Satire may be a gentle, barely perceptible, oblique presentation of a subject, or it may be an outrageously blatant mockery. The ultimate reality is that, as with virtually every literary device, its power and value derives from the talent of the artist using it. Two masters of it, albeit men with very different artistic agendas, are Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens. The former is inclined to adopt satire as, in a sense, a paint brush always in his hand, betraying a conviction that all things warrant a degree of mockery; the latter instead wields satire as a weapon reserved for the truly fatuous, malign, and ultimately deserving of ridicule. Both men succeed beautifully in adapting the instrument to their ambition. By employing satire as both prism and scalpel, Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens individually use the device to emphasize their most deeply felt perceptions regarding society.
The Importance of Being Droll
In his classic comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, it is difficult to identify where the satire begins and ends because, essentially, the entire play is purely satirical. This is an instance where satire, typically employed as an ancillary device, is crucial to the very nature of the work. More precisely, no single character and no single scene is exempt from its influence, and the very air the characters breathe is “satire.” Love affairs, mistakes in identity, crises in class interactions, the threat of legal action, and ongoing concerns with wealth are all presented in the skewed, teasing mode of satire.
This pervasive and consistent application of satire serves to reveal an interesting, and ironic, essential fact about the play. The Importance of Being Earnest is, again, a comedy, and a comedy of manners; no audience viewing it expects anything but gentle mockery of love and cultural conventions, and that is what it gets, to be sure. However, that same, unrelieved employing of satire actually presents a point of view not in keeping with a “light” work, for there is a distinct sense that all the satire cloaks a pervasive cynicism. Other authors, Charles Dickens among them, frequently and willingly set the device of satire aside when, for example, they wish to present a genuine, romantic scene. Other interactions in literature also seem to defy satire, such as familial conflicts and overt acts of selfishness and/or criminality. The implication is that, at some point, the author believes the subject matter is worthy of a straightforward presentation.
Wilde, on the other hand, is utterly unconcerned with any such degrees of “seriousness”. Nothing in his world, or at least those elements of it he chooses to dramatize, is so deserving of respect that his satire is withheld. The play is meticulously constructed, and this level of precision also serves to enhance the satirical flow of each scene. Even in the lightest of comedies, there is usually a moment or two when the romantic characters are permitted to express honest affection. Wilde’s Jack, Algernon, Gwendolen, and Cecily do indeed avow their loves for one another, but the entire arena is infused with gentle derision. In The Importance of Being Earnest, it actually seems as though satire itself is Wilde’s goal, and not his tool, because his profound cynicism for romance and the foibles of human nature allows for nothing else. As noted, satire is essentially a paint brush which never leaves the author’s hand, and Wilde’s satire, while never harsh, is absolutely relentless.
Hard Times, Lighter Touch
As an impassioned moralist, Charles Dickens, it may be argued, has two choices as an author. He may adopt a fiercely dogmatic style in order to stress the injustices he sees all around him, or he may opt to employ humor to make palatable to the public what is so inherently wrong. In Hard Times, as in most of his other work, Dickens chooses the latter avenue, and fortunately so for his readers. For example, Dickens had vehement feelings about the abuse of children, in English education and in harsh expectations of them from unfeeling adults. He abhorred the crushing of a child’s natural inclinations as a criminal act. Thus does he present Mr. Gradgrind, the school administrator maniacally obsessed only with facts. The man is something of a caricature – that kind of excess marks many Dickens’ creations – yet the amplification works as perfect satire because Gradgrind’s extremes are balanced by the cool, human remonstrances of the circus girl, Sissy Jupe. By pairing an outrageously satirical representation with a fully human one, Dickens employs satire with the skill of a surgeon. He makes his point through mockery, but he tempers it with a juxtaposed humanity. He keeps even his most intense satire rooted in the earth.
Then, it is likely that Josiah Bounderby would be portrayed as a monster in Hard Times. He is, for Dickens, the root of social evil, an industrialist who exults in the foul, smoke-filled air his factories spew as a wonderful, healthy atmosphere. Set forth as the one-dimensional, immensely greedy man he is, he cannot engage the reader at all. He is to be shunned on the page as he would be in life. However, by rendering Bounderby as a ridiculously self-inflated fool, Dickens uses the comedy of satire to both humanize the character and make his horrors acceptable to the reader. With Bounderby, as with a wide variety of scenes and people in Hard Times, Dickens uses satire with great discretion, to fleetingly underscore and illuminate truly urgent and serious social issues.
Naturally, different authors possess, not only varying levels of ability, but different motives and issues to convey. Oscar Wilde’s work chiefly concerns itself, as in The Importance of Being Earnest, with the lighter arenas of society, while Charles Dickens rarely ignores the great social issues of his time. Both authors employ satire to best achieve their ends and reveal their artistic essences. With Wilde, it is very much his only access to all the worldly subject matter he has little regard for; with Dickens, it is a sword he flourishes for the common good, and in broad, comedic sweeps. However they approach it, Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens individually and potently use the device of satire to emphasize their most deeply felt opinions regarding their society.