“The inverse praise of good things”: dignified optimism in the satire of George Saunders
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
Through a critical examination of the stories of George Saunders, this thesis examines how Saunders uses satire in literary fiction after postmodernism. In doing so, I show Saunders is a second-generation postmodernist who, despite owing much to his contemporaries and predecessors, appears to offer contemporary American fiction a way out of its preoccupation with irony and solipsism. By analysing the sources and contexts of Saunders’ satire, I argue that Saunders’ stories take pleasure in their engagement with postmodern irony, but never at the expense of a moral agenda laced with satiric wit and narrative empathy. Saunders’ literary satire differs from previous generations of postmodernists due to his satiric targets pointing to real world referents rather than language itself, as was popular in the late twentieth century. Additionally, I posit that satire in Saunders’ stories represents a turn toward affect both on and off the page—it is new, tender, and wholly empathetic to its characters and readers. However, due to Saunders’ use of violence and restricted narrative points of view, there are complexities and complications in Saunders’ morally-charged and emotional satire. While his hopeful satire is sincere in its evocation of empathy with others, Saunders restricts reader choice and reminds his readers of his authorial power by way of narrative point of view. After all, so many of his stories are about authority, and include acts of writing and speech making. In this respect, the reader (as much as Saunders himself) is implicated in and comes to experience the conditions of choice Saunders writes about—conditions which often preclude real choice and empathetic consideration. Despite such complexities, Saunders’ fiction offers a moral, sincere, and emotional challenge to the short stories of the late twentieth century.