Autobiographical Elements in Addison's Essays

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      In the very first essay, The Spectator's Account of Himself, we are given a portrait of Spectator as Addison. He is a man of some means who have been well educated and has studied hard at school and university but is more distinguished for his silent and reserved nature than for anything else. He is a well traveled man and has a wide experience of the world. He has often been asked to share his experiences with readers through the medium of writing if he is too shy to do so through talking.

A Detached Observer of Life

      Spectator is a gentleman who takes pleasure in looking at life from a distance without getting involved in its action. He is shy and reserved but he is unobtrusive and can mix with any company. Thus he is easily able to mix with the different clientele of the different coffee houses of London and is in a position to know what all these people think and what was happening in different spheres of life. The portrait of Spectator is very close to the real life of Addison. Addison was well traveled man with a good education and a reputation of having applied himself hard to his studies. He was also a shy and reserved man able to converse freely, and brilliantly, only in a company which was familiar to him. He was reputed to have maintained his silent dignity in the presence of even a single stranger. He was indeed a keen observer of life and manners and a widely traveled
man. We can justly say that the Spectator is a thin mask for the very person of Addison. However, it is not completely correct to call him a detached observer because the term ‘detached’ implies a certain aloofness which in turn implies an indifference to what goes on in the world. Addison was not detached in that sense for he was a moralist at heart and was driven by a desire to reform in his writings. He says in the first essay that he would rather live in the world as the Spectator of mankind than as one of the species. But this experience of the world which he has gained through observation—he has observed carefully different types of people and can easily discern an error in the economy, business, or the diversion of others and is well versed in the ‘theory’ of a husband — has qualified him for the purpose of writing knowledgeably on the world and offering advice to his readers.

The Observer not Satisfied with what He Saw

      Addison was an observer of mankind but he was not satisfied with what he saw. His natural good taste was offended by what went on in the world. He was unhappy at the artificiality, lack of good sense and taste, the ignorance, and the bad manners of the people around him. He was prompted to mend the ways of the world; to develop good taste and manners, to strip the mask of vice and folly so that people would discard them. Thus he became a moralist in his writings. He could not be said to be completely detached; it is merely an agreeable qualification he gives for his moralizings. What he means is that he is detached from all kinds — of bias or prejudice and speaks for no particular party or group. He was not involved in any particular aspect of life and was an observer of life in general and hence was best qualified to give his opinions upon life. And the opinion would be just and impartial.

Moral Purpose

      His qualifications make the Spectator fit for the work he has undertaken. And this work is to share with the reader the ‘useful discoveries’ that he had made in the process of being an unobserved observer of mankind. One can not say that Addison (or the Spectator) does not intend to be a censor of morals. Undoubtedly, none of the papers is going to be categorically and violently all against vice and folly; each would combine instruction with amusement so as to laugh mankind out of folly. The Spectator would publish his thoughts ‘for the benefit of (his) contemporaries’, and he would be very pleased if these thoughts “contribute to the diversion or improvement of the country” in which he lived. The “advancement of the public weal” was of utmost importance to the Spectator (Addison). He looks at the world, sees what goes on, and, not being satisfied with what he sees, wants to improve it. The moral purpose is the result of his love and benevolence towards mankind. Thus he takes it upon himself to satirize the trivial vices, those lapses from good manners and good sense so that people would see their absurdities and change for the better.

The Essays: the Results of Keen Observation

      It is as observed that Addison (or the Spectator) makes the comments in his essays. He perceives the absurdities of dress, the eccentricities of people and ridicules them in his essays. He sees the feminine follies and foibles of dress and lists them and ridicules them in such essays as Fans, Female Orators, French Fopperies, Ladies’ Head-dresses, etc. He criticizes the silly notions of entertainment that he has observed in London such as the grinning matches or whistling contests. He criticizes the empty wits of the coffee houses after observing them. He makes satiric comments upon pedants and egoists. He observes and criticizes the stage conventions and practices. The Spectator’s eyes are “grave, but with a twinkle in them” as he observes and comments upon the world and its follies and foibles.

      Will Wimble and Sir Roger and other members of the Spectator Club are described and commented upon by the Spectator who continues in the role of an observer. Addison in the role of the Spectator stands apart and delineates these characters with their oddities and peculiarities. He is a cool observer and comments impartially upon these characters, looking upon them with amusement, and affection. He is careful in his delineation; there is fidelity in his description. This fidelity is evident in every description of his so much so that Dr. Johnson remarks: “He copies life with so much fidelity, that he can be hardly said to invent”


      It is known that the Spectator was a guise adopted by all the writers who wrote in the periodical of the name. Steele writes under the name, Budgell and Tickell also write under the name when they contributed to this periodical. But the traits of the Spectator are most close to the personal characteristics of Addison. It can easily be seen as a thin disguise for the character of Addison, that the Spectator is a “kind of sage calmly and serenely looking at the varied aspects of the social scene, the center of a circle which includes representatives of the various sections of society”. As Cazamian observes: “At the center of this life, and of its most active focus, the capital stands a supposed spectator; at work with observant eyes, carefully noting the very details, and the external aspects, of the comedy of human relations; with a mind that studies, penetrates, interpret thoughts and hearts alike, with a moral sensibility, supple and delicate, that reacts according to the wishes of the conscience. The imaginary judge is a composite figure, to which the personality of Addison contributes most of its traits”.

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