Part II: Teaching The Northern Stories

Teaching the Northern Stories

Chesnutt’s Northern fiction includes the Groveland stories, which first appear in The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, published in 1899. With its focus on a small Northern community, The Wife of His Youth predates Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919). Like Winesburg, Ohio, the Groveland stories use satire to weave interconnected social, economic, political, and cultural influences into the psychosocial development of their characters. Unlike Winesburg, Ohio, however, the Groveland stories add the element of racism, linking Chesnutt’s characters’ psychosocial development with the larger, historically accurate social context. While individual stories from the collection were anthologized, it wasn’t until the publication of The Northern Stories of Charles Chesnutt in 2004 that all eighteen of the Groveland stories appear together. These stories have been selected to examine the ways in which Chesnutt uses satiric perspective in the Northern Stories to create spaces for personal reflection that allow Chesnutt’s readers to realize that, while it is not a disgrace to have absorbed racist attitudes, it is a disgrace to let those attitudes go unchecked.

Definition of Satire

At its broadest definition, satire is a genre of literature that uses a particular type of humor to call attention to problems in society. Usually, satire uses comedy to expose its shortcomings, and a writer may satirize people, political policies, government, or even the entire world. Satire should not be confused with irony or sarcasm, both of which are important aspects of satire but not the same as satire itself. For our purposes, satire is defined as a technique employed by writers to expose and criticize foolishness and corruption. Satire is social criticism that targets injustice and disparity in institutions of power, including government, businesses, and even individuals.  It is important to remember that the purpose of social satire is not humor for the sake of ridicule, but, rather, to increase awareness of inequities and spur improvements in policy dealing with the human condition.

Major Classifications of Satire

Rather than solely an entertainment device, satire’s purpose is to subject human vice to scrutiny and contempt. Satire assumes various forms. Here we explore four forms of satire which are disparate enough to be identified as distinct.

Theophrastan satire

This type of satire was named for its originator, Greek satirist Theophrastus, who was both a student and colleague of Aristotle. Works by Theophrastus are referred to as sketches. Characters is his collection of thirty brief, often humorous descriptions or sketches of unattractive moral behavior that he examined. More of a philosopher and scientist, his satire is seen as more humorous and interested in laughing at humankind’s foibles.

Menippean satire

Menippean satire, developed by the Greek satirist Menippus in the early 3rd century and used in ancient Greek and Latin literature, criticizes mental attitudes rather than societal norms or specific individuals and ridicules single-minded people, such as those included in Theophrastis’ Characters. Menippean satire was introduced to Rome in the 1st century BCE and influenced the development of Latin satire by Horace and Juvenal.

Horatian satire

Horatian satire, named for the Roman satirist Horace, uses a sympathetic tone, self-deprecating humor, or light-hearted exaggeration to criticize human folly. The tone in Horatian satire is indulgent, tolerant, and amused. The speaker uses wit to gently ridicule the universal shortcomings of human beings so that the reader might identify with what is being critiqued. Unlike with Menippean satire, the goal of Horatian satire is not to attack evil or provoke anger but, rather, to produce an ironic smile as the reader learns to laugh at himself as well as society.

Juvenalian satire

Juvenalian satire is named after the Roman satirist Juvenal. Unlike Horace, Juvenal, a poet, used satire to attack public officials and governmental organizations that he regarded as, not just as wrong, but evil. Juvenalian satire targets social evils through scorn, outrage, and harsh ridicule. As a result, the tone is contemptuous and abrasive, characterized by irony, sarcasm, personal invective, and moral indignation. The goal of Juvenalian satire is to provoke change. With less emphasis on humor, the form is pessimistic and intended to polarize.


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Charles Chesnutt in the Classroom by Adrienne Johnson Gosselin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.