On The Shame and Fear of Poverty: Summary & Analysis

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False Display

      Economy improves the financial condition just as good breeding improves one's conversation. But there are people who pretend that they are richer than they are in fact and make a false display of wealth, just as there are those who pretend to be very well in their conversation. In both cases, they earn the contempt of the others and make themselves miserable.

Sir Roger’s Guest

      The writer met a country gentleman at Sir Roger’s house who look a great deal of wine even though he did not seem to be enjoying it. With more and more drink he grew more and more sullen and The irritable author realized that this person was in financial difficulties and his estate was under heavy debt. But his empty pride would not let him sell any part of his estate so as to pay off his debt. Thus his estate was fast dwindling with all the heavy interest he had to pay on his debt. But he continued to do this rather than sell his property because then he would be regarded as less rich! The appearance of wealth was more important to him than the reality. His disproportionately rich style hid under it an indigent condition.

Unpardonable Vanity

      This kind of pretense about wealth was unfortunately rather common. But it was an irrational behavior. It was like the conduct of a general with a very small army at his command wanting to take charge of a large area instead of taking the charge of a small pass for which he is capable. To pretend to be rich and spend extravagantly merely to keep up appearances when the actual resources are little and dwindling, seems to Steele, an unpardonable vanity. This vanity will only bring dishonor.

Laertes and Irus

      Two examples are given to prove the point. Laertes is a man of fifteen hundred pounds a year but his property is heavily under debt. It would be sensible of him to dispose of part of his property and pay off his debts. In this way, he would not have to pay the land tax for property which is his merely in name. But the shame of being considered as a man of less property makes him continue under debt and let his property slowly dwindle away, and his. financial position gets worse and worse. Irus, his neighbor, is a man of lesser property but he lives economically and has no debt to pay. He lives in the fear of poverty and does not keep servants, and has a rather low standard of living. Laertes grows poorer while pretending to be richer. Irus, by fearing poverty and being economical, grows richer.

Irrational Proportions of Shame and Fear

      The motive behind the actions of Laertes and Irus lie in the fact that both feel poverty to be an evil and to be avoided. One feels ashamed of it and the other fears poverty. Both these feelings can be carried to an extreme and then they can become bad. Usury, extortion and threat come from an excessive fear of poverty, while extravagant living, false display and prodigality come from a shame of poverty. Both these extremes are to be avoided. The writer asks his readers to follow magnanimity without extravagance and economy without miserliness. He gives the example of Sir Roger’s ancestor, namely Sir Humphrey, as ideal. One should set oneself a certain limit of income. All that exceeds that limit should be used for the benefit of other needy persons. This would be living according to some goal and giving some direction to life. It would save a man from feeling contemptuous towards those below his standard and prevent him from envying those with a higher income.


      The essay has been written with a clear didactic purpose. Steele gives wholesome and valuable advice regarding the spending of money. He advises moderation. He is against both kinds of excess, excessive spending as well as excessive accumulation of money. Great fear of poverty prevents people from spending money even on necessities and this is as bad as the other extreme who, out of a shame of appearing poor, spends much beyond the means and which finally results in real poverty. This is a wise observation and sensible instruction against extravagance and hoarding. He advises the readers to live within their means and be content about it.

      The advice has a great relevance to the period in which it was written. The landed gentry of Britain were apparently tempted to display a wealth which they in fact did not possess, and in the process, ruined themselves further. The essay, as most of the other essays do, offers a glance at the rural life of the country in the age of Addison. Britain obviously had many Laerteses who were fast becoming ruined in the process of keeping up appearances.

      Steele did not possess the lucid and elegant prose style of Addison. But his writings often have a number of epigrammatic expressions which are striking. Many of the sentences in this essay are closely packed with thought, and there is an admirable economy of words in conveying this thought.


      Line. 4—7. Economy in our affairs......contemptible: This essay opens with a sentence in the true Baconian style. In an aphoristic manner Steele remarks that frugal expenditure and careful management of monetary affairs has the same effect upon our financial status as culture and good education has upon our speech and behavior in society. Economy in expenditure makes one’s financial position sound and this leads to a comfortable life without worry. Culture and good education help to make our behavior proper and sensible. But there are people who pretend to be rich as there are those who are pretentious in their behavior. This affectation leads such people to vain display of riches or, in the other case, to an extravagant display of false learning in their conversation. This pretense and affectation does not get them any respect as they think it will. On the other hand, it makes people lose their respect for them and treat them as objects of ridicule. People who are pretentious about their wealth and breeding merely make themselves unhappy. Thus pretense should be avoided. In keeping with the aim of the Spectator, Steele sets a didactic tone in the very beginning of the essay.

      Line. 22—27. His proud stomach......less rich: Both Steele and Addison convey their point more effectively with the help of concrete illustrations and examples. Here, Steele gives the example of this man who pretended to be richer than he in fact was, to add vividness to the statement he made earlier that affectation in the matter of financial status merely leads to misery and worry. This particular gentleman who was among the company in Sir Roger’s house attending a party got drunk and became very irritable and bitter under the effect of drink. This irritation actually rose from the fact that his property was burdened by heavy debt. He had to pay a great interest as well on the loans he had taken against the property, and this was diminishing his riches even further. He could easily sell part of his property and pay off his debts and ease the financial situation. But he was too proud to do so. He spends restless nights because his financial condition worries him; he suffers many other difficulties and is constantly in the danger of being insulted by his creditors. But he continues to hold on to his debt-laden property which is slowly being diminished through the debt and the interest being paid. He does not sell the estate because that would make him a man of less property in the world's eye. He would be considered poor. So, in order to keep up appearances of being rich, he suffers actual poverty. Steele is apparently speaking against this kind of false display of wealth.

      Line. 38—46. To pay for......they pretend to: Steele finds it a matter of inexcusable vanity that some people live beyond their means merely to prove that they are rich. These people spend extravagantly in order to show that they are very rich. They refuse to sell a part of their property to repay their debts. They prefer to increase their debts by holding on to their property and pay an increasing amount of interest. This false pride will finally bring the man who pretends to be richer than he is to such a state of poverty that he will have to face dishonor. Steele remarks that Great Britain abounds in such men who put up a pretense of richness and spend more merely to show that they are richer than they are in reality. They are making a deadly mistake and it originates from a false pride which makes them ashamed of their real situation. In fact, if they only behaved according to their real situation and appeared as poor, they would soon be able to become rich. This passage shows the didactic purpose of The Spectator. Steele is frankly critical of false pride and affectation. Further what he says, is a valid point, that, one merely becomes poorer by pretending to be richer, whereas, if one lived according to one’s real means there is possibility of advancing to that rich position instead of merely pretending to it.

      Line. 60—67. Shame of poverty......from it: Steele gives examples of two persons whose names he has invented to explain the point that fear and shame of poverty originates in considering it to be a great evil. Laertes is a man who is ashamed of being considered poor. He refuses to sell any part of his property and continues to accumulate debts and pays a large interest as well the land tax for property which he owns merely in name. He indulges in extravagant entertainments and goes about with plenty of attendants and horses and carriages just to put up a show of being rich. He is ashamed of being thought of as poor. Irus is another man but he is afraid of poverty. This fear makes him very careful about his expenses. He spends on the barest necessities and does all the work he can without a servant. He goes to the market to sell his grain himself. He works like a laborer. Laertes, feeling ashamed of being considered poor, spends too much and as a result, grows poorer day by day. Irus, on the other hand, fears poverty and is very economical. As a result, he grows richer every day. The tone of the passage is clearly didactic.

      Line. 70—77. Usury......before: The fear and shame of poverty cause people to indulge in many kinds of evils. Steele is critical of both extremes - those who are too economical because they fear that they might have to face difficulties in the future sometime and those who, out of shame of being called poor, spend much more than they should. Fear of poverty led people to practice all kinds of evil in money making such as demanding high rates of interest on loans, speculation on the stock exchange, getting money out of others by using force and threats. On the other hand, shame of poverty caused people to indulge in extravagance and vain displays of wealth and a false pride. Thus extreme shame or fear of poverty led men to act in a manner which was irrational. Steele comments that one should accumulate an amount of wealth that was necessary to maintain oneself in the standards of one’s particular position in society. To desire luxuries beyond this position would be to indulge in excess just as neglecting bare necessities before would have been an extreme case. Steele is didactic in this passage.

      Line. 99—105. This would be sailing......of our esteem: Steele remarks that a person should fix a certain amount of money for his own use according to his rank in society and live within that amount. All income exceeding that amount should be given in charity. This kind of principle would serve as a guide to one’s life and lend it a sense of purpose. He would then neither be confused and puzzled by continuous efforts at making more money; nor would he fear poverty all the time and try to build up reserves to counter some future poverty which he fears. A person who is ashamed or fearful or poverty is like a machine which is directed, not by good sense, but by some unnatural instinct which would lead him towards practices which are contemptible. A man who has a fixed idea about how much he requires is like a ship which sails with the help of a compass. He will not lose his direction in life and he would go along life smoothly and peacefully without floundering. The simile is one of the rare ones which are to be found in the Spectator papers but it is an apt one. The aim of this essay, as in all the Spectator essays, is didactic. Though stylistically Steele is inferior to Addison, he often exhibits a sudden felicitous turn of phrase and an epigrammatic statement. In this passage we find this felicity of expression.

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