Definition of Caricature
Caricature involves overstating certain qualities or features of a person or thing in order to create a comical or absurd impression. It is employed in descriptive literature and visual media as a technique that distorts aspects of a subject through dramatic exaggeration. The effect is a distorted representation of the subject that is silly or humorous in nature. Skilled writers and artists use selective enhancement of peculiarities and incongruities to form an illustration or depiction that reflects, often unflatteringly, the subject’s essence in an imaginative way. The aim is to transform the subject into a laughable version of itself while maintaining a recognition of the actual person, idea or situation.
Examples of Caricature in literature
“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen
Mr. Collins is a caricature of the sycophantic, pompous clergyman. Austen exaggerates his obsequiousness, particularly in his interactions with Lady Catherine de Bourgh. He is consistently ludicrous, especially in his proposal to Elizabeth Bennet:
“…you must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
This line, devoid of any romantic sentiment despite its strong words, is delivered with an air of self-importance rather than genuine affection. Mr. Collins is blind to Elizabeth’s feelings, showcasing Austen’s critique of marriages based on convenience and social standing rather than love and mutual respect. His character embodies the ridiculous to such an extent that it satirizes the entire institution of marriage and the societal pressures that come with it.
“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens
Madame Defarge is a caricature of the vengeful revolutionary. Her cruelty and relentless pursuit of her enemies are highlighted by Dickens as both a personal vendetta and a symbol of the Revolution’s excesses. Her knitting, a seemingly innocuous pastime, is a record of those doomed to die:
“It would have been difficult by a far brighter light, to recognize in Doctor Manette, intellectual of face and upright of bearing, the shoemaker of the garret in Paris. Yet, no one could have looked at him twice, without looking again: even though the opportunity of observation had not extended to the mournful cadence of his low grave voice, and to the abstraction that overclouded him fitfully, without any apparent reason. While one external cause, and that a reference to his long lingering agony, would always—as on the trial—evoke this condition from the depths of his soul, it was also in its nature to arise of itself, and to draw a gloom over him, as incomprehensible to those unacquainted with his story as if they had seen the shadow of the actual Bastille thrown upon him by a summer sun, when the substance was three hundred miles away.”
Madame Defarge’s relentless pursuit of her vendetta against the Evrémonde family and her impassive cataloging of those condemned to die exemplify the dangers of revolutionary zeal turning into unfeeling bloodlust. Dickens uses Madame Defarge’s exaggerated darkness and vengefulness to critique the loss of humanity in the face of political upheaval.
In both examples, the authors use caricature as a literary device to highlight and satirize certain aspects of society—whether it’s the absurdity of marriage protocols in Regency England or the destructive power of unrestrained revenge during the French Revolution. These characters are magnified to such extremes that they become emblematic of the follies and vices they represent.
“Henry IV” by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff is one of the bard’s most famous comedic characters and a fine example of caricature. He’s presented as a comically overweight, lazy, and cowardly knight, yet charming in his roguishness. His behavior is an exaggerated satire of the chivalric ideals that knights were supposed to embody. This is particularly evident in the following passage:
“Falstaff: ‘What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.'”
Falstaff’s soliloquy on honor deflates the concept by arguing that it’s nothing more than a word, of no use to the dead and of no benefit to the living. Shakespeare uses Falstaff’s exaggerated disdain for honor as a contrast to the hot-blooded youth around him who are obsessed with the notion, highlighting the absurdity of how society views and chases the idea of honor.
“Vanity Fair” by William Makepeace Thackeray
Becky Sharp is used as a caricature of social climbing and opportunistic tendencies in Thackeray’s novel “Vanity Fair”. She is a woman of poor origins who uses her wit, charm, and lack of scruples to rise in the English social hierarchy of the time. Her manipulative and amoral behavior is presented in an exaggerated light to critique the vanity and superficiality of the society she aspires to enter. Consider the following introductory description of Becky:
“Miss Rebecca Sharp to Miss Amelia Sedley, Russell Square, London. (Free.—Pitt Crawley.) ‘My dearest, sweetest Amelia, With what mingled joy and sorrow do I take up the pen to write to my dearest friend! Oh, what a change between to-day and yesterday! Now I am friendless and alone; yesterday I was at home, in the sweet company of a sister, whom I shall ever, ever cherish! I will not tell you in what tears and sadness I passed the fatal night in which I separated from you…'”
This letter is an example of Becky’s two-faced nature—outwardly expressing deep sentimentality while inwardly calculating her next move. She’s adept at playing the part expected of her, whether it’s the grieving friend or the charming socialite, and Thackeray uses these exaggerated aspects of her character to lampoon a society heavily invested in appearances and rank.
Function of Caricature
The function of caricature in literature is to take specific traits of a character and blow them up larger than life. By doing this, writers can make us laugh, point out the silly parts of society or criticize certain behaviors or ideas without being heavy-handed.
When a caricature is done well, it works like a funhouse mirror, stretching and warping reality but still showing us something we can recognize. For instance, if a character is a little selfish in real life, a caricature would make them outrageously selfish in the story, to the point where we can’t help but notice and think about selfishness as a trait.
Here are some key functions of caricature:
- Highlighting Flaws: Think of caricatures as spotlights on parts of human nature or society that are flawed or ridiculous. When characters are blown up like balloons of their worst (or sometimes best) traits, those traits become impossible to ignore.
- Creating Humor: Exaggeration can be really funny. Caricatures push traits to extreme levels and that can lead to situations or dialogues that are incredibly entertaining.
- Social Commentary: Writers often use caricatures to say something about the world. By creating extreme versions of real people or behaviors, they can show us how absurd real life can be. This can make us think about whether we should change things in society.
- Making Characters Memorable: Because caricatured characters are so exaggerated, they stick in our memory. If you think about your favorite books, the characters you remember most clearly might be the ones that are larger than life.
- Simplifying Complex Ideas: Sometimes ideas are complicated and hard to grasp. Caricatures can make these ideas simpler to understand by zooming in on the most important parts.
- Evoking Emotions: Whether it’s outrage, pity, or amusement, caricatures can make us feel things more intensely. We are drawn to these extreme character portraits and can’t help but react to them.
Exaggeration means emphasizing some traits of a character, object and event intensely. Exaggeration aims at making people notice significant traits by highlighting them comically as big ones. The comic use is meant to showcase defects, character or a particular style of conduct for fun or criticism. Like the phrase “his heart is as big as a house,” this is clearly an exaggerated phrase meant to overemphasize that the character is kind and generous. Exaggeration is used to emphasize certain features in an unforgettable and extreme manner.
The act of altering the look or behavior of a character, object or occurrence in an odd, humorous or over-magnified way is called distortion. Literature can sometimes change reality to create a caricatured representation that might be intended as emotional appeal or thought prompt. Distortion can be employed to reinforce the comic element or even the sense of unreality of a certain situation or to provoke an impression of disorder and perplexity in the listener. For example, a particular character may portray excessive and non-natural exaggerations in the facial areas which in actual sense, are used to illustrate feelings or character elements as pictorial form. The use of distortion is meant to produce unique visual or thematic effects that challenge conventional perceptions.
- Literary Devices That Start with C