The Disillusionment of Satire


Satire, the language of the poet, writer and film-maker, has been one of the primary modes of criticism since its first conception. Often satire is a response, a differentiation of ideals or appropriateness that the author has with the public view of normality. As Leonard Feinberg states, in his seminal work on satire called Introduction to Satire, the satirist “is stimulated by the incongruities in society, he is infuriated or amused by them, and he ridicules them.” (1967: 12) By this definition of satirist we can understand to important facts about satire itself. 1. It involves an element of comedy and ridicule. 2. It involves an element of disillusionment from the current society.

Satire can then be seen as being disillusioned both morally and politically from the society it was created in. Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom give us an insight to the mind of the author when approaching satire in their book Satire’s Persuasive Voice. They wrote, “satirist have liked to think of themselves as judges of morals and manners with certain added prerogatives: not only do they pass and execute sentence on the guilty, they cry out against the inequities suffered by the victims.” (1979: 31) What is interesting in this passage is the fact that the satirist will, “execute sentence on the guilty”. So in effect, satirist executes sentences on those guilty on moral crimes. It is interesting then that Feinberg notes, “Many satirist consider their work moral even when it contradict the satire of other writers who call themselves moralists.” (1967: 9) What this essay is  establishing is that satire is disillusioned because the authors responds to what they perceive as gross contradiction in their society, where morality and politics are in conflict with what is really happening. As Feinberg says, “the essence of satire is revelation of the contrast between reality and pretense.” (1967: 3)

What this essay is establishing is that satire is individual to the author, meaning his morality is separate from others, thus the act of satire and satirizing individuals and institutions, always involves disillusionment. As Bloom and Bloom write, “satire is elusive and variable, wearing many disguises and satisfying many expectations […] No single norm can accommodate the many possibilities of a genre or a set of attitudes: satire can be either or both.” (1979: 15) By being a genre which is hard to define and have a norm in effect creates satire as the image of disillusionment. Not only is it an act of disillusionment upon morality and politics it is disillusioned in itself. This essay will discuss disillusionment in the texts Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, A Clockwork Orange both the movie and the text, and Alexander Pope’s Moral Essays. This essay will discuss the context of these sources and point to its relation to disillusionment. This essay will also do close readings of some passages and discuss elements of satire, what it is satirizing, and why it is disillusioned with morals and politics.

To understand disillusionment in Nineteen Eighty-Four the audience must first understand some context about the piece. Written in 1948 the London that Winston lives in is, according to Bernard Crick, “caricature of the actual post-war London that Orwell had walked, and that this author could vividly remember.” (2007: 146) Orwell describes a post-war period where the world is, “brutally and arbitrarily divided into spheres of influence by the great powers.” (2007: 146) What Crick believes is that Nineteen Eighty-Four, among other satirical themes, is a response to the “division of the world at Tehran by Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill.” (2007: 147) It seems partly that Orwell was reflecting on the world he lived in, didn’t like what he saw, and thus exaggerated this separation to the extreme’s of parody. There is some evidence for this theme, for example the division of the world in Nineteen Eighty-Four into Eurasia; Oceania; and Eastasia, but if this is a theme as Crick suggest, it is only a minor one. The major satirical themes in the text lay in the fear of technocratic control of privacy, and Orwell’s disillusionment with Soviet Communism and its economy. (Posner 2000: 14) To satire these two themes, Orwell used a satirical technique called reductio ad absurdum. Feinberg explains this technique saying, “the satirist pretends his opponent’s idea is excellent; he applies it to an actual situation; he not only applies it but exaggerates it inappropriateness to the ultimate degree, until it is preposterously clear that the idea is ridiculous.” (1967: 112) This is exactly what Orwell has done; he has created a technocratic world at its extreme, where there is a telescreen on every corner. He has also created this world into the image of totalitarianism but has parodied it, applying the similar situation to London, stretching it to the extreme, where rations are few, and criticism means liquidation. (Posner 2000: 16) It is then interesting that the Communist Orwell was critiquing the communist based economy of Soviet Russia.

Orwell saw the Soviet state as a gross monster of the values he stood for in democratic-socialism, and because of this he satired it, fulfilling the basic need of satire and showing is disillusionment with how the Soviet Communism was. Orwell’s representation of the technocratic regime is also one he saw as a possibility. Take his description of the telescreens. ”The telescreens received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it”. (1987: 4) What Orwell created is a technology in existence today, it even available on most new iPhone. It is teleconferencing. So it seems the technology is not that farfetched. If this technology had been created in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four it would be completely understandable that a totalitarian government would install many to keep an eye on its population. What Orwell was doing here was exaggerating the thought control processes of the Soviet regime. Posner writes, “Without the (infeasible) telescreen surveillance, the system of though control depicted by Orwell is essentially the Soviet system under Stalin.” (2000: 16) Orwell was simply taking the system and exaggerating it to show what it could be. Posner also notes that as he understood it, the system of telescreens were infeasible. He wrote, “The system he describes is not realistic. To see this, one need only ask who is to man all the telescreens. There are several in every apartment and office occupied by members of the party- of whom there are a total of about 45 million […] Suppose there are 100 million telescreens; that would probably require 10 million watchers.” (2000: 16) This idea suggests Posner has missed an important point about the telescreens. The point is that everyone does not need to be watched, only that they think they are being watched. As Orwell wrote, “ There was of course no way of knowing if you were being watched at any given moment,” pointing out the fear of not knowing if you were being watched was greater than actually being watched. (1987: 5) Orwell give more evidence with the point that the only place where Winston and Julia have no fear for a few fleeting hours is in the room they rent, because they believe they are not being watched.  So it is clear that Orwell’s text, Nineteen Eighty-Four, was a response to several themes, but mainly it was a response to the totalitarian Soviet government, a government which he believed did not uphold the communist ideals they espoused.

Perhaps the more relevant dystopian satire in today’s society is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This more technologically imaginative piece than Nineteen Eighty-Four, had a basis in a more advanced education then Orwell had received. Huxley was trained as a doctor, and as a result the technological innovations of science he describes are more inventive and explained then in Nineteen Eighty-Four. (Posner 2000:  10) Set in the far off future, Huxley describes a world where technology affects every facet of life. Yet while it is set so far off in the future Peter E. Firchow believes in his essay, The Satire of Huxley’s Brave New World, that the text was actually, “a satire not so much of the future as of the present.” (1967: 451) This idea relates back to reductio ad absurdum that Feinberg discussed. Therefore it can be argued that Firchow saw Brave New World as a disillusioned prediction, of the society he was in at the time, into the future. However, what was Huxley disillusioned with in the 1930’s when he wrote the piece?

Huxley was disillusioned with the effect technological innovations were having on humans, and the efficacy of central planning in the scientific or reasoned state.  Posner believes Huxley was particularly fascinated with technological innovations and how they produce “unforeseeable long run consequences that may be good or bad.” (2000: 4) He links this as a result coming from World War 1. The development of different weaponry had changed the way war was fought, and as a result millions of lives were lost. To go to war in WWI was basically a death sentence. Huxley takes this idea of unforseen changes and exaggerates it. He takes the idea of birth control completes it so it is not possible for conception to happen, and comes to the conclusion that sex transforms into an activity of pleasure.  It is no longer seen as an intimate act, but a release of bodily functions and pleasure. “Orgy-porgy, Ford and fun, Kiss the girls and make them One. Boys at one with girls at peace; Orgy-porgy gives release.” (Huxley 1975: 74) This results in a calming of the masses, a destruction of family ties and a devaluation of love.

Later on when the savage falls in love with Lenina he taken aback when she offers herself to him. He flies into a rage and reacts violently. The Savage says, “I love you more than anything in the world”, Lenina responds with sexual advances. (Huxley 1975: 152)She interprets his love as a sexual desire, when in reality he wants her to love him back. The development of birth control then can be seen to have astounding effects on this Brave New World. Huxley, a scientist who enjoyed scientific advances, was weary of where it would take society. Posner points to three significant technologies highlighted in Brave New World, reproductive technology (contraception as well as the development of test tube babies), mind and body altering technology (pills and conditioning), and entertainment technology.  Feinberg notes that, “Huxley’s characters in Brave New World keep repeating how happy they are in a world where the pretensions of science have reduced men to the level of completely conditioned physiological organisms.”  (1967: 56) Huxley is then weary of placing complete faith in technology in relation to our lives. His prediction has an effect of almost debasing humanity. Huxley was also weary of the length society would go to be reasonable, even if it meant sacrificing humanity. The best example of this is the creation of five classes to avoid class conflict. What this sacrifices is the ability for social mobility.

“The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical, against this I raise my sword-pen” (Burgess 2008: 18) These are the words read out by Alex from the essay, A Clockwork Orange, an ironic gesture from Burgess to himself. Because these words partly make-up what the point of his text is. Burgess is satirizing a state which seeks to regulate everything, even if it robs a person of the freedom to choose wrong or right. (Tilton 1977: 39) John W. Tilton in his work believes that Burgess is satirizing a repressive state that has, “regulated everyone’s life; it has been subjected the masses to dehumanizing flat block living; it represses free speech and free expression of the individuality. “ (1977: 39) Julian Coleman believes that this state tampers with Alex’s natural state through repression and points out the irony in creating s system to eliminate an evil it created. (1983: 63) Alex’s subjugation to the Ludovico Technique, in an attempt to condition a sick response to evil and violence, renders him in being “incapable of life.”  (1983: 63) This repressive state can effectively be understood in the film techniques used by Stanley Kubrick in his movie adaption of A Clockwork Orange. Jackson Burgess wrote in a review of the movie that the film gives, “a curious feeling of gluey slowness at many points, for once Kubrick sets up a bit of violence he immediately goes stylized.” (1972: 34) What Kubrick is trying to portray is that repressive effect a regulating state has. That’s why the film seems gluey. The reason the violence is so stylized is to have this effect of release. The film is gluey except during violent scenes. What Kubrick is trying to portray is the release from repression.  The best example of this can be found 4 min 41 seconds into the film. Alex and the gang have just beaten an old man from a distance with a mostly colourless shot; it then very slowly cuts to the next scene of a flower vase painted on a roof slowly zooming out to reveal a rape. The cut is so gluey that it seems as if the sound from the previous scene lingers on for a few seconds more. Kubrick is trying to portray that repression from the state that is so evident in the book.

What Burgess was considerably disillusioned with was the state that interferes with its population. He took this state and exaggerated it, in turn creating Alex’s world. Burgess is really railing against the way humans act as he tries to expose, “the illusions men live by[…]”. (Tilton 1977: 41) Burgess upholds this belief that he thought society ignored, which the society certainly ignored in his text when they try to tamper with human nature, this belief in the difficulty of humans to “accept the truth that good and evil emanate from within the self.”  (Tilton 1977: 41) In a way he is criticizing human ignorance of humanity and how trying to regulate humanity leads to destruction of it. When Alex can no longer choose he fails to participate in choosing good or evil and is thus robbed of life. (Tilton 1977: 41) The obvious advocate of this position is in the Prison Chaplain when he states, “Choice […] He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.” (2008: 94) Dr Brodsky replies, “we are only concerned with cutting down crime.” (2008: 94) This is clearly Burgess’s insight into this matter and makes up the basis of his text. He saw the possibility of this happening in his society and created a society in which it did. Feinberg even names A Clockwork Orange as one of the texts that use the technique of reductio ad absurdum. (1967: 112) Burgess was disillusioned with the irregularities he saw in the morals of his society and responded by showing them the possibilities of how ridiculous their inappropriateness was. (1967: 112)

The last text this essay will examine is Alexander Pope’s “Moral Essays”. In this poem we encounter a scathing account and satire of the society in Pope’s time. He took his society and made a caricature of it. Pope’s poem is a Horatian satire in that he “claimed the satirist’s mission [was] to criticise foolish customs and wrong ideas rather than particular men.” (Feinberg 1967: 29) Basically Pope reacted ironically amused rather than outraged at the incongruities of human nature. But Pope also attacked particular individuals as well. He was as Vincent Carretta described “The Snarling Muse”. (1983: 90) Carretta also describes the Horatian satire as, “nonpartisan political satire”. (1983: 91) According to Maynard Mack, Pope uses three styles of poetic and satirical voice, the man of plain living; the simple heart; and the public defender. (1960: 104) In this text he is using the style of public defender or, “vir bonus, the plain good private citizen”. (1960: 104) Combining these two facts about the structure of the text we can see that the structure is developing this sense of disillusionment in the text.

Pope, in essence is satirizing what he saw in society that he thought was wrong, in response he revealed to his audience what he thought were the values that should be held up instead. For example in the Third Epistle 29 line you can find a scathing conception of what he believes money actually is. He writes, “B. Trade it may help, society extend: P. But lures the pirate, and corrupts the friend. B. It raises armies in a nation’s aid: P. But bribes a senate, and the land’s betrayed.” (1959: 235) This is interesting because Pope lived in a time of great social change that permeated the economy. He lived in an age of Industrialisation and the birth of Capitalism. Yet Pope had such a divergent view on the economy and money itself. He acknowledged the benefits but thought the disadvantages were not worth it.  On lines 78-81 we get more of an insight to his views. He writes, “What riches gives us, let us then inquire: Meat, fire and clothes. B. What more? P. Meat clothes and fire. Is this too little? Would you more than live?” (1959: 237,) Pope came from a moneyed middle class, and to talk out against luxuries in a time of great wealth seemed appropriate to him. Again we come back to that idea of disillusionment. Pope saw a society which espoused competition and industrialisation, but noted that these deficits as what actually was occurring.  This is only one of the things attacked in his poem, it should then be acknowledged that no one is safe from Pope, and his satire has a huge scope.

Perhaps the best definition of satire provided by Feinberg is, “Unlike other arts, which emphasize what is real, satire emphasizes what seems to be real but is not.” (1967: 3) The four satires I have discussed all show signs of disillusionment with their society. Indeed it hard for a satire not to be disillusioned with something. The very essence of its nature is to reveal how the truth is sometimes misunderstood. Or to put it in a more verbose way, “It is a mode of aesthetic expression that relates to historical reality, involves at least implied norms against which a target can be exposed as ridiculous , and demands the pre-existence or creation of shared comprehension and evaluation between satirist and audience.” (Fletcher 1987: ix)


Bloom, Edward and Lillian Bloom. 1979. Satire’s Persuasive Voice. London: Cornwell University Press.

Burgess, Anthony. 2008. A Clockwork Orange. London: Penguin.

Burgess, Jackson. 1972. “A Clockwork Orange”. Film Quarterly 35(3): 33-36.

Carretta, Vincent. 1983. The Snarling Muse. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Coleman, Julian. 1983. “Burgess’ A CLOCKWORK ORANGE”. Explicator 42(1): 62-63.

Crick, Bernard. 2007. “Nineteen Eighty-Four: context and controversy”. In Cambridge Companion to Nineteen Eighty-Four, ed. Unknown. London: Cambridge Press

Dobree, Bonamy. 1959. Alexander Pope’s Collected Poems. London: Dent & Sons.

Feinberg, Leonard. 1967. Introduction to Satire. Iowa: Iowa University Press

Firchow, Peter. 1967. “The Satire of Huxley’s Brave New World”. Modern Fiction Studies 12(4): 451-460.

Fletcher, M. 1987. Contemporary Political Satire. Lanham: University Press of America.

Huxley, Aldous. 1975. Brave New World. London: Penguin.

Kubrick, Stanley. 1971. A Clockwork Orange [Film]. Warner Brothers. 131 minutes.

Mack, Maynard. 1960. “The Muse of Satire”. In Discussions on Alexander Pope, ed. R.Blanshard. Boston: Heath and Company.

Orwell, George. 1987. Nineteen Eighty-Four. London: Penguin.

Posner, Richard. 2000. “Orwell Versus Huxley: Economics, Technology, Privacy, and Satire”. Philosophy and Literature 24(1): 1-33.

Tilton, John. 1977. Cosmic Satire in the Contemporary Novel. New Jersey: Associated University Press.

Works Consulted

Davis, Herbert. 1947. The Satire of Jonathan Swift. New York: Macmillian Company.

Foucault, Michel. 1975. “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison”. In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leitch, Cain, Finke, Johnson, McGowan, Williams. London: Norton & Company.

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