Social & Literary Importance of The Spectator

Also Read

The Rise of the Periodicals Essays and the “Spectator”

      The periodical essay as its very name suggests, is an essay published in magazines or journals appearing at fixed intervals of time. It was very popular in the eighteenth century. It was particularly suited to the social ethos of the period. It had a deliberate aim and combined easy familiarity and didacticism. The development and perfection of the periodical essay is generally attributed to Steele and Addison with their popular periodicals, the Taller and the Spectator. But they can not be said to be the originators of journalism, which in reality gave rise to the periodical essay. Journalism was previously confined to political subjects and associated with the two political parties. Then came certain other journalistic efforts geared to satisfy general tastes other than political. John Drenton with his Life and Errors, chronicles the literary conditions of the times. Later the same editor started the Athenian Gazette. This was designed to answer questions of the readers and concerned itself with a number of issues like fashions, manners, religion and morality. They ranged from the absurd to the serious. It clearly, though to a small extent, anticipated The Tatler and the Spectator.

      Defoe’s Review had a part called the Advice from the Scandal Club which became a forum for the criticism of vices and follies of the day. Here was another element which anticipates the Spectator. But what is noteworthy is that none of these attempts survive to this day in their popularity as does the Spectator. It would not be wrong to say that Steele was the one to discover the range and scope of the periodical essay for it was he who founded the first real essay periodical with The Tatler. The general aim was to “recommend truth, innocence, honor and virtue as the chief ornaments of life... to ridicule folly and affectation, not to expose misfortunes and imperfections which are natural and unavoidable”. The periodical was very successful.

      Next came the joint venture of Addison and Steele with the Spectator. This was a daily. The united efforts of the co-workers enriched the material of the periodical essay. The paper became a censor of social and moral lapses and a purifier of public taste with regard to literature and fashions. Further, the paper made it its special business to get the attention of the females in the society and to change their modes of living and fashions and thinking.

The Aims and Objectives of the “Spectator”

      The aim of the Spectator is clearly and frankly “educative”. Addison and Steele were moralists at heart and they set out to refine and reform the tastes of contemporary society. The aim of the paper is clearly set out in the essays — The Aim of the Spectator and The Scope of Satire. In the essay, The Scope of Satire, Addison remarks that he is boldly set on the resolution of marching in “the cause of virtue and good sense, and to annoy their adversaries in whatever degree of rank of men they may be found. In short, if I meet with anything in city, court or country, that shocks modesty or good manners, I shall use my utmost endeavors to make an example of it.” The aim is obviously social and reformative.

Subject of Attack: Trivial Vices

      There has been a charge against Addison that his essays do not exhibit any profundity of thought, that they deal with trivial and commonplace follies and vices of the society. This is of course true and in keeping with the particular aim of the paper which was to castigate the trivial follies. It was to serve the public “by reprehending those vices which are too trivial for the chastisement of the law, and too fantastical for the cognizance of the pulpit.” He excluded politics and only talks of matters of social and moral and literary interest. The Spectator is not a periodical of information. Steele and Addison have their own ways of adding interest to their daily essay on morality or literature. These devices are the insistence of certain themes or a series of connected subjects which maintain and continue the interest. There are the fictitious letters also which add to the interest.

Picture of Eighteenth-Century England

      Addison kept clean of political issues. The subjects were connected with various aspects of social life and the essays center around London. The city is clearly presented in various references to the theatres, gardens, its different localities, its narrow and crowded streets, its coffee houses and other places, the solemn and dignified Westminster Abbey. But we also have quite a clear picture of the countryside in the de Coverley papers, the vanishing feudal set up, the superstitions and the implied gap of communication between town and country resulting in outdated fashions and manners being followed in the countryside. We also see simplicity life and natural beauty in the English countryside. We also see the rather peculiar manner of administering justice and religion to the countryside.

      The paper became a mirror of the contemporary life and manners, both in city and countryside. At the same time it became a pitiless, though humorous, exposure of the follies and vices of the fashionable society. The essays of Addison and Steele are the best picture of the new social life of England, with its many new interests. The two editors of the Spectator were able to reflect the thought of their day, sometimes were able to direct it, and never lost touch with it.

Wit Tempered with Morality: a Brave Move

      The aim of the Spectator envisaged another aspect, an important one considering the atmosphere of the age. The society was divided between two extremes of attitudes. There was the class which followed the Restoration trend of loose thinking and behavior and there was the class which followed the moral rigidity of the Puritans. For the first time there were two writers who set out bravely trying to combine morality and wit. Wit had so far been associated with profligacy and morality with dullness. The essays in the Spectator go a long way towards the blending of wit with morality. For the first time someone was attempting to teach in an interesting manner. Addison wanted to bring philosophy out of the closets and colleges out to the coffee houses and the tea-tables. He wanted to do this in a pleasing and delightful manner. Addison and Steele were concerned with improving the tastes of the people. They had to reach a large section of society and for this, they adopted an easy, pleasant style of writing.

The Plan of the ‘Spectator’

      To put their aim into practice, they needed a properly formulated plan. They endowed the Spectator with a definite plan. It was to be a series of literary essays concerned with morals and manners. “Each, issue of the Spectator contained a single thought, worked out exquisitely, every creation being distinct from its neighbor, though all bearing a family likeness. Each number bore a distinct message for the readers. Connected with this plan, was the creation of the Spectator Club.

      In the first essay, Mr. Spectator gives an account of himself i.e. Addison gives a character sketch of Spectator. He is made out to be a reserved but observant personality more interested in looking at the human stage rather than taking part on the stage himself; a man who is not biased or prejudiced. and who is qualified for the task of teaching and advising the readers. He is an observer and onlooker. In the next essay, Of the Club, we have a sketch of the other members of the club. We notice that the members are representative of different important sections of the society and hence they are types. But the skill of the authors have made them out to be living characters. These characters, representing the different sections of society as they did, were to help the writers to focus the attention of the readers on the different follies and vices of these various classes. At the same time these representatives and members of the club were to be held up as models in some aspects of behavior.

Method of Reform: Satire, Ironic, Humour

      Satire is the natural weapon of the social reformer. But it goes to the credit of this periodical that it satirized without hurting or offending any particular individual in an age that was rather famous for its lampoons and personal satire. The Spectator papers indulge in good-humored satire. There is a good-natured chiding in them rather than stern castigation. Wit and humor which had so far been used for denigrating virtue, now became in their hands a means of ridiculing folly and vice. But as Addison clearly declares in the essay The Scope of Satire, he aims at ridiculing the general vice and not the particular. He promises to “combat with criminals in a body, and to assault the vice without hurting the person.” He would also not draw a “faulty character which does not fit at least a thousand people”. He would be prompted by a benevolent attitude in writing his papers. The satire is thus humorous and general. The chief of the weapons of satire, namely irony, becomes in the hands of the authors of the Spectator, gentle and good-humoured. And we notice that the satire is leveled against any kind of extravagance, be it wifely extravagance, extravagance in fashions and manners, or over-zealous and ill-informed political talk.

Method Adapted to Purpose

      Their method “was admirably adapted to their purpose. They did not indulge in sweeping condemnations and unqualified invectives, as, greatly to the damage of their cause, the Puritan moralists did; they wrote good-humouredly, met all classes of readers on their own ground, and made ample allowance for the ordinary failings of humanity; but at the same time they consistently advocated the claims of decency and sound sense.” The method adapted by the authors of the Spectator “is that of intelligent preachers who do no violence to human nature, and who employ against it the weapons that it itself supplies. The fear of public opinion is what prompts many acts, and it is just this that Addison and Steele bring into play; they make vice, all excessive affectation, and the hundred and one superficial forms of egoism, equally ridiculous. The paper as Cazamian remarks, induces action through the fear of losing social approbation. It appeals to the reader and puts before him the art of living together, the duties of family life, the rules of true gallantry, the status and part of women in society, and so on. No subject is too trivial for this ‘universal adviser’. He passes from “the most serious matters to the slightest; and conducts a crusade against dueling in the midst of jokes aimed at extravagant head-dresses”. (Cazamian).

The Ethical Importance of the ‘Spectator’

      There is no doubt about the ethical importance of the Spectator papers. Addison and Steele set themselves up as moralists to break down the two opposed influences of Restoration profligacy and Puritan fanaticism and bigotry. It is to their great credit that they brought wit and morality together. “It was the accomplishment of the Spectator papers to have built up a public opinion against excess of any kind. It is the first attempt made by journalism to give form and consistency to public opinion; the first serious effort made to organize public opinion by clarifying and systematizing the infinite discussions that went on at the clubs and coffee houses.” (Compton- Rickett). The Spectator showed the readers the world from the point of view of the humanist. The clash of creed and traditions had made literature lose contact with human nature and made it ‘‘Party-oriented”. The new periodical “shut its eyes to all distinctions except that of vice and virtue, and employed no criterion but that of common sense.”

      Addison and Steele set themselves against the tendency of literature to make virtue ridiculous and vice attractive. They succeeded so well in their self-appointed task of “stripping the mask off vice... and to reveal virtue in its native loveliness” that since their days English literature has never seriously followed after false moral values. “So effectually did he (Addison) retort on vice the mockery which had recently been directed against virtue, that since his time open violation of decency has always been considered a sure mark of a fool.” (Macaulay).

      We cannot underestimate the importance of the Spectator in bringing moral tone to British society; which had been made frivolous and licentious and cynical by Restoration traditions. The essay serves as vehicle for the formation of “common sense views” in all matters, be it social, political or religious. To an age which had degenerated to coarseness and fanaticism and artificiality, he came with a “wholesome message of refinement and simplicity”. If we enjoy a comparative state of harmony in the present day and are able to form judgments on questions of morals-breeding and taste, with else, we owe it to Addison and Steele as the co-workers on the Spectator, says a critic. The Spectator played an important part in guiding and shaping the public taste.

Role in Changing the Attitude towards Women

      Another important influence the Spectator had on the society was to change the attitude of and towards women. Women in general were held to be shallow of intellect and frivolous of mind. Addison and Steele desired to improve the status of women. The Spectator papers have a number of essays which were addressed to the females of the society and sought to improve their way of occupying their lime. It is commendable that they tried to bring about a revolution of taste and create an interest in reading and improving one’s knowledge instead of spending hours upon trivialities of fashion and dress and coquetry. There was a keen desire to improve the education of women as is expressed in the lines:

“I know there are multitudes of those of a more elevated life conversation, that move in an exalted sphere of knowledge and virtue, that join all the beauties of the mind to the ornaments of dress, and inspire a kind of awe and respect, as well as love, their male beholders. I hope to increase the number of these by publishing this daily paper, which I snail always endeavor to make an innocent if not improving entertainment, and by that means at least divert the minds of my female readers from greater trifles.

      And there is no doubt that the Spectator papers did a great deal to improve the status and education of women though we may now find the attitude of Addison in some of these papers rather condescending and patronizing, and hence rather hateful. But we can not forget that writers were for the first time trying to address the female world whereas till then all literature was directed towards the men.

The “Spectator’s” Importance in the Field of Literary Criticism

      An important part of the function that the Spectator’s authors had set in front of them, was to civilize and cultivate a taste for literature. Their aim was to teach the reading public to discriminate between good and bad literature. Towards this end there were a number of essays such as the one on Milton and the other on ballad of Chevy Chase. We may not agree with the views expressed in these assays but we cannot ignore their value for having tried to build up an interest in the public to appreciate their great literature. The essays on the Italian opera and on true and false wit, the papers on fancy and imagination are quite important. The Spectator papers discussed, in a light and interesting manner, “art, philosophy, drama, and poetry, and sought in so doing not only to interest the general reader in such subjects, but also to guide and develop his taste.” (Hudson)

Importance in Literature

      The place of the Spectator in the field of English literature is permanent. It is true that the authors did not project any deep or profound thoughts and ideas through them. But they are the first essays to have established the essay form as an honorable genre of literature. If the periodical essay gained in popularity, it was mainly due to the Spectator. It became the dominant form in the literary field in the first half of the eighteenth century. It proved to be an adaptable form which could be used by people of diverse talents. Though of course the Spectator and The Tatler are the best of the periodical essays of the eighteenth century, they set in motion a trend of this genre. Another important aspect of the contribution made by the Spectator to the world of English essay, is the development of the personal note between author and reader. This anticipates the romantic essayists like Lamb and Hazlitt.

      Yet another aspect of the Spectator which is important in the field of literature, is its contribution to development of the English novel. It marks a definite stage in the evolution of the English novels The de Coverley papers “bring us within measurable distance of the genuine 18th-century novel”. Hudson remarks that it ‘‘scarcely is too much to say that in many of the Spectator papers, in which scenes from the life of Sir Roger are described, we have the modern novel in germ.” This brings us to another contribution of the Spectator.

Characterization: The Spectator Club

      It was Steele who created the club made of members from different sections of society. They might have been meant to be “types” but in the hands of their molders, they have gained life-likeness which has made them immortal. Addison is chiefly responsible for this characterization for he took the bare outlines furnished by Steele and developed them into individuals of life-like stature even while they did not lose their representative nature. Sir Roger is, of course, the most fascinating of the whole group. But the others are not to be ignored. Sir Roger represents the country gentleman of the best kind with his simplicity, high sense of honor and integrity and his reminiscences of the past. Sir Andrew Freeport (and do not miss the significance of the name!) stands for the enterprising, hard-headed moneyed interests. Captain Sentry as his name suggests, is a spokesman for the army. The Templar represents the world of taste and learning. The clergyman speaks for theology as well as a reasoned, outlook on life while Will Honeycomb represents the elderly man of fashion, the survival of the traditions of gallantry from the Restoration period.

      The club was intended to promote the form of discussion as a means of bringing about a change in the existing way of life. Discussion could lead to the solution of the question of how to live and the aim of Spectator was to promote this aim. “Addison and Steele were carrying on at much higher and more intelligent level the work of the people to whom Steele referred as ‘my friends and fellow-laborers,’ the Reformers of Manners.”

Contribution to Prose Style

      The Spectator papers are important for their contribution towards the emergence of a natural and fluent prose style. Their intention was to attract a large section of society and they had to be easily understood. As a result they are couched in a language that is neither too gravely dignified nor too easy and familiar. There is a nice balance struck between formal dignity and easy familiarity of everyday speech. The Spectator taught the lesson of lucidity clarity and refinement in prose style. The writers of this Periodical have been a “permanent force on the side of sanity and restraint of thought and clearness of expression”. They have contributed a great deal towards the development and perfection of a modern prose; style. Addison is famous for having invented what Dr. Johnson called the “middle style”—a style which is suited for “addressing a wide circle of readers on a variety of subjects, unpretentious, admirably clear, dignified but never stilted.” The essays, especially those of Addison, show a fastidious refinement which, however, seems to be effortless.


      Addison and Steele started the Spectator with the deliberate aim of reforming the social and literary tastes of the people. There was the other aim of bringing about an association between wit and morality. They desired to mix pleasure and instruction. As a part of the instruction, Addison aimed at bringing philosophy out of the closets to be within the grasp of the common man, to popularise the wisdom of the ages. He wanted to stimulate the thinking powers of the common man. The Spectator papers succeeded a great deal in teaching the age “restraint, good manners, good sense, forbearance, and mutual esteem.” Some of the most valuable papers for his contemporaries were those which showed the middle class how to think. It also inculcated a better appreciation for literature in its readers. Further its writers addressed themselves “avowedly and directly” to women; and at a time women in society were as a rule immersed in the mere frivolities of existence, they did their best to draw them into the currents of the larger intellectual life. The contents of this periodical may not be of the most profound order intellectually speaking, but its value both to the society of the day and to the history of literature cannot be considered as negligible. 

University Questions

1. Write an essay on the social and literary importance of The Spectator.
2. Write a note on the aims and methods of Addison and Steele in the Spectator
3. What was the aim of the “Spectator” and to what extent did it succeed?
4. Estimate the role of Steele and Addison in the history of journalism in the eighteenth century.
5. Describe the plan of the Spectator essays and explain how this plan was carried out.

Previous Post Next Post