Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.
We encounter sarcasm in everyday conversations, on TV, and in social media. It's a dry form of mockery that implies a meaning opposite to the one stated, and it's usually best delivered in short, well-aimed statements. It is also a literary device that illuminates an author or character's point of view.
One famously sarcastic character is Severus Snape, the Potions teacher in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. His sardonic outlook was exquisitely delivered by the late Alan Rickman in the Harry Potter movies. Just one example of sarcasm occurs in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince during one detention among many that Snape gives Harry during their years at Hogwarts. After Harry curses Draco Malfoy with the Sectumsempra spell handwritten in his Potions book, Snape forces him to recopy corroded records of past Hogwarts student offenses. He starts with those concerning his murdered father, James, and his godfather, Sirius Black:
''Snape sneered. 'It must be such a comfort to think that, though they are gone, a record of their great achievement remains'...''
Here Snape shows his disdain for James and Sirius, who were once his fellow students at Hogwarts. Snape found them arrogant underachievers then, and their popularity made this harder to stomach. He now harbors the same opinion of Harry. Snape relishes the opportunity to wound and humble The Boy Who Lived by belittling his beloved father and godfather.
Another example occurs when Harry, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger spy on Draco in the Borgin & Burkes shop to uncover his sinister plans. When Ron criticizes Hermione's clumsy attempts to get Mr. Borgin to give up Draco's secret, she says: ''Well, next time you can show me how it's done, Master of Mystery!'' Clearly, she doesn't think Ron could have done better.
Snape's petty victory in the detention scene is doubly steeped in irony. Irony occurs when an outcome opposite to the one logically expected transpires. Although Harry doesn't yet know it, his 'borrowed' potions book once belonged to Snape himself. The 'Half-Blood Prince' name on it is a self-assigned moniker Snape once created with considerable arrogance on his own part. In a culture where wizard lineage was prized and a time when Lord Voldemort was wizard royalty, Snape touted the half-blood status given to him by his witch mother, Eileen Prince. The more glaring irony is that Snape takes such righteous pleasure in punishing Harry for using a Dark Magic spell that he invented himself. Harry didn't know the Sectumsempra curse would wreak life-threatening violence on its victim, whereas Snape actively researched how to bring this about---all while he was a student at Hogwarts.
A satire is a work that mocks and criticizes social corruption or immorality, usually with humor. Examples range from political cartoons to comedic news shows like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. If you watch these shows, you can appreciate Jonathan Swift's satirical essay 'A Modest Proposal.' Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was an Anglican clergyman and political journalist whose writings opposed English oppression in the poor, overpopulated, and famine-stricken colony of Ireland. Published in 1729, 'A Modest Proposal' is actually a commentary from Swift's point of view on the point of view of the English government. The essay denounces legal practices designed to keep Ireland in this dire state to England's profit, but not in so many words. Instead, Swift proposes (as if from England's point of view) that the impoverished Irish begin selling their infants and children to the English gentry as a culinary delicacy. This would enable them to earn money and avoid starvation, overpopulation, and other problems, and would boost the Irish and English economies. The main implication of this satire is that England is already such a ruthless colonizer that, to those in power, even cannibalism might seem like a reasonable strategy for efficient rule in Ireland.
One device Swift uses in his essay is understatement, or a statement that downplays the dramatic nature of a situation for comedic, satirical, or other effect. It is related to sarcasm, but is often more subtle, and can be sustained longer to achieve its purpose. His title itself is a major understatement: a 'modest' proposal would logically pertain to something mundane, like minor changes to tax laws, when in fact his essay lists the advantages of a shocking criminal taboo. 'A Modest Proposal' uses understatements to make the narrator seem like a reasonable, practical person who only has the best interests of England and Ireland in mind.
Another example is Swift's calculation of how many babies could be produced for consumption or raised to adulthood to breed more 'products' for the new industry. Similarly, he states that 'I can think of no one objection that will probably be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom.' Instead of considering the moral implications of not only cannibalism but genocide, Swift (as a satirical narrator) here focuses on statistics. This makes his demeanor businesslike, as if the solution is a perfectly rational option.
We've learned about how exaggerated literary devices such as sarcasm, irony, satire, and understatement can convey an author or character's point of view. Sarcasm is a dry form of mockery that implies a meaning opposite to the one stated, and irony involves an outcome opposite to the one logically expected. We defined satire as a work that mocks and criticizes social corruption or immorality, and understatement as a statement that downplays the dramatic nature of a situation. We studied the effects of these devices in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and in Jonathan Swift's 'A Modest Proposal.'
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