Fans: Essay by Joseph Addison - Summary & Analysis

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The Letter

      The Spectator has received a letter from a correspondent on a subject which he does not quite know is a satire on coquettes or a representation of their fantastical accomplishment He presents it to the readers who can judge for themselves and, since the letter is self-explanatory, will not give any introduction or post-script, but publish it as it is.

An Academy for Learning the Use of the Fan

      The correspondent has opened an academy for ladies who can learn the use of the fan which had become a part of the fashionable attire. The fan is a weapon as deadly as the sword in the hands of a soldier. A lady can execute more men with the fan than a soldier can with his sword. In the academy, the ladies will be taught the various exercises with the fan which will result in their using it in an effective manner. The basic command words in the exercise are: “Handle your fans”, “Unfurl your fans”, “Discharge your fans”, “Ground your fans”, “Recover your fans”, “Flutter your fans”.

      The different parts of the exercise
Each part of the exercise had to be mastered in order to become a good user of the fan for killing men. The first step was handling the fan. The regiment of young ladies who had come to the academy were arrayed in a big hall. At this command, each shakes her fan at the instructor with a smile and then gives a gentle tap on the shoulder the woman on her right with the fan. This stage can be learned in a week. The next part is unfurling the fan. This includes several flirts and vibrations of the fan as well as deliberate openings. This is delightful to watch; as the fans are opened, the observer sees beautiful pictures on them. This part can be learned in a month. The next part is the discharging of fans. This consists of opening the fans with a sharp sound which should carry over a distance. It is a difficult exercise but the correspondent declares that it is not impossible to master. He has had ladies who, when they began, could not produce a very loud sound, but learned to make a noise like a pistol shot. The correspondent had also invented a special fan which a girl of sixteen could use as effectively as if she were a lady of fifty. The next part was called grounding the fan. In this the ladies learn to throw aside the fans with a grace. This is to enable them to cope with situations in real life when they have to leave the fan and use both their hands to do something important such as pick up a pack of cards or adjust a straying curl or falling pin. Next the ladies learned the art of recovering the fan. This step is mastered easily. They are taught to pick up the fans ill a hurry. The most important and difficult piece of the exercise is the fluttering of the fans. A lady who has devoted her time with hard work to the exercise can be mistress of it in a matter of three months. This part of the training is given in the hottest time of the year as the fluttering fans set up gentle and refreshing breezes. Besides, these breezes might prove harmful to ladies of weak constitution in any other season.

The Difference of the Ladies Reflected in the Flutter

      The fan’s movements have their own language. A lady accomplished in the art of fluttering the fan, can convey all her moods through her fan. The flutter can indicate anger, modesty, timidity or amorousness. There is no emotion which does not have an appropriate flutter in the fan. A woman of average intelligence can become an accomplished user of the fan in six months. The instructor also teaches the young ladies the best situations and time when to use their fluttering fans. The instructor ends with the information that he has also written a treatise on the passions of the fan. He invites the Spectator to come and see the trainees in his institute. He also gives instructions to young men on how to gallant the fan.


      In the essay Fans, one of the modes of satire that Addison adopted was the letter from a correspondent. Here he pretends that a correspondent has written him about this academy for the teaching of the use of fans and offers us his own views through this letter. He slyly remarks that he does not know whether the letter is a satire or representation of the coquettes’ behavior. In actuality, it is both. Through the representation of the behavior of the fashionable ladies of the society of the time, Addison ridicules their vanities and extravagant fashions. The fan was a part of the lady’s attire in those days just as the snuff-box was a part of the gentleman’s dress. It was a custom imported from the court of France. Addison is gently critical of the flirtatious behavior of the fashionable ladies of the time. He is also satirical about their ‘important’ activities, criticizing them for being so involved in the trivialities of life. He attacks the superficialities and vanities of the females of the day. In this, he is doing what he promised to do — expose folly and try to reform society. He hoped that the ladies would give up idle accomplishments like using a fan in the most effective manner so as to conquer the hearts of the gallants.

      Addison uses the method of writing seriously about a trivial topic in order to expose the object to ridicule and satire. He uses a military metaphor for the ladies and their fans to a great effect. It is apt and it is sustained throughout the essay. The most humorous part of the essay is the one that describes the various flutters and their indications. We see Addison’s gentle humour and essential urbanity in treating a subject of social satire.


      Line. 13-18. Women are court: This essay is a satire on the futile occupations of the fashionable ladies of the day. Addison is here satirizing the fashion of holding fans by the English ladies in imitation of the French custom. He has a dig at the flirtatious ladies of the time. This essay is mostly in the form of a letter which is supposed to have been written by some women whet hold a training school for ladies on how to use a fan effectively. The imaginary correspondent says that a fan in the hands of a lady is as effective as a sword in the hands of a soldier. A fan’s flutter can kill more male hearts than a soldier can kill with his sword. The fan can be used as a deadly weapon, a flutter of which can set the men’s heart aflame with love, but since the lady is a flirt, she does not return the love, and the men would die of unrequited love. The military terminology is metaphoric indicating the deadly effect of the fan. To achieve their end of creating desire in the hearts of men, the ladies must know everything about the art of handling the fan. The correspondent has started a school where she trains the young ladies in the art of using the fan in the latest fashions. She teaches the latest techniques which have originated, like all other fashions, in the royal courts. They would be taught all the clever tricks and gentle and graceful movements with the fans.

      Line. 22-26. By the right......modish machine: An academy for the teaching of the fine art of using fans has been set up by an imaginary correspondent of the Spectator. The letter is, however, merely a device for Addison to satirize the current fashions of the ladies. This correspondent tells that she has a few simple words of command for the pupils of her academy. If these words and the actions demanded by them are understood and mastered, the pupil would in the period of six months, become an accomplished user of the fan. The words of command are “handle,” “unfurl,” “discharge,” “ground”, “recover” and “flutter the fan”. Even a lady of average intelligence, if she works hard and attentively follows these commands, can become proficient in the art of using the fan, making the right and gentle movements with it, and put all the grace that can be put into that fashionable weapon—the fan. Note that these words of command are once again from the military sphere. Addison satirizes the fashions that the ladies adopted from France.

      Line. 49-52. I have several......pocket-pistol: The correspondent of the Spectator who has an academy for teaching the art of using the fan, now talks about the different parts of the exercise. The most difficult part is the discharging of the fan. This exercise requires the lady to open the fan with a snapping sound loud enough to be heard at a fair enough distance. It is necessary to produce as loud a sound as possible. A beginner may not be successful, in fact, there have been many ladies at the academy who had managed to produce a sound which could hardly be heard at the end of the room. But after hard training, these very ladies could produce a sound as sharp as a pistol shot. Addison makes the reader realize that the ‘art’ is so trivial and yet what importance was given to such trivialities in those times by the fashionable ladies. In keeping with the aim of the Spectator paper, he ridicules these empty vanities of the society ladies and exposes their follies. The term discharging is again from the sphere of military terminology.

      Line. 55-58. I have likewise......ordinary fan: The imaginary correspondent who is writing to the Spectator about the school for the training of ladies in the use of their fans here talks about an invention he has made. This is a humorous passage. The invention of this fan is referred to as if it were something great and praiseworthy. Addison uses this grave tone for a trivial subject and by doing this he manages, to satirize it and expose it to ridicule. The invention here is of a special fan. This fan can be effectively discharged by a girl of sixteen to make a loud sound, as loud as a crack made by a woman of fifty who must apparently have had plenty of practice at it. The humour and satire is unmistakable, but one also notices that Addison is not biting in his satire. He is also obviously criticizing the social practices of the day which made a girl of sixteen as great a flirt as a woman of fifty. He desires to remove these follies from English society. He hits out at the extravagances of fashion. This particular fan has some enclosed air in it which escapes when it is pressed and makes a loud sound. One can not help noticing that there has been a lot of care involved in inventing a fan of this type and we also see that so many pain have been taken over something so silly, so unimportant.

      Line. 60-63. This teach......importance: The imaginary correspondent who has established the academy for the training of ladies in the art of using their fans to good effect now tells about another step in the exercise. This is the grounding of the fans. This involves the throwing of the fan gracefully on to a table which stands for that very purpose in the hall of training. This piece of training helps the lady to be able to throw aside the fan in a graceful and attractive manner when she has to attend to some other matter of importance. These matters of importance are picking up a pack of cards, or putting back a displaced curl of hair, or replacing a pin that is about to fall down. These important occasions may demand the attention of the lady who has to then leave the fan in the middle of a social gathering. She has to learn to do this in the most graceful manner. The satire is unmistakable. These fashionable ladies have nothing more important to do than play cards or look after their appearances. Addison has a dig at these ladies who regard these trivialities as things of a great importance. He does what he sets out to do—expose the follies of society to ridicule. But he does it gently and not bitingly.

      Line. 74-82. The any other: An imaginary correspondent of the Spectator has set up an academy for the training of ladies in the art of using the fan. Here one of the exercises is described. It is the most important and difficult part of the steps of exercise of using the fan to the good effect of lifting with men. If a lady does not waste her time or spend time wrongly, she can learn to master the art in three months. Note the satire involved in the word ‘mis-spend’. Apparently learning this art is a matter of great importance. The correspondent who teaches the ladies this art of using fans reserves the hot days of the year, when the dog star is in the sky, for this particular exercise. As soon as the word of command ‘flutter’ is given, the place is filled with many light and gentle winds. These breezes created by the fluttering of the fans are very pleasant in the hot summer days. In any other season, these breezes might prove harmful, and give chills to young ladies of weak health. This is a humorous dig at those ladies who affected to have extremely delicate health for it was a fashion to affect a delicate constitution. The health must indeed be weak if it is affected by the wind made by shaking of fans. The language used is that which is associated with serious subjects. The irony and the satire emerge out because the language is used for a trivial topic.

      Line. 82-88. There is an infinite......blushes: It is a most humorous paragraph in the essay in which the imaginary correspondent writes to the Spectator about the academy for teaching the ladies about the art of using the fan. In the process of the exercise, there is the important and most difficult part which is termed ‘fluttering your fan’ But a flutter can be of many types and indicating various moods of the ladies who are fluttering the fan. It is most expressive. The lady can move the fan in different ways to show that she is angry, or modest. She can indicate anger, show her timidity, or her love for a person through the right movement of the fan indeed, there is not a single feeling of the heart of the lady which can not be expressed through the flutter of a fan. Each emotion has an appropriate movement for the fan. The correspondent is so well versed in the movements of a fan that he can easily make out the mood of the lady who uses the fan, if she is one who has been trained in the proper use of the fan. It can be understood whether she is displeased or amused or shy from the movement of the fan. Addison satirizes the fashions of the day when the ladies were fond of such French fashions such as using a fan and flirting with the help of it. In this passage he humorously describes the various types of flutters of the fan, pretending that it is the correspondent who writes about it. He has a dig at the ladies and their fashions and exposes their follies to ridicule.

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