic nihilism) has always implied a systematic measure of good and bad. An object is criticized because it falls short of some standard which the critic desires that it should reach. Inseparable from any definition of satire is its corrective purpose, expressed through a critical mode which ridicules or otherwise attacks those conditions needing reformation in the opinion of the satirist. I believe there is no satire without this corrective purpose.
Accordingly, the best definitions of satire should be formulated from a combination of its corrective intent and its literary method of execution. A reasonable definition of satire, then, is "a literary manner which blends a critical attitude with humor and wit to the end that human institutions or humanity may be improved. The true satirist is conscious of the frailty of institutions of man's devising and attempts through laughter not so much to tear them down as to inspire a remodeling" (Thrall, et al 436).
The best satire does not seek to do harm or damage by its ridicule, unless we speak of damage to the structure of vice, but rather it seeks to create a shock of recognition and to make vice repulsive so that the vice will be expunged from the person or society under attack or from the person or society intended to benefit by the attack (regardless of who is the immediate object of attack); whenever possible this shock of recognition is to be conveyed through laughter or wit: the formula for satire is one of honey and medicine. Far from being simply destructive, satire is implicitly constructive, and the satirists themselves, whom I trust concerning such matters, often depict themselves as such constructive critics. In his "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift," for example, Swift denies any malicious intent in his works, and affirms his purpose was correction:
As with a moral View design'dIn the Intelligencer, Number III, Swift also disclaims malice as a motive, while again proclaiming the purpose of satire as the correction of vice and the reinstatement of virtue: "There are two Ends that Men propose in writing Satyr; one of them less noble than the other, as regarding nothing further than the private Satisfaction, and Pleasure of the Writer; but without any View towards personal Malice: The other is a public Spirit, prompting Men of Genius and Virtue, to mend the World as far as they are able. . . . But, if my Design be to make mankind better; then I think it is my Duty; at least, I am sure it is the Interest of those very Courts and Ministers, whose Follies or Vices I ridicule, to reward me for my good Intentions."
To cure the Vices of Mankind:
His vein, ironically grave,
Expos'd the Fool, and lash'd the Knave.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Yet, Malice never was his Aim;
He lash'd the Vice but spar'd the Name.
No Individual could resent,
Where Thousands equally were meant.
His Satyr points at no Defect,
But what all Mortals may correct. . . .
(ll. 313-16, 459-64)
It is important to note in the above quotation that Swift says the satirists aim "to mend the World as far as they are able," not that they hope for any kind of perfection or believe in the complete corrigibility of any man. Ideally, of course, the satirist would like to see a return to the practice of morality which he feels has been abandoned by society; but he is aware that not only to stop the decay of civilization but also to reverse the trend of decay and to move toward a true moral progress is almost a futile attempt, because it calls for a complete moral regeneration of man, and such a regeneration is virtually impossible. So the practical hope and aim of the satirist is that his barbs will be sufficiently irritating to stop or at least slow down the increase of evil, even though it cannot be reversed. In his "Apology" prefixed to a Tale of a Tub in 1710, Swift says in discussing his purpose and method of this "useful and diverting" satire, "Why should any Clergyman of our Church be angry to see the Follies of Fanaticism and Superstition exposed, tho' in the most ridiculous manner? since that is perhaps the most probable way to cure them, or at least to hinder them from further spreading" (Pagliaro 332). Pope echoes this in a letter (which I will quote later at greater length) by saying of his satire, "I hope to deter, if not to reform." Perhaps the very nature of the society that makes the satiric approach necessary precludes much hope for a great reformation; the cynicism that so frequently surfaces in satiric works surely shows that the writers had no delusions about returning paradise to earth through their efforts. Although satire intends always to be corrective, it can guarantee only to expose vice and hypocrisy, and to demonstrate the pernicious effects such vices have when allowed to continue; the satirist's goals can be effected only to the extent that the audience responds to the attack.
It may be objected here that not all satire is meant to be corrective, because satirists occasionally attack foibles or failings basic to man's nature which cannot be changed, or for which change is unlikely. But it can be argued in reply that such satire of inexpungible vices is still corrective, for it seeks to establish proper moral attitudes toward those vices. For example, if it be impossible to rid men of jealousy or egotism, the satirist will try to make men despise those feelings, resist them, and cease encouraging them. In cases where the satirist ridicules man because of the necessity for eating or elimination, or some other condition basic to man, he seeks to correct man's view of himself--to reduce mankind's pride by reminding him of his limitations and his humble human lot.
Derived by implication from this corrective purpose, the theme of satire must be the maintenance of standards, the reaffirmation of values, and the necessity of reform. According to Maynard Mack, "Satire . . . asserts the validity and necessity of norms, systematic values, and meanings that are contained by recognizable codes" (85). Satire is inescapably moral and didactic (in the best sense of that unfortunately slandered word) even when no definite, positive values are stated in the work as alternatives to the gross corruptions depicted by the attack. The satirist does not need to state specific moral alternatives to replace the villainy he attacks because the morality is either already present in the lip service his target pays to virtue, or it is apparent by implication. The satirist presupposes an educated readership which will easily be able to discover the implicit morality without any help other than a few ironic hints from the writer. (In at least on instance, however, the satirist produces a positive example by setting himself up as a "model of moral perception and behavior" [Waingrow 513].) Thus Pope can impute moral reform to Gulliver in spite of that traveler's blundering ignorance and blind bigotry;
You, like the Samian, visit Lands unknown,Satire is indeed so thoroughly concerned with justice, morality, and virtue, that it has a number of striking resemblances to the basic ethical viewpoint of Christianity. Both satire and Christianity believe strongly in the fallen nature of man, believe that right conduct is not possible for a man without a guide (cf. Tale of a Tub), believe that pride is the most pernicious vice (cf. Gulliver's Travels), and believe that reason itself is all right, but that when men pretend that reason can be the sole arbiter of all truth, moral disaster is imminent (Price xi-xiii). Edward and Lillian Bloom say that the satirist must love or at least care for mankind to take the trouble to attack and (hopefully) correct his wickedness (115-137). We could say that this is the satirist's practical application of Christ's injunction to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27-28), because genuine concern for another's welfare when it does not affect us personally is one of the basic indications of disinterested love.
And by their wiser Morals mend your own.
Thus Orpheus travell'd to reform his Kind,
Came back, and tam'd the Brutes he left behind.
You went, you saw, you heard: With Virtue fraught,
Then spread those Morals which the Houyhnhnms taught.
(Pope, Verses ll. 17-22)
Pope affirms in several of his poems that his concern for man and virtue is disinterested. He says of himself in "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot" (ll. 342-43), "That not for Fame, but Virtue's better end,/ He stood the furious foe, the timid Friend. . . ." This is expanded upon in "Imitations of Horace, II.i":
Hear this, and tremble! you, who 'scape the Laws.Without regard to where he finds it, Pope feels compelled to combat vice and work for the establishment of Truth and Virtue, out of concern for himself and for man in general; those in superior moral positions have a duty to be standard bearers for the race and to resist or reprove every unpropitious act which would tend to lead man farther down from his already poor state. The satirist does not selfishly attack anyone who disagrees with him (though there are exceptions); rather he undertakes to oppose evil because it is evil, without consideration of whose evil it is or against whom it was perpetrated:
Yes, while I live, no rich or noble knave
Shall walk the World, in credit, to his grave.
TO VIRTUE ONLY and HER FRIENDS, A FRIEND
The World beside may murmur, or commend.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Envy must own, I live among the Great,
No Pimp of Pleasure, and no Spy of State,
With Eyes that pry not, Tongue that ne'er repeats,
Fond to spread Friendships, but to cover Heats,
To help who want, to forward who excel;
This, all who know me, know; who love me, tell. . . .
(ll. 118-22, 133-38)
And must no Egg in Japhet's Face be thrown,And such, I think is the moral stance behind all satire, or at least that of the Augustans. (It is conceivable that someone could satirize virtue or morality in an attempt to "correct" social behavior by instituting the values of free love, which values are present in the so-called counter culture, but generally speaking the satirist has always aligned himself with the timeless, traditional notions of virtue and morality.) Why the moral stance behind satire remains implicit so often is dictated by the satiric method, which in turn is necessitated by the structure and nature of social corruption. This use of implicit morality becomes more understandable in connection with the method of satire and the rationale behind it.
Because the Deed he forg'd was not my own?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Ask you what Provocation I have had?
The strong Antipathy of Good to Bad.
When Truth or Virtue an Affront endures,
Th' Affront is mine, my Friend, and should be yours.
Mine, as a Foe profess'd to false pretense,
Who think a Coxcomb's Honour like his Sense;
Mine, as a Friend to ev'ry worthy mind;
And mine as Man, who feel for all mankind.
(Pope, "Epilogue" ll. 189-90, 197-204)
The reason the satirist doesn't merely write moral tracts encouraging people to virtue, and the reason he feels justified in displaying anger and indignation at the common follies and vices of men is that the satirist's world is not one of basic good accidentally gone astray, in which every man would seek good if he know how or were shown the way, but rather it is one of unseeing fools and unsightly knaves who either claim to possess virtue already, or who have already rejected it, claiming that vice is (or is as good as) virtue. It is a world of hypocrisy, in which social standing, church membership, titles and degrees, peer praise, lip service to morals, and wealth are all used to hide evils of the first order. In such a world of hypocrites and pretenders, simple moral encouragement would be totally inefficacious. The satirist, therefore, will display his critical attitude and implicit morality through irony ("Another Thing to be observed is, that there generally runs an Irony through the Thread of the whole Book. . . .," Swift on Tale of a Tub, quoted in Pagliaro 333), often by creating a narrator who appears to be as much a hypocrite as the target of the work, but who exposes himself and the target by his lack of true perception or inability to hide his hypocrisy. Examples of this kind of narrator are Gulliver, the Modest Proposer, and the narrator of Tale of a Tub. The satirist sneers at the knavish dissimulators through his irony both to expose them and to give them affront; irony serves to expose the villain so that the audience can shun him, and to make the villain squirm so that he may mend his actions.
But at the same time, this "ironic method" is necessitated by the hypocritical society the satirist wishes to attack and reform, because it is the only fruitful method: people pay no attention to moralizers. Since the hypocrisy demands this particular approach, it is not surprising that the satirist takes hypocrisy for granted in his works. The theory is, then, that for the satiric mode to be corrective, certain values must exist which people do not follow, but which values they claim to or want to follow. When the hypocrisy of their situation is drawn to attention publicly (for knaves) or privately (for fools) the targets should have a desire for reform. As Dr. Johnson said, "People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed."
It follows that general satire (aimed at large segments of people) must presuppose and approve of the morals in a widely spread value system. When these values are at odds with behavior, the satirist tries to bring them back in line again or at least prevent the gap from widening. If the lip service values no longer exist in the society, there is no hope for correction in the satiric mode--when the hypocrisy is gone and people are evil openly without opposition, the satirist must either cease writing or be content with merely a satiric record of his disapproval:
See, all our Nobles begging to be Slaves!Once we become a world of knaves, there will be no room for satire. Fortunately, every age including our own (so far) has been content merely to remain on the brink of complete knavery, total disaster, and absolute ruin, and the eighteenth century was no exception: Satire was therefore not only possible but also needful.
See, all our Fools aspiring to be Knaves
The Wit of Cheats, the Courage of a Whore,
Are what ten thousand envy and adore.
All, all look up, with reverential Awe,
On crimes that scape, or triumph o'er the Law:
While Truth, Worth, Wisdom, daily they decry--
'Nothing is Sacred now but Villany.'
Yet may this Verse (if such verse remain)
Show there was one who held it in disdain.
(Pope, "Epilogue" ll. 163-72)
Since social pressure seems to be one of the few forces to which fools and knaves will bow, the satirist can more effectively operate by enlisting the readers of the satire to aid him in bringing behavior back in line with publicized values. The satirist by himself is virtually impotent to change the vicious behavior of any particular target, for the satirist as himself is just another small, opinionated prude, and is easily dismissed by any remark that might pass for wit. The target must correct himself when he discovers he is under attack, or he must be driven to correct his behavior when hundreds of his peers join the satirist in ridiculing him or by ostracizing him from their society (see Kinsley 137-55).
But social pressure cannot operate when the satire is aimed at widespread folly or vice, as when a whole country or class joins in a universal debauchery; in such cases the reader himself is the target. When the reader is aggressed, he must be moved to change or correct himself by embarrassment for or shock at recognition of his guilt: his crimes must be presented in such a way that they appear truly odious to him, bringing about a willing change (as opposed to the forceful change of the knave).
This general satire, aimed at many, is more common and more important than specific attacks on single persons, since the satirist's ideal is the reformation or regeneration of a whole society. The general correction of vice is the primary aim because the satirist can live with a few very evil men more easily than he can with ten thousand somewhat less evil men who are pulling his world toward doom: A world with Satan alone would perhaps be more bearable than one with a legion of his followers all aspiring to his post. In addition, the less evil are more likely to be corrigible than the totally corrupt.
It is for the above reason that specific targets in satire are often used to instruct and correct the general populace--the specific knave becomes a type which is to be rejected by the audience wherever those typical qualities are met. So, certain kinds of abusive satire, such as might be directed against Curll, Shadwell, or Bentley, are not aimed at correcting those men, who are viewed as incorrigible knaves by the satirist, but they are attacked in order to dissuade the public from patronizing, approving of, or associating with them; they and everyone possessing their vices are to be ostracized by the audience. When impaled by the satirist then, these individuals should serve as a deterrent in general to the vices they have. Pope makes the use of the personal attack for this purpose clear in a letter to Dr. Arbuthnot:
I would indeed [manifest my disdain and abhorrence of vice in my writings] with more restrictions, and less personally; it is more agreeable to my nature, which those who know it not are greatly mistaken in: But General Satire in Times of General Vice has no force, and is no Punishment: People have ceas'd to be ashamed of it when so many are join'd with them; and 'tis only by hunting One or two from the Herd that any Examples can be made. If a man writ all his Life against the collective Body of Banditti, or against Lawyers, would it do the least Good, or lessen the Body? But if some are hung up, or pilloryed, it may prevent others. And in my low Station, with no other Power than this, I hope to deter, if not to reform. (Pope to Arbuthnot, August 2, 1734)The application of the satiric method can be quite broad because satire itself is more of an attitude or stance, than a genre or type of literature: "It is not bounded by form and structure but exists as an approach to a situation which can be present in any of the many literary forms" (Haas 2). There are several characteristics which distinguish satire, however; as I said above, it must be ironic in tone to cope with the hypocritical situation of the reprobates in the world, and for the same reason it tends to be hyperbolic in form to force recognition of vice upon the guilty. (Hyperbole or irony alone does not constitute satire: a critical element must be involved.)
Another characteristic of most satire is the use of wit to make the attack clever, or humor to make it funny. Satire, like all literature and poetry, must be intellectually rewarding, be reasonably well written, and especially must entertain in order to survive--and in the particular case of satire, in order to be received at all. The basic mood of attack and disapproval needs to be softened to some extent and made more palatable; wit and humor serve this end by making the criticism entertaining, and even attractive. In the words of that old philosopher, Swift, "As Wit is the noblest and most useful Gift of humane Nature, so Humor is the most agreeable, and where these two enter far into the Composition of any Work, they will render it always acceptable to the World" (quoted in Pagilaro 338).
Certain specific literary techniques and constructions lend themselves easily to satire because they can contain a measure both of wit and humor, and of the necessary irony or satiric association; among them are exaggeration, distortion, understatement, innuendo, paronomasia, zeugma, ambiguity, what I call "the list," simile, metaphor, oxymoron, parable, and allegory. A brief example of each of these will perhaps help illustrate the versatility of the satiric method, and the numerous ways the satirist can present his criticism. It is important that the satirist vary his critical approach with as many devices as possible, for people very soon grow weary of criticism of themselves.
Since irony is the overriding and guiding principle behind satire, and is everywhere apparent in it, no "examples" need be given. As I mentioned, irony informs the whole work because it is the necessary means of aggressing hypocrites. It is not therefore one of the "techniques" of satire, but, like the purpose of correction, is part of the essence.
Though not essential like irony, exaggeration is one of the most commonly used techniques in satire, since the depiction of an extreme or blatantly vicious case is one of the best ways to get the target to recognize or admit that a vice exists at all: recognition must precede correction. The satirist brings his description of a wrong to its logical extreme, or at least exaggerates by overemphasis in order to make the unseeing see, and the seeing-but-complacent oppose and expunge corruption. To say simply that men are evil will be wasting breath in an age of perversity, so the satirist turns up the volume: "He was perfectly astonished with the historical account I gave him of our affairs during the last century, protesting it was only an heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments; the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition could produce" (Gulliver's Travels II.6). And the Brobdingnagian King's estimate of humankind seems to be slightly inflated also: "I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth" (G. T. II.6). By such overstatement, the reader is to understand that he has probably allowed a few too many failings in himself or other men to go by unnoticed, and henceforth he must adjure himself to pull in the reins a bit.
Akin to exaggeration is distortion--changing the perspective of a condition or event by isolation (separation from its ordinary surroundings), or by stressing some aspects and deemphasizing others. Gulliver's description of cannons and their decimating power (II.7) and his description of warfare (IV.5) are instances of distortion by isolation. When the machinations of war are removed from political and economic causes, or reasons of any kind, and even from the passions of the soldiers, the resultant mechanical bloodshed is horrifying indeed. Gulliver's description of "dying groans, limbs flying in the air, smoke, noise, confusion," and so forth is much like a Royal Society paper, cold and unemotional. The message of the heartlessness of war wagers who see battles as political expedients and men in mechanical terms, becomes shockingly clear when not masked or diluted by tempering concerns.
Understatement is the converse of exaggeration and is useful in cases where the evil is already so great that it can scarcely be exaggerated. The mention of the evil by understatement serves to call attention to its true degree. Thus the idea of insensitivity to brutality is well conveyed in a noted passage from Swift: "Last Week I saw a Woman flay'd, and you will hardly believe, how much it altered her Person for the worse" (Tale of a Tub IX). With 17,000 murders in the United States yearly, and abortions numbered in the millions, exaggeration of the statistics would probably prove ineffective. Understatement is a possible alternative.
Innuendo is a valuable tool for the satirist because it allows him to implicate a target by a completely indirect attack. This is especially useful when the target is dangerous, for it is often possible to deny the insinuation. Pope's "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot" contains an example:
I was not born for Courts or great Affairs,If called to account, Pope could always claim that the last three lines only seem to be connected to the first line by an unhappy poetic mistake. The first line doesn't end in a colon, so any connection or criticism must be in the mind of the reader.
I pay my Debts, believe, and say my pray'rs,
Can sleep without a Poem in my head,
Nor know, if Dennis be alive or dead.
Ambiguity is likewise useful because the intention can always be denied, but it also serves to make the satiric comparison more pointed, by making difficult any distinction between the target and the object to which it is compared. For example, insanity is a common charge of the satirist (see Thorpe 87), who often sees the madness of "free" men equaling or surpassing that of confined lunatics. Swift makes this point aptly in Tale of a Tub when the narrator is touring Bedlam (sect. IX): "Is any Student tearing his Straw in piece-meal, Swearing and Blaspheming, biting his Grate, foaming at the mouth, and emptying his Pispot in the Spectator's Faces? Let the Right Worshipful, the Commissioners of Inspection, give him a Regiment of Dragoons, and send him into Flanders among the Rest." The phrase "among the Rest" is conveniently vague so that we wonder if "the Rest" is supposed to refer to the rest of the generals or the rest of the madmen. The "Men of Tast," of course, soon realize that there is no difference between the two in the satirist's mind, so that his ambiguity is really a rather clear accusation.
Any construction capable of conveying a double meaning is likely to be employed in satire, since multiple meanings form the basis of much of satire. So even the pun can be used satirically, and surely has been, though in my limited reading I have been unable to locate an Augustan example. I therefore offer a modern example by an anonymous poet, from a poem "In Praise of the Whole Generation of Modern Authors." The pun in this case (raze/raise) works better aurally than in text, but it will serve I hope:
Oh Joy! to know that now the future standsZeugma (or, as in the following example, syllepsis) has satiric worth because of its structural equating of things of greatly differing value. Note how effective it is in the third and fifth lines of this quote from "Rape of the Lock: Canto II":
In such o'erreaching and all grasping hands!
To them we firmly pledge the public good,
That they may raze through Space, what Time withstood.
Whether the Nymph shall break Diana's Law,The purpose of Pope's zeugma here is to show that "modern" girls think losing one's honor and soiling one's dress are disasters of exactly equal import: conveyed thus cleverly, the message is much more powerful than whole pages of proofs.
Or some frail China Jar receive a Flaw,
Or stain her Honour, or her new Brocade
Forget her Pray'rs, or miss a Masquerade,
Or lose her Heart, or Necklace, at a Ball;
Or whether Heav'n has doom'd that Shock must fall.
One often used satiric technique which apparently has no name, I call "the list": it is a list of items, people, or ideas generally similar, except for one or two incongruous items, which the satirist is aggressing. The attack is thus quite similar to that in zeugma, for the satirist claims that the incongruous elements belong in the list as they are considered of the same value either by his target or by himself. Again satirizing modern girls, Pope uses the list to show their attitude toward religion and the Bible; and the two-line list seems to say more than a good deal of prose explanation:
And now, unveil'd, the Toilet stands display'd,The Bible not only shrinks in significance to the level of dressing table clutter, but it also seems almost buried in the midst of everything else: To the modern girl, it is probably not as useful as a Powder, nor as interesting as a Billet-doux, so it will be seldom avidly sought out.
Each Silver Vase in mystic Order laid.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Here Files of Pins extend their shining Rows,
Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux.
(Pope, "Rape" I.121-22, 137-38)
The list can also show the satirist's own attitude toward something by placing the item among appropriate elements. Thus Pope gives his opinion of the quality of Lord Hervey's verse:
Half Froth, half Venom, [he] spits himself abroad,Similes and metaphors are easily constructed as satiric weapons, especially when they are extended, because the satirist can describe a very fitting irony in detail, or draw out a comparison or contrast, allowing the audience to see how the thing aggressed is like a thing of which they disapprove or scorn. That is, similes and metaphors give the satirist freedom to yoke together entire concepts of totally different natures to produce a self-critical statement. In section VII of Tale of a Tub we find a fine example of simile: "Digressions in a Book, are like Forein Troops in a State, which argue the Nation to want a Heart and Hands of its own, and often, either subdue the Natives, or drive them into the most unfruitful Corners." And here I must insert my favorite simile, again from Swift: "I conceive therefore, as to the Business of being Profound, that it is with Writers, as with Wells; A Person with good Eyes may see to the Bottom of the deepest, provided any Water be there; and, that often, when there is nothing in the World at the Bottom, besides Dryness and Dirt, tho' it be but a Yard and half under Ground, it shall pass, however, for wondrous Deep, upon no wiser a Reason that because it is wondrous Dark. (Swift, Tale "The Conclusion")
In Puns, or Politicks, or Tales, or Lyes,
Or Spite, or Smut, or Rymes, or Blasphemies.
(Pope "Arbuthnot" ll. 320-22)
"A Meditation Upon a Broom-Stick" uses a prolonged metaphor comparing man with a broom for a dual satiric purpose: To parody Robert Boyle's Meditations, and to aggress some of mankind's pretensions. There is a shorter metaphor in Tale of a Tub (sect. XI), where the narrator is discussing the several "handles" by which a reader may be grasped: "Curiosity is one, and of all others, affords the firmest Grasp: Curiosity, that Spur in the side, that Bridle in the Mouth, that Ring in the nose, of a lazy, an impatient, and a grunting Reader."
Oxymoron used satirically makes for a pointed emphasis on some contradiction in the target's philosophy, such as a Modern Author's joy at leaving the idealism of the past behind: "No silly perfect visions plague us now" seems to indicate that the writer is a fool, since visions (ideals) cannot be silly and perfect at the same time. A better example comes from Dryden's "Absalom and Achitophel, Part I" (ll. 593-94): "The city, to reward his pious hate/ Against his master, chose him magistrate." Here the poet rejects the idea that hate can be put to good use, or is to be approved of. The fact that the words "pious" and "hate" don't fit together shows this.
Parable and allegory, the final elements I will include here, both have the same benefits as simile and metaphor, for they can conduct a prolonged discussion on two levels of meaning while at the same time inherently comparing and contrasting those levels without further comment. The parable of the fat man in the "Preface" to Tale of a Tub is a particularly effective example. And the comparison of prefatory material to fat, a carcass, and guts, is not only critically efficacious, but, to put it bluntly, often rather correct. The satiric message is more likely to be remembered in the parable because of the vehicle of the story and its use of physical realities (such as the meeting, the park, and people) to represent the concepts presented.
Tale of a Tub also offers a good example of allegory, that of the three brothers, their coats, and the will. The religious allegory is a long one, making up nearly a third of the tale, but it is well contrived, for it not only works on both levels (as any good allegory must) but it works satirically on both levels, too. Swift aggresses both the religionists who add ceremony to their faith (especially Roman Catholics) and the fops who insist on adding decorations to their clothes, and who are constantly changing fashions. With both tenor and vehicle under attack, the satirist gains twice the effect with half the effort.
It is perhaps by now apparent that almost all of these techniques have one element in common: each provides a way to say two or more things at one time, and to compare, equate, or contrast those things, usually with heavy irony. The application of the ironic method of satire uses those techniques which most easily allow the presentation of irony: the several techniques also provide variety, concision, and an opportunity for employing wit and humor. The essential meaning of a satire is seldom if ever consistent with a literal interpretation, yet the literal interpretation is extremely important for what it says about the essential meaning, and about the target or audience which can be reached only in an indirect way.
Men's vices are a threat to the civilization in which the satirist lives, and the satirist feels compelled to expose those vices for the society's good and his own, in a way that will allow the ones attacked to comprehend and remember the attack, and to see a direction they may take for correction. The satire must be presented in a manner which will bring action, and in a world of complacent hypocrites, irony, with its various means of presentation, is essential; the message cannot be delivered without it, if that message is to have any tangible effect. In a two word abstract, the purpose of satire is the correction or deterrence of vice, and its method is to attack hypocrisy through the ironic contrast between values and actions.
Works CitedBloom, Edward and Lillian Bloom. "The Satiric Mode of Feeling." Criticism 11 (1969): 115-137.
Clark, John R. "Formal Straining: Recent Criticism of Satire." College English 32 (Jan. 1971): 498-505.
Haas, William. "Some Characteristics of Satire." Satire Newsletter 3 (Fall
Kinsley, William. "'The Malicious World' and the Meaning of Satire." Genre 3 (June 1970): 137-155.
Mack, Maynard. "The Muse of Satire." Yale Review 41 (1951): 85.
Pagliaro, Harold E., ed. Major English Writers of the Eighteenth Century. New York: Free Press, 1969.
Pope, Alexander. "Epilogue to the Satires, Dialogue I and II."
---------------. "Letter to John Arbuthnot, August 2, 1734."
---------------. "Rape of the Lock," Canto I.
---------------. "To Mr. Lemuel Gulliver, the Grateful Address of the Unhappy Houyhnhnms, Now in Slavery and Bondage in England." Verses on Gulliver's Travels No. III.
Price, Martin, ed. Gulliver's Travels. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963.
Thorpe, Peter. "Free Will, Necessity, and Satire." Satire Newsletter 8 (Spring 1971): 87.
Thrall, William, Addison Hibbard, and C. Hugh Holman, eds., A Handbook to Literature. New York: Odyssey Press, 1960.
Waingrow, Marshall. "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift." Studies in English Literature 5 (Summer 1965): 513.
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