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Caricature

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Caricature

Have you ever gone to the fair and had a cartoonist draw your picture? After sitting for several minutes while they capture your likeness, they hand you the finished result: your head is three times as big, your nose is tiny, and your smile stretches from ear to ear. The picture still looks like you in some ways, but your features are greatly distorted and exaggerated. This is not a true portrait; the artist has drawn a caricature of you.

Caricature, Three Men Drawn in Caricature Style, StudySmarterCaricature as a visual art overstates prominent features but also relies heavily on reality. Pixabay.

Caricature Definition

A caricature is a device used in writing and visual arts that exaggerates someone’s distinguishing personality or physical features. While the artist at the fair exaggerated your physical appearance, caricature in literature exaggerates and oversimplifies personality features.

For example, consider Charles Dickens’s description of one of his characters in his novel, Bleak House (1853):

Mr. Chadband is a large yellow man, with a fat smile, and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system.”

(Chapter 19)

The description of Mr. Chadband only includes a few characteristics, which makes these features all the more prominent. Dickens was a master of caricature, so the descriptive words and phrases “yellow,” “fat,” and “train oil in his system” are meant to sum this character up as a cowardly, greasy fellow.

When using caricature to describe someone, the writer usually intends a comedic effect by describing the individual with magnified characteristics. In literature, caricature is a type of satire.

Satire is the art of making someone or something seem absurd by ridiculing its vice or folly, while raising laughter at the expense of the subject. It is often meant to embarrass or humble public figures or political or social norms. The object of satire is to critique the subject, highlighting important concepts about the person or institution. This is what distinguishes satire from other comedic devices, like pure humor and sarcasm, which do not carry the same social commentaries.

Types of Caricatures

Caricature as a literary device can be used in many ways. It is most typically used to enhance the features of someone or something to make it recognizable, make fun of it, or comment on it in some way.

Political Caricature

Caricature as a literary genre can be traced back to the comedies of Aristophanes in ancient Athens around 425 B.C., and further back still in the visual arts. The plays of Aristophanes poked fun at political leaders of his time and offered a critique of their attitudes and policies (at his peril).

We still use caricature as a lighthearted but direct way to criticize topics of modern politics. During the Civil War era, an artist named Thomas Nast created some of America’s most lasting political images, such as Uncle Sam, as well as the donkey and the elephant to represent the two political parties. You’ll still find caricature images in newspapers and magazines as a way to comment on political subjects that readers can easily interpret.

Authors also use political caricature in literature. Take George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), in which he criticizes Russian politics and its leaders, who made promises of equality but delivered a heavily segregated society.

Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

(Chapter 10)

Throughout the novel, humans are the “bad guys,” but the pigs slowly stooped to the level of corruption of the humans. In these final lines of the book, Orwell masterfully wields caricature to finally equate humans and pigs.

Caricature of the Individual

Caricature can also describe or explain individuals in a story. A caricature could highlight anything from physical features to personality traits, to group affiliations. Anything you might use to describe someone can be caricatured.

Racial caricature has been a common theme of literature throughout the centuries. Below is a quote from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1600) in which Solanio expresses a highly caricatured depiction of Shylock, a Jewish man.

SOLANIO

I never heard a passion so confused,

So strange, outrageous, and so variable,

As the dog Jew did utter in the streets.

“My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter,

Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!

Justice, the law, my ducats, and my daughter!

A sealèd bag, two sealèd bags of ducats,

Of double ducats, stol’n from me by my daughter!

And jewels—two stones, two rich and precious stones—

Stol’n by my daughter! Justice, find the girl!

She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats.”

(Act II)

In Solanio’s description of Shylock’s behavior, he emphasizes an obsession with money—which rivals his consideration for his daughter—which is a problematic Jewish stereotype.

Caricature Examples

Literature is rich with examples of caricatures because many authors understand the comedy of a well-placed caricature. A caricature can act as a mirror for the reader; it makes them examine their assumptions about the subject on a deeper level.

Ebenezer Scrooge, the protagonist in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), is a caricature of the greedy capitalists of Dickens’s time. Scrooge is outlandishly stingy, selfish, and only thinks of the bottom line. Consider his response to a plea on behalf of the poor:

'If they would rather die,' said Scrooge, 'they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.'" (Chapter 1)

Scrooge is an unthinkably cold-hearted man, and thus in need of guidance from the ghosts that eventually come to visit him.

On the other hand, literature is unfortunately also rich with examples of poor uses of caricatures. Some authors rely on stereotypes and archetypes too much, rather than creating complex characters.

Margaret Mitchell depicts the enslaved girl, Prissy, from Gone with the Wind (1936) as a skittish, immature girl with little education that is constantly in need of being prodded. After being startled by a cow, or a “moo” as Prissy calls it, Scarlett asks Prissy to tear her petticoat into strips and tie the cow to their wagon. Prissy responds:

Miss Scarlett, you knows Ah ain' had no petticoat fer a month an' did Ah have one, Ah wouldn' put it on her fer nuthin'. Ah nebber had no truck wid cows. Ah's sceered of cows.”

(Chapter 24)

This representation of a young slave girl is problematic because it displays her as a worthless character that has to be dragged along through the action of the story. This caricature draws on notions of superiority from a privileged white society.

Purpose of a Caricature

Because caricature is a comedic device, its purpose is usually to get people to laugh at its subject. Caricature can be used to simply point out character flaws and imperfections, but most often it does this to make a commentary about a person, group of people, or even society at large.

The character of Mrs. Bennett from Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen serves as a commentary on the singular duty of women and daughters in society to get married.

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news."

(Chapter 1)

Finding good husbands for her daughters is Mrs. Bennett’s only care, but this is not a poor reflection on her as a mother or woman. Rather, the reader understands that she feels the social weight of her daughters’ obligation in society to marry well, and is obsessed with helping them.

Caricature as a Logical Fallacy

Caricatures can also be used as a way to make an opposing argument seem more simple than it truly is. Caricature, used in this way, results in a logical fallacy.

A logical fallacy, often equated with the term “rhetorical fallacy,” is a failure in reasoning which results in an unsound argument.

When a person challenges another person's argument, they may try to misrepresent the opponent’s argument to make it easier to attack. We call this technique the straw man fallacy, and it uses caricature to create a false opponent.

During the Checkers speech (1952) in a response to accusations of stealing money from election campaign funds, Richard Nixon deflects from the allegations to make it seem as though his critics are upset with him receiving a dog as a gift.

It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate he had sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl – Tricia, the six-year-old – named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep it.”

With this speech, President Nixon has made his critics out to be monsters that wanted to take a dog away from his little girl, rather than rational people who wished to hold him accountable for his fraudulence.

Caricature Characteristics

Caricature, Large Head of Man in Caricature Cartoon Style, StudySmarterThe details of a person or thing can be exaggerated or simplified in caricature. Pixabay.

Caricatures quickly communicate the distinguishing details of a person or thing. In some cases that might mean overstating some features to make them more prominent, and other times it means reducing the characteristics to a simplified version to make it more recognizable.

Caricature Exaggerates

Exaggeration is a hallmark of a caricature. Remember how a caricature portrait will exaggerate your prominent features? Caricature in literature does the same thing; it must overstate these characteristics if it wishes to make commentary on them.

Caricature Simplifies

Sometimes, though, an author might create a caricature of another person or group of people by relying on clichés and stereotypes. This happens when the author fails to consider the complexities of humanity, either intentionally or unintentionally.

A stereotype is an oversimplified notion or characterization of something or someone.

Think of the “wicked stepmother” in the story Cinderella (1637) as an example of an intentional stereotypical caricature. The author doesn’t give many details about her apart from her evil nature; she is a simplified character based on a stereotype. This is an effective way to communicate all we need to know about the stepmother character in Cinderella—the story is not about her, after all, and so we don’t need much detail.

The art of caricature can be problematic, however, when authors oversimplify people or groups of people unintentionally. This can perpetuate clichés and disappointing, predictable, or racist stereotypes, as with the depiction of Prissy in Gone With the Wind.

Authors must always remember to use the art of caricature responsibly so as not to misrepresent someone or an entire group of people.

Caricature - Key Takeaways

  • Caricature is a device used in writing and visual arts that exaggerates someone’s distinguishing personality or physical features.
  • When using caricature to describe someone, the writer usually intends a comedic effect by describing the individual with magnified characteristics.
  • Caricature is a type of satire.
  • One of the most common types of caricature in the visual arts is political caricature. Caricature can also describe or explain individuals in a story.
  • People use caricature in the straw man logical fallacy to make their opponent's argument easier to attack.

Frequently Asked Questions about Caricature

Caricature is a device used in writing that exaggerates someone’s distinguishing personality or physical features.

Caricature can be used in a sentence as a noun or a verb. For example, "The details of a person or thing can be exaggerated or simplified in caricature."

To call someone a caricature is to say that they represent some characteristic to the extreme. The connotation is that the person is inauthentic.

Yes, caricature can be a negative word as it has negative connotations if applied to a person.

There is no exact antonym for caricature, but some words that mean the opposite of caricature are “flattery,” “honesty,” and “seriousness.”

Final Caricature Quiz

Question

What does "caricature" mean?

Show answer

Answer

Caricature is a device used in writing, also in visual arts, that exaggerates someone’s distinguishing personality or physical features.

Show question

Question

While caricature in visual arts exaggerates physical features, caricature in literature often exaggerates and oversimplifies _________ features. 

Show answer

Answer

personality

Show question

Question

True or false: Caricature is usually meant to have a comedic effect. 

Show answer

Answer

True

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Question

______ is the art of making someone or something look absurd by ridiculing its vice or folly, raising laughter at the expense of the subject. 

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Answer

Satire

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Question

Which of the following is not a reason to use caricature?


  • To make the subject more recognizable
  • To make fun of the subject
  • To make others dislike the subject
  • To comment on the subject in some way

Show answer

Answer

  • To make others dislike the subject

Show question

Question

Caricature as a literary genre can be traced back to the comedies of ________ in ancient Athens around 425 B.C.

Show answer

Answer

Aristophanes

Show question

Question

What are some examples of places you can find examples of modern political caricature?

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Answer

Newspapers, campaign ads, political blogs, to name a few.

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Question

True or false: Political caricature is never used in literature.

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Answer

False

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Question

Some authors rely on ________ and archetypes too much, rather than creating complex characters. 

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Answer

stereotypes

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Question

Think of an example of caricature from advertising that you have seen.

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Answer

Example: Aunt Jemima maple syrup is a problematic caricature of African-American culture. 

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Question

What is the main purpose of caricature?

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Answer

To make people laugh at the subject. 

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Question

Caricature is a part of a logical fallacy called __________.

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Answer

Straw man

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Question

Why would someone use caricature as part of a logical fallacy?

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Answer

To make the opponent's position easier to attack.

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Question

The two main characteristics of caricature are to ________ and __________.

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Answer

Exaggerate, simplify

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Question

The art of caricature can be problematic, however, when authors __________  people or groups of people unintentionally

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Answer

oversimplify

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