What Is the Role of Satire in Literature?

Mark Wollacott

The role of satire in literature is to mock something that the writer does not like. Satire is marked by the inclusion of stylistic elements such as wit, sarcasm and irony as well as biting social or political criticism. This often takes the full-length form of copying the subject’s affectations, styles and ideas, but done in a manner that makes fun of it. Sometimes this can be subtle, as with Jane Austen’s satires of Gothic romances, and sometimes it can be obvious and ‘in your face’ such as Henry N. Beard and Douglas C. Kenney’s ‘Bored of the Rings.’

A satire writer makes fun of something or someone in the public eye.
A satire writer makes fun of something or someone in the public eye.

Satire is any form of artistic expression that makes fun of something or someone in the public eye. This may take several forms from the written word to jokes, television sketches, drawings and entire shows or productions. In terms of literature, satire can be as short as a poem or letter or as long as a full-length novel. Satire has become a favored form of comedy on television with shows such as ‘The Colbert Report’ in America and ‘Bremner, Bird and Fortune’ in Britain.

George Orwell used satire as a form of social criticism, most notably in his book "Animal Farm".
George Orwell used satire as a form of social criticism, most notably in his book "Animal Farm".

The parody novel is a form of satire in literature that almost exactly follows the form of another novel, but makes fun of it at every turn. This form of humor, as seen by ‘Bored of the Rings,’ is often low-brow humor with a number of name changes designed to be funny. For example, in ‘Bored of the Rings,’ Samwise Gamgee becomes Spamm Gangree and Legolas becomes Legolam. Fantasy parodies, which the Discworld series created by Terry Pratchett began as, tend to have a number of conventions including useless maps, fake reviews and quotes, and fake ‘also in this series’ lists.

The role of the parody novel within satire in literature is to make fun of an existing piece of literature. This can involve mocking character names and actions, or obvious non-actions as well as plot holes in the text. They also make fun of conventions of the genre and quite often of the fans, too. As most fans also enjoy the parodies, it is seen as an in-joke by most people.

Satire’s role is not just to make fun of things. Satire can be used to make stinging social criticisms and can be used to change people’s opinions. ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell is an extended metaphor or allegory of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, but it is also a satire mocking what happens when communists take over. Satire as social criticism has also been used to tackle wide-ranging topics such as corporate greed, political corruption, racism and homophobia.

The need for a moral role in satire in literature is open to dispute. Social criticism as satire in literature needs a moral, that the thing being criticized is wrong and needs fixing. Satire as an outright parody only has the role of pointing out that the thing being mocked is ludicrous. It has been argued that satire’s role should be to provide a remedy for the problem as well as mock it and that to just mock the problem is to evade responsibility for solving it.

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Discussion Comments


@pleonasm - Modern satire tends to be fairly blatant though. I don't think anyone who is being made fun of on late night TV doesn't realize that they are the butt of a joke.

I think it's more difficult to see satire in classic literature because we just don't get the joke. The average reader isn't going to know the books that Jane Austen is making fun of, for example, or might not catch on that Wordsworth isn't always straightforward in the way he describes landscapes.


@croydon - Authors often seem to think this spoils the effect though. You don't want to have to explain the joke and even if it isn't meant as a joke, books shouldn't need to be explained. You have to do what you can to get your point across and then let people take them the way they take them.

I think that, unfortunately, it might just not occur to people who are being satirized that there is anything wrong with the way they see the world, so there's no reason they would notice a parody unless it was very blatant.


The problem with satire is that often it can be too subtle and the point is either missed, or even completely misconstrued. You really don't want the very people that you are criticizing believing that you agree with them.

On the other hand, I guess the author can just come right out and say that a work is supposed to be a satire.

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