Samuel Johnson's impassioned writings incorporate elaborate lists containing carefully ordered terms, allowing for extremely complicated, though difficult sentences. Johnson often uses modifiers or example phrases in groups of two, creating a distinct sense of balance in his writing. Sentences are often embedded within sentences, separated by semicolons, creating a sort of conglomerate list. Within these embedded sentences, it is easy to notice paired terms, which act either as mirror images or as balanced opposites. Near the end of the piece, Johnson writes:

With hopes like these, he sallies jocund into life; to little purpose is he told, that the condition of humanity admits no pure and unmingled happiness; that the exuberant gaiety of youth ends in poverty or disease; that uncommon qualifications and contrarieties of excellence, produce envy equally with applause; that whatever admiration and fondness may promise him, he must marry a wife like the wives of others, with some virtues and some faults, and be as often disgusted by her vices, as delighted by her elegance; that if he adventures into the circle of action, he must expect to encounter men as artful, as daring, as resolute as himself; that of his children, some may be deformed, and others viscous, some may disgrace him by their follies, some offend him by their insolence, and some exhaust him by their profusion. He hears all this with obstinate incredulity, and wonders by what malignity old age is influenced, that it cannot forbear to fill his ears with predictions of misery. (paragraph 8)

Take, for example, the phrase, "that the exuberant gaiety of youth ends in poverty or disease." The phrase is syntactically and semantically balanced in several senses. If the verb "ends" is seen as the focal point, then, "exuberant gaiety of youth," balances "poverty or disease." By using two terms "exuberant" and "gaiety" to modify "youth," Johnson has created a syntactic parallel with "poverty" and "disease." The semantic contrast between the beginning and the end of the sentence also pairs nicely by juxtaposing contradictory terms.

Questions

1. Look at the verbs that Johnson uses in this paragraph, are they transitive, intransitive, linking, etc? How does the number of verbs stack up against other parts of speech (nouns, adjectives, etc.) and what effect does this have?

2. Johnson uses extensive lists in his writing, how does the use of commas and semicolons affect the way these sentences are interpreted?

3. How does the structure of the transitioning sentences that begin nearly every paragraph of Rambler No. 196 interplay with the genre of this piece? Does Johnson's use of generalization strengthen the writing or not? (It may be helpful to look at other paragraphs of the piece not quoted above.)

4. What techniques does Johnson use to create a protagonist? What relationship does the reader develop with this character? Compare this with how the reader relates to Joan Didion's protagonist in The White Album.

5. What attitude does the narrator have toward the protagonist in The White Album versus The Rambler No. 196? What effect does this have for the reader?


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Last modified 21 September 2007

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