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If farce and satire both use irony and exaggeration to hint at something serious, then why are they different?

I am reading the play The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. I am getting quite confused on which point it is showing up as a satire and where as a farce or might be parody. Can anyone help me by suggesting how to read it breaking down these topics? I have seen the definitions and differences but whenever I dive into the text I get confused and honestly I don't get the Victorian jokes it used or the way it ridicules Victorian society.

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  • What makes you think a farce hints at something serious? Farces are generally purely silly. Are you confusing it with something else?
    – Stuart F
    Jan 18 at 11:39

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Satire, parody, and farce can be hard to cleanly separate because so many works use two or all three of these devices. In their most specific senses the meanings given by the OED are as follows:

  • a satire is a work “which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary”;
  • a parody is a work “modelled on and imitating another work, esp. a composition in which the characteristic style and themes of a particular author or genre are satirized by being applied to inappropriate or unlikely subjects, or are otherwise exaggerated for comic effect”;
  • a farce is a work “which has for its sole object to excite laughter” especially one which uses exaggerated, absurd, and improbable situations.

All of these devices employ exaggeration and ridicule, the distinction being the purpose or target—if in imitation of a particular work, author, or genre, it’s parody; if to criticize a fault or vice, it’s satire; if purely or mainly for comedy, it’s farce. (And if the ridicule is directed at a person, it’s a lampoon.)

As noted above, many works use two or all three of these devices. Parodies and satires are often farcical (they aim to ridicule the target by provoking the audience to laugh at it), and parodies are so often satirical (they imitate the target in order to criticize it) that the two words have become blended to some extent. (See, for example, the comments on this answer, which object to the use of “parody” for imitations which are not intended to satirize the target.)

Here are three situations from The Importance of Being Earnest, each illustrating one of these devices.

  1. Lady Bracknell comments on Algernon’s proposed musical programme as follows:

    I’m sure the programme will be delightful, after a few expurgations. French songs I cannot possibly allow. People always seem to think that they are improper, and either look shocked, which is vulgar, or laugh, which is worse. But German sounds a thoroughly respectable language, and indeed, I believe is so.

    This is a satire on the national prejudices of Victorian society—Lady Bracknell clearly knows neither French nor German, but is prepared to condemn the one and approve the other based only on prejudice. The exaggeration (I assume) is that Lady Bracknell is so open about her own ignorance and prejudice—most people would have enough self-consciousness to avoid exposing themselves like this.

  2. Jack’s true identity and parentage are revealed because Miss Prism is able to identify the hand-bag in which she accidently left him in the cloak-room at Victoria station as a baby. This is a parody of the dramatic trope of anagnorisis or recognition of the identity of the hero through a physical characteristic like an injury, or a token associated with them as a baby.

    For example, in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex (c. 429 BCE), the identity of Oedipus is revealed through the injury to his ankles where his father Laius had pinned them together. In Euripides’ play Ion (c. 413 BCE), Creusa recognizes her lost son Ion through the basket in which he was abandoned as a baby. The trope appears in many other works, from Plautus’ Rudens to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

    In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde gives us both means of recognition, the injury and the basket, except that, absurdly, the injury is to the basket rather than the hero. Examining the hand-bag, Miss Prism says, “here is the injury it received through the upsetting of a Gower Street omnibus in younger and happier days.”

    For this observation, I am indebted to Burkhard Niederhoff (2013), ‘Parody, Paradox and Play in The Importance of Being Earnest’. Note also that the parody is amusing but does not seem to be satirical: we don’t come away from Earnest thinking any the less of Oedipus Rex.

  3. Algernon has specially ordered cucumber sandwiches in order to propitiate his aunt (Lady Bracknell) but eats them all himself. When Lady Bracknell arrives he is obliged to pretend that he has no idea why the plate is empty, relying on his servant Lane to improvise a suitable excuse:

    Lady Bracknell. And now I’ll have a cup of tea, and one of those nice cucumber sandwiches you promised me.

    Algernon. Certainly, Aunt Augusta. [Goes over to tea-table.] […] [Picking up empty plate in horror.] Good heavens! Lane! Why are there no cucumber sandwiches? I ordered them specially.

    Lane. [Gravely.] There were no cucumbers in the market this morning, sir. I went down twice.

    Algernon. No cucumbers!

    Lane. No, sir. Not even for ready money.

    Algernon. That will do, Lane, thank you.

    Lane. Thank you, sir. [Goes out.]

    Algernon. I am greatly distressed, Aunt Augusta, about there being no cucumbers, not even for ready money.

    This is farce, a ridiculous situation created purely for the entertainment of the audience and not for any satirical or parodical purpose.

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