What Is Satire? | Definition, Examples & Meaning

Satire is the use of humor, exaggeration, irony, or other similar techniques to criticize people, institutions, or society as a whole. The purpose of satire is to expose human flaws, often with the intent to inspire change.

Satire example
Satirical news programs like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight use humor, irony, and exaggeration to engage viewers while providing a critical perspective on current affairs.

Satire can be found in various forms of artistic expression, including literature, film, and television shows.

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Satire definition

Satire ridicules and holds up to contempt individual or collective vices, follies, stupidity, corruption, etc. The term may either refer to a distinct literary genre or a literary device used in a work that is not entirely satirical.

Satire is the oldest form of social commentary. The ancient dramatist Aristophanes is considered the originator of satire as a genre, although ancient Greeks referred to his works as comedies. The origins of the word can be traced back to ancient Rome and to a form of poetry called “satura” (Latin for “full”), which shares a common root with modern-day English words “satisfaction” and “saturated.”

While satire can be funny and entertaining, unlike comedy, its main goal is not simply to make people laugh. Instead, it is a tool by which writers can inform, educate, and potentially improve society. Because satire’s criticism is indirect, writers can avoid censorship by concealing important messages behind humor.

Satire targets general types representing human flaws, like corruption and foolishness, rather than specific people. When it attacks individuals, they are authority figures in politics, religion, economics, etc., and the goal is to warn the public against them. This is what differentiates satire from bullying and plain cruelty.

What is satire?

Satire is meant to critique people, power, and society in an amusing way. To achieve that, satirists employ several different literary and rhetorical devices, including the following:

  • Irony: Satirists frequently rely on irony to criticize the absurdities in society. Irony highlights the inconsistency between the apparent significance of a statement or situation and its underlying meaning. For example, in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula, the Black community lives in a close-knit but impoverished neighborhood on a hill called the Bottom, just above a predominantly white town.
  • Hyperbole: Satire often uses deliberate exaggeration to highlight the flaws and absurdities in society or human behavior in an impactful way. The hyperbolic portrayal of pigs becoming increasingly authoritarian in George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an example of this.
  • Parody (or spoof): Satire may imitate the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre in an exaggerated way for comedic effect. For example, The Onion’s articles parody traditional news organizations by imitating their tone and format.
  • Subtlety: Because satire is possible only if there is freedom of speech, sometimes satirists use understatement, double entendre, or innuendo to convey their critique and protect themselves.
  • Invective: A literary device employing abusive language and tone to insult a person, institution, or idea, invective is common in satire. For example, in Gulliver’s Travels, the King of Brobdingnag uses invective when he concludes that the English must be a race of “little odious vermin.”
  • Imaginary travels: A common motif in satire, imaginary travels involve characters who embark on journeys to fictional countries or alternate realities. For example, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland uses the fantasy world of Wonderland to satirize the upper class in Victorian society and their preoccupation with social etiquette.

Satire examples

We may encounter satire as a distinct genre of literary works or as a device used within different genres.

Satire examples in literature

Satire can be part of a literary work that belongs to another genre. For example, it can be used as part of a dialogue or a subplot.

Satire example
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy that also includes a satirical subplot featuring Malvolio, a steward working for Lady Olivia. He is a strict Puritan and thinks highly of himself, wishing to climb the social ladder. The other servants in the household forge a letter from Olivia, expressing her love for Malvolio and instructing him to perform ridiculous tasks. Despite his strict moral code, Malvolio falls for the deception and carries out the humiliating tasks written in the letter.

This subplot allows Shakespeare to criticize the prudishness and hypocrisy of those who attempt to impose strict moral standards on others.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a parody of the travel narrative genre and a satire of English politics and customs of the day. 

Satire example
In Gulliver’s Travels, the protagonist encounters various races and societies during his four voyages. Swift uses this adventure to satirize various aspects of human nature and British society.

The voyage to Lilliput, for instance, is a satirical attack on politics and bureaucracy. The Lilliputians are portrayed as indulging in trivial disputes and ridiculous customs, like filling court positions based on who is best at rope dancing.

The voyage to Laputa is a critique of excessive rationalism and over-reliance on theory at the expense of practical knowledge. The people of Laputa are governed by scientists who undertake impractical projects such as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers.

Types of satire

The different types of satire are named after ancient poets, but we still use them today to categorize satirical works depending on their tone and intent. 

Horatian satire

Horatian satire, named after the Roman poet Horace, is a light-hearted form of satire that gently pokes fun at flaws and follies without being too critical. It uses mild mockery and playful wit to entertain its audience, inviting them to laugh at both the subject and themselves.

Horatian satire example
Alexander Pope’s satirical poem The Rape of the Lock can be described as Horatian satire. The poem narrates a trivial event, the stealing of a lock of hair from a young aristocratic woman by a young baron, and the ensuing feud between the two families.

The title emphasizes the exaggerated significance given to the theft of a lock of hair, while the poem itself uses irony and humor to expose the moral flaws of society at the time.

Juvenalian satire

Juvenalian satire, named after the Roman satirist Juvenal, is a bitter and harsh form of satire carrying a serious message. Its goal is to evoke anger within the audience towards human shortcomings. With a somber wit, it conveys contempt and condemnation toward its subject. This type of satire explores dark themes such as societal corruption and decay.

Juvenalian satire example
The novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk contains elements of Juvenalian satire. Its overall tone is dark and somber, and it conveys serious and thought-provoking messages about consumerism and toxic masculinity.

Menippean satire

Menippean satire, named after the Greek satirist Menippus, is serious and comic at the same time. Unlike other forms of satire, Menippean satire attacks mental attitudes rather than specific individuals or entities. Its mocking satiric style combines prose and verse, mixes genres, and often involves unusual settings, like dystopian or fantastical worlds.

Menippean satire example 
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is often considered an example of Menippean satire. The story takes place in an unusual setting that allows Carroll to critique the mental attitudes and social conventions of his era while blending elements of allegory, fantasy, and satire.

Frequently asked questions about satire

What is an example of satire?

An example of satire is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Throughout the story, the main character, Huck, is in moral conflict with the established values of his time regarding slavery and racism. As a result, he feels guilty for doing good deeds. The novel satirizes the hypocrisy of pre-Civil War society in the American South and shows how ideas of right and wrong were all mixed up.

What is the difference between parody and satire?

Parody and satire are both literary techniques used to comment on and criticize various subjects, but they have some differences:

A parody is an imitation of a specific author, work, or genre for comedic effect. It exaggerates or highlights the characteristics of the original to make fun of it while maintaining a lighthearted tone. For example, the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a parody of Jane Austen’s work.

Satire, on the other hand, targets behaviors, institutions, or beliefs. It humorously criticizes them to highlight flaws in society and inspire change. Satirists may use parody, irony, or exaggeration to get their point across. Although satire can be funny, its tone can sometimes be dark and somber.

In short, parody is a form of satire that imitates a specific work, while satire is a broader literary technique that uses humor and irony to criticize society, its institutions, and its flaws.

What is the difference between Horatian and Juvenalian satire?

Horatian satire and Juvenalian satire are two distinct types of satire that provide social commentary but have different characteristics and purposes.

  • Horatian satire is more tolerant toward the absurdities in society and human behavior, and its primary goal is to amuse its audience.
  • On the other hand, Juvenalian satire seeks to inspire social change by making the audience feel indignant toward social injustice, rather than simply entertaining them.
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Kassiani Nikolopoulou, MSc

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.