To save content items to your account,
please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies.
If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account.
Find out more about saving content to .
To save content items to your Kindle, first ensure email@example.com
is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings
on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part
of your Kindle email address below.
Find out more about saving to your Kindle.
Note you can select to save to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations.
‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi.
‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
Chapter 2 explores how Behn’s works use earnest commitments to heighten and refine her more traditional satirical attacks on political enemies, resulting in complex and multilayered subversive ironies: it is often Behn’s insistence on affirming certain political commitments that endows her work with its acerbic bite. Her supposedly conservative fictions antedate, rather than satirically reacting against, the later more progressive, Whiggish novels, and her works thereby demonstrate the complex symbiotic relationship between irony and earnestness. In her work, satiric attack functions not simply as a way of denigrating enemies, but also as a means of inoculating and immunizing creative energy against possible attack. Her satire on the Whigs also has an earnest dimension, implicitly praising a new model for sovereignty that identifies it closely with women’s vulnerable positions in a patriarchal world. This earnest deployment of satire emerges as Behn engages the problem of actresses and women in the theater more generally to emphasize her subtle differences with some of her male peers and to reimagine Tory politics from their perspective.
This chapter argues that, even before Swift, Defoe’s satire employed the strategy of identifying admirable traits in the satirized object, which implicates both the thing itself and those who already see themselves as morally superior to the thing under attack. Defoe's deadpan satires work to more slowly build the ironic tension to the point that a new perspective suddenly and disruptively makes its presence felt; that the ironic status of this presence is also sometimes doubtful, indeterminate, or uncertain simply strengthens its effects. Defoe’s most famous satire, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, predicts A Modest Proposal, not just by using extremist rhetoric but also by suggesting that an earnest engagement can be much more subversive than cynical manipulation. Defoe satirizes the practice of occasional conformity by showing that it engages the Church in a purely cynical way. Like Swift later, Defoe seriously engages with the ideology of his target, in this case the Tory bigot, whose hostility to Dissenters also leads him to reveal the key insight of the satire: if Dissenters are willing to conform occasionally, there is no reason not to enforce conformity permanently.
Rather than understanding irony as the simple opposite of earnestness, sincerity, or genuineness, I want to suggest that it represents a mode of playful engagement with the hidden connective tissue that links the various commitments – serious or flippant, affirmative or destructive, quiescent or contentious – of a work, object, or discourse. Irony activates the latent trace of the one in the other, demonstrating how each of these serve ulterior motives beyond their stated purpose. Earnestness in turn can intensify its credibility and seriousness of purpose by confronting and working through the contradictions and tensions that ironic scrutiny exposes. A discourse or ideology is defined not only by what it values but also by what it attacks and rejects, by what it finds beautiful as well as by what it finds amusing, silly, or ridiculous. Irony activates, interrogates, and reorganizes the different possible combinations and permutations of commitments that organize any value system.
This chapter explores the ironic and contentious potential of sympathy, in particular the manner in which slight differences in earnest commitments can create polemic relationships just as charged as those that stem from deeper ideological rifts. I focus on Swift and his interactions with hack writer John Dunton. The two writers, I argue, do not disagree about what they dislike, but rather have slightly different, though equally genuine, commitments to the same religious and political institutions. Scholars have seen Swift and Dunton as writers who are representative of the ironic and earnest styles, respectively. While Dunton’s work often lacks the same level of irony or self-awareness as Swift’s, it was still often subversive or duplicitous in a way that was amenable to Swift and that first attracted Swift to his writing. Drawing on Adam Smith, I suggest that this relationship reveals how interests and affects are inseparable from communal relationships and social groupings that are inherently factional and fractious. In Smith's account, any affective state is a combination of a judgment and a social identification: it is always positional and partial.
The Epilogue argues that a collary of the book's thesis is that earnestness and credulity are not the same thing: the satires of Swift and Defoe reveal that credulous investment in even apparently authentic beliefs need not be earnest. This remains true regardless of whether there is a rigorous factual basis for such beliefs: the same bad faith can power both the most rigorous research as well as the most baseless conspiracy theorizing. A second corollary is therefore that such credulity need not be naïve or unreflective but can instead demonstrate both self-awareness and a deep cynicism, in the same way that Hutcheson’s moral sense is simultaneously an automatic and instantaneous process yet also one that reflects, upon further investigation, a kind of reasoning.
This chapter argues that Swift’s darkest satires blur the boundary between irony and earnestness. I suggest that Swift’s satire aims to vex as much through earnest engagement as through confrontation. What is most troubling about Swift’s difficult work is not the contempt, disdain, or disgust for the world he inspires in his readers, but rather the compelling intimacies it sustains with things that are disdainful, disgusting, or otherwise problematic. I examine the points of agreement between Swift’s most famous satires and the work of moral-sense philosopher Francis Hutcheson, showing that, in works like A Modest Proposal and Gulliver’s Travels, Swift does not simply degrade or denude his satiric target, but indulgently hyperbolizes it, raising it to the impossible standard of what Hutcheson calls “disinterested malice.” Hutcheson suggests that this construct, which consists in a deliberate delight in cruelty for its own sake rather than for the sake of any self-interest or gain, is imaginable but not possible. Swift’s satire functions by restoring this ethical potential lost in the actualization.
This chapter argues that Swiftian irony functions in a way similar to the Whiggish model of political revolution: both function “to preserve and to reform,” and both create new commitments based on challenging, revising, and criticizing existing institutions. Swift’s satire functions first and foremost, of course, to highlight weaknesses, defects, and corruptions in its objects; but, in a gesture reminiscent of Burkean conservatism and Rorty’s irony, his parody also serves as a means of preserving while reforming the satirized object, coopting its genuinely admirable qualities and opening up new spaces for indulgence and play. Burke makes explicit a model of ironic politics implicit in Swift’s Tale: political institutions are contestable primarily because they are an ongoing, unfinished project. Each generation must recognize this limitation and adapt institutions to their own needs.
The conventional literary history of the eighteenth century holds that upstart novelists and other intensely serious writers worked against the conservative and ironic sensibility of an earlier generation of satirists. However, many of these ostensibly earnest writers were exceptional satirists in their own right, employing the same ruses, tricks, and deceptions throughout their work. The novels of such canonical figures as Behn and Defoe, for example, passed themselves off as real documents, just as an earlier generation of hack writers combined the serious and the absurd. Re-examining this nexus between the ludicrous and the solemn, Shane Herron argues that intense earnestness was itself a central component of the ironic sensibility of the great age of literary satire and of Swift's work in particular. The sensationalism and confessionalism of earnestness were frequently employed tendentiously, while ironic and satirical literature often incorporated genuine moments of earnestness to advance writerly aims.
Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this to your organisation's collection.