Essay on Satire
February 25, 2009
The power of literature in determining and affecting behaviors and attitudes of the people behind historically significant change is quite significant. Enlightened philosophe Voltaire’s Candide in addition to Johnathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal and Gulliver’s Travels were works of fiction that had such an effect. Through the use of the literary device of satire, Voltaire and Swift criticized certain aspects of their European society. Furthermore, they did so to a high degree of effectiveness.
While Voltaire was one of the most influential philosophes, his Candide in fact satirized some of the very ideas discussed by his fellow philosophes. To begin, Voltaire’s use of capital letters to suggest the importance of the word he has capitalized is used in a satirical manner, criticizing its importance beneath the surface of the word. For instance, he refers to Candide as being “endowed by Nature with the most gentle character.” This possibly suggests Voltaire mocking the idea of a person being born with some “natural” superiority, a common belief amongst the aristocracy at the time. He continues this satirical attack with his suggestion that the baron’s sister would not marry Candide’s father as a result of his inability to prove more than “seventy-one quarterings,” a method of measuring nobility. In his manner of casually presenting the issue as if it were totally true and exaggerating it, Voltaire underlines the ridiculous nature of such beliefs. In doing so without outright saying it, Voltaire again criticizes the aristocracies attitudes and allows the reader to see how outlandish they are simply through the use of his words. Voltaire’s next subjects of criticism are philosophes, through the introduction of the character Pangloss. Such criticism can be seen in Pangloss’ study of “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology”, an obvious attempt to exaggerate the methods of philosophes who use great terminology and complexity in order to suggest their own importance and give weight to issues that should perhaps not be afforded such weight. Voltaire attacks such philosophes’ ideas about God and his role in the universe that the world is perfect because a perfect being created it. Satirizing this aspect of European belief suggests that Voltaire thought such philosophes to be blinded by their optimism and thus unable to see things as they truly are. for instance, Pangloss later admits that he has suffered, but must maintain that everything was for the best whether he believed that in actuality or not.
Voltaire’s satire extends beyond the philosophes and onto the church, state and other such institutions. Candide’s encounter with the Dervish underlines Voltaire’s belief of religious one-sidedness. Instead of listening to Candide and Pangloss’ questions of good and evil in the world and thinking and concluding on his own terms, the Dervish curtly tells them not to consider such things. Voltaire consequently criticizes those in his society that continue to follow such close-minded religious figures by having Pangloss, just rebuked for thinking freely, still be amazed by the very idea that he was able to “discuss” such issues with him. Voltaire’s apparent solution to such problems with humanity – for it is difficult to detect a note of satire in the author’s tone during Candide’s final words – is to live a practical life, working in the figurative garden.
Johnathan Swift similarly uses satire in both A Modest Proposal and Gulliver’s Travels to criticize European beliefs and institutions of the day. A Modest Proposal is a great example of a particularly effective satire as it not only criticizes an idea (in this case, longstanding beliefs in Europe, and especially Ireland, about poverty) but does so in a manner that draws the reader in and allows him to think through the use of satire. The opening passage establishes the poor conditions those in poverty live in, in a sympathetic and reasonable way. By then segueing into the outright grotesque and exaggerated solution for how to deal with such a problem – feed the poor children to the wealthy – Swift immediately causes one to take notice of the severity of such uncaring empires and their attitudes. Thus, exaggeration is again an important device. The notion of who is speaking is also important. While the children in question are Irish, the speaker of the piece is an Englishman. This leads to the object of satire being the tyranny of England and their less than humane approach to dealing with problems such as poverty.
The satire is of those such Englishmen being unaware of the cruelty and coldness in their own behavior, thinking only on behalf of how they can efficiently get logistical problems solved. The narrator in this piece this argues that the cure for Ireland’s economic troubles is to just to have the wealthy eat the poor children. The use of the term “breeders” with regards to the mothers also shows a dark undertone of satire and irony, as the initially sympathetic sounding narrator now equates the mothers with statistics, making him sound rather serious and thus ridiculous due to the eccentric and inhumane idea he has proposed. Such radical ideas, one can conclude, are exaggerations of the types of European attitudes at the time that Swift wished to criticize. In A Modest Proposal, Swift is generally satirizing a great deal of European problems, from the rigidity of government, to injustice to the cold logic of empires without a realistic view of humanity.
Gulliver’s Travels takes a different route in the use of satire of European beliefs. Instead of allowing the reader to interpret the degree of ridiculousness in what a particular character is saying, Swift takes a more straightforward – yet equally effective – approach. This time, it is another character pointing out to the narrator, Gulliver, how absurd the ideals of England are when looked at from a critical perspective. The satire is, in this instance, achieved through Gulliver’s oblivious content to be an Englishman in an ironic contrast with the king’s critical questioning of the same institutions and systems that Gulliver seems proud of followed through to a negative conclusion. Thus, the ultimate object of this work’s satire is the people of England. Swift suggests that they, like Gulliver, for the most part foolishly accept the institutions of England passively and self-satisfied. If Gulliver is indeed to represent the typical Englishman, his naivety in understanding the faults of his own country are to be compared with the benign nature of the people of England, as Swift saw it. Also, Swift aims his criticism at the English government in the king’s questioning of how one is elected to power. He goes on to conclude that the English are quarrelsome people and meddle too far into the affairs of other nations, in a manner suggesting that the king’s thoughts are Swift’s own. The king’s culminating criticism of the English can in effect be credited to the very things Swift is ultimately satirizing: that the entire English system was formed and existed on the worst that cruelty, rage, madness and ambition could create.
Both Voltaire and Swift effectively used the tool of satire as a means of exploiting problems in European society, and forcing them to be noticed as the flaws that they were.
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Here’s a list of possible essay topics on satire:
1. Satire in “Huckleberry Finn”
2. “Gulliver’s Travels”: The British Satire of Society Gulliver’s Travels
3. Satire in “Candide”
4. Satire Comparison betweeen “The Rape of the lock” and “Gullivers Travels”
5. Satire in “Connecticut Yankee”
6. Satire on Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”
7. Satire in “The Emperor’s New Clothes and Inflexible Logic”
8. The Satire in “Animal Farm”
9. Wilmot’s Satire Against Reason and Mankind
10. Targets of Satire in “Dr. Strangelove”
11. Satire on College Admittance
12. Environmental Satire
13. The Relevence of Satires during the Cold War era – A study comparing “Dr. Strangelove” and “Thirteen Days”