Humor is one of the best way to communicate hard truths. A famous quote on this subject comes from George Bernard Shaw who said; “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” This couldn’t be more accurate, especially when authors take on subjects like war, politics, and death.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Probably the heaviest handed literary satire there is, Animal Farm is built on metaphors for socialism, capitalism, colonialism, and freedom. Every character represents an aspect of political life. The main character is even named Napoleon, who ends up becoming the leader of the Animal Farm.
Boxer is a horse that represents industry, Squealer is a pig who spreads propaganda. The list goes on and on. He even makes some points about the nature of humanity. He writes, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This truth is just as relevant as when he wrote it, and in the context of satire, every reader would likely nod their head in silent agreement.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Catch-22 is primarily a satire on World War II. He puts soldiers in odd situations which require even odder logic in order to justify. The hospitals are filled with errors, like the “soldier in white” who’s I.V. was accidentally replaced with a bag filled with his fecal waste.
A more serious satire occurs later when two men are arguing about the war. A character only referred to as “the old man” says, “A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural.” Men are constantly dying for their countries, whether it be English, German, American, or Russian. The old man concludes his rant by saying: “Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”
Candide by Voltaire
Voltaire’s Candide is a beautiful work built almost entirely on satire. His focus is optimism, and the pitfalls of trusting power structures such as the church and the monarchy. Voltaire was specifically attacking the philosophy Leibniz who argued that this world is the best of all possible worlds. By using absurdity and hyperbole, Voltaire successfully showed the weaknesses of Leibniz’s argument.
One of his most clear uses of exaggeration comes from the ironic description of Thunder-ten-tronckh. He describes the castle as, “the most magnificent and most agreeable of all possible castles, ruled by a most powerful lord; the baroness is the best of all baronesses; Cunegonde is a most perfect beauty; Dr. Pangloss is the wisest possible philosopher.” Not until later in the book do we realize that everything is the exact opposite of how it was described. The castle is small, the baroness is wicked, and the baron is a fraud.
Irony is often subtle and requires a careful reader to detect. Many books criticize some aspect of human nature in some way. Part of the way we disagree with things we don’t like is by portraying them in exaggerated ways that often reveals things we may not have realized before.
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