In Adventurer No. 50, essayist Samuel Johnson claims that people who lie to one-up their peers escape detection more often than greedy or malicious liars. But "time and chance, that strip off all disguises," help Johnson discover the truth about four pretentious passengers on the four-day stage coach journey he narrates in Adventurer No. 84.

At length the journey was at an end; and time and chance, that strip off all disguises, have discovered that the intimate of lords and dukes is a nobleman's butler, who has furnished a shop with the money he has saved; the man who deals so largely in the funds, is the clerk of a broker in Change-alley; the lady who so carefully concealed her quality, keeps a cook-shop behind the Exchange; and the young man who is so happy in the friendship of the judges, engrosses and transcribes for bread in a garret of the Temple. Of one of the women only I could make no disadvantageous detection, because she had assumed no character, but accommodated herself to the scene before her, without any struggle for distinction or superiority. [Adventurer No. 84]

The passage's rapid-fire rhythm leaves no room for sympathy for Johnson's fellow travelers. If the reader couldn't get Johnson's point about self-promotion simply from the rigid structure and factual detail of the first sentence, Johnson devotes another sentence to the most worthy passenger — the woman who did not "struggle for distinction or superiority." Johnson mimics her actual silence with an absence of description to prove the mystery woman a distinctive and superior stage-coach passenger.

Questions

1. Johnson tells us not only that the butler now runs a shop, but how he runs it ("with the money he has saved"). He also gives locations for the petty jobs of the three other characters. How does the specificity of the passengers' actual job descriptions tell the reader what Johnson thinks about these liars?

2. Johnson rattles off the passengers' true occupations in a dismissive list. He does not narrate the conversations he had with the passengers that revealed who they really were. How does this omission further Johnson's point?

3. What effect does Johnson's decision to remove his actions from the passage have? How would the passage's message be altered if Johnson wrote "I discovered X,Y, and Z about my fellow passengers," instead of "time and chance, that strip off all disguises, have discovered that"?

4. Throughout the essay, Johnson includes himself in his description of the group's behavior. On the first day, "we sat silent for a long time, all employed in collecting importance into our faces." Just before Johnson reveals the true nature of his fellow passengers, he says "we traveled on four days with malevolence perpetually increasingÉand when any two of us could separate ourselves for a moment we vented our indignation at the sauciness of the rest." What effect does including himself in the group have on Johnson's judgment of his fellow passengers, especially contrasted with the absence of the pronoun "we" in the quoted paragraph?


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Last modified 22 September 2012

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