In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Satire

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • The Novel and Satire
  • The “Woman Question” and Satire
  • Illustrators, Cartoonists, and Caricaturists
  • Periodicals
  • Poetic Satire
  • Religious and Scientific Satire
  • Utopias and Dystopias
  • Lewis Carroll
  • Charles Dickens
  • George Meredith
  • W. M. Thackeray
  • Oscar Wilde

Victorian Literature Satire
Muireann O’Cinneide
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0111


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.

  • Dentith, Simon. Parody. New Critical Idiom. London: Routledge, 2000.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203451335

    Useful introductory guide to the generic and historical development of parody, which is often used to satirical effect. Considers a range of scholars’ views and offers a helpful glossary. Includes discussion of Charles Dickens and W. M. Thackeray.

  • Feinberg, Leonard. Introduction to Satire. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1967.

    Explores the ways in which satire plays upon the familiar and how its critical approach becomes acceptable to and integrated within society. Outlines characteristics, content, and technique as well as considering effects and limitations.

  • Muecke, D. C. Irony. Critical Idiom 13. London: Methuen, 1970.

    Introductory guide to irony, addressing its “notorious elusiveness” (p. 1) as a critical concept. Includes analysis of Romantic irony and discussion of Matthew Arnold and Samuel Butler.

  • Pollard, Arthur. Satire. Critical Idiom 7. London: Methuen, 1970.

    Valuable introductory guide, though best combined with newer criticism.

  • Wood, Nigel. “Satire.” In The English Literature Companion. Edited by Julian Wolfreys, 181–185. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

    Useful summary of satire as a genre. Overall volume offers undergraduates an introduction to the discipline of English and literary studies.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.