Victorian Literature Satire
by
Muireann O’Cinneide
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0111

Introduction

Victorian literature is not generally notable for satire as a distinct form, but it was an important aspect of the writing of the era. Satire served as an instrument of sociopolitical protest but also as a reinforcement of class, imperialist, and/or antifeminist ideologies. Satirical writing was prevalent over the first half of the century, culminating in Vanity Fair (1847–1848) by William Thackeray (b. 1811–d. 1863), the great Victorian satirical novel. By the end of the 1840s, however, overly abusive or contentious writing was increasingly frowned upon; with earnestness ever more valued, the sardonic and ironic elements of satire enabled its critics to chastise satirists as lacking in both moral and aesthetic fiber. Radical working-class writers produced satire in pamphlets and protest ballads, especially during the social unrest of the 1840s, but these were often ignored or suppressed. Satire of this mid-century period tended more toward the classical Horatian indulgent mockery of folly. A flourishing print marketplace produced combative periodicals, but the often-vicious commentaries of earlier journals gave way to the more ostensibly amiable satire of Punch (1841–1992). Cartoons and caricatures, especially of political issues or public figures, were popular. Charles Dickens (b. 1812–d. 1870) combined powerful sentimentality with satirical parody of social institutions and caricatures of quasi-archetypal characters. Anthony Trollope’s (b. 1815–d. 1882) novel The Way We Live Now (1875) drew on classical Juvenalian satire’s traditions of chastisement to comment bitterly on the venality of modern society. The growth in children’s literature, particularly the nonsense genre, facilitated satire on manners and morals by humorists such as Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson, b. 1832–d. 1898). The poet Robert Browning (b. 1812–d. 1889) used the dramatic monologue to expose self-delusion and extreme psychological states. Melodrama was the prevailing mode of Victorian theater, but farces, and the later-century music halls, encompassed satirical humor. The late 1880s saw the reappearance of satire as an active genre in literature. The novelists George Gissing and Thomas Hardy produced visions of urban and rural life, respectively, making ironic commentaries regarding social corruption and individuals’ (lack of) control over their fate. The preeminent satirist of the era was the playwright, novelist, poet, and essayist Oscar Wilde (b. 1854–d. 1900), whose social comedies lampooned the narrative and moral conventions of Victorian drama and morality. Twentieth-century literary criticism, while often acknowledging the satirical force of individual authors, did not always engage with the significance of satire as a mode in Victorian literature. The theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (b. 1895–d. 1975) became a crucial influence in examining satire as a dialogic, relativistic mode. Areas such as humor studies have enabled greater critical appreciation of Victorian satire, though sometimes with insufficiently specific attention to its varying generic, political, and linguistic contexts.

General Overviews

These texts will be useful for undergraduate and postgraduate students seeking introductions to satire as a genre, while scholars newly approaching the field may also wish to consult them. Students will find Pollard 1970 useful as a starting point, together with Muecke 1970 and Dentith 2000 on the concepts of irony and parody, often deployed to satirical purpose. Wood 2011 gives a concise summary for undergraduates. Feinberg 1967 offers a wide-ranging if rather basic introduction to the techniques and societal understandings through which satire operates.

Definitions and Theoretical Contexts

Several works address the history of satire; this section singles out those that allow students and scholars to place Victorian satire in broader theoretical and/or historical contexts. As regards more detailed study, the formal focus of early-20th-century New Criticism meant that satire received greater critical attention as a mode later in the century, when literary criticism incorporated increased emphasis on social and historical contexts. Frye 1944 proved a seminal analysis in reviving 20th-century academic debate in the area, drawing upon the classical model of Menippean satire (i.e., informal prose satires, characterized by digressive narratives and heterogeneous literary traditions, satirizing beliefs, and ideas rather than individuals). Elliott 1960 was important in moving academic discourses on satire from a focus on moral analysis to a consideration of its generic roots, while Kernan 1965 expanded progression in satiric plots. The discourse analysis of Bakhtin 1981, which positions the satiric mode as one of the novel’s two central stylistic components, proved transformative to Anglo-American literary studies. Satire’s defining characteristics remain a vexed topic of critical dispute: Paulson 1971 assembles an illuminating range of critical writings on the topic, while Griffin 1994 is a valuable definitional study that views satire more in terms of a mode than a genre and moves from older critical models centered on satire’s moral function to a more flexible definition. The essays in Connery and Combe 1995 cover a variety of theoretical perspectives on satire, which are helpful in placing it in its critical context. Simpson 2003 will be of particular value to discourse theorists. Knight 2004’s examination of satire as operating on multiple levels of interpretation is an effective repositioning of the genre in terms of recent developments in literary studies. (See also General Overviews and Reference Works.)

  • Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Discourse in the Novel.” In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Edited by Michael Holquist. Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, 259–422. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

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    Famous essay identifying the satiric and parodic as one of the novel’s two main stylistic lines (the other being sentimental and psychological). Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia (language’s extra-linguistic, contextualized nature) facilitates understanding of satire’s polyphonic capacities. Written 1934–1935; book first published in Moscow in 1975. Note especially “Heteroglossia in the Novel,” pages 301–331 on Little Dorrit (1857) (see also Charles Dickens).

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  • Connery, Brian, and Kirk Combe, eds. Theorizing Satire: Essays in Literary Criticism. New York: St. Martins, 1995.

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    Eleven essays examining satire from a range of theoretical perspectives. Divided into “Part 1: Reading Satire”; “Part 2: Geneses and Genealogies”; and “Part 3: Satire and Society.” Includes discussion of W. S. Gilbert.

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  • Elliott, Robert C. The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960.

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    Overview by one of the major figures in the field, emphasizing satire’s origins in primitive societal practices, although it lacks close examination of most 18th- and 19th-century satirists.

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  • Frye, Northrop. “On the Nature of Satire.” University of Toronto Quarterly 14 (1944): 75–89.

    DOI: 10.3138/utq.14.1.75Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Seminal literary definition and analysis of satire in terms of wit or humor and an object of attack. Defines it as predominantly poetry engaged in “breaking up the lumber of stereotypes, fossilized beliefs, superstitious terrors, crank theories, pedantic dogmatisms, oppressive fashions, and all other things that impede the free movement of society” (p. 79). Available online for purchase or by subscription. Reworked into section on irony/satire in Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957) pp. 23–39.

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  • Griffin, Dustin H. Satire: A Critical Reintroduction. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.

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    Good introduction to satire, taking an expansive approach in positioning it as a procedure or approach, categorized by “inquiry and provocation, play and display” (p. 4). Incorporates a wide range of texts, especially from 18th-century writers.

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  • Kernan, Alvin B. The Plot of Satire. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965.

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    Addresses plot structure and progress in satire in relation to the interaction between morality and art, considering satiric plots as resisting the progression of dullness.

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  • Knight, Charles A. The Literature of Satire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511485428Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines “satiric boundaries” and “satiric forms,” considering definitions, targets, older models, and ideas of national identity through a range of European writings from the 18th to the 20th centuries, including novels, plays, and journalism as well as verse. Valuable theoretical analysis, although little specific discussion of Victorian literature.

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  • Paulson, Ronald, ed. Satire: Modern Essays in Criticism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

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    Defining collection of critical perspectives on the definitions and workings of satire. Paulson is himself a major critic in the field. Includes Northrup Frye’s analysis from Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957).

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  • Simpson, Paul. On the Discourse of Satire: Towards a Stylistic Model of Satirical Humor. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2003.

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    Examination of satire “as a culturally situated discursive practice” (p. viii). Foregrounds nonliterary stylistics to formulate a theoretical model for analyzing satire as discourse.

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Victorian Studies

Gray 1966 is an early but comprehensive and engaging discussion for those seeking an initial understanding of Victorian humor and its contexts, while the distinctions the author draws retains interest for the critical debate about satire as a genre. Martin 1974 is an influential examination of Victorian comic theory that argues for a transition between the amiable, sentimental comedy of earlier Victorian writers toward “the triumph of wit” and rationality; his analysis is borne out by the transition in satire over the period but risks undervaluing the satirical force of some of the “sentimental” material. The essays in Wagner-Lawlor 2000 include some perspectives on satire in the wider context of Victorian comedy, which will be useful for researchers on humor studies as well as for 19th-century scholars. Ghosh 2006 provides a postcolonial perspective on satire in colonial India (also of interest to scholars of print culture). Palmeri 2007 offers a sophisticated analysis of narrative satire’s decline and then revival over the century, a discussion also of importance to scholars of Victorian print culture, as well as being of use to students needing more context on satire in Victorian fiction. Matz 2010 persuasively argues for the fusion of realism and satire in the Victorian novel to generate a significant, but temporary, mode of moral authority; the author’s argument operates on a somewhat narrow definition of realism and thus excludes some prominent satirical novelists but foregrounds the underexamined influence of Augustan satire on Victorian writers and the relationship between satirical and realist modes of social commentary.

  • Ghosh, Anindita. “Satire and Social Discord.” In Power in Print: Popular Publishing and the Politics of Language and Culture in a Colonial Society, 1778–1905. By Anindita Ghosh, 189–224. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    Examines power and representation in colonial Bengal (particularly an area of Calcutta) through commercial print culture and language. Considers the satirization of urban elite customs by newly literate marginalized groups.

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  • Gray, Donald J. “The Uses of Victorian Laughter.” Victorian Studies 10.2 (1966): 145–176.

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    Article’s distinction between “the laughter of release” and “laughter with a serious purpose” (p. 147) offers useful ways of thinking about the distinctively satirical aspects of Victorian writing. The main emphasis is on the more light-hearted, entertainment-centered mode, but a section on the nonsense verse of Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and W. S. Gilbert complicates the distinction. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Martin, Robert Bernard. The Triumph of Wit: A Study of Victorian Comic Theory. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974.

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    Propounds a shift in comic theory from early Victorian literature’s sentimental, character-driven humor to a model of wit as a rational, intellectual mode of critique. Addresses prose essays on humor as well as novels, including work by Dickens, Eliot, and Thackeray; concludes in 1877 with Meredith.

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  • Matz, Aaron. Satire in an Age of Realism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511762406Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that realism as a literary mode blurred into satire, generating a mode of “satirical realism” whereby everyday human vice and folly require no fictional embellishment. Includes discussion of Eliot, Gissing, Hardy, and Conrad, as well as the dramatist Henrik Ibsen’s reception in Britain.

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  • Palmeri, Frank. “Narrative Satire in the Nineteenth Century.” In A Companion to Satire: Ancient and Modern. Edited by Ruben Quintero, 361–376. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405119559.2007.00023.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Distinguishes narrative satire from verse or novelistic forms as attacking cultural oppositions without seeking an accommodation. Muted in the mid-Victorian period by conditions of moderate political discourse and print culture, it revived in the 1880s and 1890s, which saw a “renewal of satiric and ironic energies” (p. 362). Includes discussions of Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, Butler, and Wilde.

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  • Wagner-Lawlor, Jennifer, ed. The Victorian Comic Spirit: New Perspectives. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2000.

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    Twelve essays considering a variety of types of comedy in Victorian writing, including Gilbert and Sullivan, Dickens, Arnold, Gaskell, and Wilde. Includes David Nash, “Laughing at the Almighty: Freethinking Lampoon, Satire, and Parody in Victorian England” (pp. 43–66) and Eileen Gillooly, “Humor as Daughterly Defense in Cranford” (pp. 115–140).

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Reference Works

Quintero 2006 is a valuable main companion for ongoing scholarly consultation, while Snodgrass 1996 is an excellent resource for all levels of research into satire. For scholars seeking a wider contextual understanding of satire, Charney 2005 offers a wide-ranging resource for the general study of comedy, while Brake and Demoor 2009 is invaluable for students and scholars on 19th-century journalism in general. Bryant and Heneage 1994 provides information on visual satirists.

  • Brake, Laurel, and Marysa Demoor, eds. Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism in Great Britain and Ireland. Ghent, Belgium: Academia Press, 2009.

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    Comprehensive reference work on the 19th-century journalism industry, including an entry on “satirical magazines” (pp. 556–557) as well as a detailed account of individual writers and publications. Traces the transition to a Victorian mode of satire as “good-humoured commentary . . . from a mildly reformist perspective” through the changes in satirical magazines (p. 556). Further information about the book is available online.

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  • Bryant, Mark, and Simon Heneage, eds. Dictionary of British Cartoonists and Caricaturists, 1730–1980. Aldershot, UK: Scolar Press, 1994.

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    Lists over 500 artists. Biographical and bibliographic information.

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  • Charney, Martin, ed. Comedy: A Geographic and Historical Guide. 2 vols. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.

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    Large selection of essays examining comedy from a range of geographical perspectives as well as its key genres. Particularly useful are Heather L. Braun, “English Comedy, Victorian” (Vol. I, pp. 280–295) and Harry Kevisham, “Satire” (Vol. I, pp. 528–541).

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  • Quintero, Ruben, ed. A Companion to Satire: Ancient and Modern. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

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    Twenty-nine essays exploring satire from Biblical texts through to the early 21st century. “Part III: Nineteenth Century to Contemporary” will be of particular relevance, but the volume as a whole is a valuable scholarly resource.

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  • Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Satirical Literature. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1996.

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    Describes a wide variety of genres of satire. Includes a useful chronology and illustrations.

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Anthologies

There are several anthologies that gather selections from English and British satire in general; this section selects some collections of particular relevance to Victorian literature. The primary focus of Strachan 2003 is Romantic-era satire, but its scope extends to the early Victorian period. The cost of the collection will make it largely accessible only via libraries, but it is recommended for students and researchers wishing to build an awareness of the range, nature, and politics of early-19th-century poetic satires. Jerrold 1970 collects the writing of one of Punch’s most prominent contributors, Douglas Jerrold (b. 1803–d. 1857). Claeys and Sargent 1999 will help scholars of Utopian fiction place its Victorian examples in generic context. Haywood 1999–2001 republishes a significant Chartist satire.

Bibliographies

There are a number of bibliographies relating to comedy more generally, including Evans 1987, and Duffy and Gerould 2006 with reference to theater and performance studies. In literary studies guides, Marcuse 1990 provides a helpful guide for material up to 1990, while Shattock 1999 is a comprehensive general source. Connery and Combe 1995 (cited under Definitions and Theoretical Contexts) contains useful bibliographic material.

Journals

Studies in Contemporary Satire is perhaps the most prominent journal that focuses specifically on satire, although scholars should also consult the Satire Newsletter. There are a number of journals relating to humor studies that contain several discussions of satire: Readers can consult the indexes for Victorian-specific material. Humor is the official journal of the International Society for the Study of Humor, while Thalia is of use to literary scholars specifically. The articles in Clark 1983 consider satire from a range of stylistic perspectives. Kernan 1984 is a special issue of the major literary journal the Yearbook of English Studies in memory of Robert Elliott, a prominent theorist on satire, while Mallett 1994 is a special issue on satire across a number of modern languages. Neither contains very much 19th-century material, but both offer critical and theoretical perspectives on the field. There is also a wide field of Victorian-related journals whose indexes scholars can consult for material relevant to satire, including Victorian Studies.

The Novel and Satire

The midcentury flourishing of the realist novel made the more fantastical worlds of much 18th-century satire uncongenial, meaning that such elements were more likely to manifest themselves in the growing genre of children’s literature. The cultural value placed on sincerity and conscientious engagement with issues of the day also produced a discomfort with satire’s ironic modes. Realist satire was therefore more likely to operate through social commentary and to be softened in its attack, at least on individuals, by the desire to avoid excessive caricature. Moreover, conditions in the midcentury literary marketplace, such as the insistence on moral values and family reading by the powerful Mudie’s Circulating Library, militated against overly iconoclastic attacks on institutions. Despite its age, Russell 1920 would be a solid starting point for students of the Victorian novel. Matz 2010 (cited under Victorian Studies) considers Victorian satire’s relationship to realism. George Eliot (b. 1819–d. 1880) often employs satirical discourse in her realist novels, especially through narrative commentaries on human self-delusion and folly, but tempers these with sympathetic insights into characters’ minds and motivations. Some of Eliot’s prose work and shorter fiction utilize more directly satirical modes. Meckier 1978 reads Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872) as a satire on her contemporaries’ satirical view of modernity; this is part of the author’s contentiously speculative but challenging work on midcentury realism as immersed in literary rivalries. Bidney 1999 examines the interconnected workings of Eliot’s humorous modes. (See also The “Woman Question” and Satire.) The novels of Benjamin Disraeli (b. 1804–d. 1881) combine “state of the nation” political polemic with satirical portraits of upper-class society: Hertz 1978 considers the relationship between satire and autobiography in his work. The novels of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë have few of the formal elements of satire, but each author invokes satire as a means of social critique, especially regarding gender ideals. Judge 2011 offers a persuasive reading of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849) as closely linked with satirical modes, which will be of particular interest to scholars concerned with the political possibilities of satire. López 2001 positions Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) as an engagement with the satirical modes of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847–1848; see also W. M. Thackeray). Joseph Conrad (b. 1857–d. 1924) combines late-century pessimism with the changing moral and artistic imperatives of the novel as a form. Price 1984 examines the genre tensions between satire and the novel in Conrad’s work in an article that is also broadly illuminating for scholarship on realism and the novel. Rudyard Kipling (b. 1865–d. 1936) mocked the pieties of traditional children’s literature in the school stories of Stalky and Co. (1899). The positioning in Richardson 1990 of the ambivalent, potentially satirical child reader will be of interest to scholars of children’s literature and reception theory as well as of satire’s relationship to this flourishing Victorian genre (see also Poetic Satire and Lewis Carroll). The Victorian legal world was a recurring target of satirical attack by novelists such as Dickens (see also Charles Dickens); Schramm 2004 considers the adversarial nature of satire in the context of the 1840s development of narrative realism and legal rhetoric.

  • Bidney, Martin. “Scenes of Clerical Life and Trifles of High-Order Clerical Life: Satirical and Empathetic Humor in George Eliot.” George EliotGeorge Henry Lewes Studies 36–37 (1999): 1–28.

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    A consideration of differing modes of humor in Eliot’s early short fiction.

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  • Hertz, Bertha Keveson. “Satire as Self-Revelation.” Ball State University Forum 19.1 (1978): 2–10.

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    Examines four early satirical novels of Disraeli from 1824 to 1837 as a process of autobiographical self-probing and self-revelation.

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  • Judge, Jennifer. “The ‘Bitter Herbs’ of Revisionist Satire in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 7.1 (2011).

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    Argues for the generic alignment of Shirley with satire, an alignment that has led to “long-standing interpretative confusion” (p. 1) about the novel’s critique of totalizing systems.

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  • López, Andrés G. “Wildfell Hall as Satire: Brontë’s Domestic Vanity Fair.” In New Approaches to the Literary Art of Anne Brontë. Edited by Julie Nash and Barbara A. Suess, 173–194. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001.

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    Considers The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), Anne Brontë’s narrative of alcoholism, vice, and marital disaster, through the novel’s invocation of the satirical mode of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, but positions Brontë’s satire as more aimed at castigation than ridicule of vice.

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  • Meckier, Jerome. “‘That Arduous Invention’: Middlemarch versus the Modern Satirical Novel.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 9.4 (1978): 31–63.

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    Position Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–1972) as a satire on contemporary satirists, particularly Dickens. Views Eliot’s satire as “Victorian and reactionary” (p. 31) in its positing of an essentially sound social order.

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  • Price, Martin. “Conrad: Satire and Fiction.” In Special Issue: Satire: Essays in Memory of Robert C. Elliot, 1914–1981. Edited by Alvin Kernan. The Yearbook of English Studies 14 (1984): 226–242.

    DOI: 10.2307/3508312Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analyzes “the uneasy mixture of satire and fiction in Joseph Conrad” (p. 226), considering tensions between mimetic, thematic, and aesthetic imperatives in fiction. Reads satire in Conrad’s early work as effecting “a moral leveling of the characters” (p. 234), to the potential detriment of their complexity. Briefly discusses Dickens’s characters as inhabiting distinct “satirical” and “novelistic” worlds. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Richardson, Alan. “Nineteenth-Century Children’s Satire and the Ambivalent Reader” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 15.3 (1990): 122–126.

    DOI: 10.1353/chq.0.0746Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the resistance to the possibility of children’s satire (i.e., the child reader) by 19th-century advocates both for didactic and for imaginative children’s literature. Argues that “in order to understand children’s satire, we must relocate . . . doubleness or ambivalence within the child reader” (p. 123). Includes discussion of critical parody in Lewis Carroll and W. M. Thackeray. Available online by subscription.

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  • Russell, Frances Theresa. Satire in the Victorian Novel. London: Macmillan, 1920.

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    Accessible and extensive comparative analysis of major Victorian novelists’ use of satire.

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  • Schramm, Jan-Melissa “‘The Anatomy of a Barrister’s Tongue’: Rhetoric, Satire, and the Victorian Bar in England.” Victorian Literature and Culture 32.2 (2004): 285–303.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1060150304000506Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Considers the role of satire in illuminating “the discursive struggle between legal and literary discourses which characterized the 1840s” (p. 286). Counterposes legal developments and debates with the crime-filled (and much satirized) “Newgate novels” of the 1830s and 1840s and other fiction. Includes discussion of Edward Bulwer Lytton, Dickens, and Thackeray. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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The “Woman Question” and Satire

The “Woman Question” in Victorian culture—debates about the nature and positioning of women in relation to gender ideals, writing, sexuality, marriage, motherhood, and economics—produced a considerable amount of satire, some emerging from prominent campaigners for women’s issues but more from critics of these developments: The journal Punch was particularly noted for its supposedly jocular antifeminism. Douglas Jerrold, one of Punch’s most important contributors, had popular success with Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures (1846), his comical satire on marriage, wives, and women’s speech. George Eliot’s essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” (1856) skewered the vapidity of many popular women’s novels of the period while also satirizing critical hostility toward more accomplished women writers. Late-Victorian anxieties about gender and sexuality generated particularly intensive debates, such as those surrounding the controversial figure of the “New Woman.” Some used satire to criticize society’s gender norms; others to chastise the New Woman’s supposed challenges to these norms. Victorian conceptions of satire as unsuited to women lingered in later academic criticism’s frequent assumptions that women’s writing lacked satirical aggression, but women writers’ invocation of satirical modes has received increasing critical attention. Walker 1991 sees 19th-century women’s humor as the subversion of sentimentality. Gillooly 1999 posits a distinctly “feminine” mode of comic expression distinct from satire, a concept that continues to be a source of critical debate. Cohen 1999 considers satire in the novels of one of Victorian literature’s most subtly ironic writers, Margaret Oliphant (b. 1828–d. 1897). Schaffer 2001 traces the late-century parodic construction of the New Woman. O’Cinneide 2008 considers the satirical class politics of attacks such as Eliot’s, the prominently satirized marriage breakdown of the writers Edward and Rosina Bulwer Lytton (b. 1803–d. 1873 and b. 1802–d. 1882), and the poet and novelist Caroline Norton’s (b. 1808–d. 1877) commentaries on Victorian marriage and custody laws. Lettmaier 2010 places angelic gender ideals in conjunction with the rhetoric of breach-of-promise legal cases.

  • Cohen, Monica. “Maximizing Oliphant: Begging the Question and the Politics of Satire.” In Victorian Women Writers and the Woman Question. Edited by Nicola Diane Thompson, 99–115. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511659348Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analyzes Margaret Oliphant’s novel Phoebe Junior: A Last Chronicle of Carlingford (1876) in terms of female work and its relation to earning capacity. Argues for “formal and structural conflicts” (p. 102) in Oliphant’s novels that produce ironic ambivalence.

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  • Gillooly, Eileen. Smile of Discontent: Humor, Gender, and Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

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    Considers understated, indirect humor as a mode through which to express discontent with gendered restrictions and as such distinguishes it from the “masculine” aggression of satire. Includes discussion of George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, and Henry James.

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  • Lettmaier, Saskia. “Breach of Promise in the High Victorian Period (1850–1900): The Inconsistency Unveiled, Pinchbeck Angels, and the Dominance of Satire.” In Broken Engagements: The Action for Breach of Promise of Marriage and the Feminine Ideal, 1800–1940. By Saskia Lettmaier, 126–170. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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    Calls attention to the predomination of satire in fiction relating to breach of marriage promise cases. Includes discussion of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury (1875).

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  • O’Cinneide, Muireann. Aristocratic Women and the Literary Nation, 1832–1867. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230583320Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examination of the role of aristocratic women writers in the mid-Victorian literary and political worlds. Includes analysis of the use of satire in the marriage law reform writing of Caroline Norton and the pamphlets and scandalous marital roman-à-clefs of Rosina Bulwer Lytton.

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  • Schaffer, Talia. “‘Nothing But Foolscap and Ink’: Inventing the New Woman.” In The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin-De-Siècle Feminisms. Edited by Angélique Richardson and Chris Willis, 39–52. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001.

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    Identifies and discusses the figure of the “New Woman” as a media construct and the satirical and social functions it served.

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  • Walker, Nancy. “Nineteenth-Century Women’s Humor.” In Women’s Comic Visions. Edited by June Sochen, 85–92. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

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    Considers 19th-century women writers as using humor to subvert sentimental rhetoric.

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Illustrators, Cartoonists, and Caricaturists

Visual humor was an important aspect of Victorian satire, especially caricatures and cartoons by artists such as George Cruikshank (b. 1792–d. 1878) and John Leech (b. 1817–d. 1864). Art of the Print offers a very useful online guide to satirical artists, while the collection of Punch illustrations in Appelbaum and Kelly 1981 is a helpful resource for students without print or online access to the periodical. George 1967 traces the changing traditions of graphic satire, while Hunt 1971 considers their influence on Dickens, especially in relation to the great 18th-century satirical cartoonist William Hogarth (b. 1697–d. 1764). Bills 2006 positions London as a crucial topic of satire. Kelly 1996 offers an insight into the prominent illustrator and writer George Du Maurier (b. 1834–d. 1896). Maidment 2010 convincingly examines parodic title pages in the 1830s as a means through which to understand the changing nature of readership and the popular press. Many serialized novels were accompanied by illustration: novelists such as Dickens often worked closely with illustrators (including Cruikshank, Leech, and Hablot K. Browne [“Phiz,” b. 1815–d. 1882]) to capture the intent of his text. Aubrey Beardsley (b. 1872–d. 1898) was an influential illustrator associated with late-century aestheticism, especially Oscar Wilde; many of his drawings are notable for their satirical caricature and the idiosyncratic commentaries they provide on the text and author under consideration. Dowling 1978—one of the most important critical voices on late-Victorian decadence—considers Beardsley in relation to late-century parody as self-satire, while Owens 2002 positions Beardsley’s illustrations of a Wilde work as a satirical engagement with the author.

Periodicals

The flourishing of print culture in the early 19th century produced many periodicals, whose emphasis on contemporary sociopolitical and literary commentary made several of them important vehicles for satire. Early Victorian journals such as Blackwood’s Magazine (1817–1980) and Fraser’s Magazine (1830–1882) embarked on particularly intensive, combative attacks that often became positively vicious toward their favorite targets, such as Fraser’s satirical portraits of the novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton. Traditions of satire were also carried on midcentury by the more mellow, though still politically engaged, satires of Punch. Punch, or the London Charivari (1841–1992), probably the periodical most closely associated nowadays with Victorian satire, was founded in 1841 by Henry Mayhew (b. 1812–d. 1887) and Mark Lemon (b. 1809–d. 1870). Combining humorous prose, poetry, and cartoons, it represented itself as the commonsense defender of Britain and its values in commenting on current affairs; Price 1957 gives an accessible history (see also Illustrators, Cartoonists, and Caricaturists). Fun (1861–1901) was a lesser-known, more liberal satirical rival to Punch. The magazine Vanity Fair (1868–1914)—“A Weekly Show of Political, Social and Literary Wares”—had a more explicitly satirical agenda: Thomas Gibson Bowles (b. 1841–d. 1922) founded it to attack the vanities and follies of Victorian society. It is primarily known for its visual caricatures of famous figures. From the 1870s, Henry Labouchere’s (b. 1831–d. 1912) periodical Truth (1877–1957) targeted politics and finance, particularly promoters engaged in fraudulent activities, incorporating satirical commentary which came closer to the more aggressive classical traditions. There were also many Victorian comic journals self-described as satirical, which in fact usually concentrated on lighter humor. Strachan 2010 is an accessible overview of the field. Palmeri 2004 traces the decline of satire as a genre-defining mode by the 1850s. Taylor 2005 traces how the intensive railway expansion of the 19th century, with its consequent alterations of transport speeds, potential dangers, and new social spaces created by railway carriages and stations, provided periodicals with ample material for satirical comment. Brake and Demoor 2009 (cited under Reference Works) should be consulted for detailed information on individual magazines and authors.

Poetic Satire

Classical and Augustan legacies of satire were predominantly rooted in poetry, but Victorian literature has few, if any, major works of verse satire. Yet satire continued to exercise a significant (albeit less generically formalized) shaping influence on Victorian poetry. Eighteenth- and early-19th-century traditions of satirical commentary in working-class ballads and street rhymes continued, especially during the social unrest of the 1840s. The more “artistic” tradition of poetic satire also continued, but Victorian poetry was more likely to target human psychology and weakness, while even directly politicized attacks tended to be more subtle and less personally directed than those of Augustan poets such as John Dryden (b. 1631–d. 1700) or Alexander Pope (b. 1688–d. 1744). Probably the most prominent satirical poet of the day was Robert Browning (b. 1812–d. 1889). Browning wrote directly satirical poetry, such as his attack on Wordsworth’s loss of radicalism, “The Lost Leader” (1845), but his finest satire tends to be indirect: He frequently used the dramatic monologue—in which the speaker of a poem is a distinct character with a separate identity from that of the poet—to explore the disjunctions and deceptions inherent in individuals’ perceptions of themselves and others. Examples of this include the control-obsessed duke of “My Last Duchess” (1842), the potentially deluded lesser Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto (1855), and many of the narrators in his masterpiece The Ring and the Book (1868–1869). Other poets associated with satire include A. C. Swinburne (b. 1837–d. 1909) and George Meredith (b. 1828–d. 1909; see George Meredith). Alfred Tennyson (b. 1809–d. 1892) makes only limited use of satire, but when he does, he draws particularly on the dramatic monologue’s satirical possibilities, as with the different voices of The Princess (1847) or the potentially monomaniacal speaker of Maud (1855). Rudyard Kipling (b. 1865–d. 1936) used ballad forms and the assumed voices of common British soldiers to satirize the experiences of imperial warfare and both the glamorizing and the demonizing of the “British Tommy.” Perhaps surprisingly, the poetry of Oscar Wilde (b. 1854–d. 1900), the Victorian period’s best-known satirist in his plays and prose, tends not to be satirical, an important exception to this (to some extent) being “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1898). Many Victorian poets—especially Tennyson—found themselves the target of poetic satires; Firmilian (1854) is W. H. Aytoun’s (b. 1813–d. 1865) satire on the poetic and moral excesses associated with the “Spasmodic” poets of the 1850s. Richards 2000 is a good starting point for the study of Victorian poetic satire. The “nonsense verse” of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll (see also Lewis Carroll) was not automatically satirical in nature but can be seen as implicitly satirical commentaries on traditional artistic conventions and content (particularly given Carroll’s use of poetic parody). Richards 2000 and McGillis 2002 are both useful introductions to the workings of nonsense verse. As regards Browning, many of the large number of critical works on the poet address his satire. Kelly 1967 and Tebbetts 1984 both offer nuanced close readings of specific poems that open up ways of understanding the broader critical debates raised by Browning’s use of satire, while Ryerse 2003 considers the influence of John Donne on his work.

  • Kelly, Robert L. “Dactyls and Curlews: Satire in ‘A Grammarian’s Funeral.’” Victorian Poetry 5.2 (1967): 105–112.

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    Argues that “A Grammarian’s Funeral” (1855) is satirical but that its satire is directed at the speaker’s pretensions rather than the grammarian himself. Focuses on setting, verse, and images, positing that the “irony implicit in the setting becomes satire through the deflating effect of the verse and the images” (p. 107). Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • McGillis, Roderick. “Nonsense.” In A Companion to Victorian Poetry. Edited by Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman, and Antony H. Harrison, 155–170. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631222071.2002.00012.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the workings and function of nonsense verse as “an outlet for . . . [the Victorians’] frustrations and desires” (p. 164). Includes discussion of Lear and Carroll, as well as of Christina Rossetti and W. S. Gilbert.

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  • Richards, Bernard. English Poetry of the Victorian Period, 1830–1890. 2d ed. Harlow, UK: Longman, 2000.

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    Overview of Victorian poetry of particular use to undergraduates and scholars seeking an initial understanding of key areas. See especially chapters on “Verse Satire” and “Nonsense Poetry.” First edition 1979.

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  • Ryerse, Barbara. “Browning’s Christmas Eve and Easter Day: Formal Verse Satire and the Donnean Influence.” Victorian Review 29.1 (2003): 49–69.

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    Considers Browning’s “Christmas Eve and Easter Day” (1850) as satire in terms of its formal structures, arguing for the influence of the 16th-century metaphysical poet John Donne. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Tebbetts, Terrell L. “The Question of Satire in ‘Caliban upon Setebos.’” Victorian Poetry 22.4 (1984): 365–381.

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    Discusses satire in one of Browning’s most demanding and critically debated poems, “Caliban Upon Setebos” (1864). Notes use of Caliban as a figure of mockery in the context of evolutionary concerns of the 1860s. Concludes that the poem is somewhat satirical but ultimately nonjudgmental of its speaker, himself a “maker-poet.” Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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Religious and Scientific Satire

The schisms and debates that accompanied the early Victorian religious revival, both in dissent against the established Anglican Church and in Catholicism, produced much satirical commentary in popular discourse, as well as—more gently—in novels such as Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles (1855–1867). Evangelicism, with its emphasis on speech and emotion, generated considerable satirical interest: authors such as Dickens offered caricatures of hypocritical preachers. Religion’s traditional belief structures were, however, being tested by the controversies surrounding scientific discoveries regarding the age of the earth and the origins and development of humanity—mostly those famously emerging from the work of Charles Darwin (b. 1809–d. 1882) on a theory of evolutionary change. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) engendered considerable satirical attack on him and on his champion, T. H. Huxley (b. 1825–d. 1895). Huxley’s debates with religious leaders and other scientists were the target of much comment and parody, including in the children’s book The Water-Babies (1863) by the evolution-supporting novelist and clergyman Charles Kingsley (b. 1819–d. 1875). Cunningham 1975 is an influential work on the literary representation of religious dissent, which includes discussion of satirical attacks, while Wheeler 1994 incorporates ironical and satirical approaches to theological debates. Thormählen 1999 includes consideration of religious satire in the novels of the Brontë sisters. Maidment 2008 examines visual culture to argue for a move from caricature-centered modes of religious satire to more socially interactive models. Paradis 1997 provides an informative analysis for scholars of both satire and science regarding the popular reception of science through satire, while Noakes 2002 considers the contributions of Punch to popular discourse on science. Attacks on and defenses of Darwinian ideas have been much discussed; Browne 2001 considers the underexplored role of caricature in this process. (See also Utopias and Dystopias.)

  • Browne, Janet. “Darwin in Caricature: A Study in the Popularisation and Dissemination of Evolution.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 145.4 (2001): 496–509.

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    Explores the popular and international spread of Darwin’s ideas through mass-produced caricature, arguing for the importance of “the visual side of science” (p. 499). Notes the special popularity of the ape motif in cartoons associated with Darwin. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Cunningham, Valentine. Everywhere Spoken Against: Dissent in the Victorian Novel. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.

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    Examination of the role of dissent (Protestant religious movements and affiliations that defined themselves as separate from the Church of England) and representations of dissent in the Victorian novel.

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  • Maidment, Brian. “Caricature and Social Change 1820–1840: The March of Intellect Revisited.” In Shaping Belief: Culture, Politics and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Writing. Edited by Victoria Morgan and Clare Williams, 149–170. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846315688Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Series of satirical prints from 1825–1829. Examines the emergence of “a new visual language” that prioritizes social interaction and diversity over more traditional caricature-heavy modes of political satire. Collection as a whole rethinks “the energy of belief” as a cultural force in 19th-century writing.

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  • Noakes, Richard. “Science in Mid-Victorian Punch.” Endeavour 26.3 (2002): 92–96.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0160-9327(02)01426-6Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Addresses three decades (1841–1871) of scientific content in Punch, discussing the complexity of its satire and its educative effects. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Paradis, James G. “Satire and Science in Victorian Culture.” In Victorian Science in Context. Edited by Bernard Lightman, 143–175. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226481104.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores “the satirical construction of a scientific worldview” (p. 145) in Victorian literature and popular culture’s responses to scientific discovery. Positions satire as a “militant form” of irony, which is particularly suited to “paradox and dualism” (p. 144). Includes discussion of Punch and Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863).

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  • Thormählen, Marianne. The Brontës and Religion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511484957Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Important work in Brontë studies whose overall discussion of this then-neglected element of the sisters’ writings includes aspects such as Emily Brontë’s satirizing of Calvinist hypocrisy in Wuthering Heights (1847) and Charlotte Brontë’s light-hearted but controversial satire on clergymen in Shirley (1849).

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  • Wheeler, Michael. Heaven, Hell, and the Victorians. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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    Examines the literary manifestation of 19th-century theological controversies about life after death and eternal punishment. Includes consideration of satirical approaches to religious and social pieties. Revised and abridged version of 1990 text.

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Theater and Satire

Melodrama was the most popular dramatic mode in the mid-Victorian theater, although these plays were often accompanied by farces and humorous social comedies. The Victorian stage did not into its own as a vehicle for satire until the 1880s and 1890s. Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operettas (see W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan) light-heartedly satirized prevailing social mores, melodramatic tropes, and prominent individuals. Successful productions of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s (b. 1828–d. 1906) bleak satires fuelled darker, more socially analytical satirical drama. Playwrights and social commentators such as George Bernard Shaw (b. 1856–d. 1950) combined sharply witty dialogue with scathingly ironic commentary on sexual and social mores and hypocrisies, as well as issues such as militarism. The popular social comedies of Oscar Wilde (b. 1854–d. 1900), the Victorian dramatist most studied today, use satire as a means through which to comment on the duplicities and disguises at the heart of British upper-class society, and human interaction more generally, while subtly propounding Wilde’s Aesthetic creeds regarding the function of art (or lack thereof). (See Oscar Wilde).

W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan

W. S. Gilbert (b. 1836–d. 1911) was the librettist for the highly successful popular duo Gilbert and Sullivan, whose Savoy Operas parodied current affairs, literary figures, melodramatic plot lines, and contemporary institutions through song and witty dialogue. Sutton 1975 is a useful introductory account of Gilbert that places his comedy in relation to his worldview. The extent to which Gilbert can be identified as a “true” satirist is a topic of some critical debate: Higbie 1980 views his work as lacking satire’s seriousness and disillusion, but later critics have paid more attention to the sociopolitical underpinnings of his work. Troost 1995 considers the interplay of economic and romantic discourses in Gilbert’s operas. Williams 2010 offers a discussion of Gilbert’s use of parody that also engages with his satirical targets; the author’s work helpfully positions parody in relation to satire and would be useful for scholars of theatre and performance as well as of parody.

  • Higbie, Robert. “Conflict and Comedy in W. S. Gilbert’s Savoy Operas.” South Atlantic Bulletin 45.4 (1980): 66–77.

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    Considers antagonisms in Gilbert’s Savoy Operas, querying the extent to which he can be identified as a satirist. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Sutton, Max Keith. W. S. Gilbert. Boston: Twayne, 1975.

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    Good introductory account of Gilbert and his work. Traces Gilbert as possessing a comprehensive comic vision tied to the relationship between romance and reality.

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  • Troost, Linda V. “Economic Discourse in the Savoy Operas of W. S. Gilbert.” In Theorizing Satire: Essays in Literary Criticism. Edited by Brian Connery and Kirk Combe, 193–207. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.

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    Defines “Gilbertian burlesque” (p. 194) as keeping mismatched subjects and styles in suspension. Examines the dependence of the idealized, exotic “other” on the same standards it opposes and its collapse into the mundane, manifested in terms of commerce and economics. Argues for the later operas as implicating capitalism as an ideal.

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  • Williams, Carolyn. Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre, Parody. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

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    Examines Gilbert and Sullivan’s engagement with prevailing cultural formations and the ways in which their satire addressed key anxieties of the day. See especially the discussion of 1870s satire’s denigrating of republicanism in chapter 12, “Imaginary Republicanism.”

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George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw (b. 1856–d. 1950) was also a prominent prose writer, novelist, and linguistic reformer, but as a satirist he is most noted for his plays, which are seen as having revitalized the Victorian stage through their biting engagement with sociopolitical issues. Late Victorian dramas such as Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893) and Arms and the Man (1894) satirized sexual hypocrisy, militarism, and the conventions of dramatic romance, though Shaw is best known for later works of social satire such as Pygmalion (1912). Shaw has diminished in prominence as a figure of academic study, although he has benefited from the recent revival of interest in Victorian theatre. Morgan 1972 explores Shaw’s comedic forms in relation to theatrical tradition and contexts, while Gordon 1998 places his use of comedy in relation to Oscar Wilde’s drama (see also Eltis 1996, cited under Oscar Wilde).

  • Gordon, David J. “Shavian Comedy and the Shadow of Wilde.” In The Cambridge Companion to George Bernard Shaw. Edited by Christopher Innes, 124–143. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521562376Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the relationship between Wilde’s and Shaw’s works and Shaw’s satires on Aestheticism’s stylistics in favor of a more vigorous moral idea. Argues that “Wildean and Shavian comedy both seem to be initiated by satire but before long they slide into something else” (p. 131).

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  • Morgan, Margery M. The Shavian Playground: An Exploration of the Art of Bernard Shaw. London: Methuen, 1972.

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    Contextualization of Shaw’s comedy in terms of genre, theatrical traditions, and the role of myth and paradox in his work.

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Utopias and Dystopias

Utopian and dystopian literature—creating ideal worlds, or their dark opposites—allowed Victorian writers to produce implied satires of the values and structures of actual society. Samuel Butler’s (b. 1835–d. 1902) Erewhon (1872) imagines a community in which crime is treated as sickness and sickness as crime. Palmeri 2007 (cited under Victorian Studies) offers illuminating comments on Butler as anticipating the later Victorian shift back to more directly satirical formal models. Edward Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) portrayed a race of alien beings, the Vril, dwelling (for the moment) inside the earth; Judge 2009 reads the novel as a Menippean satire on Victorian progressive thought. W. H. Mallock’s (b. 1849–d. 1923) The New Republic or Culture, Faith and Philosophy in an English Country House (1877) was a bestselling satire on late Victorian intellectualism and modernity, especially Aestheticism, with ideas being offered for an ideal future state. (His attack on the Aesthetic philosopher Walter Pater, parodied as “Mr. Rose,” did particular damage to Pater’s reputation.) The novel is discussed in Margolis 1967, while Wheeler 1994 (cited under Religious and Scientific Satire) considers its treatment of Victorian rituals surrounding death. The latter also positions William Morris’s utopian socialist future in News from Nowhere (1891) as an implicit satirical comment on the failings of contemporary society and the nature of progress. The science fiction writings of H. G. Wells (b. 1866–d. 1946)—like Morris, a prominent socialist commentator—often envisage future or fantastical worlds as satires on Victorian notions of class, progress, and evolution. Graff 2001 addresses the implications of evolution for frameworks of ethical action in Wells, among others: The article places utopian satire in relation to evolutionary theory, which scholars of Victorian science will also find productive (see also Religious and Scientific Satire). Malia 2009 considers Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) as a satire on popular enthusiasms.

  • Graff, Ann-Barbara. “‘Administrative Nihilism’: Evolution, Ethics and Victorian Utopian Satire.” Utopian Studies: The Journal of the Society for Utopian Studies 12.2 (2001): 33–52.

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    Ethical implications of Darwinian evolutionary epistemologies for concepts of civility, and fears about progress and devolution, in Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), Butler’s Erewhon (1872), and Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). Considers literary formulations of resistance to Thomas Huxley’s “administrative nihilism” (“the efficacy of doing nothing”). Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Judge, Jennifer. “The ‘Seamy Side’ of Human Perfectibility: Satire on Habit in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race.” Journal of Narrative Theory 39.2 (2009): 137–158.

    DOI: 10.1353/jnt.0.0026Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Positions Bulwer Lytton’s dystopian society in The Coming Race (1871) as a satirical exposé of the mental understructure of thoughtless habit underlying human social worlds, and the consequent failure of utopian visions. Available online by subscription.

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  • Malia, Jennifer. “Public Imbecility and Journalistic Enterprise’: The Satire on Mars Mania in H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds.” Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy 50.1 (2009): 80–101.

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    Positioning of The War of the Worlds as both playing upon and satirizing contemporary fears.

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  • Margolis, John D. “W. H. Mallock’s The New Republic: A Study in Late Victorian Satire.” English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920 10.1 (1967): 10–25.

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    Considers the targets and purpose of Mallock’s The New Republic. Available online by subscription.

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Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll, the pseudonym of Charles Dodgson (b. 1832–d. 1898), is best-known for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass (1871)—combinations of nonsense and parody, whose satire is directed at reason (and its absence) in adult language and social conventions, as well as at the assumptions and conventions that shape children’s literature. There is a large body of work on Carroll incorporating discussion of his work’s satirical intent and targets; this section highlights critical texts that most directly engage with his use of satirical modes and genres. Matthews 1970 is a good starting point for consideration of the Alice books as satire, while Rackin 1967 places them in relation to genre conventions of children’s literature. The Alice books provided a model for later quasi-parodic reworkings by writers aiming to satirize their own social and/or political worlds, such as the Edwardian satirist Saki (Hector Hugo Munro (b. 1870–d. 1916)) with The Westminster Alice (1902), an attack on British parliamentary politics. The essays in Sigler 1997 discuss these reimaginings. Carroll’s metatextual, multiworld fantasia Sylvie and Bruno (1889), and its successor Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), largely ignored or undervalued for decades after their publication, have become the objects of a critical reevaluation: Miller 1993 sees their lack of genre formality and digressive narrative structures in terms of classical models of Menippean satire (following up on Frye 1944’s [cited under Definitions and Theoretical Contexts] view of the Alice books as in this genre).

Charles Dickens

It would be difficult to discuss Victorian satire without a consideration of the writings of Charles Dickens, although his main works were not directly satires in form. There was, however, a strong satirical vein throughout Dickens’s novels, usually directed at the institutions and wider social attitudes that were the subjects of his public campaigns; his later novels of the 1850s became more systematically satirical, working with elaborate metaphors and aimed at more fundamental societal structures. Yet his emphasis is ultimately more on the relationship of the individual to these than on structural changes. His targets include the New Poor Laws (especially workhouses) in Oliver Twist (1838), the law courts of Chancery in Bleak House (1853), and utilitarian educational thought in Hard Times (1854). Little Dorrit’s (1857) satire extends to the whole of (British) society, portrayed as obsessed with the money-making schemes of the shifty financier Mr. Merdle but with particular reference to the “Circumlocution Office,” Dickens’s imaginary government office charged with the task of working out how not to do what needs to be done. The chief satirical target of Great Expectations (1861) is the narrator and hero himself, Pip, whose agonized sense of class shame fuels the novel. Regarding individuals, hypocrisy—especially religious hypocrisy—was one of Dickens’s favorite objects of attack: his novels contain several thinly veiled portraits of actual people (Bleak House’s Skimpole is thought to be—unfairly—based on Leigh Hunt, Martin Chuzzlewit’s Pecksniff on Samuel Hall). Manning 1971 is an older text that nevertheless usefully explores the formal features and changing nature of Dickens’s use of satirical techniques while regarding him as not essentially a satirist. Welsh 1968 considers Dickens’s representations of the city in terms of classical satirical models. Kincaid 1972 furthered the influential concept of the “darker Dickens” of the later novels. Schlicke 1975 considers the political context behind his earlier satire. Bakhtin 1981 (cited under Definitions and Theoretical Contexts) addresses the double-voiced, parodic multiple stylizations utilized in describing Little Dorrit’s Merdle. For a general guide to Dickens (which includes perceptive comments on satire in his key novels), students will find Hobsbaum 1998 useful. Hill 1981 considers Dickens’s visual imagery in relation to his satire on the picturesque mode. Sen 1998 addresses Dickens’s satire in terms of radical sensibilities, while Ledger 2007 makes popular radical culture and traditions of radical satire (as distinct from classical or middle-class traditions) indispensable to an understanding of his work.

  • Hill, Nancy K. A Reformer’s Art: Dickens’ Picturesque and Grotesque Imagery. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1981.

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    Argues for Dickens’s creation of a visual rhetoric combining grotesque imagery with satire of the complacency of picturesque art.

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  • Hobsbaum, Philip. A Reader’s Guide to Charles Dickens. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1998.

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    Accessible general guide to Dickens. See especially the chapter on Bleak House and narrative satire (pp. 149–173). First published 1972.

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  • Kincaid, James R. Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

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    Influential reading of Dickens as exercising a darker humorous mode in his later career. Examines laughter in Dickens’s novels as a device to address serious themes.

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  • Ledger, Sally. Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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    Analysis of Dickens in relation to satirical traditions of popular radical culture. Positions Dickens as bridging 18th- and 19th-century concepts of “‘the People’ (a political entity) and the (mass market) ‘populace’ (a commercial entity)” pp. (2–3). Includes substantial discussion of Cruikshank and Jerrold.

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  • Manning, Sylvia Bank. Dickens as Satirist. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971.

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    Examines characteristics of satire appearing in Dickens’s novels, arguing for a familiarity with the genre and a satirical tendency in his writing but ultimately positioning his novels as not fundamentally satires. Traces transition from early satiric experimentation, through to his later use of satiric form, to a use of satire as ancillary to other forms.

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  • Schlicke, Paul. “Bumble and the Poor Law Satire of Oliver Twist.” Dickensian 71 (1975): 149–156.

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    Analysis of Oliver Twist, and especially the character Mr. Bumble, as a mode of satirical commentary on the early Victorian Poor Laws.

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  • Sen, Sambudha. “Bleak House and Little Dorrit: The Radical Heritage.” ELH 65.4 (1998): 945–970.

    DOI: 10.1353/elh.1998.0038Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Displaced continuation of language of radicalism in Dickens’s novels in ways that destabilized supposed imperatives of the realist novel. Discusses Dickens’s adoption and integration of radical graphic satire. Available online by subscription.

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  • Welsh, Alexander. “Satire and History: The City of Dickens.” Victorian Studies 11.3 (1968): 379–400.

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    Long-standing satirical tradition of attacking the city and city life. Considers Dickens’s urban satire in the context of oppositions and paradoxes created by city life. Representation of city as a “monster” of systematic growth. Traces shift from city as object of satire in Victorian literature to object of anxiety and investigation/concern. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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George Meredith

George Meredith (b. 1828–d. 1909), a late Victorian novelist, poet, and essayist, was a noted satirist of the period, although he achieved popularity only late in his career. He is now relatively understudied, but still critically admired, by Victorianist scholars. Meredith was deeply interested both in social issues of the day and in theories of comedy: His Essay on Comedy (1877) is a significant theoretical examination of the distinctions between comedy, humor, and satire, describing the satirist as a “moral scavenger.” Meredith’s novel The Egoist (1879) is a splendidly satirical depiction of the protagonist’s self-delusion and of women’s position in society, while he offers a considerably darker satire of ideals about marriage in Modern Love (1862), his great sonnet sequence documenting the final stages of a disintegrating marriage. Beer 1964 is an illuminating comparison of Meredith’s theories of comedy with his use of dramatic form, which is relevant to humor studies more generally, especially theorists of satire, as well as scholars interested in the workings of satire across different genres. Martin 1974 (cited under Victorian Studies) discusses the Essay’s emphasis on laughter as based in rational self-perception. Crowell 2010 considers the distinctive form of Modern Love’s sonnets as a reversion to a minor Renaissance form inviting political protest.

  • Beer, Gillian. “George Meredith and The Satirist.” Review of English Studies 15.59 (1964): 283–295.

    DOI: 10.1093/res/XV.59.283Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines Meredith’s distinctions in his Essay on Comedy (1877) between comedy, humor, and satire, in relation to his unpublished play The Satirist. Argues that Meredith finds the genre problematic because “Saying and doing is of the essence of drama: Meredith’s prime concern was with the interaction of the conscious and the unconscious” (p. 295). Especially useful for theorists of satire and genre studies. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Crowell, Kenneth. “Modern Love and the Sonetto Caudato: Comedic Intervention through the Satiric Sonnet Form.” Victorian Poetry 48.4 (2010): 539–557.

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    Argues that Meredith’s Modern Love explores the satirical and comedic possibilities of an obscure Renaissance poetic form, the sonetto caudato. Views Meredith’s experimentation with genre as “a fundamentally Victorian satirical enunciation using poetic form to signal a public protest” (p. 539) Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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W. M. Thackeray

Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847–1848) is often seen as the greatest Victorian satirical novel, although Thackeray’s other novels and his writings for journals like Punch contain many humorous attacks on social pretensions and sharply observed social parodies. Vanity Fair, set in the early 19th century during the final defeat of Napoleon, features the sharp-witted, conniving Becky Sharpe, who schemes her way to the top of London’s aristocratic society. The novel is both fascinated and repelled by her, and its satire is directed as much if not more at the folly and vice of those around her than at Becky herself. Burch 1982 considers the corrective aspect of Vanity Fair as satire, while Loomis 1968 places Thackeray in the context of the challenges facing Victorian satire. Lougy 1975 is a powerful reading of Vanity Fair as embodying Thackeray’s twin—and irreconcilable—impulses toward moral satire and visionary prophecy, and as ultimately positing human civilization as diseased beyond the cure of satire. Catalan 2009 sees Thackeray’s satire as rather more positive than does Lougy, in being directed toward societal contexts rather than essential human qualities.

  • Burch, Mark H. “‘The World Is a Looking-Glass’: Vanity Fair as Satire.” Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture 15.3 (1982): 265–279.

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    Useful consideration of genre formations in Vanity Fair.

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  • Catalan, Zelma. “Irony in Vanity Fair.” In Victorian Web. 2009.

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    Chapter 2 of The Politics of Irony in Thackeray’s Mature Fiction: Vanity Fair, The History of Henry Esmond, The Newcomes (Sophia, Bulgaria: St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, 2009) includes a section specifically on satire and Thackeray’s adaptation of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) in terms of social action. Sees Thackeray’s satire as directed against society’s “habitual behaviourial and discursive practices.”

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  • Loomis, Chauncey C., Jr. “Thackeray and the Plight of the Victorian Satirist.” English Studies 49.1–6 (1968): 1–19.

    DOI: 10.1080/00138386808597295Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sees Thackeray and his peers as writing in opposition to prevailing trends, which viewed satire with distrust. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Lougy, Robert E. “Vision and Satire: The Warped Looking Glass in Vanity Fair.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 90.2 (1975): 256–269.

    DOI: 10.2307/461609Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Vanity Fair as the darkening of Thackeray’s satirical view of the world, to the extent that moral satire is taken over by anarchy and a vision of human civilization as essentially hollow and diseased. Invokes the pastoral mode to search for alternative redemptive visions of society. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Wheatley, James H. Patterns in Thackeray’s Fiction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969.

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    Positions Vanity Fair as arising out of the uneasy intersection between satire and realism, targeting cant and hypocrisy in particular as formal and codified vices, with rigidity as the central target of Thackeray’s critique.

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Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde (b. 1854–d. 1900) was the preeminent Victorian satirist. He is probably best known for his satirical dramas such as The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), society comedies with a sharp eye for the hypocrisies and duplicities that govern human social interaction, as well as for the more ludicrous dialogues and plots of Victorian melodrama. His more serious short stories and novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890), however, contain underlying satires of sin, selflessness, morality, and the nature and function of art itself. Wilde’s prose pieces, especially the dialogic essays “The Critic as Artist” (1891) and “The Decay of Lying” (1891), model themselves on classical patterns of satire and help to promulgate his Aestheticism in their emphasis on the value of artifice and the individual experience of art. Wilde’s carefully crafted, larger-than-life aesthetic public persona can be viewed as both a statement and a satire, while he became a favored target of satirical representation in the press. This took a tragic turn upon Wilde’s trial and imprisonment for homosexual acts in 1895. Most critical work on Wilde addresses his satire in some way, but for key texts, see the essays in Raby 1997. Martin 1974 (cited under Victorian Studies) allows Wilde to be positioned in relation to developments in Victorian comic theory, since Wilde exemplifies Martin’s argument for a shift in Victorian comic theory to an antisentimental, rational model of wit. Jordan 1970 considers the relationship between satire and fantasy in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, although the article takes a rather limited approach to the scope of Wilde’s satire. Baselga 1994 argues for the importance of linguistic studies in understanding the workings of Wilde’s satire. Eltis 1996 argues for more radical and politicized readings of Wilde as social critic.

  • Baselga, Mariano. “Oscar Wilde and the Semantic Mechanisms of Humour: The Satire of Social Habits.” In Rediscovering Oscar Wilde. Edited by C. George Sandulescu, 13–20. Gerrards Cross, UK: Smythe, 1994.

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    This book is an important collection of essays on Wilde, and Baselga considers the linguistic structures through which Wilde’s humor serves to satirize social rituals, arguing that he “mastered language so well that he realized rhetoric was the ‘cleanest’ and most invisible weapon against Victorian hypocritical and decadent habits” (p. 7). Discusses The Importance of Being Earnest and The Canterville Ghost.

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  • Eltis, Sos. Revising Wilde: Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

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    Innovative reexamination of Wilde’s plays as expressions of complex philosophical and political beliefs.

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  • Hodgart, Richard. “Satirical Wit.” In Victorian Web. 1988.

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    Hodgart discusses briefly the history of “wit” and “satire” and how they came to be a literary technique, mentioning how Wilde used them.

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  • Jordan, Robert J. “Satire and Fantasy in Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 1.3 (1970): 101–109.

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    Discusses Earnest as between socially critical satire and aesthetic fantasy, though with fantasy as the more important element. Satirical inversion as a key structuring element, though not one that produces satire particularly distinct from contemporary writing. “If at one level the play is a social satire and at another it is a farce, at the most important level it seems to be a fantasy in which unattainable human ideals are allowed to realize themselves” (p. 104).

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  • Raby, Peter, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

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    Essays provide valuable initial introduction to Wilde and his use of satire from a number of different cultural and national contexts.

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