Samuel Johnson is primarily thought of not as a fiction writer but as a critic, and since his criticism explains so much about the peculiar form which his own fiction was to take, it is wise to discuss his views on criticism. The subject of The Rambler 4 is modern fiction. Johnson recognized that fiction underwent a profound change in his lifetime. Gone were the improbabilities of the romantic fiction of the past, expressed in its giants, knights, ladies, hermits, and battles. Contemporary works of fiction, Johnson wrote, “exhibit life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world, influenced by passions and qualities which are really to be found in conversing with mankind.” With this new verisimilitude, fiction acquires a new power, and consequently, a new responsibility. Since these works are chiefly read by the “young, the ignorant, and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct, and introductions into life,” writers must be very careful in choosing their subjects and characters:It is not a sufficient vindication of a character, that it is drawn as it appears, for many characters ought never to be drawn; nor of a narrative, that the train of events is agreeable to observation and experience, for that observation which is called knowledge of the world, will be found much more frequently to make men cunning than good.
Fiction, then, has a didactic purpose, whether a writer wishes it or not: Readers imitate the behavior of the characters their authors offer as admirable, and authors therefore have a moral responsibility to select their characters and incidents carefully. They must also distinguish the “good and bad qualities in their principal personages,” lest, as readers became more involved with these characters, they “lose the abhorrence of their faults, or, perhaps, regard them with some kindness for being united with so much merit.”
The type of fictional hero Johnson advocates is virtuous, although not angelic. In the plot, his virtue, “exercised in such trials as the various revolutions of things shall bring upon it, may, by conquering some calamities, and enduring others, teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform.” Vice must be shown, but it “should always disgust; nor should the graces of gaiety, or the dignity of courage, be so united with it, as to reconcile it to the mind.” The final purpose of fiction is to teach this moral truth:That virtue is the highest proof of understanding, and the only solid basis of greatness; and that vice is the natural consequence of narrow thoughts, that it begins in mistake, and ends in ignominy.
Johnson was acutely sensitive to the power which people’s lives, both fictional and historical, have on the reader. In The Rambler 60, he stresses the fundamental “uniformity in the state of man,” insisting that “there is scarce any possibility of good or ill, but is common to human kind. We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.”
An examination of Johnson’s fiction reveals that these beliefs about character and the moral function of fiction appear again and again. Many of The Rambler, The Adventurer, and The Idler essays take the form of short fictional letters, didactic and moral in their intent, which recount more or less artificial tales of hope and misfortune. They are not really what is considered fiction: Plot is stylized, truncated, and undramatic; characterization is minimal; and both are subordinated to the moral lesson. Johnson does not create individual personalities but displays states of minds, generalized experiences, and moral decisions common to all. Carey McIntosh has pointed out that Johnson’s fiction characteristically contradicts the pattern of conventional novels: His characters begin in prosperity and success and end as sadder but wiser victims of their own folly or the world’s cruelty. These letters commonly take the form of confessions (in which the narrator admits to a fault or mistake), complaints (tales of misfortune told by a victim), or quests (in which the hero goes through a number of opportunities, all of which prove specious). In all three types, the reader is led to a sense of Johnson’s usual theme—the vanity of human wishes.
Johnson creates not individuals, but character types, and the character’s name, expressed in Latin or English, is frequently the key: Verecundulus (bashful), Hyperdulus (super slave), Misella (miserable), Squire Bluster, Prospero, Suspirius the screech owl. Some papers are sketches of characters in the Theophrastan sense, such as Prospero, the nouveau riche (The Rambler 200), and Dick Minim, the critic (The Idler 60 and 61), typifying a quality, vice, or virtue. Others are moral fables, such as the story of Seged’s futile attempt to make one week happy (The Rambler 204 and 205). Through each character the reader sees reality generalized and abstracted; the reader is not expected to believe the reality of the character or the fiction, but rather to recognize, in the formalized patterns and choices depicted, similar...
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The Rambler, a twopenny sheet issued twice weekly in London by the publisher John Payne between 1750 and 1752, each issue containing a single anonymous essay; 208 such periodical essays appeared, all but four written by Samuel Johnson. Johnson’s intention in this project was that of a moralist aware of his duty to make the world better. This sense of responsibility determined the style of his Rambler essays, a majority of which deal with the disappointments inherent in life and with the setbacks to ambition. Many of the titles reflect this: “Happiness not Local”; “The Frequent Contemplation of Death Necessary to Moderate the Passions”; “The Luxury of Vain Imagination.” The Rambler, in short, is of fundamental importance in any estimate of Johnson’s approach to literature itself: though shot through with mournful humour, it was written to instruct and chasten. For the most part Johnson was a detached and generalizing commentator, the essays bearing little relation to current events or current literature, even though they contain much acuteliterary criticism. They do, however, reflect the social and literary conditions of the time.
Johnson’s immediate incentive in contributing The Rambler essays was to keep the wolf from the door (“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”). He was in his 40s, at work on his Dictionary, and had little in the way of regular income. He was paid two guineas for each paper. The Rambler did not sell well as a periodical, however, though it was an immense success after being reissued, with the essays revised, in volume form in 1753. It also inspired other periodicals, notably John Hawkesworth’sThe Adventurer (1752–54), Edward Moore’s lively The World (1753–56), George Colman’s and Bonnell Thornton’s The Connoisseur (1754–56), and Henry Mackenzie’s Scottish periodical, The Mirror (1779–80).