The perils of quoting out of context

The Samuel Johnson Soundbite Page is a trove of quotable bits from the Great Cham himself. I came across this post on the perils of taking quotes from Johnson’s Rasselas as being the thoughts of Johnson himself – they are spoken by characters and often the context modifies the sense considerably. For instance:

Out of their context, there are some quotes which sound like something wonderful for the bulletin board. For instance, one character (“the artist”) says “Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must be first overcome.” In the novel this character proceeds to don a set of false wings and then belly flop into a lake; without the context you don’t know that very important “on the other hand.”

I’ve noticed something similar with Wilde: many of the most “Wildean” quotes are spoken by characters. “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” is not a statement by Oscar Wilde, but a statement by Wilde’s fictional creation Lord Henry. The same goes for much of the quotable Wilde. Of course, these quotes very much suit our contemporary image of Wilde. We tend to forget that he gave Dorian Gray a rather sticky end (I don’t recall what happened to Lord Henry).

Another example from the Rasselas page:

In another example where the lack of context can hurt the meaning, there is the frequently cited Imlac quote “Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.” A fairly pessimistic sounding commentary on life. However, Imlac says this to dampen Rasselas’ envy of life in Europe, telling him that there is a basic consistency to the human condition all around the world. There is an important introductory sentence from Imlac, which is usually omitted. Imlac’s complete statement is as follows:

“The Europeans,” answered Imlac, “are less unhappy than we, but they are not happy. Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.”

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