Charles Lamb: Essays

Charles Lamb: Essays Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What role does fiction play in Charles Lamb's essays?

    This is a prime opportunity to discuss how Lamb stretches the confines of a form of writing typically considered to be non-fiction. You will want to explore the farthest extreme, such as his fabrication of characters in "The South-Sea House" and of his fanciful "Rejoicings Upon the New Year's Coming of Age," delving into the way that Lamb serves the subject of those essays through fictional writing. Note, also, how Lamb lightly fictionalizes real life in other places, be it choosing pseudonyms for himself and his sister, or using the dream in "Dream-Children; A Reverie" to reflect on his actual lived experience as a lifelong bachelor. Consider, finally, that Lamb's fictionalizing serves the essay's purpose, but sometimes it serves the essay so well that the essay is barely a work of non-fiction.

  2. 2

    Describe the role of family in Charles Lamb's writing.

    Cousin Bridget is a fixture of the Elia essays, and she is a substitute for Charles' own real-life sister, Mary. In the case of "Old China," a conversation with Cousin Bridget sparks a long meditation on the difference between the lives of the privileged and the poor. Lamb always found inspiration in those close to him, and it is possible to consider Cousin Bridget as one of his muses. She is seemingly ever-present, even sitting next to him at the end of "Dream-Children; A Reverie." You would be supported to say that Lamb was often inspired by his family, given his description of Field in "Dream-Children," but you should also note the fact that the turbulence of his actual family life never really reveals itself in his essays, with little mention of Mary's intense mental illness or his brother John's estrangement.

  3. 3

    What is the relationship between memory and nostalgia in Charles Lamb's essays?

    Reflection is central to many of Lamb's essays, which is a key reason why he is aligned with the Romantic movement. The Romantics took the time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak, reflecting on the details that comprise life. And while Lamb certainly reflects on present concerns (often targeting hypocrisy in religion), most of Lamb's reflection is pointed to the past. In this essay, choose one or two of Lamb's essays such as "Old China" or "Ellistoniana" and explore how they employ memory and when they veer into nostalgia. You will likely want to explain Lamb's particular brand of nostalgia, which doesn't have him pining for lost times, but reveling in the memory of people and times that are gone from his life forever; he doesn't quite wish they could come back, but does take great pleasure in reflecting on their existence.

  4. 4

    How does Charles Lamb's writing style reflect the wider Romantic movement?

    Similar to what you may address in the essay on memory and nostalgia, one of the hallmarks of Romanticism was an fixation with the past, be that Walter Scott's Ivanhoe which depicted medieval England or James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, which mourns the death of the vanishing of the Native American in the United States. Like other Romantics, Lamb used the past as a reliable source of subject matter, but somewhat unique amongst the Romantics, he mainly focused on his own past. Another key attribute of Romantic literature is its lyrical style, and Lamb's own lyricism may well be his most relevant contribution to the essay form. By striking a conversational tone and letting himself veer into evocative, purple prose, Lamb created essays that were at once personable and eloquent. You can explore his novel sentence construction, with its multitude of run-ons, as well as his lurid word choice.

  5. 5

    Discuss Charles Lamb's views on society, and what we can learn about his own ethics from those views.

    One of the tropes of Lamb's writing is his distrust of organized religion. As we learn in "Grace Before Meat," he has clear religious convictions of his own, but takes issue with insincere expressions of devotion which are coded into social life. To Lamb, a person insincerely saying grace is an affront to the spirit of the act, which is supposed to express true gratitude for the opportunity to eat. He also laments in "Dream-Children; A Reverie" that he wasn't good and religious like his grandmother Field. She is depicted as a woman who acted that way sincerely, while Lamb himself never could. Sincerity is perhaps key here, as the nobility that Lamb discusses is several essays is not simply a reflection of a man's social class, but of a person's sincerity in how they live their lives. Examples of true nobility in Lamb's work include the chimney sweepers, Elia and Bridget taking a picnic when they had to borrow a cloth, and a man saying grace before a plate of mutton and turnips. Consider how when Lamb takes issue with social classes and empty ritual, he is revealing himself as a man who values sincere expression of fine character.