AbstractsLanguage, Literature & Linguistics

Satire and Dickens

by Richard White

Institution: University of Otago
Year: 0
Record ID: 1301964
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/10523/5631


People have a fundamental need to feel good about themselves, and sometimes we can achieve this at the expense of others. If I can laugh at someone who does something stupid, or feel superior to someone who does something unjust, or rebel against an institution which violates some natural law, then so much the better for me. Essentially, this is why I read satire. Until recently this sort of approach does not seem to have appealed to literary critics - perhaps because it demeans their subject matter - but there are many essential human needs which are satisfied by a reader's imaginative response to satire, and there is nothing ignoble in that. Satire allows us to escape the constrictions that society places on us. When we read satire we can behave badly: we laugh at other people, cackle at their stupidity, and snigger at their pomposity or hypocrisy; we revenge ourselves upon people who have bored, annoyed, or cheated us. All of this misbehaviour is sanctioned by moral propriety, and by the figure who establishes what is proper and what is not, the satirist. It is the satirist who sets up little moral victories for us, made possible by satiric attack. However, when satire becomes part of a novel, it must there vie for ascendancy with other guises of the author. The satirist must compete with the moralist, the comic, or the sentimentalist, and when this happens the reader too must evaluate their satiric victories alongside the other emotions they feel when they read other parts of a novel. Charles Dickens has many such guises, and consequently he particularly challenges the reader to cope with many different responses. This is where satire becomes even more interesting, because the victories are tempered by other, perhaps more noble emotions. The novels of Dickens present the reader with a constant battle between good and bad: both the author's and the reader's.