Mimesis and Parody

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What Is Mimesis?

Mimesis is the imitation or representation of life in art and literature. Understanding this concept is crucial for literary theory and interpretation. This article aims to explore mimesis in literary theory, its historical roots, and its applications in various genres.

Historical Background

Ancient Roots

The concept of mimesis has its origins in ancient Greece, particularly in the works of Plato and Aristotle. Plato was skeptical of mimesis, viewing it as a mere copy of the real world and thus twice removed from the ideal Forms.

Aristotle, on the other hand, saw mimesis as a natural human activity and a way to gain knowledge about the world. His “Poetics” laid the groundwork for the study of mimesis in literature, emphasizing its role in tragedy.

Medieval and Renaissance Adaptations

During the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the concept of mimesis was adapted to fit Christian ideologies. In this context, mimesis was often seen as a way to represent divine truths.

The Renaissance revival of classical texts brought a renewed interest in mimesis as a representation of both the natural and the human world.

Modern and Postmodern Shifts

In modern literary theory, mimesis has been explored through various lenses, including psychoanalysis and structuralism.

Postmodernism, however, has questioned the very possibility of mimesis, given its skepticism about the existence of a stable reality to imitate.

Key Concepts in Mimesis

Imitation vs. Representation

While both imitation and representation are forms of mimesis, they are not the same. Imitation involves directly copying the forms and actions of the real world, while representation is more concerned with capturing the essence or meaning of the subject.


Verisimilitude refers to the appearance of being true or real and is a key element in mimesis. In literature, verisimilitude doesn’t mean factual accuracy but rather the believability of a narrative or character.


Diegesis is the world of the story, including its characters, events, and settings. Understanding diegesis is crucial for understanding how mimesis operates within a specific narrative.

Mimesis in Different Genres


In fiction, mimesis operates by creating a believable world and characters. For example, the detailed social settings in Jane Austen’s novels can be seen as a mimetic representation of early 19th-century British society.


In poetry, mimesis often deals with emotional rather than factual truth. For instance, William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” mimetically represents the emotional experience of encountering nature, rather than a factual account of a walk.


In drama, mimesis is evident in how performances imitate actions and emotions. The believability of a character’s actions and dialogues contributes to the mimetic quality of the play.

Applications and Criticisms


Mimesis is often associated with literary realism, which aims to represent reality as it is. However, this association has been criticized for perpetuating the status quo and ignoring the complexities of subjective experience.

Postcolonial Critique

From a postcolonial perspective, mimesis can be seen as a form of cultural imposition, reinforcing Western ways of seeing the world.

Feminist Perspectives

Feminist literary theory engages with mimesis in terms of how gender roles are represented. For example, the mimetic representation of women in literature has often been criticized for perpetuating patriarchal norms.

Parody vs. Mimesis

Irony and Subversion

Parody is often associated with mimicry and exaggeration, leading some to consider it a form of mimesis—the imitation or representation of life in art and literature. However, the ironic and subversive elements in parody can make it diverge from traditional forms of mimesis.

While mimesis aims to capture the essence or meaning of a subject, parody often seeks to undermine or question it. Irony serves as a tool to distance the audience from the original work, inviting them to see it in a new light.

For example, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is a parody that uses irony to critique the British government’s policies toward Ireland. While it mimics the format of a serious political pamphlet, its ironic tone subverts the reader’s expectations, making it more than just a mimetic representation of political discourse.

Lack of Verisimilitude

Another aspect that separates parody from mimesis is the lack of verisimilitude, or the appearance of being true or real. In mimesis, especially in genres like realism, there is often an attempt to create a believable world or character.

Parody, on the other hand, frequently exaggerates to the point of absurdity, making no attempt to preserve the illusion of reality.

For instance, the “Scary Movie” series parodies the horror genre but does so with such over-the-top humor and absurd situations that it lacks the verisimilitude found in the films it mocks. The characters are not believable, and the settings are often surreal, clearly distinguishing it from a mimetic representation of life or art.

Focus on Critique Over Representation

Perhaps the most significant difference between parody and mimesis is the focus on critique over representation. While mimesis aims to capture the essence of what it represents, the primary goal of parody is often to critique or mock the original work. This focus on critique allows parody to expose the flaws, inconsistencies, or absurdities in the original, serving a function that goes beyond mere representation.

For example, George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” parodies the events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the early years of the Soviet Union. While it mimics the form of a fable, its primary focus is not to represent animal life or even human life realistically. Instead, it aims to critique the corruption and hypocrisy of the political system it targets.

Case Studies

“Weird Al” Yankovic’s Songs

“Weird Al” Yankovic is known for his humorous songs that parody popular hits. While his songs mimic the style and melody of the originals, they are not merely mimetic. For example, his parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” titled “Fat,” exaggerates the theme to the point of absurdity, focusing on overeating rather than self-assertion. The ironic tone and exaggerated lyrics serve to critique societal attitudes toward body image, making it more than just a mimetic representation of Jackson’s song.

“The Colbert Report”

Stephen Colbert’s television show “The Colbert Report” serves as another example that straddles the line between parody and mimesis. The show mimics the format of political news programs but does so with a satirical slant. While it imitates the style and structure of news shows, its primary aim is to critique the media and political landscape. The character of Stephen Colbert is a parody of a conservative pundit, but he is not a mimetic representation. Instead, he serves as a tool to expose the absurdities and biases in political news coverage.

“The Onion”

“The Onion” is a well-known satirical news outlet that parodies journalistic writing. While the articles mimic the style of news reports, they are often absurd or exaggerated, lacking the verisimilitude expected in mimetic forms. For example, an article might report on a “study” that found that “90% of bike accidents could be prevented by buying a car,” clearly aiming to critique rather than represent journalistic practices.

While parody shares some similarities with mimesis, such as the use of mimicry and representation, it often diverges in significant ways. The ironic and subversive elements, lack of verisimilitude, and focus on critique over representation make parody a unique form that serves functions beyond those of traditional mimesis.

Further Study

  • Aristotle. “Poetics.” Translated by Malcolm Heath, Penguin, 1996.
  • Auerbach, Erich. “Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.” Princeton University Press, 1953.
  • Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I.” Écrits, Norton, 2006.
  • Said, Edward. “Orientalism.” Pantheon, 1978.
  • Showalter, Elaine. “Towards a Feminist Poetics.” Women’s Writing and Writing About Women, Croom Helm, 1979.

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