Perspectives on Gossip

last updated 10/20/09
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Talk, v. t. To commit an indiscretion without temptation, from an impulse without purpose.
--Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

I have selected three literary pieces to explore the nature of gossip.

The first piece is the Prologue to Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play A School for Scandal. The original performance of this play was in 1777, but Sheridan's final revision was not published until 1812. The play presumes that gossip and scandal are a part of human nature. Women are implicated as the cause of scandal and the vehicle of gossip. Characters in the play are named appropriately for their roles, such as Mr. Snake and Mrs. Sneerwell.

Scandal is partly a product of gossip, and partly malicious gossip itself. A list of synonyms for scandal might read: shame, disgrace, slander, backbiting, gossip, calumny, defamation. The prologue was not written by Sheridan, but Garrick, who was an actor by trade. The prologue, through the character of Lady Wormwood, makes the observation that while we may delight in reading gossip about others, we become very defensive when the gossip describes our alleged activities. It presents the metaphor of scandal as a monster, with gossip its tongue. Garrick also pokes fun at Sheridan (the 'bard') who is attempting to expose the nature of scandal in the play.

The second piece is an excerpt from the first chapter of Zora Neale Hurston's novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. This novel was originally published in 1937. An event has occurred, and the protagonist, Janie is returning home. The community, after a hard day of physical labor, spends its free time sitting alongside the road and gossiping. Gossip seems to be a leisure pastime. Janie returns under unexpected circumstances and the whispering begins. Hurston presents gossip as divorced from individuals. With the phrase "Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song" gossip is a product of group consciousness that persists of its own volition. Gossip is not attributable to single individuals.

When Janie greets them, the gossip is set aside and replaced with friendly small talk. But the community is waiting for news; news that will undoubtedly fuel gossip once Janie passes through her gate.

The third piece is the poem I Have It On Good Authority by Ogden Nash, from his collection, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, which was first published in 1935. It is a fun, light-hearted look at gossip which makes the observations:

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