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.


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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, 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.

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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.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2019

Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s The Spectator was among the most popular and influential literary periodicals in England in the eighteenth century. Begun on March 1, 1711, this one-page essay sheet was published six days a week, Monday through Saturday, and reached 555 issues by its last issue on December 6, 1712. Each issue was numbered, the articles were unsigned, and many had mottoes from classical authors. The Spectator’s end was brought about by a combination of the other interests of its authors and by a rate increase in the taxes that were levied on paper. In 1714, The Spectator was revived from June through December by Addison and two other writers, who had occasionally contributed to the original publication. Reading The Spectator yields a vivid portrait of London life in the first decades of the eighteenth century.

The Spectator, like its equally famous predecessor, The Tatler (1709 to 1712), was the creation of Sir Richard Steele, who combined a life of politics with a writing career as a poet, a playwright, and a literary journalist. Steele became a member of Parliament, was knighted by King George I in 1715, and achieved success as a dramatist with his play The Conscious Lovers in 1722. Using the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff, Steele provided lively stories and reports on London society through The Tatler, which attracted male and female readers. Addison, already popular as poet, was also a playwright and a writer on miscellaneous topics who held a series of government appointments. He contributed material to The Tatler and then formed a collaborative relationship with Steele to write for The Spectator. While The Tatler featured both news and short essays on topical matters, The Spectator, with the established readers of The Tatler as its primary buyers, was composed of one long essay on the social scene or a group of fictive letters to the editor that gave Addison and Steele a forum for moral or intellectual commentary. This was presented in the periodical by the specially created, fictional social observer, “Mr. Spectator.”

To give the essays structure, Steele created the Spectator Club and presented the character of Sir Roger De Coverly, a fifty-six-year-old bachelor and country gentleman, as its central spokesman. Other members of this fictional group included a merchant, Sir Andrew Freeport, a lawyer, a soldier, a clergyman, and a socialite, Will Honeycomb, who contributed gossip and interesting examples of social behavior to Mr. Spectator. Although Steele ultimately did not use the Spectator Club as a device as often as he apparently anticipated, the De Coverly essays were the best recognized and most popular section of The Spectator. In later literature of the century, characters similar to those created by Steele for the club appeared in novels and political periodicals. Through De Coverly and Freeport, Addison and Steele are able to contrast the political views of the Tory and Whig parties and, through Honeycomb, to satirize the ill effects of an overly social life on personal morality and good judgment.

The first number of The Spectator begins with Addison’s general introduction of Mr. Spectator to his readers. As Mr. Spectator explains, readers want to know something about an author, even if the information is general: Thus I live in the World, rather as a Spectator of Mankind, than as one of the Species . . . as a Looker-on, which is the Character I intend to preserve in this Paper.

As for keeping some personal details to himself, Mr. Spectator notes that knowing his real name, his age, and his place of residence would spoil his ability to act as a nonpartisan observer. By issue 10 (written by Addison), Mr. Spectator reports to his readers that the periodical has a daily circulation of three thousand papers, and, by its height in 1712, nine thousand issues of it are sold daily in London. In addition to essays on a single theme, some issues used letters from readers (written by friends of Addison and Steele), which created the impression of a widespread circulation while offering a means for Mr. Spectator to address specific social problems. Issue 20, for example, written by Steele, is based on a young lady’s note about men who stare at women in church. Mr. Spectator gives a detailed and courteous reply that contrasts “male impudence,” as he labels it, among the English, the Irish, and the Scots. Several subsequent issues, such as 48 and 53, are composed entirely of these sorts of letters, which become a typical way for the authors to discuss male and female social behavior and, usually, female fashion. The importance of conversation in society is profiled in issue 49, also by Steele, on the role of the coffeehouse as “the Place of Rendezvous to all that live near it, who are thus turned to relish calm and ordinary life.” Besides moral and amusing accounts, The Spectator featured short pieces of prose fiction with developed characters, plots, dialogue in some cases, and themes specific to the story itself. In issue 50, Addison reworks an idea about cultural encounters that was originally proposed by Jonathan Swift for The Tatler in his story of the Indian kings. Earlier, in issue 11, Steele tells the tale of Inkle and Yarico. This story concerns an Indian girl, Yarico, who unwisely, though sincerely, befriends an English merchant, Thomas Inkle, who is more interested in commercial gain than in friendship and love.

Issues 106 to 131, which cover June and July, 1711, form the De Coverly papers of the periodical to which both Addison and Steele are contributors. Since they both created Sir Roger daily, his character evolves into something slightly different from Steele’s original portrait in issue 2, as the gentleman’s eccentricities and unworldliness make him a comic contribution to literature on the scale of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. In issue 106, Mr. Spectator accepts Sir Roger’s invitation to spend a month with him in the country. Once there, Mr. Spectator is impressed by the freedoms of unstructured country life and the many amusements available to pass each day. Over the course of these letters, Mr. Spectator meets Sir Roger’s loyal servants, his chaplain, and an assortment of rural neighbors.

The broad outlines of country life sketched by Mr. Spectator would have been familiar to the London readers as many had country homes of their own, relatives outside London, and opportunities to travel into the cooler northern climates in the summer months. There is more to these lively, pictorial entertainments, however. Through Mr. Spectator, Addison and Steele are able to comment on the positive effects of good household management, the shortcomings of the aristocracy, the benefits of commerce, the landed gentry’s role in maintaining social order, the differences between the fear and the shame of poverty, the signs of good breeding—behavior, conversation, and dress—as they are found in the country, and the reach of party politics outside London. The brief accounts of Sir Roger’s unrequited love for a “perverse country widow” allow Steele, who wrote issues 113 and 118, to continue his conversation on love and marriage initiated in The Tatler and carried on in The Spectator. Issue 116, contributed by Eustace Budgell, who later wrote with Addison on the continuation of the paper, offers an amusing and detailed story of Sir Roger’s hunt and an opportunity for Mr. Spectator to consider the fickleness of human compassion. At the end of the chase, Sir Roger directs that the hunted rabbit be freed to live its life in its garden as it gave them all good sport. In issue 117, written by Addison, Mr. Spectator relates the story of Moll White, an insensible old woman believed by many, including Sir Roger, to be a witch. The lack of understanding of the plight of the elderly, abandoned poor is the theme of this more serious essay. Placed back to back as these stories are, the reader quickly sees the contradictions in Sir Roger’s attitude toward humans and his attitude toward animals, which sounds a cautionary note to the audience. To complete the cycle, issue 131 announces Mr. Spectator’s departure, and issue 132 describes his memorable journey back to London. The entire story of Sir Roger includes four papers on his visit to the sights of London (issues 269, 329, 335, and 383) and one on his death (issue 517) on October 23, 1712. Addison did not want the character to be imitated by other, later periodical writers.

In all, the De Coverly papers are representative of the themes, scope, and treatment of the subjects of The Spectator as a whole. These essays also show the balanced style of The Spectator, which is maintained through the careful craftsmanship of Addison and of Steele. Neither writer concentrates solely on writing either topical or moral essays; they write both with equal facility and in complementary styles.

Since the purpose of The Spectator is to allow its readers to observe all parts of life, there are a great many topics covered to different degrees in the periodical. One important subject is literary criticism, treated in essays on tragedy (issues 39, 40, 42, and 44), on poetry (issues 70 and 74), on comedy and wit (issues 23, 28, 59-63, 65, 270, and 446), and, interspersed between issues 267 and 463, concerning extended analyses of the writing of John Milton. The Spectator’s essays on literature, popular entertainment, and refinement set the standards of taste for the readers, while providing prose composition models and examples of methods of characterization suggestive to other writers. Another series of essays is written in praise of scientific discovery and in response to popular pseudoscientific ideas on animal intelligence and on the supernatural. Addison, who composed many of the issues on science, is careful to balance his arguments for the power of science with references to the power of God, as shown in issue 420, in which he discusses the advances in knowledge offered by the microscope and the way that scientific information can be used to heighten faith.

Personal and public morality is also a theme of great import in The Spectator. For example, Steele writes on lewd conduct in issues 155, 266, and 274 and on the dangers of plays with situations in which immoral behavior is rewarded in issues 51 and 208. He also uses the paper to stress the need for parental responsibility (issues 192, 320, 437, and 479) and for marital fidelity. Addison also writes on religious and philosophical topics with his five hymns, which appear in issues 441, 453, 465, 489, and 513, reminding readers of his popularity as a poet.

There are, of course, many papers celebrating the diverse characteristics of human nature and numerous portraits of individuals with distinctive traits found throughout The Spectator. An interest in and curiosity about people as individuals are hallmarks of the eighteenth century, which emphasized, through the philosophy of Enlightenment, the social roles of humans in their societies.

Issue 555, written by Steele and published on December 6, 1712, brought The Spectator to a close. In this issue, Mr. Spectator acknowledges the contribution of Addison to the success and variety of the papers in an indirect way and names seven other writers who he claims contributed the letters that enlivened the conversations in its pages. He also announces the impending publication of The Spectator in seven volumes, and he clearly blames the higher taxes for driving the paper out of business. In the summer of 1714, Addison, with Budgell and Thomas Tickell, revived The Spectator and published issues through issue 635. These additional essays were collected for volume 8 of the complete Spectator, published in September, 1715. Steele, after The Spectator ended, started a political essay periodical, The Guardian, in March, 1713, which was succeeded by The Englishman in October, 1713. It went into a second series before its end in November, 1715. Donald F. Bond edited the standard edition of The Spectator (1965), which has an extensive introduction and identifications of the issues written by Steele, Addison, and the other contributors.

The Spectator was frequently republished throughout the nineteenth century and could be found in many home libraries after 1712. It was an unparalleled accomplishment in eighteenth century periodical journalism and was highly influential on many later English writers. The congenial eye of Mr. Spectator touched on all parts of ordinary life; The Spectator compares to Samuel Pepys’s Diary (1825) and James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, LL. D. (1791) as a work representative of the eighteenth century within cultural history.

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