Sarcasm vs. Satire from a Relativistic Point of View

Jennifer Hahn, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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In Etruscan Places, those elevated by D.H. Lawrence's initial sarcasm often become the victims of his subsequent sarcasm. In the following passage, Lawrence criticizes Roman hypocrisy:

However, those pure, clean-living, sweet-souled Romans, who smashed nation after nation and crushed the free soul in people after people, and were ruled by Messalina and Heliogabalus and such-like snowdrops, they said the Etruscans were vicious. So basta! Quand le maitre parle, tout le monde se tait [When the master speaks, the whole world is quiet]. The Etruscans were vicious! The only vicious people on the face of the earth presumably. You and I, dear reader, we are two unsullied snowflakes, aren't we? We have every right to judge.

In vilifying the Romans, Lawrence seems to elevate the Etruscans and also, interestingly, to criticize himself and the reader. But, in the next passage he uses sarcasm to ridicule the Etruscans' descendents.

Could we get a carriage of any sort? It would be difficult. That is what they always say: difficult! Meaning impossible. At least they won't lift a finger to help. Is there an hotel at Cerveteri? They don't know. They have none of them ever been, though it is only five miles away, and there are tombs. Well, we will leave our two bags at the station. But they cannot accept them. Because they are not locked. But when did a hold-all ever lock? Difficult! Well then, let us leave them, and steal if you want to. Impossible! Such a moral responsibility! Impossible to leave an unlocked small hold-all at the station. So much for the officials!

In this passage, Lawrence uses free indirect discourse to mock the Italian's provincial irrationality. Both passages are marked by a sarcastic tone, yet they are pejorative of different groups. I see this as one example of Lawrence's style illuminating his relativistic attitudes. We have already discussed the fact that Lawrence liked to criticize England as much as he did Italy. What effect does this have on his ethos? As a reader, can you trust Lawrence, invest in his opinions, when you know that he might turn around and make fun of what he had just been praising?

On another note, I find it interesting to compare Lawrence's sarcastic tone with Swift's satirical tone in "A Modest Proposal." How do sarcasm and satire differ? Is one merely a weapon in the arsenal of the other? How do these two forms of belittling operate differently upon both their victims and the audience, which are sometimes one and the same? If you were a bitter sardonic perpetually annoyed writer (and perhaps some of us are) what kinds of villains would you harpoon with sarcasm and what kinds of villains would you slaughter with satire?

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Last modified 26 October 2003