In the words of Lord Byron, I believe and am strongly of the opinion that satires are perhaps the best social commentary of any time besides being from a literary perspective, one the best reads. I know Anthony Trollope had argued that a satirist should write only little otherwise people will believe that his/her words are a reflection of his own caustic nature, but I do not think satirists are inhuman. True, the do derive a lot pleasure from the various follies of mankind, which they pass on to others through their writing. But they never laugh at what is wise or good; if certain actions of mankind were not contemptible, well, we would need satirists.
In this post I would like to list my all-time favourite satires, some of which I believe had brought significant change in their own times. They are listed per the year of publication and are in no way reflective of any order of preference –
- The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615): The adventures of Alonso Quijano and Sancho Panza as they set off for knightly adventures and castles and beautiful ladies exposes the fallacy of chivalric romance and knightly virtues.
- Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, by Jonathan Swift (1726): The immortal classic, often handed down in illustrated and abridged version to children is perhaps one of the best takes on the machinations of the “democratic Westphalia governments” and the corruption within mankind.
- An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews by Henry Fielding (1741): Hitting out at the moralizing Pamela by Samuel Richardson, Fielding unveils a heroine who has no morals and will do anything to entrap her master into marriage.
- The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759) :Tristram Shandy’s so called narration of his life where he does anything but narrate about his life. Sterne made several digs at the then popular “sermon writings” which were actually considered by many as only gentle and acceptable reading material; especially Robert Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy” from which Sterne even satirized his chapter titles!
- Northanger Abbey by Jane Austin (1803): Gothic romances will never be the same again! At a time when every girl including Austin herself swore by the writings of Ann Radcliffe, Catherine Morland’s adventures within the Abbey expose the very ludicrousness of such genre of writing.
- Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928): Waugh takes on the “roaring twenties “ and splits it wide open in this social satire as his protagonist is expelled from Oxford and takes up a teaching job , gets engaged and imprisoned, only to come back from where he started at Oxford
- Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938): Fleet Street and dramatic journalism gets a whole new twist in Waugh’s novel as we follow William Boot through his travels and travails in Ishmaelia and the underlying theme that when media descends on a place, even if nothing is new worthy, something has to happen!
- Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945): Communism and Stalin’s government is satirised in an Animal Farm run by a committee of Pigs with Napoleon their leader resembling the Soviet Dictator.
- Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (1961): What can one say about this classic ……its lines are immortal “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.” World War II and the questions of heroism are unremittingly taken apart and re –examined in this masterpiece.
- The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966): Though written in 1940, the complete unedited version was only published in 1973, more than 33 years after Bulgakov’s death. The book is unremitting take on the bureaucratic and red taped system of Soviet society under the Communist regime. In parallel it also works through an allegorical allusion of sensuality without feeling through the character of Nikolai Ivanovich
Please feel free to add any work that I have left out or you feel has far more impact than the ones listed.