The Idler Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Joseph Addison and Richard Steele created with their Tatler and Spectator papers a vogue for the periodical essay that lasted almost to the end of the eighteenth century. One of their greatest successors in this genre was Samuel Johnson, who wrote three series of articles for weekly newspapers, naming them for the personae he adopted in each. The RAMBLER essays were published between 1750 and 1752; the ADVENTURER, in 1753 and 1754; and the IDLER, in the Universal Chronicle, in 1758 and 1759.

Throughout his life Johnson lamented his tendency to while away his hours in inactivity, and he must have taken wry pleasure in beginning the third series by assuming the role of one who deliberately devoted his life to useless pastimes. In keeping with his role as the Idler, Johnson tried to keep the tone of these last essays lighter than that of his earlier works. However, he inevitably included some of his characteristic reflections on the burdens of life, commenting on the inevitable disappointments that follow most hopes, on the tendency of friendships to dissolve through suspicion, separation, envy, or competition, and on death and his hopes for immortality.

These serious reflections comprise only a small portion of the IDLER; more often Johnson comments in an amusing vein on the follies of his age. Even his language is more informal than usual, for he has substituted a flowing colloquial style for the carefully balanced phrases and the Latinate vocabulary of much of his work.

Many of the IDLER pieces purport to be letters from various readers, and through them Johnson gently satirizes social foibles of the mid-eighteenth century. A merchant, Zachary Treacle, writes to complain that his wife distracts him all day long in his shop, strolling about and asking “a thousand frivolous questions” when she might assist him, leaving the housework to a slatternly maid and spoiling their children. He considers the greatest indignity imposed on him to be their regular Sunday afternoon promenade when he is often forced to carry his child.

Betty Broom, a lady’s maid, sends the Idler two letters describing her misfortunes as one who has more education than the world thinks her station in life entitles her. Another mistreated husband, Peter Plenty, complains of a wife who cannot resist sales, with the result that his house is full of unused and useless articles: “the dining room is so crowded with tables, that dinner scarcely can be served; the parlour is decorated with so many piles of china, that I dare not step within the door; at every turn of the stairs I have a clock, and half the windows of the upper floors are darkened, that shelves may be set before them.”

Many of the essays are enlivened by briefer portrait-caricatures of familiar types. Tom Tempest and Jack Sneaker are the fanatical Jacobite and Whig, each convinced that the party of the other is the embodiment of all evil. Tempest whispers to his friends that a new monarch will soon replace the Hanoverians whom he despises, while Sneaker devotes his hours to worrying about new Papist conspiracies. Jack Whirler, characterized in another essay, is the man who is perpetually busy, so completely occupied in rushing from one task or engagement to the next that he never has time to accomplish anything. The traveler who finds every step a dangerous adventure is pictured in Will Marvel; he regales his acquaintances...

(The entire section is 1413 words.)