a malefactor who ceases to feel the cords that bind him.....


Senior Member
Samuel Johnson retorted: “The poor indeed are insensible of many little vexations which sometimes embitter the possessions and pollute the enjoyments of the rich. They are not pained by casual incivility, or mortified by the mutilation of a compliment; but this happiness is like that of a malefactor who ceases to feel the cords that bind him when the pincers are tearing his flesh.”

Source: The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Hello teachers,

I hope you are all fine. Would you please clarify the bold written part? I can’t really understand what it
wants to say.

Thanks in advance.
  • Edinburgher

    Senior Member
    German/English bilingual
    Well, presumably dictionaries have told you what a malefactor is. In this case the malefactor seems to have been caught and is being tortured; he is tied up with rope (bound with cords) tightly enough to cause pain. Then some lobsters or crabs have been set on him and are clawing at him, or perhaps a human torturer is using metal pincers. These pincers bite him (tear at his flesh), and this is more painful than the cords, to the extent that he no longer feels (ceases to feel) the pain of the cords. Johnson is saying the malefactor is "happy" because the pain of the cords has gone, but this is at the expense of a different and much greater pain.

    The comparison is made to various little pains which the poor simply do not feel (as the rich would) because they are overshadowed by the much greater pain of poverty itself.
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