The Man in Black by Goldsmith: Summary & Analysis

Overview: Oliver Goldsmith's essay, "The Man in Black," offers a candid portrayal of the societal landscape of his era, which was plagued by numerous inadequacies. His contemporary world was rife with economic and moral decay, leaving many citizens in a state of destitution and despair. Goldsmith's approach to reform was indirect, as evidenced by his introduction of the enigmatic character of the "Man in Black." In this essay, Goldsmith not only portrays the Man in Black as his closest confidante but also uses his character to shed light on the struggles of the impoverished and the complexities of human nature. Through the Man in Black, Goldsmith offers a critical commentary on the prevailing societal norms and advocates for a more empathetic and compassionate approach to life.

A Note on Oliver Goldsmith's Creation The Man in Black

Goldsmith, a renowned English author, is known for his remarkable literary works, including the well-known novel "The Vicar of Wakefield," a captivating drama titled "She Stoops to Conquer," and a collection of insightful essays called "The Citizen of the World." The excerpt we are exploring, "The Man in Black," is derived from the latter work, brimming with a delightful blend of humor and humanism that holds profound significance in the realm of human existence.

Within "The Man in Black," Goldsmith, adopting the persona of Altangi, a Chinese philosopher, provides a fascinating portrayal of an Englishman who is likely the eponymous "man in black." This character is an enduring creation by Goldsmith himself and exemplifies the essential need for both humor and humanism in the human experience.

The "man in black" possesses seemingly contradictory traits. In a nation known for its humor, he presents himself as a miser, although he is exceedingly generous. He wears the facade of a misanthrope but cannot conceal his innate goodness, which invariably shines through.

During a shared outing between Altangi and the man in black, a discussion about aiding the less fortunate emerges. The man in black, despite acknowledging the government's support for the impoverished, expresses a heartfelt desire for providing food, clothing, and shelter to those in need. It is at this moment that an elderly beggar approaches them, recounting his desperate plight, begging for assistance to feed his ailing wife and five hungry children. Altangi, recognizing and empathizing with the beggar's situation, discreetly turns his gaze away, providing the man in black with an opportunity to offer a silver coin to the beggar in secret. However, he reprimands the beggar for his fabricated stories.

The man in black, believing that Altangi remains oblivious to his charitable act, proceeds to berate beggars through his words, even suggesting that they should be incarcerated. He shares two anecdotes of ladies victimized by beggars. Just as he commences the third story, a sailor with a wooden leg approaches, seeking assistance. The man in black reacts angrily, inquiring about the sailor's lost limb. The sailor reveals that he lost his leg in a valiant act of self-defense, evoking a deep sense of compassion in the man in black. Instantly, he requests the sailor's matchbox and generously provides a shilling without hesitation.

Subsequently, he encounters an elderly, destitute woman clad in tattered attire, cradling one child in her arms and another on her back. She sings a melancholic tune, making it challenging to discern whether she is singing or weeping. The man in black is profoundly moved by the woman's dire circumstances. In this moment, he reaches into his pocket with the intention of offering financial assistance, only to discover it empty, leaving him with a profound sense of regret for his inability to alleviate the woman's plight.

In conclusion, the "Man in Black," despite his austere exterior, embodies a compassionate and noble spirit. He is truly a generous individual and a remarkable character, a testament to the depth of human goodness concealed beneath outward appearances.

Concise Summary of The Man in Black by Oliver Goldsmith

The essay is about a man named Man in Black who is a unique and strange character. He has strange qualities and tries to hide his noble qualities from others. He is very kind-hearted but hides it from others by pretending to be mean and stingy. He strongly believes that the government has already provided enough resources for the poor and that people should not help beggars as it encourages idleness, extravagance, and imposture. However, during a conversation with the writer, he secretly helps an old beggar who has a family to support. Later, he stops to talk to a sailor with a wooden leg who is begging for money. The sailor tells him that he lost his leg while defending his country but did not receive any compensation. The man in black, moved by his story, buys matchsticks from him at a higher price than their actual value, thus helping him. The essay ends with the man in black noticing a beggar woman with two children singing songs and feeling pity for her.

Original Text: The Man in Black

The Man in Black

Oliver Goldsmith (1730–1774)
From The Citizen of the World

THOUGH fond of many acquaintances, I desire an intimacy only with a few. The man in black, whom I have often mentioned, is one whose friendship I could wish to acquire, because he possesses my esteem. His manners it is true, are tinctured with some strange inconsistencies, and he may be justly termed a humorist in a nation of humorists. Though he is generous even to profusion, he affects to be thought a prodigy of parsimony and prudence; though his conversation be replete with the most sordid and selfish maxims, his heart is dilated with the most unbounded love. I have known him profess himself a man-hater, while his cheek was glowing with compassion; and, while his looks were softened into pity, I have heard him use the language of the most unbounded ill-nature. Some affect humanity and tenderness, others boast of having such dispositions from nature; but he is the only man I ever knew who seemed ashamed of his natural benevolence. He takes as much pains to hide his feelings as any hypocrite would to conceal his indifference; but on every unguarded moment the mask drops off, and reveals him to the most superficial observer. In one of our late excursions into the country, happening to discourse upon the provision that was made for the poor in England, he seemed amazed how any of his countrymen could be so foolishly weak as to relieve occasional objects of charity, when the laws had made such ample provision for their support. “In every parish-house,” says he, “the poor are supplied with food, clothes, fire, and a bed to lie on; they want no more, I desire no more myself; yet still they seem discontented. I am surprised at the inactivity of our magistrates in not taking up such vagrants, who are only a weight upon the industrious; I am surprised that the people are found to relieve them, when they must be at the same time sensible that it, in some measure, encourages idleness, extravagance, and imposture. Were I to advise any man for whom I had the least regard, I would caution him by all means not to be imposed upon by their false pretences; let me assure you, sir, they are impostors every one of them, and rather merit a prison than relief.”

He was proceeding in this strain, earnestly to dissuade me from an imprudence of which I am seldom guilty, when an old man, who still had about him the remnants of tattered finery, implored our compassion. He assured us that he was no common beggar, but forced into the shameful profession, to support a dying wife, and five hungry children. Being prepossessed against such falsehoods, his story had not the least influence upon me; but it was quite otherwise with the man in black; I could see it visibly operate upon his countenance, and effectually interrupt his harangue. I could easily perceive that his heart burned to relieve the five starving children, but he seemed ashamed to discover his weakness to me. While he thus hesitated between compassion and pride, I pretended to look another way, and he seized this opportunity of giving the poor petitioner a piece of silver, bidding him at the same time, in order that I should hear, go work for his bread, and not tease passengers with such impertinent falsehoods for the future.

As he had fancied himself quite unperceived, he continued, as we proceeded, to rail against beggars with as much animosity as before; he threw in some episodes on his own amazing prudence and economy, with his profound skill in discovering impostors; he explained the manner in which he would deal with beggars were he a magistrate, hinted at enlarging some of the prisons for their reception, and told two stories of ladies that were robbed by beggar men. He was beginning a third to the same purpose when a sailor with a wooden leg once more crossed our walks, desiring our pity, and blessing our limbs. I was for going on without taking any notice, but my friend looking wishfully upon the poor petitioner, bid me stop, and he would shew me with how much ease he could at any time detect an impostor. He now therefore assumed a look of importance, and in an angry tone began to examine the sailor, demanding in what engagement he was thus disabled and rendered unfit for service. The sailor replied, in a tone as angrily as he, that he had been an officer on board a private ship of war, and that he had lost his leg abroad, in defence of those who did nothing at home. At this reply, all my friend’s importance vanished in a moment; he had not a single question more to ask; he now only studied what method he should take to relieve him unobserved. He had, however, no easy part to act, as he was obliged to preserve the appearance of ill-nature before me, and yet relieve himself by relieving the sailor. Casting, therefore, a furious look upon some bundles of chips which the fellow carried in a string at his back, my friend demanded how he sold his matches; but, not waiting for a reply, desired in a surly tone to have a shilling’s worth. The sailor seemed at first surprised at his demand, but soon recollected himself, and presenting his whole bundle, “Here, master,” says he, “take all my cargo, and a blessing into the bargain.”

It is impossible to describe with what an air of triumph my friend marched off with his new purchase; he assured me that he was firmly of opinion that those fellows must have stolen their goods who could thus afford to sell them for half value. He informed me of several different uses to which those chips might be applied; he expatiated largely upon the savings that would result from lighting candles with a match instead of thrusting them into the fire. He averred that he would as soon have parted with a tooth as his money to those vagabonds, unless for some valuable consideration. I cannot tell how long this panegyric upon frugality and matches might have continued, had not his attention been called off by another object more distressful than either of the former. A woman in rags, with one child in her arms, and another on her back, was attempting to sing ballads, but with such a mournful voice, that it was difficult to determine whether she was singing or crying. A wretch, who in the deepest distress still aimed at good humour was an object my friend was by no means capable of withstanding: his vivacity and his discourse were instantly interrupted; upon this occasion, his very dissimulation had forsaken him. Even in my presence he immediately applied his hands to his pockets, in order to relieve her; but guess his confusion when he found he had already given away all the money he carried about him to former objects. The misery painted in the woman’s visage was not half so strongly expressed as the agony in his. He continued to search for some time, but to no purpose, till at length recollecting himself, with a face of ineffable good nature, as he had no money, he put into her hands his shilling’s worth of matches.

Critical Analysis of The Man in Black by Oliver Goldsmith

I. Introduction

Oliver Goldsmith's essay "The Man in Black" is a poignant commentary on the societal shortcomings of his time. Goldsmith uses the character of the Man in Black to indirectly criticize society and promote reform. In this analysis, we will examine the main themes and ideas presented in the essay.

II. Societal Critique

Goldsmith's essay portrays a society that is broken both economically and morally. He criticizes the widespread poverty and the economic conditions that have led to it. Goldsmith also criticizes the moral shortcomings of society, such as its indifference to the plight of the poor. Goldsmith believed in indirect reform, and he introduces the Man in Black character to highlight these issues and promote change.

III. Characterization

The Man in Black is a paradoxical character with strange qualities. He appears stern and stingy outwardly but has a heart filled with boundless love and kindness. His disapproval of helping beggars contradicts his dominant feelings of compassion, which he expresses by anonymously helping the poor. Goldsmith uses the Man in Black to highlight societal issues and promote reform, by presenting him as a symbol of kindness and charity.

IV. Style and Language

Goldsmith's writing style is characterized by its simplicity and clarity. His use of irony and satire is evident in the essay, as he mocks the hypocritical nature of society. The essay's tone is one of criticism and frustration, which is impactful in conveying the message of the essay. Goldsmith's use of literary techniques, such as metaphor and personification, adds depth and richness to the essay.

V. Conclusion

In conclusion, "The Man in Black" remains a significant piece of literature today, as it highlights the societal issues of poverty and moral corruption that continue to exist in our world. Goldsmith's use of the Man in Black character to promote reform is a testament to his belief in indirect reform. The essay's impact is evident in its continued relevance today, as it serves as a reminder to us of the importance of kindness and charity towards the less fortunate.

The Paradoxical Character of the Man in Black

The character of the Man in Black, who appears to be a paradox Definition: A statement that contradicts itself and yet might be true.

Example: "This statement is false."

Go To Literary Terms Dictionary
figure with strange qualities. Despite being kind-hearted and generous, he conceals his noble qualities and appears stern and stingy. However, his dominant feelings of kindness and generosity cannot be easily concealed. During a visit with the writer, the Man in Black expressed his disapproval of helping beggars, condemning those who encourage idleness, extravagance, and imposture. However, when an old man appeared before them and requested pity, the Man in Black was moved with compassion and secretly gave him a silver coin.
The Man in Black's nature is abnormal and paradoxical. Outwardly, he looks stern and is a wonderful example of stinginess and wisdom. However, within his heart, a stream of humanity flows. His heart is filled with boundless love, but his conversation expresses mean and merciless thoughts. He feels ashamed to reveal his natural benevolence and takes pains to hide his feelings, much like a hypocrite concealing callousness. Despite his efforts to conceal his feelings, they are so dominant and expressive that they cannot be easily concealed. Even an ordinary observer can notice his real feelings when he lets his guard down.

The Man in Black's Disapproval of Helping Beggars

During a conversation with the writer, the Man in Black expressed his disapproval of helping beggars, claiming that the government had made sufficient arrangements for the poor. In his opinion, it was foolish for people to help beggars when the poor were supplied with bed, fire, clothes, and food free of cost in every parish house. He condemned the judicial system, which was responsible for increasing the number of vagrants, who were a burden upon hard-working people. He also condemned those who encouraged idleness, extravagance, and imposture, claiming they deserved prison instead of help.

The Man in Black's Secret Act of Compassion

Despite his disapproval of helping beggars, the Man in Black's dominant feelings of kindness and generosity were revealed when an old man appeared before them and requested pity. The writer was unmoved by the old man's false story, but the Man in Black was moved with pity. He gave the old man a silver coin secretly, warning him to work hard for his family instead of making trouble for passengers. The Man in Black did not want to reveal his act of compassion to his friend, indicating his desire to conceal his natural benevolence.

The Man in Black's Paradoxical Bargain

The Man in Black's paradoxical nature is further revealed when a sailor with a wooden leg appeared before them and requested pity. The writer advanced without taking notice of him, but the Man in Black stopped and asked him how he became disabled. The sailor replied that he had lost his leg in defending those who did nothing at home and was left to die or live on beggary without pension or compensation. The Man in Black's previous importance disappeared, and he wanted to relieve the sailor in any way possible. He settled a bargain with the sailor himself, offering him only one shilling for his matchboxes. The sailor accepted the deal, and the Man in Black gave a detailed account of the savings from lighting candles with a match instead of throwing them into the fire. The Man in Black's speech on thrift and matches was interrupted by a beggar woman whose condition was more pathetic than the former beggars.
The Man in Black is a paradoxical character with strange qualities. He appears stern and stingy outwardly but has a heart filled with boundless love and kindness. His disapproval of helping beggars contradicts his dominant feelings of compassion, which he struggles to reconcile. The Man in Black's paradoxical nature is what makes him such a fascinating character, one that challenges our preconceptions and forces us to rethink our assumptions.
In the end, the Man in Black teaches us that our outward appearances and behaviors may not always reveal our true nature. It is important to look beyond what we see on the surface and understand the complexity of the human psyche. The Man in Black's paradoxical character serves as a reminder that we are all capable of both good and bad, and that it is up to us to choose which qualities we want to cultivate.
Overall, the Man in Black is a compelling literary character who continues to captivate readers to this day. His contradictions and complexities make him relatable and provide us with valuable insights into the human condition. As we navigate our own lives and relationships, we can learn from his experiences and strive to embody the best parts of his character while acknowledging and working on our own flaws.

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Why does Goldsmith call the Man in Black a "humorist in a nation of humorists"?

Goldsmith calls the Man in Black a humorist because of his peculiar behavior and inconsistencies in manners. The phrase "a nation of humorists" is a gentle satire of English manners, suggesting that the English people are known for their eccentricities.

What is the real nature of the Man in Black?

The Man in Black is kind and sympathetic to the poor.

Summarize briefly the views of the Man in Black regarding beggars and the responsibility of the State towards them.

The Man in Black speaks against beggary, believing that all beggars are lazy impostors who bring discredit to their country. He does not believe in helping them, as it only encourages idleness and imposture.

How did the Man in Black help the beggar in tattered livery?

The Man in Black slipped a silver coin into the old beggar's hands while warning him not to trouble passengers, all while pretending to look another way.

How did he dismiss the soldier with a wooden leg?

The Man in Black offered to buy the bundle of chips carried by the sailor with a wooden leg for a high price and pretended he had made a cheap purchase.

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