Rural Manners: Essay - Summary & Analysis

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Different Manners in Town and Country

      A man going from town to country is at once struck by a difference of manners between the inhabitants of a town and those of the countryside. By manners, he means general behavior and not morals. There was a time when the civilities and formalities of behavior, which originated in the courts and the cultured classes of the town, had been taken to such an extent that they became troublesome. At that time the villagers were natural and simple in their behavior. But as the manners became too rigid and stiff with an excess of formalities, the civilized circles of the cities discarded these courtesies and formalities with the result that behavior in cities had become more simple and natural. The mark of a good behavior, now, in town was a certain negligence of excessive politeness. Indeed it may be said that good breeding now meant an avoidance of showing this good breeding. But the villagers, imitating the people of towns, developed many of the formalities which had since then been discarded by the towns-people. The Spectator on a visit to the countryside finds this insistence on ceremony rather troublesome. A country gentleman makes enough bows in greeting a person as would last a courtier a whole week.

Some Instances of The Excessive Formalities

      The Spectator has often seen the difficulties that are brought by this concern for what the country folk considers as good breeding. Sir Roger has often been at a great difficulty to choose the persons by rank to drink their health. Similarly, there has been many a time when the dinner has got cold because the matter of seating the guests could not be decided as it involved questions of status and rank. Even a carefree gentleman like Will Wimble is affected by this concern about formalities in manners. He would wait till the Spectator was served at the table, sees to it that he walks behind him when they go out of the hall. Once, when they were out walking, he insisted that the Spectator crossed over a stile before him remarking that they had good manners in the country too.


      In the matter of speech, too, there had been a change in the fashion in towns. There had been a tendency to avoid inelegant or indelicate expressions in one’s speech earlier. Only a village clown would speak in an obscene manner. Speech in polite circles had become stilted and stiff. A reformation took place in the area of conversation as well, and, now, the fashion was to include as many indelicate expressions as possible in one’s conversation. Young and fashionable men around town spoke in a manner which would make a clown blush. This piece of good breeding had not reached the country as yet, and the Spectator hopes that it will not be taken up the villagers. This mode must, he says, be short-lived as no nation that claims to have religious faith can continue this coarse mode for long. Thus if the villagers adopt this mode, they would be left in the lurch because by then the town would have discarded it. The villagers would pride themselves well bred whereas they are termed as boors.

Fashions in Dress

      In dress, too, the country people were far behind the townspeople. The fashions of dress that were followed by the villages were outdated by many years. The rural men were still wearing the dress that was in fashion during the Revolution. The women were still wearing very tall head-dresses which had long since gone out of fashion in towns.


      The essay, Rural Manners is a social document. Addison presents a description of the manners prevalent in the country and the town in his times. As he remarks the village people always tend to imitate the towns people, and thus, the fashions in the village always seem outdated to a towns-man. One realizes the gap in the communications between town and country when we read that the fashions were almost twenty years behind that of the town.

      It is in papers such as these that Addison plays the role of delineating and reforming the manners of the readers. He never abandons his role of preacher and reformer. He offers a sensible and refined approach to the manners of people. He is quite glad that excessive formalities which made manners stiff and rigid had been discarded by the cultured people of the town and suggests that the country folk too should discard them. But he is strongly critical of the ‘infamous’ practice of being vulgar and coarse in speech and hopes and warns the villager not to adopt this mode of speech from the town gallants.

      He is mildly satiric about the ‘fashions’ of the village which are so out-dated but are regarded as fashionable by the villagers. His references to Sir Roger and Will Wimble are humorous. They also serve the purpose of concretely exemplifying what Addison observes. It is amusing to note that the dinner is allowed to get cold before the manner of seating the guests at the dinner table is decided. The style of writing, besides being lucid and elegant, conveys the irony and humor well. The thoughts are logical- presented.


      Line. 12—18. Several obliging......civilities: Talking about manners and forms of behavior Addison expresses the belief that there has been a change in the manners of the cultured people of the town. It was in the court society and the civilized world of the cities that refinement of manners first developed. This refinement of maimers involved certain courtesies and gracious politeness and humility and these were expressed through various formalities of conduct. These refinements of manners differentiated the civilized city dweller from the blunt and natural and unaffected manners of the village dweller. The city dweller spoke and behaved in a most refined and courteous manner. This refinement of manners, however, was taken to such an extent that it became a hindrance to normal behavior. Addison has presented the situation cogently. The Spectator essays are important social documents and this essay in particular offers a historical view of the existing conception of the good manners in town and country.

      Line. 21-25. In this passage, Addison points out that the manners of the cultured section of society had slowly become burdened with too many refinements and formalities so that behavior and conversation became rather troublesome and full of rigid controls. He compares the history of manners to that of the Christian church. The Christian religion accumulated a large number of superfluous formalities and ceremonies as a result of which the Roman Catholic religion had suffered and the very faith became choked under these unnecessary practices. This excess of rites and ceremonies brought about the reaction of the Reformation which sought to remove all these formalities and restore Christianity to its original simplicity and glory. A similar case is to be found in the history of manners and conversation. The elaborate courtesies and formalities of behavior had now given way to a more natural and unaffected mode. A reformation had taken place in the world of manners as well and there was return to the original reasonableness and beauty. Addison is apparently critical of excess in any sphere of life, and excess of good manners is as bad as lack of it.

      Line. 36—41. One may now......of duchesses: Addison says that manners and fashions in behavior originate in the town and then are taken up by the villagers. But the fashions are soon discarded by the towns-people and thus when the villagers start following these modes of behavior they have in reality become out-dated. The refined and extravagantly courteous behavior which had been followed by the court circles in the earlier age had been discarded by them now. The people of the city had become unconstrained and easier in conduct whereas the rural folk had adopted the highly refined behavior prevalent in the cities in an earlier age. It is easy to know a man who has not had a contact with the fashionable world from his show of excessively refined manners. A landed gentleman in the countryside would greet a visitor from town with excessive politeness to show that he is not an ill-mannered person. He would bow as many times in half an hour as a courtier would in a whole week! At a meeting of the wives of judges, there is much more of concern about rank and status and about who is superior to whom that is shown even at a gathering of duchesses! Thus from these excesses of good manners, one can make out that they are not truly fashionable but really out-dated politeness. It is an interesting commentary on existing situation at the time of Addison. Communications not being very fast and efficient, it was natural that fashions should travel so slowly from the town to the rural areas. The touch of Addisonian humour is unmistakable in the picture of the country squire bowing so many times.

      Line. 42—50. This rural politeness......rank and qualities: The Spectator is a man of the town and, moreover, a man of reserved nature who did not like to follow these excessively refined manners of the rural gentry. He found these good manners of the country folk very troublesome as he had the habit of according little attention, to matters like taking a chair at the dining table according to one’s rank etc. He walked as and where he pleased or chance placed him; he could not remember that one should walk according to one’s social rank. Sir Roger’s dinners had often become cold while time was being wasted in deciding who was to sit where keeping in mind each one’s rank and status! The Spectator has felt sorry for Sir Roger as, dictated by considerations of ‘good manners’ he has had to select and choose the people to whose health he has to drink according to rank. This task is made difficult as these people are sitting at different parts of the table and Sir Roger has to be careful in keeping all of them in mind. Addison is against such excessive politeness which makes life more difficult and artificial. He brings humor into his criticism by his style of writing.

      Line. 54—58. When we the country: The Spectator is surprised that even an easy going gentleman like Will Wimble is not prone to discard excessive refinements of manners. Here the Spectator gives a concrete example to prove his point. Will is careful to give the Spectator precedence while going out of a room, probably as he is a guest and hence should be shown politeness! The writer gives another example. When they had gone for a walk in the fields, they came upon a short wooden gate which Will reached before the Spectator. The Spectator made a sign to Will to cross over but Will merely smiled in a dignified manner and remarked that the Spectator must indeed be having a poor opinion of the manners of the country gentlemen! Will apparently thought he was being very refined and well-mannered by waiting for the guest to go through a gate before him. There is a wonderful irony in the situation as Will remarks that the Spectator had a poor opinion of the manners of the rural folk, for indeed these manners are no longer in fashion, for the mode of excessive refinement had already been abandoned by the really cultured people.

      LI. 75—80. This the lurch: Though Addison apparently approves of the return to simplicity and naturalness in modes of behavior, he is critical of the prevalent practice in the fashionable set of the town of using coarse language in their speech and passing it off as true refinement. Though he wants simple and unadorned speech, he does not like the habit of making use of vulgar arid coarse language. That too is an excess of sorts. This kind of language which was at the time used by the dandies and young gentlemen about town would be short-lived as such speech could not really be tolerated in any society which made any claim to being religious. This mode of conversation was immoral and would not continue for long. Thus it is essential to see to it that the rural people do not adopt it. If they adopted it, they would find themselves in an awkward position as by then the fashion would have been discarded by the towns-men. They would be considering themselves as very cultured and fashionable when they used this vulgar language but in reality would be nothing better than boors. This, is a piece of good advice and is in keeping with the Spectator’s aim of providing the readers with instructive material for their own good.

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