The Spectator Summary

The Spectator was a periodical published in London from 1711 to 1712 and written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.

  • The Spectator contained articles and comments about literary works, authors, ethical matters, politics, social behavior, character sketches, and other topics.
  • The periodical was aimed at gently satirizing current behavior in all walks of life so as to reform that behavior in ways that Mr. Spectator feels appropriate.
  • The periodical was considered a model of essay-writing since its publication, and it is still used to illustrate various aspects of essayistic style, especially description, narration, and satire.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686

The Spectator, arguably one of the most important periodicals ever published, had a two-series run from March 1, 1711, through December 6, 1712, for a total of 635 issues. It was edited (written) by two masters of the essay, Richard Steele and Joseph Addison. For the most part, Richard Steele wrote the first series of 555 issues, and Joseph Addison the second series of 79 issues. True to its billing as a periodical, it resembled most eighteenth-century London newspapers in size and layout. Although the editorship was anonymous, many readers believed the writer was Richard Steele, who had just been involved with another periodical, also well known, The Tatler. Steele and Addison comprised the two main writers/editors, but several issues were written by others, all of whom were associated with the coffee-house culture of the eighteenth-century London literati.

On March 1, 1711, Mr. Spectator introduced himself to his readership:

Thus I live in the World, rather as a Spectator of Mankind, than as one of the Species; by which means I have made myself a Speculative Statesman, Soldier, Merchant, and Artizan, without ever meddling in any Practical Part in Life.

He goes on to explain that he is virtually, despite his lack of practical experience, an expert in many walks of life, including marriage, parenthood, economics, and business—all of which he knows better than those who have actual experience in those matters. In short, he is a polymath, a person who knows a great deal about everything.

True to its promise, The Spectator contains articles and comments about literary works (mostly Addison's work), authors, ethical matters, politics, social behavior, character sketches (descriptions of character types, mostly from Steele's work), as well as such mundane, but very funny, topics like women's hoop skirts and hairstyles. Nothing within London society or politics is-off limits to the two writers; they even wrote several satirical essays on religious controversies. As many scholars have observed, The Spectator seems overall to have been aimed at gently satirizing current behavior in all walks of life so as to reform that behavior in ways that Mr. Spectator feels appropriate.

Mr. Spectator is not alone in his efforts to correct slight behavioral problems in eighteenth-century London. Like many men of intellect and good intentions, he is part of a group of men who have become famous in their own right as characters, the most famous of whom include Sir Roger de Coverley, a Tory (conservative) and wealthy landowner; Sir Andrew Freeport; an unnamed lawyer who dislikes the law but loves plays; an unnamed clergyman; a retired soldier named Captain Setry; and Will Honeycomb, an old dilettante. Each of the club members is a character type (e. g., the soldier, the clergyman, Sir Roger) who represents the land-owning gentry, the military, the Anglican Church, Whigs, or Tories—all express the standard views of their class and station and so provide the reader with a well-rounded commentary on social matters. This group appears in many of the essays written by Steele in the first series, but not in Addison's second series.

The value of Steel and Addison's work—and its influence on eighteenth-century British letters and literature—is summed up in Samuel Johnson's comments that

the Book . . . comprises precepts of criticism, sallies of invention, descriptions of life, and lectures of virtue: It employs wit in the cause of truth, and makes elegance subservient to piety . . . and given Addison a claim to be numbered among the benefactors of mankind. (Public Advertiser, 12/14/1776)

Johnson's comments point to the periodical's good-natured satire, rather than invective, in its attempt to suggest models of proper behavior. Johnson, who was himself a relatively harsh critic of eighteenth-century life in mid-century London, recognizes the benefit of satire that pushes, instead of shoves, readers into better behavior.

Addison and Steele, in The Spectator and elsewhere, are considered among the finest essay writers in English literature, and much of our current view of the essay in English derives from these writers. In fact, The Spectator has been a consistently used model of essay-writing since its publication, and it is still used to illustrate various types of approaches—especially description, narration, and satire—to essay-writing.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access