Humorous Satire of Joseph Addison

Also Read


      Addison is admittedly one of the best satirists of the eighteenth century in English literature. But he is widely different from two other great satirists of the time, Pope and Swift. His satire is general, most of the time mild, and elegantly kind. His satire is not the heavy, bludgeoning satire of Swift, nor the sharp malice of Pope’s. He was not fierce and ferocious or bitter. “Addison’s attack was not front so much as flank attack—the indirect exposure of vulgarity and inelegance by the practice of elegant and refined writing”, as Saintsbury remarks.

Object of Satire

      Addison aimed at general objects for his satire. He never satirizes particular persons. Nor is his satire so general as to include the whole of mankind in general. He is a social satirist who exposes the trivial vices and follies of society—the vices and follies which are below the law and beyond the purview of the pulpit as he says in the essay, The Scope of Satire. Thus his objects of satire are the follies and vices which plagued the society of the day. He never attacks good sense or virtue.

      Furthermore, Addison was disapproving of what he terms ‘malicious wit’. He felt that ridicule was misused in the hands of certain ill-natured men. He himself was against satire which would hurt anyone. With this in view he declares in The Scope of Satire that he would “combat criminals in a body, and assault the vice without hurting the person”. He would never draw a “faulty character which does not fit at least a thousand people”. In other words, he would attack a type and not the individual. He lashes at the vice but spares the man. He condemns groups of people who patronized certain follies and foibles and frivolities, but he criticizes the follies and not the people. Even when the satire seems against a particular person, such as when Sir Roger or Sir Andrew is being ridiculed, we realize that these are types and not individuals. Secondly, we remember that they are fictitious characters; however many critics may try to find originals for them in real life. Thirdly, the satire is good-humoured and sympathetic.

Purpose Behind the Satire

      All satire has a purpose, usually that of correcting humanity or society of its faults and follies. Addison s satire is obviously aimed at the correction of people. It is a true satire in its corrective purpose as against the satire that aims at mere slander and degradation of particular persons or humanity in general. It was Addison’s desire to be thought of as one who had considerably improved the age and reformed the people of their follies and vice. He wanted to correct the people of their follies through the indirect exposure of their follies and vice. But in the process, he does not hurt. He aims to laugh the readers out of their vice rather than hurt them. He was guided by the “spirit of benevolence” and “a love of mankind” in his satire. He aimed at correction by ridicule and laughter. He concerned himself with the petty vices of dress and conduct, minor extravagances and ignorance. He criticizes all the falling away from what he considered the ideal—the ideal of social behavior, moderation and the good taste. He is especially concerned with the fashions and foibles of the female sex.

Humorous Satire

      Satire in Addison, like all good satires, is accompanied by humor. His satire is humorous; he intended to laugh mankind out of its follies. The satire against the public taste in the Italian opera of the day is given a highly humorous treatment in Nicolini and the Lions in which several lions who had fought Nicolini on stage are described! In the essay, Stage Realism we are told how a set of sparrows are released on the stage in a particular scene of a play for a touch of realism. This effect of realism is ridiculed in a gentle and humorous manner. He satirizes the tastes or rather the lack of taste in the theatre going public which does not even know enough to realize when to applaud so that a trunk maker is necessary to give them hints when to clap! But again this is done in a humorous manner without being sneering and bitterly sarcastic. He satirizes all departures from common sense and reason but he does so in a mild and humorous manner which has the effect he desires—that of focusing on the foible or folly—without hurting the person.

Satire Against Females

      Addison’s essays were aimed at the correction of follies and he says that they would be especially useful to the female of the species. As such he attacks many of the foibles and fashions of the ladies of the day. In a masterly attack on the headdresses of the day, Addison ridicules the love of women to decorate themselves. He remarks: “I....have in particular observed, that in all ages they (women) more careful than the men to adorn that part of the head which we generally call the outside”. The statement is sly and suggestive—it seems to imply that females adorn their heads from outside rather than gain the knowledge to make it better from inside - i.e., become more sensible and learned. He is pungent! in Female Orators in which he talks about the ability of women to talk for hours together upon nothing. He attacks the behavior of the coquettes who seem to talk merely to give themselves the opportunity to make gestures with their hands and limbs. Fans is another satire on female habits—this on their accomplishment of using fans as weapons to capture and kill the gallants. He satirizes the French customs adopted by the fashionable ladies of the day in the essay, French Fopperies. He satirizes the vanities, the empty ‘accomplishments’, the trivial occupations and the coquetry of females. These essays exhibit the witty nature of the satire of Addison and, even if they did not exactly reform all the women, they would have, at least, brought them to consciousness of their follies. Yet nowhere can he be said to be viciously or maliciously satiric. Nor does he becomes indecent and we have only to compare his writings with Swift’s to see how different a satirist he was.

Satire of Character Traits

      Humor of character and satire of peculiarities of character are to be found in the de Coverley essays. Will Wimble, we are told, is “extremely well versed in all the little handicrafts of an idle man”. Will Honeycomb, a member of the Spectator Club is one who shines in “mixed company, where he has the discretion not to go out of his depth, and has often a certain way of making his real ignorance appear a seeming one”. Sir Roger is also the object of gentle satire. The many oddities he shows are not only amusing but also meant as a satire against the Tory country gentleman of the period. His unintellectuality which leads him to be so simple and gullible, his bewilderment at how seriously to take the rumors about Moll White, the local “witch”, and his amusing behavior at church are all conducive to a satiric laughter. It is in the character of Sir Roger de Coverley that Addison’s power of ridiculing without malignity is shown very clearly.

Satiric Devices Used by Addison

      Addison uses many of the weapons at the disposal of a satirist. He uses sarcasm, but a gentle type of sarcasm. He is witty as most of the essays show. He uses exaggeration, satiric diminution and humorous juxtaposition as well. But all these devices are used in a manner that goes to show that the writer is always moderate and mild and never bitter.

      Exaggeration is used in a mild way. He never indulges in monstrous exaggeration of the Rabelais variety. In the very first essay, The Spectator's Account of Himself, we have an instance of slight exaggeration for humorous and satiric effect:

“During the space of eight years, except in the public exercises of the college, I scarce uttered the quantity of a hundred words; and indeed I do not remember that I ever spoke three sentences together in my whole life.”

      In Rural Manners we told that a “polite country squire shall make you as many bows in half an hour, as would serve a courtier
for a week”. In an essay dealing with the headdresses of females whose height fluctuates according to fashions, he says:

“I remember several ladies who were once very near seven feet high that at present want some inches of five”.

      Addison uses satiric diminution too in an effective manner. However, a common form of satiric diminution, that of comparing a man to a lower animal for satiric purposes, is not often used by Addison. He uses diminution by comparing a thing which is normally held to be higher to a thing which is normally held to be inferior. In the essay, Female Orators, we have a passage in which such a diminution is made in a typically sly manner:

“Were women permitted to plead in courts of judicature, I am persuaded they would carry the eloquence of the bar to greater heights than it has yet arrived at. If any one doubt this, let him but be present at those debates which frequently arise among ti c ladies of the British fishery”.

      The satiric diminution comes from the association of the courts of law and their debates to the arguments of the fish wives selling fish! Similar to this device is the use of comic juxtaposition of ideas and words. The cries of a pickle seller in London is juxtaposed with the song of the nightingale for a humorous and satiric effect.

      Addison often makes use of witty terms for satiric purposes. Thus we read that the Spectator papers would be very useful for the “blanks of society”, i.e” those who lack the power of thinking on their own. He calls the inscriptions on the tombs in Westminster Abbey “registers of existence”—they merely indicate the dates of birth and death of the persons buried there as if they had done nothing else of importance. How wittily the phrase “registers of existence” conveys this. He often uses grand words for satiric purposes. Thus in the essay, The Aim of Spectator, we read about the titular physicians and Templars that are not given to be contentious, and contemplative tradesmen. Similarly, the excessive and eloquent talkative females are termed “female orators”.


      The use of irony as a weapon is natural to a satirist. Addison’s irony becomes gentle because it is veiled by humor. But irony is the very essence of his humor. His irony is not the cynical and bitter type. He adopts a grave and serious manner to describe what is apparently ridiculous or trivial and thereby achieves the satiric effect. He often seems to praise another point of view while, in reality, he is making fun of it. The essay, Fans, is written totally in an ironic vein. The satire is quite pungent but never becomes virulent or ferocious. Irony of character is also present in his essays which deal with Sir Roger. There is an ironic situation when Addison as Spectator is deprived of all the objects of satire because of the whims of the club members in the essay, The Scope of Satire. The essays which deal with female foibles and fashions abound in admirable irony which is, however, toned down by humor. We are told in the essay, Female Orators, that women can talk for hours upon nothing. They should be, says Addison seriously, given the chair of rhetoric in the universities on the strength of being able to talk so eloquently and incessantly. Irony becomes sly and suave in the hands of Addison.


      Addison is, we find, an effective and interesting satirist. He uses the weapons of satire well but never excessively. He is, in his use of them, always moderate. He achieved a balance between instruction and wit, between the serious and the humorous. He knew how to use ridicule without abusing it. He aimed at social reform. He attempted to effect this reform through laughter. He is very virulent and bitter or ferocious. “He attacked all the little vanities, and all the big vices of his time, not in Swift’s terrible way which makes us feel hopeless of humanity, but with a kindly ridicule and gentle humor, which take speedy improvement for granted. As Saintsbury remarks: “Addison’s darts are as free from the poison of Voltaire’s and Pope’s as they are different from the devastating sweep of Swift’s artillery. They did not even cut or pierce very deeply; but they seldom missed their mark, and they always flashed as they flew”.

University Questions

1. Give an appreciation of Addison as a satirist.
2. Write a note on the literary devices used by Addison in his war against folly and vice.
3 Addison revealed to his successors “the full possibilities of humorous satire”. Comment and illustrate in the context of your prescribed
4. His power of ridiculing keenly without malignity is of course best shown in his character of Sir Roger de Coyer ley whose delightful
simplicity of mind is made the medium of much good natured satire Explain and illustrate from Addison’s essays.
5. Write a critical note on Addison as a social satirist.

Previous Post Next Post

Search Your Questions