Parody, Scriblerian Wit and the Rise of the Novel

Parodic Textuality from Pope to Sterne

by Przemysław Uściński (Author)
©2016 Monographs 276 Pages


Parody was a crucial technique for the satirists and novelists associated with the Scriblerus Club. The great eighteenth-century wits (Alexander Pope, John Gay, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne) often explored the limits of the ugly, the droll, the grotesque and the insane by mocking, distorting and deconstructing multiple discourses, genres, modes and methods of representation. This book traces the continuity and difference in parodic textuality from Pope to Sterne. It focuses on polyphony, intertextuality and deconstruction in parodic genres and examines the uses of parody in such texts as «The Beggar’s Opera», «The Dunciad», «Joseph Andrews» and «Tristram Shandy». The book demonstrates how parody helped the modern novel to emerge as a critical and artistically self-conscious form.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Theoretical Approaches to Parody: Bakhtin and Beyond
  • Chapter Two: Neoclassicism, Burlesque and the Genealogy of Scriblerian Textuality
  • Chapter Three: Playing with Literary Conventions: Parodic Ambiguity in John Gay’s The Fan, The Shepherd’s Week and The Beggar’s Opera
  • Chapter Four: Parodist as a Critic of Culture: Alexander Pope and The Dunciad
  • Chapter Five: Parody in the Novel: Henry Fielding and “the Ludicrous instead of the Sublime”
  • Chapter Six: Language, Laughter and (Symbolic) Castration in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy
  • Chapter Seven: Parody, Prosaics, and the Discourse of the Novel
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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The present book focuses primarily on the role of parody in the literary works of four major English writers of the eighteenth century: John Gay, Alexander Pope, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne. These authors were not selected randomly, but rather out of a conviction that parody played a crucial role in their literary output. Parody as a technique was crucial for the Scriblerian wits, satirists and novelists; it allowed them to play with the most diverse discursive and ideological conventions, to critically expose and creatively transgress the boundaries of genres and stylistic modes that they appropriated. Their experimental and innovative approach to literary traditions and conventions finds its expression in their playful literary texts: instead of politely complying with established poetic formulas and protocols, the so-called Scriblerians and their followers tended to expose the provisional nature of all ready-made genres and stylistic patterns, to mockingly reshape them and infuse their structures with their own peculiar sense of wit and satire. As a result, they produced a number of tricky, duplicitous, internally hybrid, highly ambiguous and self-reflexive texts, both in prose and verse, that may today seem surprisingly “(post)modernist” given their extended intertextual and metafictional playfulness.

Parody is omnipresent in the Scriblerian literary discourse because it is a key textual mechanism of “wit” as they practised it. They parodied specific works and discourses as well broader stylistic and generic conventions, questioning in their creative parodic practice such fundamental concepts as “the poem”, “the book”, “the learned discourse” and “the novel”. Pope’s The Dunciad, for instance, is envisioned as a mock-poem and a mock-book, and similarly radical is Sterne’s mock-novel, Tristram Shandy. What is also crucial, parody shaped the development of the English novel in the eighteenth century in a number of ways. Firstly, throughout the century the novel as a literary form remained in a relationship of tensed parodic dialectics with the typically more conventional, uptight and “monologic” narrative genres of the epic and the romance. As both Mikhail Bakhtin and Ian Watt would claim, early novelists (of whichever period, one could perhaps add), in their attempts to offer a more critical and polyvalent (as well as entertaining) representation of reality tended to humorously parody the detached and predictable conventions of romances and epic forms (which often in their view represented antiquated, fanciful or aristocratic systems of values). The eighteenth-century novel emerges, to large extent, as a more down-to-earth – more “sober” but also more sophisticated and sarcastic – version of ← 9 | 10 → the romance. Secondly, the English Augustan poetry of the period was above all playful, ironic and inherently double-voiced, and in the tendency towards sarcastic questioning of literary decorum, in the insistence on earthly detail and multi-layered irony there lies the tight connection between the poetry and the novelistic prose of the period. The novels of Fielding and Sterne, in an obvious manner, but also of Lennox, Goldsmith, and later Austen and Dickens, were very much the product of neoclassical wit. The characteristic, double-voiced and self-conscious use of language, discourse, genre and stylistic manner defines much of neoclassical poetry: “The novels and poetry of this [i.e. Augustan] period are very closely related – but the poetry came first,” as Margaret Anne Doody was perhaps the first to successfully claim (1985: 201, emphasis added).

Importantly, therefore, I try to follow Doody also in speaking of parody not merely as a part of a broad historical and intertextual process, but mostly as the flaring, vivid and perhaps most engaging principle of the poetry, drama and prose produced within and around the Scriblerus circle. Parody is the key textual principle of the most memorable and most engaging Scriblerian texts: “Swift, Gay and Pope are consummate parodists, who mingle a number of styles in creating unique works while at the same time demolishing other poems, precedent genres” (Doody 1985: 80). But the same applies to the novelists – especially Fielding and Sterne.

Laughter is frequently parodic because it dialectically refers to and relies on seriousness, the conventions of which it reverses or suspends. The erudite laughter characteristic of Scriblerian wit is vigorously parodic. My primary focus in this book is on parody, its distribution and its pivotal role in the literary discourse of the period, which leads me, as if naturally, to the rise of the novel – the novel seen as the artistically self-conscious modern genre that distances itself from the romance and the epic even as it wittingly incorporates them within itself. The importance of parody in the English poetry and prose of the eighteenth century has already been acknowledged, but the topic has generally received rather cursory treatment. Apart from an excellent study by Robert Phiddian (Swift’s Parody, 1995), the topic of parody has not been the central focus of any study on an eighteenth-century English literary author. Some parodic genres and forms particularly popular in the period (burlesque comedy, mock-heroic poetry) have been studied and discussed extensively, but an emphasis has customarily been put on the history and development of these forms, which have been treated in isolation from other genres. The present book seeks, in turn, to offer a more comprehensive depiction of the resonating presence of parody in the literature of the period. It discusses parody as a major technique of presentation ← 10 | 11 → and organization of artistic material, one that operates within the diverse genres of poetry, drama and prose, thereby influencing (directly or indirectly) almost the entirety of the literary landscape in the period under discussion.

The role of parody in the evolution of literary forms and styles – and in the emergence of the modern novel – was emphasized by scholars known collectively as the Russian “Formalists”, and later also by Mikhail Bakhtin, who saw in parody one of the major modes of artistic expression and representation, a thoroughly “carnivalesque” mode informed by the general tendency to twist, invert and mockingly distort dominant discourses, official languages and representations. Some literary scholars and historians (Margaret Anne Doody among them) have already underscored the paramount role of parody in the neoclassical literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in general, and in the English “Augustan” literature in particular. The present study takes their theoretical findings (together with more recent scholarly work on parody) as a point of departure. Furthermore, in order to discuss any parodic work in a specific historical context, it is necessary also to briefly outline two intertextual elements that provide sources for parodic activity: the earlier traditions of parody in literature (they furnish a parodist with different tools and methods of parody), and the parodied traditions, genres, styles, values, ideas or discourses (they provide what may be called the “raw material” for a given parodic text). In short, parody cannot operate in an intertextual vacuum – it rather feeds on the saturation of the cultural sphere with contradictory meanings, values, texts and styles (both parodic and parodied).

I devote the first chapter to important theoretical issues. It is crucial, I feel, to outline my understanding of the ancient but still much discussed concept of parody. I refer to a number of theoretical and critical discourses before I embark on more detailed examination of the uses of parody in eighteenth-century literary texts. Chapter I thus provides theoretical rudiments for my discussion and analysis of eighteenth-century parodic textuality. It begins with an overview of the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, but it also discusses the diverse transmutations of the concept of parody in more recent theoretical and critical discourses and discusses such notions as polyphony, deconstruction, intertextuality and metafiction as particularly relevant for the study of the role of parody in literary discourse. I try to rethink the category of parody and to point to the ways in which it may prove useful and illuminating for a close reading of eighteenth-century literary texts.

Chapter II briefly outlines the historical background and cultural contexts of eighteenth-century parodic texts and practices, focusing on the diversity of ← 11 | 12 → parodic forms (burlesque, travesty, mock-heroic, mock-pastoral) in neoclassical literature. The pivotal historical and social transitions of the seventeenth and eighteenth century are important for both the rise of the novel and the prominence of parody in the literary discourse of the period. The third section of the second chapter introduces the “heroes” of my book: the authors known collectively as Scriblerians, whose literary works are discussed in the subsequent chapters. I also discuss the complex interrelation between parody and satire, and in this context I briefly analyze the work written jointly by Jonathan Swift, John Gay, Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot, but subsequently revised and edited by Pope, The Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus. In short, in Chapter II my major aim is to provide the reader with the historical background and introductory scaffolding for the well-informed close reading of Scriblerian parodic texts.

Building on the findings presented in the first and second chapter, Chapter III focuses on poems and plays by John Gay, a member of the Scriblerus Club and a close friend of Alexander Pope, a poet who has not, perhaps, received sufficient scholarly attention so far. The first section of Chapter III discusses Gay’s early poem The Fan in the light of the tradition of mock epic and mock-heroic writing. Because of their hybrid, incongruous structure, parodic poems, plays and novels are often ambiguous – they do not altogether reject their parodied genres and discourses, but rather reproduce them in an ironic, conditional way. Neoclassical mock-heroic poems, such as The Fan, are often said to celebrate the style of epic poetry and to undermine it at the same time. A degree of ambivalence in The Fan is also discernible in its mock-heroic portrayal of femininity. The fact that parody tends to be more ambiguous and playful than a direct satire is also visible in The Shepherd’s Week, Gay’s mock-pastoral poem, which is discussed in the second section of Chapter III. The genealogy of this poem involves the quarrel between Alexander Pope and Ambrose Philips and the more general tension between classical poetics and the new forms of modern sentimental and proto-romantic poetry. Gay toys with various stock devices of pastoral poetic tradition by juxtaposing them with elements of crude, comic realism. In effect, the elevated “classical” style becomes confronted with a more naturalistic depiction of rural life, foregrounding a series of ironic inversions that expose the shortcomings of the conventional patterns of pastoral representation.

Finally, Chapter III discusses The Beggar’s Opera, Gay’s most influential work, in which parodic technique organizes a complex series of ironic substitutions: posing as a more sober and prosaic “English” version of the then fashionable “Italian” operas, Gay’s play sarcastically “degrades” almost all elements of the ← 12 | 13 → operatic convention – the scenery, the costumes, the typical characters, the plot, the singing style. Its heroes are mostly prostitutes and highwaymen and its plot replaces romance and heroism with greed, lust and sexual exploitation. The effect is, again, that of a complex incongruous hybrid in which the “high” operatic style becomes inverted by the “low” comic elements. Such a burlesque strategy exposes the wide gap between the flamboyant representations offered by Italian opera and the more immediate reality of contemporary English society. Parodic technique fosters here a particular condensation of comic incongruity between the incorporated but mutually divergent (official and polite vs. satiric and grossly realistic) representations of social, economic and sexual relations.

Chapter IV focuses on The Dunciad by Alexander Pope – a key text in Scriblerian tradition and an ultra-parodic literary project that features a grotesque epic poem on the progress of idiocy and ignorance, adorned with hundreds of pedantic footnotes and appendices that mock the academic and philological discourses of the period. The first section of the chapter discusses Peri Bathous – Pope’s earlier parodic treatise “in praise of” modern poetry that introduces the concept of bathos and prefigures many of the satiric motifs and techniques employed later in The Dunciad. The sections that follow discuss in detail different aspects and dimension of parody in The Dunciad, including its use of parodied epic motifs, its playful imitation of Milton’s Paradise Lost and its parody of academic devices and editing practices. All those dimensions of textual playfulness contribute to the confusing ambiguity of Pope’s satiric opus magnum, a work which offers a multi-faceted critique of contemporary culture and literature, but a critique that proves to be teasingly indirect, mischievous and carnivalesque enough to complicate all attempts at its translation into direct, serious academic discourse. The Dunciad is an important text in my discussion of the relation between parodic forms and the rise of the novel for many reasons: it encapsulates the tension between modern and classical poetics; it questions the value of text in the culture of print; it asks important questions regarding the ethics of reading and interpretation. The poem is a parody of the epic, a lively mixture of the elevated and the grossly prosaic, and in that sense it is a proto-novelistic work even if it deliberately poses as an archaic and antiquated satiric epic.

Chapter V of the present study is perhaps the most “Bakhtinian” of all, for it concentrates on the paramount importance of parody in the eighteenth-century English comic novel. In Bakhtin’s view, novelistic discourse is frequently saturated with parodied languages and parodic undertones. Especially in the novels representing what Bakhtin terms “the Second Stylistic Line” of novel development a unified, polished and hermetic “literary” style becomes replaced with a ← 13 | 14 → vividly accentuated sociolinguistic diversity of voices and discourses interacting with one another. The different registers, socially and ideologically tinted words, accents and turns of phrase are not, however, neatly and formally separated, but rather clashed and combined within the heterogeneous discourse of the novel. The comic, satiric and picaresque novels of the Second Line thus come nearer to the actual speech diversity (heteroglossia) that characterizes a diversified and stratified society. It is this “linguistic realism”, so to speak, that Section II of Chapter V traces in Henry Fielding’s early novels, which are characterized by a highly parodic attitude towards various literary and non-literary discourses. While transitioning from a writer of burlesque comedy to a novelist, Fielding first parodied Richardson’s extremely popular melodramatic novel Pamela in his short but nuanced polemical work, entitled Shamela. Its parodic techniques concentrate on the naiveté and/or hypocrisy detected in Richardson’s sentimental language; Fielding skillfully “lays bare” the conventions of romance and the devices of the epistolary novel employed by Richardson to promote his puritanical views on morality (which are also parodied by Fielding). Shamela exemplifies also Fielding’s indebtedness to Scriblerian poetics, signaled in his later works as well, including Tom Jones, where Alexander Pope’s definition of wit is quoted in the very first Chapter.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (November)
Satire Polyphony The Enlightenment The English novel Pastoral Metafiction
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 276 pp.

Biographical notes

Przemysław Uściński (Author)

Przemysław Uściński is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw. He has published articles on British literature, the history of the novel, the aesthetics of parody and translation. He has been teaching courses in Literary and Cultural Studies, British Literature and Translation Studies.


Title: Parody, Scriblerian Wit and the Rise of the Novel
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