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With reference to the context of Charles Lamb's "A Poor Relation" (from Essays of...

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shewa55 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

Posted August 18, 2012 at 5:08 AM via web

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With reference to the context of Charles Lamb's "A Poor Relation" (from Essays of Elia), please explain the quote below.

"A poor relation—is the most irrelvent thing in nature—a piece of impertinent correspondency, an odious approximation...." 

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:36 AM (Answer #1)

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In Charles Lamb's "A Poor Relation," from Essays of Elia, the speaker describes the terrible burden of the poor relation on a family that was financially comfortable—a sad commentary, actually.

The speaker refers first to the male relation who had no wealth or means to live as his wealthier relatives, and who would stop by—invariably at dinnertime, and especially upon someone's birthday. He would be fed and be able to socialize for a time. He was a burden to be borne, as was the custom, even though it was something of an embarrassment to the family, a curiosity of visitors, and a challenge to the staff...who were not quite certain just how much respect was to be paid to the "poor relation."

Among the descriptions that convey the burden of the needy relative are:

...a haunting conscience, -- a preposterous shadow, lengthening in the noontide of your prosperity, -- an unwelcome remembrancer, -- a perpetually recurring mortification, -- a drain on your purse...

This was a man that one might wish to ignore, but that one could not (in good conscience) send away. He lived an existence with only one foot in the door; and he never stayed beyond one night at a time. 

The second aspect of this writing deals with the poor female relation. While the male version of this relative might be considered eccentric—able to carry it off without exposing himself as poverty-stricken—such was not the case with the female relation. She was treated without respect, forever knowing her place and expected to be ever grateful to the "hands that feds her." She would acquiesce to the opinion of whatever man was present—e.g., the wine they should have after dinner. She was humble and sensible. The condition of her clothing was "something between a gentlewoman and a beggar." Never was she allowed to forget (nor would she let herself do so) her place. Few opportunities for survival were available to women of her class and her disastrous financial condition. Even more so...

She calls the servant Sir; and insists on not troubling him to hold her plate. The housekeeper patronizes her. The children's governess takes upon her to correct her, when she has mistaken the piano for a harpsichord.

The third portion of the writing refers to a young man at school who was required to leave the safety of that place and go to live with his father, a poor workingman. His father's constant obeisance to all who were of higher standing so embarrassed the son that he joined the military service, only to be one of the first killed overseas.

In the last section, the story refers to a man who spent time in the speaker's household when he was young—it was a school friend of his father's. And while they did not have much money, they were of a higher social standing that Mr. Billet. He came to dinner occasionally and was treated with respect. But once the speaker's aunt embarrassed him, insisting that he take more to eat because he did not often get it—so he should enjoy what he could. Mr. Billet was mortified.

Not too long after, he died. Here we can see things from Mr. Billet's perspective. He suffered in having to take "charity," the speaker seems to say, but would have been relieved and proud to know—at the time of his passing—that he had enough to pay for his burial. He would have felt this a blessing from God.

It would seem that the burden of this position is deeply felt by those in need—it would seem more so than those who might resent having to give.

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