On Witchcraft Story of Moll White: Summary & Analysis

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Neutral Attitude

      There are certain subjects on which it is so far to adopt an attitude of neutrality between two opposing points of view. Witchcraft is one such subject. It is better to adopt this neutrality if one wants to avoid errors or prejudices. When both sides have valid arguments in their favor, and specially if the matter is not one that involves one personally, it is better to keep an open mind rather than committing oneself. Reports have come from all over the world supporting the existence of a communication between the human world and the world of evil spirits. On the other hand, however, these reports come most of all from places which are backward and ignorant. It is also found that the so-called witches are often weak minded old women. Further, there have been too many cases of fraud for the author to believe whole heartedly in witches. He has decided to suspend his belief till he heard more convincing reports regarding the matter.

Moll White

      While walking in the countryside with Sir Roger, the Spectator suddenly found himself addressed by an old hag who asked him to give some charity. He was reminded of some lines which described an old ragged and wretched old woman when Sir Roger informed him that she was regarded as a witch in the locality. People believed her to have gone all over upon a broomstick. They attributed all the disasters of their life to her. If she stumbled against something, it was declared that she must have seen some twigs which had fallen in the shape of a cross. If she made mistakes in the prayers, then she was declared to be reciting the prayers backward.

Hovel of Moll White

      The Spectator became curious to go to the dwelling place of Moll White. Sir Roger took him there. It was a pitiful and wretched hovel. Sir Roger winked at the Spectator to take note of the broomstick lying in the corner and also a tabby cat sitting there. These would be held as proof by the popular mind that Moll was a witch. People had said that the cat could speak and did all kinds of things that a normal cat could not. The writer was troubled in his mind that this wretched woman should be the subject of these rumors. He was distressed to see such abject misery. But he was also amused when Sir Roger, who seemed puzzled about the woman, told her seriously not to harm the neighbors, cattle, and not to have any commerce with the devil. He told the Spectator that there had been representation to him as he was the local magistrate regarding the woman. In fact, the people would have tried their own experiments upon her if the chaplain had not prevented them.

Old Women Declared as Witches

      The Spectator considers it a shame that there is such a Moll White in most English villagers. When an old woman becomes weak in mind and becomes a liability to the parish, the parishioners start circulating stories about her commerce with evil spirits and attribute all illness and mishaps to her. She, in her mentally weak condition, becomes frightened and starts imagining all sorts of dealings with the devil. Persecuted and miserable she becomes nervous enough to confess to her crimes. What happens is that this cuts off the clarity of those who are in dire need of it. This kind of rumor makes people malevolent towards these poor women who slowly lose their humanity under the effect of old age and weakness.


      The topic of witchcraft induces the author to keep an open mind. He does not want to commit himself to the view that witches do not exist, nor can he bring himself to believe in their existence without considerable proof. It is a bit strange that an enlightened man like Addison lacks a certain amount of intellectual adventurousness to take a definite point of view. He is too cautious in his approach as far as the subject of the existence of witches is concerned. But this is not to say that he could not see enough to realize that the contemporary practice of calling old and decrepit women witches, was not only erroneous but cruel as well. He strongly criticizes the attitude and behavior of the village people who treat these old women cruelly under the belief that they are witches. He attacks the irrationality of such behavior and ideas. He gives a concrete example, as is usual in his essays, to prove his point that the weakness, which comes about merely because of advancing age is treated by the people as signs of witchcraft. His last paragraph is a strong and eloquent appeal to the readers not to indulge in such erroneous beliefs. He satirizes the attitude of the country folk who start these rumors of witchcraft against poor old women who have become dependent upon the charity of the parishioners. It is a sly dig at the mean nature of people who start these witchcraft fears apparently to get rid of a liability.

      Incidentally, Sir Roger’s character is developed further in this essay. The old knight is too simple and naive and is puzzled about Moll. He is quite ready to believe the rumors against her. The chaplain s kindness is proved in this paper. At the same time, there seems to be a slight sense of superiority in the attitude of Addison as he, in the role of the Spectator, smiles at Sir Roger’s naively. There is a touch of humor too in the style of writing, as when he remarks that if the butter does not get churned it is because Moll is at the bottom of the churn, and if a horse sweats in the stable it is because Moll has had a ride on it. The style is marked by lucidity, clarity of expression and realism of imagery.


      Line. 3-9. There are some......to neither: Addison is of the opinion that there are some issues in life regarding which it is better to be neutral rather than commit oneself to a particular Point of view. This neutrality is very essential in a mind that seeks to find out a thing without being subject to mistakes and prejudices. It is essential to keep an open mind in certain matters where there are valid arguments to be offered in support of different points of view. Especially when the subject is one in which one is not personally involved it is best to keep an open mind so as to avoid error of judgment. Addison says this regarding the subject of witches and witchcraft. We note in this passage the cautious approach of the author towards any subject of controversy. It speaks for a certain lack of intellectual adventurousness.

      Line. 11-24. When I hear......to my knowledge: Addison explains why he keeps an open mind regarding witchcraft. When he hears reports from lands all over the world which confirm the existence of witches and supernatural spirits, he tends to feel that there is some truth in the stories about dealings and communications between certain human beings and the world of evil spirits, and which we call witchcraft. On the other hand, most of these accounts which try to prove the existence of witchcraft come from those parts of the world which are full of ignorance and hence liable to believe anything and everything. Secondly, those who are supposed to be having these communications with the world of evil spirits are mostly old and decrepit beings whose mental powers have been greatly reduced through old age and who have developed a crazy fancy. Then there have been a number of cases where there have been deliberate deceptions and tricks and frauds on the part of the so-called witches and other people. All these factors make Addison keep an open mind and refrain from coming to a positive decision regarding witchcraft and witches. He says that he would wait for reports which he can rely upon before committing himself to an opinion. Once again we see the cautious approach of the author. Further, this is an instance of the intellectual unwilling to disregard witchcraft as complete rubbish but keeping his mind open about it! Addison though he claims to be enlightened is not emancipated enough to discard all belief in things like witchcraft. The age of Addison was a curious mixture of this kind of intellectualism and unenlightenment.

      Line. 54-58. If she chanced......prayers backward: Though Addison was not enlightened enough to shun the very belief in witchcraft, he is enlightened enough to criticize the tendency of the — villagers to call every old and weak-minded woman a witch. He describes how Moll White in the district in which Sir Roger lived was treated by the people. Moll was held to be a witch. Whenever she stumbled the villagers used to declare that it was because there were some sticks lying around in the shape of a cross. Moll being a witch, became uneasy and fearful when she saw the cross, the holy sign. Similarly, if she ever made a mistake in the prayers at church or said ‘amen’ at some place other than the end, the people immediately said that she must be reciting her prayers backwards, a sure sign of witches who did this counteract the good effect of the prayer. These are, in reality, errors of old age and not necessarily signs of witchcraft. It is the ignorance of the common people which makes them circulate such suspicions.

      Line. 82-88. I was secretly......acceptable: The Spectator was once walking with Sir Roger when they came across Moll White who was reputed to be a witch. Curiosity made the Spectator want to see the hovel where she lived. When they went to the wretched dwelling place of the old women, the Spectator was inwardly shocked and upset about such great misery and wretched condition in which the woman lived. But he could not help smiling at Sir Roger’s admonition to old woman not to do any harm to her neighbor’s cattle. Apparently, Sir Roger was not too clear in his mind about the old woman and did, at least partly, credit the rumors of the countryside that she was indeed a witch. Though we see that Addison was touched and distressed to see the wretched condition of the poor woman, there seems to a sense of complacence in his superior smile at Sir Roger’s naivety. There is also a sort of smugness in his last sentence that the gift of money which they gave to Moll was very happily accepted. There seems to be a sense of having done one’s duty and so the conscience can be at rest. But one can admit that Addison felt that these old women should not be persecuted without reason or because of silly ignorance.

      Line. 101-111. When an old woman......infirmity and dotage: Addison draws this valid comment upon the habit of the country-people to treat all the old and weak minded women as witches. When an old woman starts showing signs of extreme old age and is unable to get living of her own and does not have any one to look after her she becomes a liability for the parish. The villagers who probably did not much like idea of supporting this woman started terming her, as a witch and persecuted her and filled the district with fanciful stories about her. The whole district is filled with stories of illness and bad dreams presumably carved by this witch. By this time the poor woman herself becomes convinced that she has evil powers and gets frightened and starts imagining all sorts of things and admits to having communications with the world of evil spirits. This she does because of the growing weakness of her mental powers. Addison is strongly critical of such behavior on the part of the villagers. He says, rightly, that this kind of persecution and rumors lead the poor woman to be avoided and treated badly. She fails to get the charity which would have otherwise been given to her when she needed it most. People become mean and vicious towards these women who are merely old and showing all the weakness of old age. Their human nature is marred by old age and weakness senility. They are not witches but merely old women. There is felicity of language, clarity of expression, and realism of ideas in this passage. Addison has put across a cogent and realistic view of how these poor women come to be called witches.

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