Sir Roger de Coverley: Character Analysis

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Introduction: Steele’s Idea

      The conception of the Spectator club and its members was originally Richard Steele’s. The character of Sir Roger de Coverley, the country-squire-member of the club was also Steele’s creation. In the essay of the Club, Steele gives us the bare outline of the character (though this outline gives the basic characteristics of the old knight upon which further development was made):

“He is a gentleman who is very singular in his behavior, but his singularities proceed from his good sense, and are a contradiction to the manners of the world, only he thinks the world is in the wrong. However this humor creates for him no enemies, for he does nothing with sourness or obstinacy; and his being unconfined to modes and forms, makes him but the reader and more capable to please and oblige those who know him.”

      These lines give the essence of Sir Roger’s character, the key to the proper understanding of his character. We have already been told that Sir Roger is a baronet and also that he is of ancient descent.

      We have been told that Sir Roger had spent a vigorous youth, had dined with Lord Rochester (a notorious womanizer) and fought a duel and killed a bully in public coffee house. These traits, however sound discordant and do not seem consistent with Sir Roger’s character as developed by Addison, or even by Steele himself, in the later essays.

Addison Develops the Idea

      What Steele sketched in outline, speaks for his original creative power. But it goes to Addison’s credit for having taken up this rough sketch and developed it into a vivid and life-like portrayal. “Addison took the crude outlines into his own hands, retouched them, colored them, and is in truth the creator of Sir Roger de Coverley with whom we are all familiar.” (Macaulay). Hugh Walker seems to agree this view when he says: “Though the first conception of the Spectator Club and the first draft of Sir Roger de Coverley were Steele’s, in the main the development of Sir Roger was due to Addison.”

Vivid and Life-Like

      Sir Roger is a man of very “singular” behavior as we have been told by Steele who conceived of the character. Addison continues to give emphasize to this “singularity”. We are told that Sir Roger is a ‘‘humorist,’’whose very virtues are “tinged by a certain extravagance” just as his imperfections are. But Sir Roger is not made to appear a mere “humorist” or just a representation of a particular trait. If that had been the case, he would become a “flat” character, a mere social type. But Addison has been able to impart a life-like rounded quality to the character.

Not Just a Caricature

      Some critics have looked upon Sir Roger’s characterization as a caricature of the typical, simple-minded Tory squire of these days. But if we limit the essence of Sir Roger’s portrayal to being this kind of caricature, we cannot explain the life-like “rounded” effect it produces. It is true that there is an emphasis upon his “oddities” but this is not the only facet to the characterization. A caricature would mean a grotesque or distorted or absurd representation of a person. It would demand and get more intellectual appreciation from the reader. There would be laughter at the comically distorted representation. But there would be no respect and sympathy involved. Yet when we read about Sir Roger, we like him and respect him even while we are aware of his “weakness.” As Hugh Walker remarks: “He never becomes so absurd as to lose our respect.”

      It is also noteworthy that though Sir Roger is a man of “oddities,” these oddities do not always spring from his being Tory Squire to be called a caricature of that type. These eccentricities are born out of the innate goodness of the knight. They are “contradiction to the manners of the world, only as he thinks the world is in the wrong. Sir Roger’s personality as it is shown in the de Coverly Papers is too interesting and colorful to be called a caricature. He is a “three dimensional” figure, a living character. The conception of Sir Roger may have begun as a type or a caricature but he has been developed into a living individual figure and no such figure can be termed merely as a caricature.

Character Built up Through Vivid Description

      Addison has the uncanny gift of characterization. He builds up a character by selecting a few qualities and putting them together in an artistically (and seemingly) disarranged manner. He describes these qualities with very well-chosen words. As a result, these not well-arranged qualities cohere to produce the total and final impression which is well-organized and unified. In the process of characterization, Addison may describe vividly the physical traits. But on many occasions, he builds up character through the description of the “abstract qualities of the character—his likes, dislikes, aptitudes and inclination. Sir Roger’s character is developed mostly through the latter device.

Character Developed Through Circumstantial Details

      Many aspects of Sir Roger de Coverley’s character are revealed to us, not through direct description, but, through the device of putting the character in various contexts and bringing out his reactions, attitudes, likes and dislikes. Thus the aspects of Sir Roger’s character come out through circumstantial details. This device also contributes a realistic portrayal, toward creating a “living” character who is not merely an embodiment of qualities, but one who moves, talks and acts and in the process reveals his qualities.

      Sir Roger is kind and good but we are not only told this in flat terms but it is brought out through his actions and the reactions of these around him. His kindness is reflected in his treatment of his servants who respond with affection. Thus he is established as a good and kind master. We are told that “the knight is the best master in the world.” This goodness is brought out in the description of Sir Roger’s behavior with the servants in the essay, Sir Roger at Home. He “tempered the inquiries after his own affairs with several kind of questions relating to themselves.” If he shows any sign of old age or infirmity a “secret concern” is to be seen in the servants faces. In the same essay, Sir Roger’s awe of “learned” men is revealed through his own mouth when he tells Spectator that he was afraid of “being insulted with Latin and Greek at his own table.” Thus his chaplain is a scholar but one who “does not show it.”

      Sir Roger’s commonsense is revealed through his having given the chaplain a set of good sermons by great theologians and thinkers of the past and the present so that the people of the parish became acquainted with their thoughts. It is in the same process that his eccentricity is also revealed. He would prefer a chaplain who “understood a little of backgammon.”

      Commonsense and a shrewd ability to manage his affairs with a sense of humor comes out in Sir Roger’s manner of getting rid of the belief that his house was haunted. This is related to the essay On Ghosts and Apparitions.

Dramatic Method of Characterization

      It is not only through static description that Sir Roger’s character is revealed but also through the dramatic method. In this method, Sir Roger revealed himself without the active intervention of the author. Thus in the essay Sir Roger at Home, it is through his own words that we realize his benevolence and his observant nature:

“If he (the person) outlives me, he shall find that he is higher in my esteem than perhaps he thinks he is. He has now been with me thirty years; and, though he does not know that I have taken notice of it, has never in all that time asked anything of me for himself...”

      Addison’s use of this method is well exhibited in Sir Roger’s visit to Moll White. In the essay On Witchcraft, Sir Roger’s behavior at the hovel of Moll White revealed certain aspects of his character. He winks at Spectator and points to the broom staff behind the door, then he whispers to Spectator to take notice of the tabby cat in the chimney corner. It is obvious that Sir Roger does not quite know how seriously to take the local rumors regarding Moll White being a witch! His bewilderment is obvious when he tells her not to communicate with the devil or harm her neighbors’ cattle! But he is generous though to give her a gift of money to alleviate her wretched condition.

      The same essay reveals Sir Roger’s gifts of conversation and narration—he gives a lucid account of what the village folk thinks of Moll White. We also see the same powers of narration when he describes his chaplain in Sir Roger at Home.

Subtle Touches Giving Consistency to the Characters

      Sir Roger de Coverley is good, kind, generous, and also eccentric. These are the basic qualities of the old knight. And throughout the essays, we have subtle touches, minute details, which bring out the same characteristics in different circumstances so that consistency is built up. The character gains in credibility and becomes life-like. At the same time, we have these touches suddenly bringing out some aspects of character in a most natural and spontaneous manner. If Sir Roger asks a question and continues talking without waiting for an answer, we know that it is in keeping with his habit of beginning a conversation abruptly. If he declares that “You can not imagine, Sir, what it is to do with a widow”, we know that Sir Roger has the habit of making sweeping generalizations from his own particular experiences.

Characterization Combines Ridicule and Praise

      Sir Roger is by no means a “perfect” man—a man who is all goodness, kindness and benevolence alone. He would then be most uninteresting and as “flat” as he would have been if he had been a caricature alone. But he is vivid and life-like and this is partly, at least, due to the fact that Addison has painted him to be a character who is undoubtedly good but also has certain very human weaknesses and failings. He exhibits several absurdities of character but these are never totally grotesque.

      The praise of his good qualities evokes the respect and affection of the reader. But irony and ridicule are never far off. Sir Roger’s eccentricity, and the actions which proceed from this eccentricity, can not but amuse the reader. But the laughter evoked is never sarcastic and sneering, but it is sympathetic and affectionate.

Examples of this Subtle Combination

      In every essay which deals with Sir Roger de Coverley, we find this skillful delineation of character which combines the ridiculous with the praiseworthy. In Sir Roger at Home, we are told that Sir Roger is “the best master in the world” and we are given proof of this in the fact that his servants do not leave him, but have grown old in his service. He is benevolent enough to have, settled an annuity on his chaplain. He is kind not only to human beings but also to his animals. These are qualities which the reader admires. But ridicule is not far behind—it is most amusing to know Sir Roger’s preference for a chaplain who knows a “little of black gammon” and one who would not insult the knight at his own table with Latin and Greek which Sir Roger is too simple and ignorant to understand! But Sir Roger’s choice of a chaplain, though seeming to spring merely from his eccentricity, also has a basis in his commonsense.

      Sir Roger in Church shows clearly the ability of Addison to evoke respect and laughter together. There is no doubt that Sir Roger is a good churchman, and a good landlord who is keenly interested in the welfare of his tenants. He has distributed hassocks and prayer books to the parishioners to encourage them to attend church. He has made an attempt to beautify the church. He has. made it a practice to gift a copy of the Bible to every boy who does well at catechism. This also shows his commonsense—he seems to know that such rewards would go far towards encouraging little boys to take interest in their religion. But humor is lurking around the corner and we are given the ironic remarks:

“he will suffer nobody to sleep in it (i.e., the congregation) besides himself.”

      We are told that “several other of the old knight’s particularities break out” in the church gatherings. Sir Roger expresses his pleasure at a prayer with an extra two or three “Amens”. His zeal for - keeping discipline among his tenants makes him call out to one in the middle of the service, telling him not to disturb the others! He is quite blind to the fact that he himself is causing a disturbance! He quite calmly stands up when all the rest are on their knees to count the congregation These actions spring from the eccentricity of the knight. Then Addison makes the comment which is really the key to the character of Sir Roger:

“The general good sense and worthiness of his character make his friends observe these little singularities as foils that rather set off than blemish his good qualities.”

      These oddities, then, are foils which bring out the good qualities all the better instead of spoiling the character of the knight.

      In the essay Labour and Exercise, we have another instance of this mixture. Sir Roger is admired and praised for his skill at hunting and he is given as an example of one who takes physical exercise seriously. Then we are told that the perverse widow (whom Sir Roger courted unsuccessfully) has been the “death of several foxes.....whenever the widow was cruel, the foxes were sure to pay for it. In proportion as his passion for the widow was cruel, the foxes were sure to pay for it. In proportion as his passion for the widow abated and old age came on, he left off fox hunting.”

      We find the same treatment in the essay On Witchcraft—our lining for Sir Roger is raised even when he is made fun of. He is kind and we also realize that he holds his chaplain in great esteem. But his bewilderment and confusion as regards Moll White is also amusing. This combination of praise and ridicule is found in all the essays which deal with Sir Roger. He is capable of deep insight into human character as is evident from his description of Tom Touchy and his companion. This evokes our admiration. In the same essay, Sir Roger on the Bench, we are induced to laugh by the evasive comment made with an air of deep gravity, “Much might be said on both sides”, when a rather minor dispute is placed before him for his judgment!

      Sir Roger is thus portrayed in such a way as to win our admiration even while he is quite often the target of Addison’s ironical humor and satire. As Legouis rightly remarks, Sir Roger “is foremost among those characters who are not only loved but also respected even while they are laughed at.” Addison himself seems to have had an affectionate respect for his knight, for it is said that / he probably killed Sir Roger because he was annoyed when a contributor described Sir Roger’s being accosted by a prostitute. Addison is said to have felt that it was better to kill him than to let him be degraded in the hands of other contributors.

Permanent Appeal of the de Coverley Essays

      The essays which are connected with Sir Roger, are the most interesting that Addison wrote. It is the characterization of Sir Roger that gives this sense of permanent appeal to these essays. This is all the more apparent if we turn to the other essays of Addison and compare them with the de Coverley papers.

      Of the other essays, the didactic or completely moral ones such as The Vision of Mirza and Appearances Deceptive show quite a keen insight into human nature. Their style is commendable but they are not so great as far as literary or creative merit is concerned. The other set of essays are satirical and ridicules the manners and tastes of those times. We may enjoy their delectable humor and irony but their themes make them obsolete.

      The de Coverley essays do not lose their appeal and this is so because of their central character. Sir Roger is one of the “immortals” of English literature. “The figure of Sir Roger, though it belongs to a bygone stage of society, is as durable as human nature itself”, as Courthope remarks.


      If we read through all the essays of the Spectator, we will not hesitate to pick the de Coverley Papers as the most interesting and as having a permanent appeal. We will also realize that this is so because of the central character of Sir Roger. It would not be saying much if we remark that Addison exhibits an almost uncanny skill at character delineation. “In nothing else has Addison shown such originality, in nothing else such exquisite skill.” Wherever Sir Roger appears, he is “perennially delightful”. As Hugh Walker remarks, all the principal literary gifts that Addison possessed, namely a “delicate taste, a keen sense of humor, and an insight into character, are united in what is certainly his greatest achievement—the character of Sir Roger de Coverley.” His oddities are very much part of this attraction, he holds for the readers. “We love him for his vanities as much as for his virtues”, remarks Thackeray, and we agree. Indeed the characterization of Sir Roger is Addison’s masterpiece.

University Questions

1. Discuss the statement that Sir Roger de Coverley is Addison’s greatest achievement.
2. Is it correct to say that Sir Roger’s portrait is a mere caricature?
3. Analyse Sir Roger’s character pointing out the mixture of praise and mockery in his characterization.
4. Addison had a gift for combining ridicule with respect in character portrayal. Elaborate upon the statement and illustrate your answer from the de Coverley papers.
5. “We love him for his vanities as much as for his virtues.” How far is this view correct?

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