Political satire has been a valid literary device for a long time. Examples of it can be found as early as the 1600s, and it is an art form that exists today. One period in which satire seemed to hit its peak was during the 1920s in America. That was a period of boom-time for America as wealth was high, the war was over, and the Great Depression had yet to strike. People everywhere, but particularly in the cities, were reacting against the strict boundaries of the Puritan dogma.
Yet, censorship remained as these religious ideals continued to hold steady among the older set as well as in rural areas and among conservative politicians. Satire during this period was mainly used as a means of pointing out errors in thinking that emerged during this period in time yet was still required to remain couched in ‘ socially acceptable’ disguises.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of the more famous satirists of the time, particularly in his production of the work The Great Gatsby. Within this novel, Fitzgerald ridicules the contemporary concept of the American Dream as being something empty and shallow based on meaningless material goods rather than more satisfying spiritual development.
Describing one of Gatsby’s smiles, Nick says “ it understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey” (48). In this description, Nick sums up the entire attitude of the nation in its superficial presentation and shallow understanding as well as suggests a much deeper meaning and potential lying in wait for those who would seek it.
Mark Twain was another well-known satirist of his time. Throughout his writings, Twain continued to question the values his society claimed as compared to the actions they committed.
In novels such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or the semi-autobiographical story Roughin’ It, Twain continues to question ideas that black people are somehow inherently meant to be slaves or that Indians are necessarily more savage and evil than white men. The concept of unequal race relations can be found in almost all of his works as he struggled to point out that the measure of a man cannot be placed in the color of his skin alone but must be judged instead upon his ability and willingness to do right instead of wrong.
Ernest Hemingway revealed some of the more common fallacies of his age regarding gender relations.
Throughout all of his writing, he continued to celebrate the quintessential man’s man – the guy who traveled the world, shot elephants and rhinoceros, drank hard whiskey, and was capable of passing along the best of tall tales.
His short stories focused on the virtues held by men a generation or two earlier than him as well as the effects and aftereffects of war. Often accused of hating women because of the way he portrayed them, Hemingway’s stories in In Our Time reveal there is strength in women than men continue to ignore and forget that makes them equal or perhaps more powerful in different ways.
Hemingway’s women are intentionally quiet and shadowy because “ he discovered [women] more fully by giving them little to say. His women embody the 7/8ths of the iceberg that is down under…” (Miller, 2002, p. 6). Hemingway never allows his women to be stopped or stalled by grief in spite of the fact that they frequently experience sudden and surprising losses.
In most cases, the women are able to walk away in strength, leaving behind them the broken and battered men still unsure of what happened.
All three of these authors satirize the important concepts of their day – the American Dream, the supposed substandard status of minority races, and the substandard strength of women – through the medium of satire. This enabled them to disguise their true messages to avoid the Puritanical censorship of their time while still exploring the implications of these concepts in full.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925.
Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925 (reprint 1970).
Miller, Linda Patterson. “ In Love with Papa.” Hemingway and Women: Female Critics and the Female Voice. Lawrence R. Broer (Ed.).
Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2002.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press, 1994 (1884).
Twain, Mark. Roughing It. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1817.