England in 1700 was possibly the most advanced nation in Europe, yet the English scene of 1700 was darkened by political and religious corruption and injustice. Literature was strictly for aristocrats—those “to the manor born.” Public schools were slowly being instituted, but they were few, and most people were unable to read or write. The cities, however, were growing, and the well-to-do were spending less time in their countryseats and more in the cities—more specifically, in the coffeehouses, discussing the latest news from abroad, from Parliament, from society.
Within these conditions was found the germ of the eventual short story proper. The need for a new social expression against the excesses of the Restoration created the personal essay, which attempted not only to address the conflicts of the time but also to chronicle the “talk of the town.” Fictional “talkers” were created by the authors of periodicals. In The Tatler (1709-1711), created by Joseph Addison, and later in the superior The Spectator, created by both Addison and Richard Steele, were found the highest quality of fictional talkers, reflectors of their times. The Spectator was one of the most important periodicals of the century, greatly influencing writers throughout Western Europe and America. The best-known of the characters about whom Mr. Spectator “talks” in The Spectator is Sir Roger de Coverley, a good-natured gentleman who represents surviving feudalism and through whom the vehement opposition between town and country was expressed.
The mixture of fashionable contempt for book learning, blended with shrewd wit, is well represented in the character of amiable, simpleminded Will Wimble, one of Sir Roger’s friends. His character is amazingly fleshed out with gentle satire in the de Coverley papers. Poor Will, younger brother to a baronet, has no estate and naturally no business sense, but he has mastered the craft of idleness. The depiction of English homebred life formed the basic nature of the early eighteenth century story: a graceful realism and the criticism of manners in an attractive satirical style, found especially in Addison’s stories.
The Tatler and The Spectator were the first organs attempting to give form and consistency to the opinions rising out of the social context. Through Addison and Steele, public opinion was founded by a conscious effort of reason and persuasion. The Spectator and its predecessors, with their dual purposes to instruct and/or entertain, were true children of the Enlightenment. Reason and instruction were foremost considerations, and often this made for severe didacticism. Happily, though, the vehicle for instruction was fictional entertainment. That philosophy, consistently followed, is put best in Mr. Spectator’s own words: “The mind ought sometimes to be diverted, that it may return to thinking better” (The Spectator, 102). Short fiction, still dubious and generally unfamiliar as a form of entertainment, played an important role in the success of The Spectator, and in a smaller way, The Tatler, which preceded it.
Through character sketches such as those in the de Coverley papers, the short story began tentatively to detach itself from the essay. The Spectator, unlike earlier periodicals, presented dialogue not merely as a device to present two viewpoints but as a give-and-take between two generally believable characters. Although the short fiction in The Spectator is not always technically well drawn, it did provide embryonic examples of modern narration and developed characters.
Perhaps the best narrative is Addison’s “The Vision of Mizrah” (The Spectator, 159). Oriental tales became enormously popular after Antoine Galland’s translation of Alf layla wa-layla (fifteenth century; The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, 1706- 1708). The Spectator, not surprisingly, capitalized on the form’s influence in Oriental-flavored moral tales such as “The Vision of Mizrah.” Other forms of Oriental tales appeared as “letters” from the Orient, as in Charles de Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721; Persian Letters, 1722) and Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1762), and as romances—moral, philosophical, or satirical—such as Voltaire’s popular Zadig: Ou, La Destinée, Histoire orientale (1748; originally as Memnon: Histoire orientale, 1747; Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, 1749) and Samuel Johnson’s similar Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia: A Tale by S. Johnson (1759).
“The Vision of Mizrah” displays a pleasing mixture of elements—Oriental material, allegory, and dream vision—and showcases Addison’s ability to construct a narrative around a consistent mood and condensed action. A good narrator also controls a story by presenting a scene in its varied details. Addison excels in imaging a scene, and in “The Vision of Mizrah,” the reader is taken successfully by the second paragraph to enjoy the air on the mountaintops above Baghdad.
In Steele’s sketch “The Matchmaker” (The Spectator, 437), realistic details and several characters in motion make it a delightful...