Friday, May 4, 2012

Satire and Sarcasm: If You Miss These Tones, You Misunderstand

Writers labor, both consciously and unconsciously, to create tone, a word that describes a writer’s or speaker’s attitude toward the subject and/or readers and created by word choices and details. Allow me to elaborate upon that in this post and several to follow. Today I will demonstrate the distinction between a character or speaker's attitudes and the authors, using satiric tones to illustrate.

First, as noted in the definition above, the character or speaker’s attitude may not be the same as the writer’s because tone is a writer’s or speaker’s attitude.

Consider Adlai Stevenson’s veto of the “The Cat Bill,” more accurately known as “An [IL] Act to Provide Protection to Insectivorous Birds by Restraining Cats (1949)” wherein you will find an excellent example of the differences between the attitudes of the writer, who is the wizard behind the curtain in a literary Oz, and a speaker that the writer invents to carry his message to the world. An excerpt of this actual Illinois bill follows.

. . . I cannot agree that it should be the declared public policy of Illinois that a cat visiting a neighbor’s yard or crossing the highways is a public nuisance. It is in the nature of cats to do a certain amount of unescorted roaming. Many live with their owners in apartments or other restricted premises, and I doubt if we want to make their every brief foray an opportunity for a small game hunt by zealous citizens—with traps or otherwise. I am afraid this Bill could only create discord, recrimination and enmity. Also consider the owner’s dilemma: To escort a cat abroad on a leash is against the nature of the cat, and to permit it to venture forth for exercise unattended into a night of new dangers is against the nature of the owner. Moreover, cats perform useful service, particularly in rural areas, in combating rodents—work they necessarily perform alone and without regard for property lines.

 We are all interested in protecting certain varieties of birds. That cats destroy some birds, I well know, but I believe this legislation would further but little the worthy cause to which its proponents give such unselfish effort. The problem of cat versus bird is as old as time. If we attempt to resolve it by legislation who knows but what we may be called upon to take sides as well in the age old problems of dog versus cat, bird versus bird, or even bird versus worm. In my opinion, the State of Illinois and its local governing bodies already have enough to do without trying to control feline delinquency
. (Adlai E. Stevenson, governor of Illinois, veto message, April 23, 1949.—The Papers of Adlai E. Stevenson, ed. Walter Johnson, vol. 3, pp. 73–74 [1973])

Some legislators in the 1940 Illinois legislature, in response to their constituents, created a bill to protect birds from their predators, notably the cat. All parties, it appears, were earnest. After all, both chambers of the Illinois legislature passed the law and sent it for the Governor’s signature. Stevenson, however, declines to approve the bill because it is absurd to give citizens an excuse to exterminate cats and more absurd to use law enforcement to take care of small felines.

Still, Stevenson must be sensitive to the earnest folks who desired, crafted, and passed the bill, and he is, most obviously in his word choices. He elevates the seriousness of the bill with formal language, including “unescorted roaming,” “owner’s dilemma,” and “useful service.” But, the writer behind the respectful, lofty language is also having some fun by pushing the bill to its logical, absurd conclusion, noting especially how impractical the execution of the bill is.

The speaker (public government official) treats bird-eating cats, delicate songbirds, and the “unselfish proponents” who love them with respect while the writer mocks the bill and its impracticalities. Perhaps the best evidence of mockery comes in the final statement quoted: “... the State of Illinois and its local governing bodies already have enough to do without trying to control feline delinquency.” The bill’s creators tried to lift the idea of a cat straying beyond its owner’s property lines to the level of delinquency, and the writer points that out, thereby stripping the idea behind the bill naked and exposing it to ridicule.

The speaker honors the resources and energy of Illinois to preserve the peace, but the writer, Stevenson himself, satirizes those who would use those resources and that energy in the pursuit of felines that are not, in anyone’s estimation, miscreants, law-breakers, or public nuisances that endanger the public peace. Cats only endanger songbirds, a problem that the speaker notes, is as “old as time,” allowing the writer to shine a light upon how unlikely it is that one little bill could rewrite Natural Law.

Consider also the tone of W. H. Auden’s poem, “The Unknown Citizen,” published in 1939 and included in this post below.

(To JS/07 M 378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in a hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace:  when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

After reading the poem, readers infer that the speaker believes that productivity and materialism are worthy cultural values. The poet behind the curtain does not approve, however. While the speaker cites one fact after another in support of the citizen’s happiness and his freedom, the poet wonders why so much data could reveal so little about the citizen’s real attitudes toward his homeland, its good, and its services. In other words, the complete absence of intellectual curiosity in the speaker suggests that he is shallow and exposes society’s requirement to fit in as hollow, allowing the writer to indict the society and its citizens.

Thus, when reading for tone, be sure to distinguish between the speaker or character and the writer by reading closely for word choices and details.

Reading Challenge:

Test yourself by reading or re-reading a classic example of bitter satire wherein the speaker appears earnest and objective while the writer seethes and condemns. Read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” available for online reading at http://www.

For additional reading, turn to YouTube to see a parody of Stevenson’s “Cat Bill” at The students who created the video seem to understand the literary term, hyperbole, very well.

You can also hear readings of “The Unknown Citizen” at com/watch?v=lhFFt_jboT4 and

Writing Challenge:

Analyze the tones of “A Modest Proposal” and the word choices and details used to create those tones.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

In the article above, I have begun to explain the meaning of the word, tone, as it applies to literature and literary analysis. You know the word, tone, in other contexts, including:

·      Music. In that context, “tone” refers to the quality and character of sound. Miles Davis’ jazz was avant-garde. Novices heard only dissonant tones while jazz aficionados heard rich, complex tones.
·      Speech. Anyone who has listened to Fran Drescher and Bea Arthur understands the differences in vocal tones. Drescher has a strong, nasal sound that manufactures a harsh, irritating (at least, to me) tone whereas Arthur sounded like an old smoker. Her tone had authority because of its bass notes, but the laugh that such a voice produced carried tones of disease.
·      Regional Speech. Anyone familiar with the Bible Belt knows that Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas pronounce the words, “all,” “oil,” and “owl” identically, rendering each one as “awl.” Further east, beginning in Louisiana and stretching to the Carolinas, natives have a distinctive Southern drawl.
·      Eras or Periods of Time. The Arab Spring characterizes an era in which the tones are revolutionary.
·      Literature, Photography, and Décor. Distinct style choices create an overall tone. Mellow yellow wall paint adjacent to apple-green shelves create a lively, spring-like tone. On the other hand, diction and details such as “heavy, dark clouds above shadowy streets where dirty rain water runs in the gutters” establishes an ominous tone.

Next Week: More about creating and analyzing tone.