Recovering The SelfA Journal of Hope and Healing

Arts & Literature

Satire – A Brief Introduction with Examples

Satire refers to the art or practice of ridiculing human vices and/or flaws. By definition, satire is a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn (1). Most satire is closely tied to humor, but comedy or humor is not a necessary effect or component of satire.


The word “satire” derives from the Latin term “satura” and is thought to come more directly perhaps from “lanx satura”, meaning a dish of mixed ingredients (2).


The exact origin of the art or practice of satire is not clearly known. The first reference to what would later qualify as satire dates back to the Greek playwright Aristophanes who referred to certain type of verses as “Old Comedy” (3).


Based on the nature of voice or tone of the narrator, two main types of satirical works are generally distinguished in literature: Horatian and Juvenile.

Horatian Satire is named after the Roman satirist Horace (65 – 8 BC). It is the more sugar-coated form of satire that ridicules human follies or shortcomings in a more gentle, witty, and amusing voice. Juvenile Satire, on the contrary, assumes a more direct, bitter, and even angry tone to attack vices of people and/or institutions (4).


In Mark Twain’s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the character Jim, an African-American slave at the widow’s house where Huck stays, carries a hairball which he claims to possess magical power used for predicting future. When asked for use by Huck, Jim tells Huck that “sometimes it wouldn’t talk without money” (5). Thus Twain satirizes the practice of paid fortune-telling as it was more prevalent in those days.

Jonathan Swift’s famous satirical essay A Modest Proposal is remembered as an example of juvenile satire. In the essay, Swift targeted the apathy of the upper social/economic class of Ireland toward the poor of their society by suggesting that the gentlemen and ladies should feed on the poor children to ease their financial misery. One paragraph in the essay reads, “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout” (6).


Satire is widely applied in contemporary works in various forms, media, and styles, all sharing the common comedic effect. At times, it leads to controversy or outrage, particularly when certain sensitive topics are involved. Recently, an Irish channel was widely criticized and petitioned for entertaining a comedy proposal by writer Hugh Travers involving “famine satire” (7).

Famous Satirists

Among the long list of satirists through the history of literature, following is a short list of the more celebrated satirists (8), though it excludes some big names, like Horace, Oscar Wilde, and others.

  1. Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745)
  2. Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)
  3. Aristophanes (ca. 446 BC – ca. 386 BC)
  4. Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)
  5. Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914?)
  6. François Rabelais (c. 1494 – 1553)
  7. Ubayd Zakani (d. 1370?)
  8. Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466/9? – 1536)
  9. Gaius Lucilius (c. 180 BC? – 103/2 BC)
  10. Henry Louis (H. L.) Mencken (1880 – 1956)


  1. Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Ed., 1993, p.1038
  2. Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Ed., 1993, p.1038
  3. Satire – The Definitive Guide to Satire: Etymology, History & Lore:
  4. Kent-Drury:
  5. “Adventure of Huckleberry Finn”, The American Tradition in Literature, Perkins & Perkins, 12th Ed., Vol. 2, p. 165.
  6. A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (1729):
  7. No shame in laughing at famine satire:
  8. Top 10 Satirists by Shell Harris:

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