Poor Relations by Charles Lamb: Summary and Analysis

Read our complete notes below on the essay “Poor Relations” by Charles Lamb. Our notes cover the summary and analysis of Poor Relations by Charles Lamb.

Poor Relations by Charles Lamb Summary:

Lamb opens the essay in a humorous way by listing some of his views and thoughts regarding a poor relation, without any praises and compliments. According to him, a poor relation is the most “irrelevant” thing in the world that is extremely unpleasant and is the one you don’t want to listen from; they are groove on your purse, an absurd shadow that always follows you, the one you don’t want to remember, an embarrassment, something one’s enemy can enjoy, an apology for friends, inconvenient, imperfection on the life, and annoying. Indeed, these are the blunt comment upon a poor relation, however, it poses a comic intent that exaggerates the writer’s thoughts.

Lamb, in the second paragraph, illustrates the story of such poor relation. This man is known by his knocking style. When he knocks on the door, by the first guess you know that is Mr. __, a poor relative. This man arrives with two contrasting things: a familiarity i.e. he acts in such a way as if he is your close friend, and embarrassment i.e. being poor makes him feel embarrassed. The poor relation never arrives on the open days but always shows up when you have someone at the dinner. Lamb exaggerates his manner, the way he acts. He is in one way too “familiar” while in one way too “diffident” and shy. The servants get confused how to serve him while the guests (whom you invited for the dinner) wonders about him. He fetches the old family stories in a wrong in order to make good conversation, however, they are always brought in a wrong time and are “unreasonable”. He comments over each and everything, for instance, he will inquire you about your furniture price and will make you feel insulting for window curtain. The conversation and compliments of such a poor relative are “trouble” and “perverse” and irritate the host. In short, there presence is highly awkward and when he left, the host moves his chair into the corner and take a sign of relief. He is a person who never fits in but you cannot get rid of him.

Lamb them moves ahead to illustrate the story of a poor woman relation. He claims that female poor relative is even worse than the male poor relative as described in the previous paragraph. The female poor finds it harder to hide her financial status and act as slightly strange and unconventional way and the host is totally helpless in front of her. She is dressed in a way between the gentlewoman and a beggar i.e. the quality of the fabric is quite good but is worn and is outdated. Moreover, the way she acts and her manners are even worse. Being aware of her poor status, she acts too modest and abject that people take her for granted and consider her as worthless: for instance, everyone shows an inclination towards her and even the governess, who is lower in rank than her, corrects her when she calls the piano a harpsichord.

Lamb now narrates the story Mr. W__ and relates it with Richard Amlet, a character in Sir John Vanbrugh’s comedy, the Confederacy. Richard Amlet is the son of Mrs. Amlet who is a rich, however, a vulgar woman who stands as a hindrance in the path of her son to marry a rich lady. Similarly, a real-life Amlet is the poor Mr. W__ who studied with Lamb and then went to Oxford University. Mr. W__ has had highly proud personality and self-respect. His father was poor house painter who settled next to Oxford with him. Mr. W__, unable to tolerate his poverty, run away from Oxford and joined the army. He was soon killed in the Portugal war.

Lamb continues his essay by saying that the subject of poor relation is quite uncomfortable, however, he deals with it half comically and half tragically. He, now, narrates the story of his Father’s poor friend who visited them at dinner every Saturday. He was an old gentleman, neatly dressed in black. Lamb would think him a rich man who worked at money making industry. This man encountered an insult from Lamb’s aunt when she strapped him a second serving of food uttering that he must take the food as he didn’t get it every day. The old man didn’t say anything on the spot but avenge his insult in the evening in an argument by emphasizing his poverty by labeling Lamb’s aunt as outdated. This poor man died soon leaving behind money enough money for his burier. Lamb here emphasizes on the dignity of a man that he left enough money so that he won’t be indebted to anybody after his death. He lands the poor relations on the note of respect and self-esteem.

Poor Relation by Charles Lamb Analysis:

About the author:

Charles Lamb, one of the most prominent and shining figures in the essay writing, was born on February 10, 1775. He is a well-known English poet and dominating essayist and antiquarian. Among the prose work, his essays are regarded are most premium and best work in English Literature. Wisdom, humor, humanity, pathos are best reflected in his word and make readers appreciate his work from the core of their hearts. The two collections of his essays: The Essays of Elia and The Last Essays of Elia were published in 1828 and 1833 respectively. A unique combination of wit, anecdote, fancy and reflection is present in his essays. He died on 27 December 1834.


Poor Relations is a self-narrative essay by Charles Lamb. In this essay, Lamb artistically with comic, humor, and pathos illustrates the inconveniences that are tolerated by a man from poor relatives.

Critical appreciation:

The essay “Poor Relations” is taken from the 1st collection of Lamb’s essay named The Essays of Elia. This essay is actually a sad commentary of a speaker who describes poor relatives as a dreadful load on a family that is financially stable. The speaker/author begins the essay in a comic and humorous way describing the poor relatives in a various way. He called them an embarrassment, a load on finances, an entertainment for an enemy, and an apology for a friend and so on.

The speaker first mentions the male poor relative who enters with two contrasting things: a familiarity towards the guest and embarrassment for being poor. Such poor relative gives a hard time for the host and interferes in everything.

Continuing the comic style, Lamb then mentions the female poor relative, who is even worse than the male poor relative. He calls her actions highly modest that everybody takes for guaranteed and consider her worthless. The host feels highly embarrassed in the company of such poor relative.

The tone of the essay shifts from comic to tragic when the speaker mentions his friend who killed make himself killed in the Portugal war because he was unable to endure his father’s poverty.

In the last paragraph of the essay, the speaker lands his poor relatives on the ground of dignity when he mentions the death of one of his father’s poor friend.