English Language Arts, Reading Literature
Material Type:
Lesson Plan
High School
  • Grade 12 ELA
  • Jonathan Swift
  • Satire
    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial

    Determining The Satirical Nature

    Determining The Satirical Nature


    In this lesson, students will examine stereotypical figures in three pieces of classic literature that often emerge in settings that serve as microcosms for the society at large. They will determine the intent of the satirical nature of each piece as well as the means of achieving it.


    • Read the lesson and student content.
    • Anticipate student difficulties and identify the differentiation options you will choose for working with your students.

    Stock Characters

    • Encourage students to share and discuss the stock characters they created with two classmates.
      • SWD: As with other discussions, encourage students to use the academic vocabulary they learned. As they participate in the discussion, be sure to monitor for knowledge of the topic. Stay alert to follow up on interventions that seem unclear or ambiguous.


    Share your homework with two classmates.

    • What stock characters did you create? How true to life are they?

    Meeting Jane

    • An alternative to discussing each excerpt as a whole class is to create three groups and allow each group to present a different reading. Be certain to foster an exchange of ideas between the presenting group and the audience group.
      • ELL: Some of the words in the questions and prompts can be somewhat difficult for some ELLs to follow. If necessary, rephrase using words you know students can understand to allow all ELLs to fully participate and to have a fair chance to answer the questions.
    • Students may note that in terms of language, the diction and tone of all characters remains elevated and polite in spite of intended efforts to insult or reprimand others.
      • SWD: Support all students in noticing subtle hints embedded in the words to convey politeness (or other intentions). If students struggle, find those words and ask questions of the students to help them arrive at those realizations by themselves.
    • It is worth noting as well that Emma’s self-destructiveness parallels that of Miss Bates, the object of her cruel mockery. While Miss Bates is known by all, including herself, not to be clever, Jane falls prey to her own lack of foresight and her inability to control her own foolish mouth.
    • Students may observe that Emma is a fleeting “mean girl” although her later tears certainly suggest that she is not so at heart and simply needs to grow. Miss Bates will emerge as the typical “not so bright” member of her social group, a typically endearing stereotype that seamlessly crosses lines of gender, socioeconomic status, and age. Mr. Knightley emerges as the sensible and compassionate heroic man who tells Emma the truth she deserves to hear and defends the bullied Miss Bates. Knightley is the stereotypical sensible (older) man. He and Emma clash like typical characters that hold an intense attraction for each other; the audience perceives them as a good match before they are capable of acting compatibly.
    • The audience will note that while Emma seeks to manage the love lives of others, clearly her own relationships, friendships, and otherwise, have become disastrous at this point in the work.
    • While cleverness was an applauded quality and coveted skill during the parlor game, Austen makes a point that all good satirists know: cleverness is a skill that can be used as a cruel and damaging force.
    • Mr. Knightley’s reprimand of Emma, who remains endearing even in her comic cruelty and through her tearful emotional crisis, reminds us of the societal struggles that single women faced in Austen’s time. While Emma has the comfort of her father’s wealth, Miss Bates has no such comfort. She is poor and life is generally a struggle, as she must find work to sustain herself. Her work robs her of ease and freedom, yet she remains charitable and cheerful, even to Jane who has insulted her. In spite of the humor in Miss Bates’s silliness and in Emma’s childish tears, the audience perceives the social reality behind Austen’s humor.

    Work Time

    Jane Austen was highly schooled in observing and writing about the stereotypes of her polite society. Her plots, driven by humor and romantic tension, typically centered on the search for true love reconciled with a healthy economic match. In Emma , the heroine zealously attempts to form love matches among her friends and acquaintances. Ironically, Emma claims that her personal preference is to remain single forever. In the excerpt, the characters begin to play a parlor game in which each must contribute “one thing very clever … or two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed.” At the game’s inception, Emma cannot resist the fleeting temptation to play the “mean girl” and is later chastised for it by the man she secretly loves.

    Read the excerpt from Jane Austen’s highly accomplished novel Emma , and consider the following questions.

    • What societal “types” does the author seem to be dealing with?
    • How does language and dialogue enhance this portrayal?
    • How does the author balance humor and avoid complete mockery or cruelty?
    • Why is this important?

    America's Comic Genius

    • At this point it will be important to consider comparisons and contrasts between what students have already covered and what they are covering now—this includes not only Emma but the films and television shows of the prior lesson.
      • ELL: Be aware that students who have recently moved into the United States might not be familiar with the shows that other students know well. Ask questions to find out what students know.
    • Students may not understand the manner of speech the boys use. They are clearly unrefined, “countrified,” and because of both age and circumstances, not highly educated. They are prone to superstition and fear but are not without native intelligence. In this sense, Twain is enjoying the portrayal of genuine, small-town, country boys; an origin he shared with his literary creations.
    • The juxtaposition of sentiment and attempted wisdom with the affected slang and regional speech of Tom and Huck is humorous and pokes fun not only at children, but unsophisticated “country folk” as well.
    • The boys are fearful but also seem “scrappy.” They are in a graveyard at night, aren’t bothered by the dead cat, and while fearful of spirits and the voices they hear, there is something in their manner that suggests they can handle themselves. Maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the quaintness of “small-town folk” or children.
    • Students may also note the interesting contrast of humor in a morbid setting and in the face of a genuine threat. The boys have been struggling against imaginary perils in this scene. However, as the menace of the three real figures crystallizes, and Tom begins to comically pray a bedtime prayer, the audience becomes aware that something deadly is afoot.
    • Certainly students will observe that the young “country bumpkins” have interfaced with genuine “bad guys.” Will the boys’ naiveté and lack of worldliness make them any match for the wits of true criminals? Can children outsmart adults? This is an irony that Twain is both conjuring and satirizing in this scene and will continue to dilate as the novel progresses.

    Work Time

    Mark Twain was a master at observing human nature and poking fun at it. He often did so by satirizing authority figures or typical personalities reflecting the quaintness of small-town life. In the excerpt from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer , the adolescent protagonist Tom meets his friend, Huck Finn, in the graveyard to bury a cat and partake in a superstitious cure for warts.

    Read the excerpt from Mark Twain’s highly prized novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer , and consider the following questions.

    • What societal “types” does the author seem to be dealing with?
    • How does language and dialogue enhance this portrayal?
    • How does the author balance humor and avoid complete mockery or cruelty?
    • Why is this important?

    The Master of the Epigram

    • The play opens with a glimpse into the lives of the bored and wealthy class of Victorian England. The setting is a comfortable home in an upper-class neighborhood and it is time for tea.
    • Discussions and commentary on piano playing, marriage, cucumber sandwiches, and the moral obligations of the servant class all assume levels of equal importance. There is no shift in tone as the subject matter shifts.
    • Wilde wastes no time in poking fun at the typical preoccupations of Victorian propriety—social position, income, and character. He also begins the play’s protracted debate about the nature of marriage: Is it “pleasant or unpleasant”? Is it business or pleasure? Which one is made in heaven, marriage or divorce?
    • Wilde treats highly serious topics with great levity, even to the point of absurdity. Students will likely note that his characters are self-indulgent and perhaps unreal. It will be helpful to eventually note that Wilde was indeed writing what he knew to be true—especially about himself.
      • SWD: When providing explanations orally, always probe your students to be sure that all students are fully engaged and that they understand what you are explaining.

    Work Time

    Oscar Wilde, a playwright and humorist of the Victorian era, courted laughter from the very society he both mocked and fully participated in. Wilde playfully exposed the excesses and pettiness of the upper class, although it was never without affection. From his works emerge stereotypes of his era, affording readers a peek into life in a set class. In the excerpt, the audience becomes acquainted with the personalities and activities of some of the play’s main characters.

    Read the excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s highly regarded play The Importance of Being Earnest , and consider the following questions.

    • What societal “types” does the author seem to be dealing with?
    • How does language and dialogue enhance this portrayal?
    • How does the author balance humor and avoid complete mockery or cruelty?
    • Why is this important?

    Wit, Satire, and Stereotypes

    • It is important to note that there is a difference between wit and satire. For example, a satirical work may contain instances in which the intention of a line is to make a joke simply for the sake of humor, without a further point.
    • Allow ample time for students to consider these questions and to respectfully challenge each other’s conclusions. This will make them more aware of purpose in the follow-up task.
    • Discussion groups will help students capitalize on the possibilities these questions pose.

    Work Time

    Consider the three works you have just examined and the prior work you have done with film and television. Tackle the following questions for synthesis.

    • What is the difference between wit and satire? Can you give examples?
    • What happens if a writer crosses the line of humor and gets mean? What are some possible outcomes of this?
    • Are stereotypes fair? Explain.
    • What do stereotypes do more frequently: expose a truth or challenge a truth?

    Open Notebook

    Discuss your responses with your classmates.

    Stock Character Cartoon

    • It is important to be aware of students’ varied aptitudes and interests. If possible, consider allowing students to branch out with choices of how to create their own satire. Some may wish to do cartoons or storyboards. Others may wish to use film and may be well equipped to do so on their own.
      • ELL: Allow ELLs to choose cartoons of their own culture, if they so wish.
    • An enrichment and reinforcement activity, which might also help struggling students, is to allow students to investigate political cartoons. Another great resource for clever cartoon work is The New Yorker. Archived images of hundreds of cartoons are widely available online.
    • As students share their ideas for their cartoon characters and begin brainstorming, you’ll have a chance to circulate around the room.
    • The biggest challenge will be to encourage students to make their characters as specific as possible. You can prod them as you go, noting the characters’ outfits, props, and so on. You can also suggest hyperbole.
    • More apt students might include two characters who, juxtaposed with one another, would be even more interesting.
    • Be sure that students have a clear idea of what their character is satirizing.
    • Also, students should be able to talk to you about whether their character remains a caricature or moves to a fuller development level.
    • Depending on the time remaining, students may begin creating their cartoons. Remind them that during the next lesson they will have about 15 minutes to finish their cartoons.

    Work Time

    It’s your turn now. You have read about and watched varied uses of stereotypes in modern television and film. You have also studied the use of stereotypes in traditional literature and considered how the authors toed the line between good-natured humor and outright mockery. You are now ready to consider the culture in which you participate every day and begin planning your own cartoons of a high school stock character.

    • Work with a partner to brainstorm ideas for a stock character in high school.

    If you have time, you can agree on a stock character and begin creating a cartoon of the character. You will have about 15 minutes during the next lesson to work on your cartoon.

    It’s your choice whether you’d like to make the character more than a caricature. The key, as with all satires, is to make your subject recognizable and familiar through your use of concrete details.

    Guiding Questions

    • Allow about 5 minutes for students to respond.
    • Now that students have been studying satire for a while, this is an opportunity to see how they respond to the Guiding Questions.


    Respond to the unit’s Guiding Questions.

    • What is satire, and when is it too harsh?
    • How can humor and irony make you more persuasive?
    • What do you think is funny? How far would you go to satirize it?
    • Who gets more reaction—satirists or protesters?

    Open Notebook

    Stock Character Cartoon

    • Advanced students could, in addition, read “Shaved Heads and Pop-Tarts” as another example of Horatian satire. Let students know they can find this article in More to Explore.
    • Students might share the details they find especially Horatian for the class.


    Work on your cartoon of a stock character from high school.

    • Agree on a stock character with your partner if you have not already done so.
    • Begin creating a cartoon of the character.

    You will have about 15 minutes during the next lesson to work on your cartoon.