A caricature is a satirical or humorous depiction of a subject that is achieved by exaggerating its negative aspects. This device is commonly used both in visual arts and written literary works.
In its essence, a caricature is a satirical portrait, in which the primary features of a subject are true to life, but the negative traits are emphasized and comically exaggerated. The subject of a caricature can be a person, society as a whole, or even an abstract idea.
The term "caricature" comes from the Italian language, and its original form is "caricare," which can be translated as "to load" or "to exaggerate." The device itself came into active use in the Age of Enlightenment and was profoundly featured in paintings and illustrations.
One of the devices that are commonly mistaken with caricature is grotesque. While both deal with disfiguring reality by exaggerating the most notable features, they have several essential differences. First of all, grotesque texts, drawings or sculptures are used without a comical intent and don't serve to create humor. Grotesque situations, especially in romanticism literary works of Victor Hugo and E.T.A. Hoffmann, help disturb the reader and bring their attention to the scene.
Another literary tool that is closely tied to caricature is a parody. In certain situations, both of these two terms can be used as synonyms, as they are used to depict the object of their mockery humorously. However, the main distinction between them is that a caricature usually ridicules a person or an entire social structure, while a parody can mock at specific writing or speaking styles, another book or movie, etc.
To appreciate and understand a caricature, the reader has to have sufficient information about the subject of the mockery, possess a sense of humor in order to see the comedic aspect of this device and be open-minded. The lack of the last trait is the reason why governments in underdeveloped countries sometimes still ban newspapers or websites that create caricatures of them.
In written pieces, the comical effect of a caricature is achieved by the author using comparisons and drawing parallels in his or her descriptions. Artists, on the other hand, use this tool by exaggerating the physical traits of a person or by depicting the subject with an object that is associated with it. For example, Donald Trump is frequently drawn next to a wall due to the promises he made during the election campaign.
Another method that authors and artists use to create a caricature is a literal depiction of a metaphor, idiom, or saying. For instance, the sentence "The prime-minister pulled a rabbit out of the hat by assigning his former secretary as a cabinet member" can be used to create quite a humorous and eye-catching cartoon.
During the centuries of its use, a caricature didn't have a humorous aspect and served only as a tool for criticism. For example, Pieter Bruegel's painting "The Blind Leading the Blind" was created to depict people that have lost their faith and are going into to hell. To represent this idea, the artist painted a group of blind people walking into a pit, with a church standing in the background.
When the writer creates a caricature, he or she not only conveys his or her vision of the subject but also reflects the reader's worldview. This is achieved due to the fact that when the writer uses this literary device, he or she relies on depicting the common perception of an individual or society, and not only on his or her own thoughts.
Such an example can be found in "The Decameron" by Giovanni Boccaccio. In this novel, the author uses exaggeration to describe the monks and the upper class of the Italian society as people that are constantly drinking, stealing, and committing adultery. The reason why this book deeply resonated with the reader is that they had a similar perception of society and felt that changes were needed to be made.
A vital characteristic of a caricature is that it exaggerates only a couple of aspects of the subject. Otherwise, the reader would just receive a more expressive version of the original and could miss the sarcastic undertone of the piece. For instance, when describing Joan of Arc, Voltaire has emphasized her masculine features, creating a somewhat unappealing image of the Maid of Orleans.
Another example of a caricature being used in a literary piece can be found in Anatole France’s novel “The Revolt of the Angels.” In this work, the author exaggerates negative aspects of several biblical characters to ridicule a number of fundamental beliefs of religious institutions.
Nowadays, caricatures mostly exist in the form of humorous drawings dedicated to politicians, celebrities, or societal problems. Most newspapers and websites have their own artist whose job is to create such images to draw the reader's attention to their articles.