Charles Lamb

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What are the main themes of Charles Lamb's essay “Imperfect Sympathies”?

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The main themes of Charles Lamb's essay “Imperfect Sympathies” are the unavoidability of prejudice, the need to recognize and admit prejudice, and the prevention of hypocrisy.

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Essayist Charles Lamb (1775–1834) first published his essay “Imperfect Sympathies” in London Magazine in August of 1821. He begins with a quotation from Religio Medici in which the author claims that he holds no prejudices toward anyone. Lamb argues that this is not at all a practical position for anybody, and he freely admits that he has plenty of prejudices. He feels “the differences of mankind, national or individual,” and he is never indifferent toward people. He does not and cannot like everyone just the same. This is just not normal for a human being.

Herein lies Lamb's primary theme: prejudice exists in some fashion in everyone. We must recognize our prejudices and be honest about them, for we all have, as the essay's title indicates, imperfect sympathies.

Lamb goes on to illustrate some of his own prejudices, and he does so in a humorous, tongue-in-cheek manner. He is not trying to offend anyone. Rather, he is being honest in what, in his day, would likely be taken as amusing and somewhat playful. He is also challenging people to think about their own faults as he lists the faults of the groups he freely admits to feeling “imperfect sympathies” for. The Scots, Lamb believes, are not the world's best thinkers, for they take everything with perfect seriousness and are often unable to notice humor or irony. They are literal to a fault. Perhaps Lamb is hinting here that his readers should not imitate the Scots!

Lamb speaks of other groups as well, freely admitting his prejudices toward them. He is open and clear, yet at the same time, he is subtly trying to get his readers to think about themselves and their own thoughts and actions, both towards others and in themselves, so they do not end up as hypocrites who speak and act one way and think another.

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