The Spectator's Account of Himself: Summary & Analysis

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      The author gives in this essay a few particulars about his own life because he wants to satisfy the general curiosity of the reader who always feels that it will help him to understand any work better if he knew certain personal details about the author.

Early Life

      The Spectator was born to a small estate which he inherited from his father. This estate had been handed down from father to son through the ages without having been divided or altered in any manner whatsoever. His mother had once dreamt that he would become someone of importance when he grew older, and that he would become a judge. This could have been because the family had at that time been involved in a pending legal case. But his disposition even as a baby seemed to support his mother’s dream. He had always been of a serious temperament. He had been reserved at school. His schoolmaster had been pleased with him and had said of him that he possessed solid talents which would wear well. At university, he had distinguished himself with a deep silence which he hardly broke. He was a diligent student and worked hard, so much so that, there was hardly a book that he was not acquainted with.

Foreign Tour

      After the death of his father, he set out on a journey to Europe leaving the university. He had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and this thirst took him to all the countries of Europe wherever there was anything new or strange to be seen. He had been made very curious regarding the antiquities of Egypt because of certain controversies over the pyramids there. To satisfy his personal curiosity, he went to Cairo and had a good look at the pyramids.

Role of the Spectator

      In London, he used to frequent all the resorts of the public. He had few personal friends. But he visited all the coffee houses and took note of what was happening in Will’s, Child’s, Grecian, or the Cocoa Tree. He would be found in the famous theatres of London like the Drury Lane and Hay Market. He would frequent the exchange where he was often taken for a merchant. Wherever he saw a group of people, he would mix with them but he would never open his lips except in his own club. He lived in the world in the role of an observer and this gained for him a better understanding of the various aspects of life than what the participator in that particular field himself had. A spectator is always in a better position to discover and comment upon the mistakes made at a game than the players themselves. He kept a neutral attitude towards the political parties.

Object of Writing

      He was a reserved man and sometimes he regretted that so much knowledge should be the property of such a silent man, and that because of this the public in general could not benefit from what he had gained through reading and experience. He had therefore, decided to write down a sheet every morning about his thoughts because his taciturnity prevented him from sharing them with the people orally. He would thus communicate through writing and this would give him the pleasure of knowing that his life had not been a vain one. He would not reveal his appearance and mode of dressing because he preferred to remain obscure as he considered it terribly painful to be recognized and stared at and talked to.


      The Spectator's Account of Himself, essay shows Addison’s ability of vivid character portraiture. Here he draws a picture of himself as the Spectator and reveals the basic qualities that he possessed. He was indeed a reserved man, not very fond of talking. As a student too he is reported to have been a hard-working devotee to his studies, taking little interest in extra curricular activities like games or sports. There is endearing trait exhibited here. Addison, even while speaking highly of himself, reveals no ill manners. He praises his scholarship in a well bred manner. This urbanity marks all his essays. He never hits out bitterly against anyone. He reveals other qualities besides his scholarship. He was a shy man but very observant. He was indeed well qualified for the task he had undertaken as he claims.

      There is also the humour that is to be found in most of Addison’s essays. The very opening has a touch of sly ironical humour. He gently makes fun of the reader’s unreasonable foible of wanting to know something about the author, pretending that this makes him understand the work better. There is a touch of delightful humour once again when he talks about his childhood, and his mother’s dream and its interpretation. The greatest point of irony is that Addison is describing himself while doing the mask of the Spectator.

      This sketch of the character and personality of the Spectator is important for it introduces the reader to the object behind writing the essay and the sources from where he drew the materials for them. The essay also exhibits Addison’s ability of writing and communicating his thoughts in a lucid and easy style to understand language. There is a correct balance between easy familiarity of conversation and the controlled formal manner of writing in the essays of Addison.


      Line. 7-11. I have observed......of an author: Addison begins the essay with the statement that readers like to know personal details about the author of the book they read. They like to know if the writer is fair or dark complexioned, whether he is good tempered and of cool, nature, or of an irritable disposition. The knowledge of the author’s nature and appearance seem to contribute to a better understanding of the author’s work. The reader seems to appreciate the meaning of a book better if he is acquainted with these personal details about the author.

      The passage is characteristic of Addison’s delicate irony. It is gentle thrust at the school of criticism that went for the theory that biographical details of an author had to be kept in mind while interpreting his work. The passage strikes the key-note, as it were, of what is best in the essays to follow.

      Line. 30-35. The gravity......bells from it: Addison as the Spectator mentions that his mother had a dream when he was small that he would become some important personage when he became older, like a judge. Addison makes a sly remark that this dream might have been due to the fact that there was a legal case pending in the family. In any case the dream seemed to be supported by the serious disposition displayed by the Spectator as a very small baby. As infant he did not seem pleased with a rattle as any other baby would have been. He threw away the rattle before he was even two months old. He refused to play with the coral till the bells strung had been removed. This implied that as a small child himself he had been too serious to have anything to do with frivolous noise like that made by toys and jingling bells.

      This is an autobiographical fact. Addison was indeed, even as a child? of a very serious temperament and devoted much time to his studies rather than spending it at games and sports, and other amusements. Of course, the passage once again reflects the gentle playful style of Addison. There is humour in his description of a two month child throwing away his rattle as if aware of its frivolity. The author is speaking in a half-serious style.

      Line. 74-79. I have been......own club: As the Spectator, he moves round the city of London and makes an appearance at various coffee houses, each one the favorite haunt of a particular class of people or a particular profession. At these places, he used to merely look at the people and hear them talk among themselves. He never disclosed his identity. At the Royal Exchange, he had often been taken for another merchant. At other times he had been mistaken for a Jew among the speculators at Jonathan's, a coffee house which was a favorite with stockbrokers.

      The author in the role of a spectator never opened his lips at the various places he visited. He merely watched and heard. Addison means to say that he was suited by his very temperament to the role of a Spectator. Being able to mix and mingle with any company of people in such a way as to be mistaken for one of them gave him the opportunity to study the manners and behavior and hear their thoughts. He offers his qualifications for taking on the work of writing the essays.

      Line. 80-87. Thus I live......the game: The author lives up to the name he has assumed for the purpose of writing these essays. He has come into contact with all sorts of people. But he has not identified himself with any particular group. He mingled with all types of people but he had retained his independence of thought and identity. His observation has helped him to gain a clear idea of what it is to
be a statesman, soldier, or artisan. He knows everything about these types of people in theory if not in practice. He has a thorough theoretical knowledge regarding the duties of a husband or father, and can easily discover mistakes in different spheres of life like domestic economy or business or their pastimes. He prefers the role of a spectator who watches life from the sidelines, for in that role he can get to know more and gain a better understanding of things. A Spectator of a game is in a better position to realize the mistakes being made by the players than the players of the game themselves.

      Once again Addison offers the reader his special qualifications for the task of writing the essays. He is particularly suited to the role of an observer, and, through keen and wide observation he has gained a great deal of valuable experience and knowledge regarding the various spheres of life. He has the necessary qualifications to expose the follies and foibles, the mistakes, of people and society, without himself being party to them.

      Line. 87-92. I never this paper: The author is a spectator in the true sense of the term. He will not take sides or speak for the cause of a particular political party in strong terms. He is determined to be impartial in his views and attitudes towards the two political parties of England, the Tories and the Whigs. All his life he has preserved his position of being an observer of society and he aims to carry on that role in the essays.

      Addison and Steele were sensible to declare their intentions of keeping their paper above politics. The decision was sound in a commercial aspect as well because if it claimed to be above the narrow confines of politics, it would draw more readers. It is true that impartiality was not too strictly kept up but then Addison makes the reservation that he would speak only if forced to do so by the hostilities of either party.

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