10 Books That Will Slay You with High-Class Satire

Irony, humor and mockery are just a few of the literary weapons in a writer’s arsenal that can be used to ridicule, expose or criticize any issue, whether it’s politics, religion, the society as a whole or corporations.

Although the usual intent behind the use of satire is to constructive critique the subject in a humorous way, each of the following ten novels uses this powerful genre to display the various societal issues in question, each as brilliantly written as the next.

10. Catch 22, by Joseph Heller

First Published: 1961

What It’s About:

The tale of one man’s attempts at retaining his sanity during the war, the story takes place around World War 2 where Captain John Yossarian is a bombardier in the U.S. Air Force. Convinced that several people are after his life, his only aim is to survive the terrible war where everyone is, in fact, trying to kill the enemy. Unfortunately, his boss, Colonel Cathcart keeps increasing the number of missions that his team must complete. The story is told in a series of flashbacks, mirroring the disorienting nature of war.

Why You Should Read It:

Often cited as one of the greatest works of the 20th century, the title of this book is today commonly used in American culture to define an impossible situation. Joseph Heller uses the 28-year-old soldier’s experiences from the horrors of war as a way to shed light on the flawed institutions of war and even religion. The first signs of Heller’s use of satire are evident in the beginning of the story when Yossarian is in a hospital on the verge of jaundice. However, doctors not only refuse to treat him because not it has not set in fully, but they also refuse to release him because it has developed a little. Heller’s work takes a look at the futility and bureaucratic nature of several American institutions in this classic.

Best Quote:

“He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.”

9. The Trial, by Franz Kafka

First Published: 1925

What It’s About:

Josef K., a bank officer is a respectable member of the society, when one day he is suddenly arrested. The bizarre part of the story is that Josef is unable to find the reason for his arrest. No one is able to give him the information he needs to make sense of his situation.

Why You Should Read It:

Through his commentary on the Czech legal system, Kafka brings to light the bureaucratic nature of any organization. The story also relates to the themes found in Christianity of the fallen man with his sense of guilt. Throughout the story, the nature of the guilt is not revealed and a trial is never held in proportion to the crime that has allegedly been committed. Bizarrely, despite not being aware of what his crime is, Josef behaves as like a guilty man. The protagonist tries to get rid of his guilt, thereby removing any joy from life. Kafka always questioned the purpose of life, and this satire will make you angry, frustrated and eventually wonder about the futility of life.

Best Quote:

“It’s only because of their stupidity that they’re able to be so sure of themselves.”

8. Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh

First Published: 1928

What It’s About:

Paul Pennyfeather, a student of Theology at Oxford, is expelled from the University after running through the grounds without his trousers on. He is forced to take on the position of schoolmaster at Llanabba castle, a public school in Wales. Other colleagues at this institution are what society would qualify as misfits and include borderline alcoholics such as Captain Grimes. On Sports day, Paul is introduced to Margot Beste-Chetwynde, the mother of one of the pupils. Suddenly, everything is different and Paul may or may not be able to make a success of his thus-far bleak life.

Why You Should Read It:

This was Waugh’s first novel and despite being satirical in nature, is undoubtedly very funny as is mentioned by the author himself in the Author’s Notes section of the first edition. The book is an unflinching satirical take on the self-righteous morals of British society at the time of its release in the 1920s. The title is derived from the study of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon titled The History of The Fall of the Roman Empire and the book is a satire of such works which upheld the snobbery, inherent racism, and elitism of certain classes in the country. Read it for the deep message hidden in its hilarious prose.

Best Quote:

“The problem of architecture as I see it is the problem of all art – the elimination of the human element from the consideration of the form.”

7. American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis

First Published: 1991

What It’s About:

The protagonist of this shocking satire, which is considered a classic today, is Patrick Bateman, a 26-year-old investment banker on Wall Street. Not only is Patrick successful, he is also charming, attractive and intelligent. Unfortunately, he is also a psychopath who is headed towards self-destruction. This book is a stark look at the cause and effect of capitalism on society. Everyone in the novel is a vacuous body defined by possessions, leading empty lives.

Why You Should Read It:

This novel is a brilliant satire of the ‘American Dream’ with every character defined not by their personality or actions but by what they wear, and the possessions they can afford. With a heavy dose of superficiality and material excess, this book is a satire on the materialism that is rampant today more than ever, just as it was applicable at the time when it was first published. Read this violent, dark comedy to get a glimpse of the underbelly of the ‘American Dream’.

Best Quote:

“We buy balloons, we let them go.”

6. The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

First Published: 1966

What It’s About:

The book is set in two locations, with each narrative seamlessly woven into the other. The first part is set in ancient Jerusalem, while the other is set in modern day Moscow. The story depicts a visit by the devil to the Soviet Union. In 1930s Moscow, Satan, disguised as a mysterious magician, arrives in the area with a talking black cat, Behemoth, and a few other bizarre characters including a witch. The novel oscillates between scenes of varying violence and absurdity with the central characters existing in a world that brings together fantasy and reality while asking some hard-hitting questions.

Why You Should Read It:

Written during the harshest part of Soviet tyrant Stalin’s regime, Bulgakov’s novel is an unflinching satire on life in the Soviet region. It is believed that the author was trying to show the need for an artist to hold on to their creativity and not be stifled by an oppressive regime. The theme of good-versus-evil runs throughout the story and so do the author’s views on religion and politics, making it one of the foremost novels to come out of Russia in the 20th century.

Best Quote:

“Everything will turn out right, the world is built on that.”

5. Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis

First Published: 1922

What It’s About:

The title is derived from the name of the protagonist, George Babbitt, an American real-estate salesman living with his wife and three children in a lovely home with a car. While on the surface it seems Babbitt is living the American dream, in reality he is lacking in happiness and dissatisfied with his family, finding them increasingly irritating. Constantly noticing every woman in sight, he decides to make major changes in his life, the first of which is to begin an extramarital affair. The story follows Babbitt as he goes about breaking every rule in the book that has made him an upstanding citizen so far. A portrait of a deeply unsatisfied man, the novel charts his attempts at finding meaning in his increasingly empty life.

Why You Should Read It:

Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel prize for literature in 1930 due largely to this work which is a great study of American culture and the empty nature of the middle class which oppresses individuality while encouraging consumerism at all times.

Best Quote:

“You’re so earnest about morality that I hate to think how essentially immoral you must be underneath.”

4. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut

First Published: 1965

What It’s About:

The Rosewater family has recently inherited an enormous sum of money and in an attempt to keep the government from taxing their fortune, the family makes sure to do charity work. Eliot Rosewater is an international playboy, who one day decides to do something meaningful with his life and moves to the Midwest to the site of the original Rosewater fortune, becoming a volunteer fireman in the process. He doles out small sums of money to the poor with the aim of helping, what he terms, the ‘useless poor.’ Meanwhile, a conniving lawyer sets out to prove Eliot insane in an attempt to acquire his wealth.

Why You Should Read It:

The book is a cleverly-written intelligent work of satire that looks at not only capitalism but also wealth, greed, materialism, gullibility and guilt as major motivations for human actions. It also makes you wonder if the poor are better off than the rich simply because they are poor. Is altruism an evil that plagues society? These are some important questions that Vonnegut makes you think about throughout his satirical work.

Best Quote:

“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

3. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift

First Published: 1726

What It’s About:

The story’s central character, Lemuel Gulliver, is a young man who wakes up on Lilliput island after being shipwrecked at sea. He soon discovers the island is inhabited by tiny people, whom Lemuel goes on to interact with, all the while learning about their customs and culture. He meets the giants of Brobdingnag and the Yahoos and the philosophical people called Houyhnhnms. In his depiction of these foreign races, Swift holds an unforgiving mirror up to all of mankind.

Why You Should Read It:

This is a scathing work of satire that has long been considered a classic in English literature. Swift questions religious institutions, political groups, and philosophies. He also pokes fun at religious dogma, intolerance of any kind, and religious or other divisions made arbitrary in society. All of the points in this satire stand true even today making this a must-read.

Best Quote:

“Every man desires to live long, but no man wishes to be old.”

2. Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes

First Published: 1615

What It’s About:

Don Quixote is a middle-aged Spanish gentleman who is obsessed with notions of chivalry due to reading more than his share of romantic novels, which have filled him with a desire to go forth into the world and revive chivalry while undoing all the wrongs of the world. Taking with him a slightly confused laborer Sancho Panza, Don Quixote rides all across Spain searching for adventures and problems that he must gallantly fix.

Why You Should Read It:

Said to be the first modern novel, Don Quixote has inspired every major writer in English literature including Charles Dickens, Flaubert and Faulkner. At the time when it was written, several tales of wandering knights were popular, especially knights who were heroic and chivalrous.

The books tended to be pompous, and Cervantes, through this classic, is able to show the absurdity of these books by comparing the insane, yet apparently chivalrous actions of Don Quixote, who eventually goes insane.

Best Quote:

“The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.”

1. Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby Jr.

First Published: 1964

What It’s About:

This is the story of what life is like for New York’s drug addicts, prostitutes, drag queens and other marginalized members of society. A mix of colorful characters inhabit this gritty world, including Georgette, the transvestite who is also a romantic at heart, Tralala, the unloved girl, and Vinnie, the angry young man always in trouble with the law and several others. While these characters lead different lives from mainstream society, one thing they do have in common with everyone else is their inherent need to connect with another human being.

Why You Should Read It:

When it was first released, the book was banned due to its hard-hitting, graphic nature of life in New York. The author, Selby Jr. went on to write another equally unflinching look at the American Dream gone wrong entitled Requiem for a Dream. Read Last Exit to Brooklyn to get a no-holds-barred view of what life is like for the unwanted, unsheltered citizens of New York.

Best Quote:

“The bodies went back in the doors and bars and the heads in the windows. The cops drove away and Freddy and the guys went back into the Greeks and the street was quiet, just the sound of a tug and an occasional car; and even the blood couldn’t be seen from a few feet away.”

Conclusion

Each of these ten novels uses satire to shed light on and expose various topical issues. Whether it’s racism, religious dogma or elitism, satire has the power to point a finger at the individual(s) responsible.

These ten books are a must-read for those looking to see how satire has been used by many of literature’s foremost writers as a powerful way to critique society and send their message across.

  • jess

    We are also talking about exceptional literary merit in most of these cases.

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