The Ambiguity of Pronouns in Samuel Johnson's Rambler No. 172

Thuy Nguyen '05, 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

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Samuel Johnson claims that "nothing has been longer observed, than that a change of fortune causes a change of manners" (p.1). This claim becomes the central focus of his Rambler essay on the effect of sudden wealth. At first the essay seems to be one of generalizations on the weakness of men in the face of material riches. Before the readers can digest these generalizations, however, Johnson adds his own voice to the argument with the pronoun "I." This pronoun can be seen as a guide for readers, and Johnson, aware of this fact, switches from first person singular to third person plural to bring the readers from objectivity to subjectivity.

Whoever rises above those who once pleased themselves with equality, will have many malevolent gazers at his eminence. To gain sooner than others that which all pursue with the same ardour, and to which all imagine themselves entitled, will for ever be a crime. When those who started with us in the race of life, leave us so far behind, that we have little hope to overtake them, we revenge our disappointment by remarks on the arts of supplantation by which they gained the advantage, or on the folly and arrogance with which they possess it. Of them, whose rich we could not hinder, we solace ourselves by prognosticating the fall. [p.1]

Johnson appears to have taken a stance on the issue and the but the use of the plural pronouns instead of the "I" that he introduced earlier prompts to the readers to question his individual beliefs.


1. The generalizations at the beginning of the quotation seem to be preparing the readers for the stance that Johnson is going to take on the issue. Why do you think he decides to use "us" and "we" as opposed to "I" to respond to the generalizations?

2. What effects do those pronouns produce?

3. Can Johnson expect the readers to agree with him, or to believe that he is one of them in the argument against the vanity and corruption of wealth?

4. Do you think Johnson has personal experiences with people in his life becoming corrupted because of sudden wealth?

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