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Decorated initial M

odern narrative fiction in the Menippean tradition concentrates on theme rather than plot and deals with big and baffling intellectual concerns. It displays extraordinary erudition but often lacks unity and consistency, blending the serious and the comic, the high and the low. Menippean fictions, which often employ multiple narrative voices, are skeptical of any established authority and advocate the priority of common sense against the tyranny of false and dogmatic theories. Menippean satire appears in a great number of both ancient and modern literary works.

According to David Musgrave’s book on this satiric mode, Northrop Frye and Mikhail Bakhtin brought the genre to the attention of the mainstream academic community in the latter half of the twentieth century' (vi). Frye explained that Menippean satire 'deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes, . . . resemble[ing] the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic'.

Menippean satire, Frye adds, uses 'extraordinary situations for the provoking and testing of a philosophical idea' and such situations include 'scandal scenes, eccentric behaviour, inappropriate speeches and performances' as the protagonists in Menippean satire 'ascend into heaven, descend into the nether world, wander through unknown and fantastic lands, are placed in extraordinary life situations'. Menippean satire often takes place in the kind of alternate worlds that William Empson termed the pastoral — and hence 'often includes elements of social utopia which are incorporated in the form of dreams or journeys to unknown lands; sometimes the menippea grows outright into utopian novels'.

The last characteristic of the menippea, according to Bakhtin, is 'its concern with current and topical issues' (114-18). A contemporary scholar Howard D. Weinbrot defines Menippean satire as 'a kind of satire that uses at least two different languages, genres, tones, or cultural or historical periods to combat a false and threatening orthodoxy' (xi). Many descriptions or definitions of Menippean satire derived from Frye and Bakhtin find that it informs a greater number of satirical narratives than previously recognized.

Origins in ancient Greece

This form of satire was invented in ancient Greece by the philosopher Menippus of Gadara in the early 3rd century BC, who was called 'a joker about serious things' (Highet 36). It first singled out as a specific genre by the Roman satirist Varro (116 BC – 27 BC), who called his works 'saturae menippeae' (Baktin 112-13). ). A classical example of Menippean satire is Petronius' (c. 27-66 AD) Satiricon. The Menippean tradition was later continued by the Greek rhetorician and pamphleteer Lucian of Samosata (c. 120-180 AD) in his Verae Historiae (True Stories) and Apuleius (c. 124-c.170 AD) in The Golden Ass (also known as Metamorphoses) (Bakhtin 113). In the Middle Ages the most conspicuous example of the genre is Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae, which contains contemplative irony characteristic of the Menippean form.

Renaissance and Neo-classical revival

Menippean satire was revived during the Renaissance when it became predominantly a prose form used to ridicule false learning and false beliefs. Notable examples include Thomas More’s Utopia (c. 1516), François Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel (1564), and Robert Burton’s The Alchemy of Melancholy (1621), which is the greatest Menippean satire in English literature before Swift. The eighteenth century was the great period of literary satire which exerted a significant influence on the early development of the English novel. The best examples of the Menippean tradition in eighteenth-century English literature include Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub (1704) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Alexander Pope's Dunciad (1728-43), and Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767).

Victorian examples of the form

In the Victorian era, the content and form of Menippean satire continued to be a predominantly prose genre, akin to the novel, less homogeneous and with at least two distinct strands. The first continued the tradition of fantastic narrative, especially travels to distant and exotic lands, and the second parodied dogmatic philosophical theories and exposed social diseases. Features of Menippean satire can be found in Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey (1818), Benjamin Disraeli's The Voyage of Captain Popanilla (1828), Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1833-34), Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872), Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871), and Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies (1863).

Modernist and Postmodern uses

In the twentieth century, fictions which contain strong Menippean elements include Aldous Huxley's Antic Hay (1923) and Point Counter Point (1928), Brave New World (1932), James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake (1939), and Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margerita (1967)

Brian McHale asserts that '[p]ostmodernist fiction is the heir of Menippean satire and its most recent historical avatar' (172). The Menippean tradition runs through a great number of various postmodern novels, including, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus (1984), Thomas Pynchon' Gravity Rainbow (1973), and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981).


Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics. Edited and Traslated by Caryl Emerson. Introduction by Wayne C. Booth. Minneapolis and London: Minnesota University Press, 1999.

Dyer, Gary. British Satire and the Politics of Style, 1789-1832. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Empson, William. Some Versions of Pastoral. London: Chatto and Windus, 1935.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Four Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Griffin, Dustin H. Satire: A Critical Introduction. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 1994.

Highet, Gilbert. Anatomy of Satire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962.

Hoelker, Florentine. Menippean Satire as a Genre: Tradition, Form, and Function in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Chicago: Loyola University of Chicago, 2003.

Kirk, Eugene. Menippean Satire: An Annotated Catalogue of Texts and Criticism. New York: Garland, 1980.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. London: Routledge, 1987.

Musgrave, David. Grotesque Anatomies: Menippean Satire since the Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishers, 2014

Weinbrot, Howard D. Menippean Satire Reconsidered: From Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century. Baltimore: The John Hokins University Press, 2005.

Williams, Juanita S. Towards a Definition of Menippean Satire. Diss. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University, 1966.

Last modified 19 January 2016