Charles Lamb: Essays

Charles Lamb: Essays Study Guide

Charles Lamb wore many hats as a writer, dedicating his early career to poetry and writing a well known adaptation of Shakespeare's plays for children entitled Tales from Shakespeare. But as an individual writer, Lamb is arguably best known for his contributions to the essay form. Lamb wrote his essays a little over 200 years after the 1580 publication of Michel de Montaigne's Essays, which set the template for the essay as we know it today. As a Romantic, Lamb brought a key innovation to the somewhat new form, inserting his own personally to give the essays a conversational tone.

Lamb's essays showcase his passions and anxieties, imbuing the non-fiction form with a personal and literary dimension. For that matter, many of his essays toe the line between fiction and non-fiction, using the devices of dream or slowly revealed deceit to make readers question the veracity of what they are reading. In Lamb's essays, this move serves a dual function, both helping remind the reader of the author's humanity, and adding a dose of excitement to a type of writing which can feel stuffy and blandly philosophical.

Both the collections Elia and The Last Essay of Elia see Lamb writing under the Elia persona, named after a man he worked with at the South Sea House. The persona of Elia is not a rigid one, and Lamb takes creative liberties when writing through this identity. Sometimes Elia's narration is rambling and digressive, other times it is cogent and incisive. The subject matter is sprawling and tone is varied, with Lamb using Elia to write about everything from people he admires to the origin of cooking to his loathing for newspapers.

Seemingly, the Elia character gave Lamb permission to fictionalize his life just enough for him to feel comfortable writing about it. While we have little reason to believe many of the facts are fabricated in these essays (aside from the facts Lamb tells us are fabricated), Lamb choosing a pseudonym for himself meant that he could assign pseudonyms to others in his life, and shift their relationship to himself ever so slightly to better fit an essay's purpose. Hence, when he talks about this brother John in "Dream-Children; A Reverie," he could say that John died, instead of having to remark on their real-life estrangement. The creative license taken there better serves the essay about Lamb's fantasy life, helping him explore the maze of dream life without getting too bogged down in grim reality.