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Satire is the literary art of making a subject ridiculous by arousing towards it feelings of contempt, amusement, and scorn. While humour has the evocation of amusement as its sole end, satire often employs the comic to the end of pointing up human faults and effecting some improvement in humanity or human institutions. The butt of satire may be an individual (as in Dryden's MacFlecknoe, a mock epic whose victim is playwright Thomas Shadwell), a type of person (Addison's "Dissection of Beau's Head"), a particular social evil (as in Swift's A Modest Proposal), or even the entire race of mankind (Swift's Gulliver's Travels).

The most frequently used satirical techniques are irony, sarcasm, burlesque, and parody. Irony is a technique in which the attitudes stated differ from what is really meant. For example, words of praise can be used to imply blame. A Modest Proposal is one of the most effective and savage examples of sustained ironic tone in English literature.

Sarcasm is more caustic, crude, and heavy-handed than irony, of which it is a form. Sarcasm also tends to be more personally directed than irony.

Burlesque is an imitation of a person or subject which, by ridiculous exaggeration or distortion, aims to amuse. The quality which characterises this technique is a discrepancy between the subject matter and the style in which it is treated. For example, a frivolous subject may be treated with mock dignity, or conversely, a weighty subject might be handled in a trivial style. Mock epics, such as Pope's The Rape of the Lock, use the elaborate and elevated style of the epic to make a trivial subject laughable.

Parody differs from burlesque in that it derides not a person or subject, but a specific literary work or style, by imitating features and applying them to trivial or incongruous materials. The poem "Father William" in Alice in Wonderland is a funny and successful parody of Southey's poem "The Old Man's Comforts".

Satire has existed at least since the classical literature of Greece and Rome. It achieved a golden age in eighteenth-century England, when poetry, drama, essays, and criticism all took on the satiric tone at the hands of such masters as Dryden, Pope, Addison, Steele, and Swift. Satire continues to be an important medium for social commentary in our time. A well-known example is George Orwell's Animal Farm. The English satiric spirit has also been maintained by such authors as G. B. Shaw, Evelyn Waugh, and Aldous Huxley and such magazines as Punch, and in the United States, periodicals like Mad and The National Lampoon present social and political satire.

Contributed by Gifford, Katya
20 March 2002


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