Irony, Satire & Humour in Joseph Addison’s Essays

Also Read

Bring out Bring out Addison’s satirical quality with reference to the essays you have read.

Illustrate Addison’s gifts of humour and irony from the prescribed essays of Addison.
“Addison’s irony is gentle only because it is general and is veiled by humour”. Discuss.

(With special reference to “The Aim of the Spectator”, “The Scope of Satire”, “Fans”, “Female Orators”, “Meditations in the Abbey”, “Sir Roger in Church”)


      Irony, Satire, and Humour are inextricably mixed in the essays of Addison. He was a social reformer and his aim was to make use of satire or ridicule to bring about a change for the better in society. He attacks vice and folly in a general manner and makes them look absurd so that readers noting this absurdity would leave off indulging in these vices and follies. Thus his satire is prompted by a purpose of reform and teaching. The most useful as well as most dangerous weapon in the hands of any satirist is irony. Irony can be deadly as it is in Swift spiteful as it is often in Pope, or merciless as it is in Jane Austen. But it has never been so mild and gentle as it is in the satire of Addison. And Addison’s irony is gentle (though this is not to say that it is ineffective or that it loses its sharpness) because it is urbane and it is general and it is humorous. For his humour is purposive and the very essence of it is this delectable irony. The satire of Addison’s essays is typically his own, for it is humorous satire, which ridicules the folly and the type and never a particular individual.

Gift of Humour and Irony

      Addison had a keen sense of humour, sympathetic humour that was employed to correct society, to laugh society out of its vices. It was never used to laugh sneeringly at someone with the express purpose of hurting him. It was also not used against natural deformities or misfortunes. This is what makes Addison’s satire so good humoured and urbane. His keen sense of humour the essence of which is irony, is to be seen in all his essays.

Examples of Humorous Irony and Satire in his Essays

      Addison’s gifts of witty observation and humorous irony is evident in the essay “The Scope of Satire”. How humorously he satirizes the members of the club who are quite ready to approve of what Addison was doing in his essay so long as he did not direct the satire against their particular classes! Irony is humorously used to describe the attitude of each member which snatches away all the targets of satire from the hands of the Spectator. Then we have an instance of a pure humour—the comparison of the Spectator’s situation with the old man with two wives who between them make him bold because one does not like black hair and the other dislikes white hair, as a result of which they pluck out the hair which they disliked! There is another humorous reference in this essay, the allusion to the Roman triumvirate who first tried to exclude their friends from the execution list but later decided to keep them in as otherwise they would have been without anyone to execute! The satire is against being partially prejudiced.

      In The Aim of the Spectator, we have several instances of humorous satire. He directs his satire against the different sections of society which are in need of an improvement as regards their tastes and ideas. How delightfully he assures the “blanks of society” that he would see to it that they were not quite so “blank” if they took up reading his paper in which he would provide them with some ideas and thoughts. The irony and humour of calling these people “needy” cannot be missed. He is most humorously satirical when he talks of these men who “are grave or impertinent all the long, according to the notions which they have imbibed in the morning.” But his satire is ‘benevolent’ because he wants them to reform and he attacks the type and never an individual. In the same essay, he says that his papers would go a long way towards improving the female intellect which had so far not been given enough attention. How ironically but how humorously he satirizes the trivial occupations of women which they take so seriously.

      It is in the essays which are directed against the follies of the female world that Addison’s irony and satire become very sharp and pungent yet without losing their humorous nature. In the Aim of the Spectator, we have already been told that the female of the species feels too tired after a visit to the mercer or a shop selling some trivialities to do anything else for the rest of the day. This is a delicate and genial irony—he seems to be speaking very gravely when he remarks that “the toilet is their great scene of business and the right adjustment of their hair the principal employment of their lives,” but the satirical intention is clear.

      In the essay Fans, mockery and ridicule through delectable irony comes through. With the most devastatingly grave irony, Addison describes an institution set up by a correspondent (imaginary of course) in which the correspondent teaches ladies the proper use of fans—the “weapon” as deadly as a sword in the hands of a soldier. The military metaphor which is sustained throughout the essay adds to the humour. The fun and mockery reaches their climax in the Passage describing the various flutters of the fans: the ‘angry’ flutter, ‘timorous’ flutter, the ‘modest’ flutter, the ‘amorous’ flutter, and so ort. In the essay, we see the typical Addisonian irony, discrepancy between the seriousness of tone and the intention behind it. While seems to be reciting or relating facts we do not miss the satirical intention. He is apparently making fun of the coquettish tendencies of the fashionable society of the time. He attacks the artificiality and trivial vanities of the female sex. But the humour is never absent and the satire is never cruel and personal.

      In Female Orators, we have another example of Addison’s sustained irony. Suggestion after suggestion, idea after idea convey their ironical intention. Its effect is enhanced by the grave tone adopted by Addison. How seriously he says that the chair of rhetoric should be reserved for females as they are better than men at the art of speaking. As proof, he remarks—and there is the sting—men can talk for hours upon some topic but women are able to talk for hours upon nothing! He seriously offers the example of British fish wives to prove his contention that women are better at the skill of eloquent arguing and thus are better suited to become lawyers! And note the humour of the grandiloquent term “ladies of the British fishery” for the women who sell fish. Then he goes on to describe the different types of female orators. The scientific tone he adopts in presenting his ‘findings’ regarding the various types, namely the ‘censorious,’ the ‘gossips,’ the ‘coquette’ makes the whole superbly ironical and humorous. We cannot miss the ironical intention behind the apparent ‘praise’ of Mrs. Fiddle-Faddle who can talk for hours on the wit of her boy who has not yet learned to speak! A coquette hates and loves in the same breath, and the reason is even more funny—she wants to give herself a greater area of conversation!

      Addison then goes on to analyze the cause behind this loquacity. He sets about it like a scientist performing some great experiment. He gives various reasons for the loquacity and quotes other writers to find out the possible causes. Perhaps, he says, what Hudibras said was quite correct, that female tongues were able to move faster because tongues were like race horses; they moved faster if the rider was light. The female tongue, Addison implies, had nothing important to talk about so it was able to run on glibly. All allusions and references in the essay are made with a humorous tone. The moral tone is never forgotten and Addison remarks at the end that if he made fun of this loquacity, he did so with the intention of improving the behavior of females in general.

      In de Coverley papers, irony and humour are not missing. In the essay, Sir Roger in Church, we have a delightful combination of praise and ridicule. This is irony of character at its gentle best. Who can miss the ironical behavior of Sir Roger who in his zeal for the welfare of his tenants and his position as a good landlord, calmly tells one of his tenants not to disturb the congregation, blind to the fact that he himself was disturbing the service by speaking! Who can resist from affectionate laughter at this good knight who does not let anyone sleep in the congregation except himself ! This is satire and ridicule of eccentricities of characters but it is always humorous. Sir Roger shows his pleasure at a prayer by saying “Amen” a number of times at the end of a prayer. He thinks nothing of standing up to count the congregation and see if anyone is missing while others were on their knees. But the irony is always mild because it is so humorous.


      Irony and humour are closely mingled in the satire of Addison and this is what makes it mild and gentle. An essay like Meditations in the Abbey is really too reflective to allow for much of irony and humour or satire. But here too we find flashes of this ironical
humour. He refers to the epitaphs as “registers of existence” because they merely give the birth date and date of death of the men as if they had achieved nothing else in this world. And there is the humorous reference to the tombs uninhabited with bodies and graves without monuments.

      Wherever irony is employed, and it is employed in most of the essays which are satires against the follies and vices of society, it is made mild because it is general and humorous. It is not wrong to say that Addison made clear to everyone the possibilities of humorous satire.

Previous Post Next Post