Samuel Johnson is considered as one of the great literary critics of English literature after having been able to write influential literary works ranging from poems to collections of essays. In fact, Johnson also published the Dictionary of the English Language which earned the merit as a distinguished lexicographer during his time and even today. The far reaching impact of his genius owes to the fact that he was an English author of utmost reputation, contributing to the body of English literature in many ways.
In his narrative essay “The Boarding House,” Johnson offers an insightful commentary on how people often miss the small details in ordinary experience. Through his chronicle of how people came, stayed and left the boarding house owned by a landlady, Johnson is able to seal his main contention with sheer brilliancy—our curiosity should lead us to the most remote corners in our life experiences so that we may know and understand the things around us and, eventually, so that we may appreciate the past even more and learn from them.
The importance of understanding the small details of history is as significant in the past as it is today, if not even more. Human civilization has witness historical social events which have changed the course of nations and citizens for countless generations. As it has been the case, grand narratives have provided scholars and even the ordinary man the privilege to access a distant past and appreciate history, whether that history is as innocent as it is brutal. The point of Johnson’s essay is to not only look into our past through the lens of such grand narratives but, more importantly, to look at history and everyday common experience from the vantage point that is so often disregarded—the perspective from detail.
It does makes sense to say that small things do matter, and for good reasons. For one, Johnson allows the readers of his essay to reaffirm their probable hesitation towards looking back to our past and letting curiosity take hold of the senses. In fact, Johnson even reiterates the conviction that “nothing can be of less importance” than the present interest towards the “fortune of those who have been long lost in the grave,” the same people “whom nothing now can be hoped or feared” (p. 123).
In short, the past is gone and the task of venturing back to them is a fruitless necessity for others. But for Johnson—or as far as his essay indicates—the disposition of remembering history, notwithstanding the joys and pains of recalling them to mind, “discovers itself in great or little things” (p. 124). It is not only in great things where we can remember the past and, perhaps, relive it; the little things can also account for much of our history, giving us a detailed retrospect of the years gone by.
The same is true in literature, philosophy or in any other social event. We should not be simply contented with the grand postulates that offer definitions of what Western literature is or what it is not. We should not be simply contented with the mainstream interpretations of postmodern thinking, of ethics and of morality, or of philosophy in general. We should not simply confine ourselves within the boundaries of the grand theories of numerous scholars in interpreting the countless social events that have shaped the paths of nations. Rather, paying attention to detail, ergo “small” stories, is also worth noting, for it is in these small stories—no matter how far detached we may be to them—that we can begin to truly appreciate the wonders and mysteries of life.
I am one of those who often abandon the need for clarity through paying attention to minute details, until I was able to read and absorb the message behind Johnson’s essay. In the past, I was easily satisfied with the explanations from books on how things are or how they came to be as we know of them today. My interest primarily rested on the grand scheme of things, be these things come from day-to-day experiences or from the daily task of studying in a learning institution. For the most part, I was hardly convinced that my time and resources should also be devoted in exploring the intricate details of ordinary experiences.
Looking back, I now understand that life is not all about the big things. The things that matter to us as human beings do not only rest on grand narratives. Rather, the far more interesting sides to life are the little things that make-up the whole. To this day, I have learned that one cannot truly appreciate one’s house without even attempting to inquire about who lived their first and who were they, how many children the family used to have or what changes they made to truly make their house a home. I have learned that to trace the history of the ordinary things is to reconnect with a diverse and equally interesting past, such as asking about how it must have felt for the workers who toiled for hours just to produce the automobiles that we see passing through the streets everyday.
The rhetorical functions within Johnson’s essay provide more color to the theme of the essay. The most notable rhetorical feature in the essay is Johnson’s use of contrast in the first two paragraphs. In the first paragraph, Johnson presents the contradicting views towards curiosity. On one hand, curiosity is presented as something that “terminates in barren knowledge” (p. 123). On the other hand, it is then depicted as something that gives the antiquary—presumably a learned man in the antiquities—the immediate desire or zeal “to make his way to remote scenes of action thro’ obscurity and contradiction” (p. 123).
Johnson also contrasts the difficulty of discovering how things are or how they came to be with the “enjoyment” of man with his “new purchase” by the time he is able to learn its history (p. 124). Both of the contrasts Johnson challenge the reader to rethink his disposition about the way we understand things without entirely abandoning his beliefs beforehand.
The addition of imagery in narrating the events in the story also provide the reader a closer feel not only of the story’s setting but also of the situations faced by the characters. For instance, Johnson describes the condition of the boarding house right after the paragraph where an elderly man rented the garret and who was later on apprehended by the constable and hanged for money forgery. Interestingly, Johnson provides the description through a recollection of how the “innumerable passengers” complained most of the boarding house’s setup (p. 126). The method of Johnson allows the reader to look at the reasons why people lived and left the boarding house from both the positive and negative sides. In writing in such a poignant and distinguished manner, the history of the boarding house is more understood through the detailed exposition of the experiences of different people with the house.
Like the boarding house, the things that do not matter to us may be the most important things for others. In the eyes of those who could only care less like strangers, the things that we cherish most in life may not hold any meaning at all to others. Our personal belongings may be dear to our hearts but they may not strike the emotions of those who are unaware of their value for us. Thus, it is easy to see why it is important to pay attention to the small details of the experiences and things that we have in life. It is only through a careful examination of these details that one can unlock the more poignant meaning and the depth of the history of these experiences and personal possessions. Samuel Johnson’s essay is one of the closest readers can get to understanding the merit of paying attention to the parts that make the whole.
- Johnson, S. (1823). The Boarding House. In The Works of Samuel Johnson (Vol. 4th, pp. 123-129). London: S. and R. Bentley.