What Is Caricature?

Derived from the Italian word caricare, meaning “to load or charge,” a caricature is an exaggerated portrait of a person or literary character. Cartoons that deliberately exaggerate a prominent feature in someone’s face are a good example of caricature. They draw attention to the most recognizable — and sometimes the least desirable — part of a person’s appearance in order to poke fun at them and deflate their self-importance.

Likewise, in literature, caricatures are exaggerated portrayals of a stereotyped character, mainly designed for comic relief. Prissy, Scarlett O’Hara’s young house slave in the novel Gone with the Wind, is a caricature with strong racist undertones; she is hysterical, incompetent, fearful, and constantly complaining.

A caricature can be intentional. But some of the time, they occur because the author unconsciously reflects deeply held prejudices that are imbedded in his or her culture. For instance, the character of Shylock in Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, is a caricature based on prejudicial views of the Jewish race in Renaissance society.  Others, like the one of Prissy discussed above, reflect cultural views of which the author may not have been aware. Prissy is not just a racist stereotype; she is also a caricature of women in Mitchell’s own time, who were seen as frivolous and demanding.

How Do You Identify Caricature in Writing?

A caricature may embody annoying or problematic traits in the society of the writer’s time. Ebenezer Scrooge, the main character in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, begins the story as the caricature of a selfish capitalist. Miss Birdseye, the overly earnest philanthropist in Henry James’ The Bostonians, was thought to be a caricature of renowned social activist, Elizabeth Peabody.

Sometimes writers overuse caricature, and such characters seem more like simplistic plot devices rather than brilliant social satire. The evil villain, the smarmy young businessman, the party animal — these caricatures can be dull clichés who are there simply because they are recognizable.

Examples of Caricature

Caricature Example 1. The evil stepmother in fairy tales like Cinderella is a caricature of a cold, withholding woman.

Caricature Example 2. Homer Simpson is a caricature of a boorish working class stiff.

Caricature Example 3. Uncle Remus, from Disney’s Song of the South, is a caricature of Uncle Tom, the black man content with his servitude.

Caricature Example 4. The 1970s sitcom Barney Miller featured a recurring characters named Marty and Darryl who were mere caricatures rather than a realistic portrayal of a gay couple.

Caricature Example 5. Actor Glenn Close plays the caricature of a murderously deranged femme fatale in the movie Fatal Attraction. 

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