Satire in British Short Stories: Elements & Examples

Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Laughter can be a very powerful force. Read this lesson to discover how British authors have used satire to direct laughter at creating social change.


Do you watch ''Weekend Update'' on Saturday Night Live? Or The Daily Show? If you're not a TV fan, have you ever read a political cartoon in the newspaper? What do all of these have in common? Each one is an example of modern satire.

Satire is a technique that uses humor, irony, parody, or sarcasm to expose or criticize corruption or human folly. Writers often use the elements of satire by giving fictional characters the traits of those whom they are ridiculing. The hope is that this dark form of humor will make others realize the corruption and try to change it.

British Satire

There are several specific traits common to British authors who feature satire in their works. First, Brits often rely heavily on sarcasm to drive home their overall message or criticism. Sarcasm is a quick, sharp, or pointed statement intended to hurt or show scorn towards someone or something.

As far back as Shakespeare, writers realized they can use comedy as a means of criticizing human affairs. Some ideals Shakespeare ridiculed include pride, ambition, and greed. To this day, British authors use a dark sense of humor to connect to their readers, hoping that the ridicule will draw out the determination for change.

Finally, British authors use parody in abundance within satire. These writers aim to mock the original writing in order to belittle the subject matter. As a result, the defects in the original piece are exposed, making it seem absurd.

Literary Movements

It is essential to understand the political climate of the eras in which satirical authors wrote. Only then can you truly understand their message.

The Enlightenment

The first era important to British satire is the Enlightenment, nicknamed The Age of Reason: logic and reasoning were valued above all else. This era lasted from the late 1600s into the early 1800s. Themes included religious tolerance, government free from oppression, and promoting scientific research. British authors who wrote satire during this age aimed to emphasize these Enlightenment ideals, while demeaning religious zealotry and tyrannical governments.


The next important literary movement is the Romantic Period, which was devoted to spiritualism and emotions. It stretched from the later 1700s and peaked near the mid-1800s. These writers, in a reaction to the Enlightenment Era, turned away from cold hard facts, instead emphasizing emotion and imagination. British satirists in this age attempted to undermine living one's life based solely on facts and logic.

Victorian Era

The final important movement is the Victorian Era, which lasted from 1837-1901 (the entire reign of Queen Victoria). Politically, this was a period where England experienced peace and accomplishment. British writers in this era looked to promote anything British, standing tall with pride for their nation. Their sarcasm and irony turned towards the follies of the outside world.

Examples in Brit Lit

Remember, satire aims to correct or expose weakness or corruption in people, ideas or institutions. The Brits have been using this method for hundreds of years in an abundance of various forms of media.

''The Happy Prince''

This first example is actually a children's story. Written by Oscar Wilde in 1888, the criticism within the story speaks largely to adults who understand the bitter end of the swallow and the prince.

In this story, a swallow stays behind when his friends travel to Egypt for the winter. He comes across a beautiful statue of the Happy Prince with sapphire eyes, gold leaves, and a ruby on his sword. The Happy Prince is determined to make up for his spoiled life by using the swallow to give away his jewels and gold. The swallow is reluctant because he wants to get to the warmth in Egypt, but also because the Prince would be blind without his sapphire eyes. The Prince is adamant, so the swallow does as he says. He then decides to stay with the Prince due to his blindness.

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