Joseph Addison Short Fiction Analysis
Joseph Addison’s essays should not be read as profound pieces; they are meant as vehicles of instruction with two particular intentions. First, he wished to introduce his readers to the great minds of both classical and contemporary cultures: Homer, Marcus Tullius Cicero, John Milton, and Blaise Pascal, to name a few. In Spectator 10 he wrote, “It was said of Socrates, that he brought Philosophy down from Heaven, to inhabit among Men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables, and in Coffee-Houses.”
Second, Addison wished to recommend to his readers a golden mean in politics, manners, morality, and religion. Between 1688 and 1714, England experienced great social change, and Addison championed a middle way between the extreme positions that revolutionary change readily engendered. In politics he advocated constitutional monarchy as a median between Stuart absolutism and Puritan commonwealth; in manners he recommended an educated urbanity between aristocratic hauteur and middle-class utilitarianism; in morality he stressed a gentlemanly Christianity as the mean between libertinism and asceticism; and in religion he argued for a rational faith between superstition and atheism. In sum, Addison offered to his contemporaries the model of the cultured, self-disciplined and pious Roman citizen of antiquity.
If Addison’s essays offered in their own time to cultivate the readers’ sensibilities and ideas, they interest modern readers mainly for their mode of expression. When Addison moves from straightforward exposition into imaginative presentation, his modest and moral thinking takes on life. Through the accumulation of vivid detail or through humor and dramatization, Addison at his best dresses (to use the favorite metaphor of the age) his thought in attractive garb. Serious presentations of moral or religious truth wear the gossamer veils of allegory (a traditional device for presenting a religious truth) or the exotic trappings of the Asian tale (a genre then recently made popular by translations of the Arabian Nights stories). Comic or satiric exposure of ridiculous fashions and social opinions wears the bright dress of the character sketch and dramatic scene.
Most often Addison employs an allegory or an Asian tale of paragraph length to illustrate the moral of the expository essay. On several occasions, however, the vision or the tale becomes the whole piece; Addison pays as much attention to the artistic presentation of the setting and events as he does to a clear expression of the lesson. Tatler 119, on the world revealed by the microscope, Tatler 161, on the blessings of Liberty, and Spectators 584-585, about Shalum and Hilpa, are four of Addison’s better full-essay efforts in these genres. His best effort, Spectator 159, combines allegory and the Asian tale: “The Vision of Mizrah” tells of the dream granted to a young prince as he sits fasting and meditating on a hill outside Baghdad.
“The Vision of Mizrah”
“The Vision of Mizrah” is a completely realized story in which the moral lesson emerges from the events and scenes of the tale. Addison accounts for the tale realistically: Supposedly it comes from a manuscript that was purchased in Cairo. The manuscript is Mizrah’s first-person account of the marvelous happenings which occurred when he went to spend a holy day in meditation on the “Vanity of humane life” and on the notion that “Man is but a Shadow and Life a Dream.” Enraptured by the melodies of a shepherd playing a pipe, Mizrah soon discovers that the shepherd is actually a “genius” (or genie) known to haunt this hillside.
The genius offers Mizrah a scene representing the plight of human existence, a vision that Addison sublimely describes with vivid and complete detail. Mizrah sees a valley of which the hills on either side are hidden in fog; through the valley flows a sea and across the sea stands a bridge. The genius explains that the fog-shrouded hills are the beginning and the end of time hidden from human sight. The valley is the Vale of Misery in which humans must live, the bridge is the span of human life, and the sea is the eternity into which all men will be swept....
(The entire section is 1791 words.)