Essays of Elia/Last Essays of Elia

by Charles Lamb

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Describe the characterization of Elia in Charles Lamb's "Essays to Elia."

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Essayist Anne Fadiman has described the Elia in Essays of Elia as "funny," "intimate" and "relaxed" (At Large and At Small 40-41) but I will give examples of Elia as compassionate, funny and imaginative.

Lamb based Elia on himself, but with some differences. Like Lamb, Elia is unmarried and lives with a relative. In Elia's case it is his cousin Bridget, but in reality,  Lamb lived with his sister, Mary. More importantly, unlike in Lamb's dramatic real family life, Elia's family life is relaxed and placid. In real life, Lamb's sister Mary stabbed their mother to death in a fit of madness: such dramatics are removed from the idealized family portrait Elia paints.

Lamb's Elia shows his characteristc of compassion and imaginative capacity in his essay "Dream Children," in which he shows he understands the night terrors of children: "how I frightened I used to be" he says of his own fears of seeing the ghosts of two dead infants he has been told about. He also shows compassion for a favorite uncle who died: "I missed his kindness, and I missed his crossness, and wished him to be alive again, to be quarreling with him (for we quarreled sometimes), rather than not have him again ..." His imaginative capacity emerges as the reader learns the dream children are in fact imaginary children Elia has created to fulfill his own longing for the sons and daughters he never had. (The theme of imagination is set in the essay's  first sentence, where Elia uses the word "imagination.")

In his "A Dissertation upon Roast Pig," Elia again shows his compassion, at the end critiquing killing very young pigs simply to please the tastebuds of the wealthy. He displays his imagination and his sense of humor as he creates a fanciful story about the origin of roast pig in China, at the same time making fun of popular travel narratives. We are meant to laugh at his fictional image of the Chinese burning down their houses (the pigs lived in the houses with them) so they could eat roast pig. 

Elia likes to look backwards to the past, but Lamb's essays about him anticipate the Victorian fascination with domestic scenes and details. 

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