Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In Past and Present, Thomas Carlyle brings to the task of social commentary the same searching, tenacious, and idiosyncratic analysis that characterized his Sartor Resartus (1835). In the earlier work, Carlyle explores his crisis of faith; in Past and Present, however, he analyzes the problems of newly industrialized England both by invoking historical events and by dissecting contemporary issues. Carlyle offers his assessment in four books: “Proem,” “The Ancient Monk,” “The Modern Worker,” and “Horoscope.” While his method may at first appear haphazard, Carlyle weaves striking examples, blistering caricatures, and shrewd political analyses into a memorable pattern, closing with a stern warning about England’s future.
Born into a family of resolute Scottish Calvinists, Carlyle was never shy about offering opinions, advice, criticism, and even insults in his essays. While he no longer accepted the tenets of the faith, Carlyle never shed its didactic approach. For this reason, some Victorian critics considered his style indecorous, even grotesque. Readers, however, will find his unpredictability and exaggeration surprisingly modern. Carlyle also inherited from his family an abiding respect for and insistence upon work. Throughout Past and Present he demands constructive efforts from all persons “each in their degree” and lambastes the idle gentry, whom he calls “enchanted dilettantes.”
(The entire section is 1848 words.)
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