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Anatole France, in his time a great French novelist and poet, was no stranger to revolution; a man wholly devoted to the cause of the common man, he greatly supported the 1917 Russian Revolution. In later life, this avowed skeptic and humanist lent his support to the communist cause in France.
Like Dickens' A Tale Of Two Cities or Les Dieux Not Soif, The Gods Are Athirst, tells a story within the story of the French Revolution. The height of the Reign of Terror is described with brutally candid brush-strokes of terror and degradation. In this, Anatole France does not shy away from the effects of a revolution gone wrong. His protagonist, Gamelin, is an ideological demagogue. His initial compassionate outrage on behalf of the average downtrodden Frenchman is eventually eclipsed by a fanatical focus on justice at any cost. It is therefore, not the French revolution Anatole France objects to, but the descent to obsessive savagery (in the cause of liberty, equality, and fraternity) that he condemns.
In the story, Gamelin represents the militant idealist who will stop at nothing, even if it means destroying his own family, to achieve the aims of a desired peace. In the novel, Gamelin strongly identifies with Orestes, the Greek prince who avenged the death of his father, King Agamemnon, by murdering his mother, Clytemnestra. He asserts that 'Virtue... is natural to mankind,' but it is this flawed belief which blinds him to the depths of depravity and barbarism the Reign of Terror later unleashes on the French republic.
In contrast to Gamelin, the philosophical atheist, Brotteaux (whom many experts believe represented Anatole France's own voice of moderation), disagrees with such a sentiment. He appreciates the notions of secular humanism but warns against the unquestioned worship and pedantic addiction to Reason.
I love Reason...but I am no fanatic in my love...Reason is our guide and beacon light; but when you have made a divinity of it, it will blind you and instigate you to crime...
As the novel progresses, Anatole France faithfully depicts his shared belief with Brotteaux that
Justice is the means by which established injustices are sanctioned. (Anatole France)
Events come to a head when Danton and Desmoulins, former great leaders of the Revolution, are summarily guillotined for the crime of advocating greater moderation in Robespierre's methods. Meanwhile, Marat, himself a radical Jacobin, is executed by the hapless Charlotte Corday. Corday's emerging sympathies with the Girondins (a group which advocated greater caution and moderation in the development of the revolution) lead her to take matters into her own hands. Marat, after all, is one of the more radical ideologues of the Jacobin faction, a group dedicated to violent overthrow and the initiation of draconian measures to establish justice in French society. In turn, Corday herself is guillotined for her crime.
Brotteaux's head had never been turned by the glamour of arms. He felt no triumph at the victories of the Republic, which he had foreseen.
They are not men, they are things; there is no arguing with things.
In the novel, Gamelin continually argues for violent revolution in the spirit of Rousseau, as a means to secure the social contract intrinsic to freedom and equality. Rousseau's belief in the goodness and basic virtue of man is repeatedly alluded to by Gamelin. However, this sacred belief is rooted in an autocratic predilection towards violence, exactly the kind of senseless violence both Brotteaux and Anatole France warn against (but Rousseau supports). In the end, both the innocent Brotteaux and the radical Gamelin face the deadly and universal sword of the Guillotine. In his later years, Anatole France comes to a conviction that it is an international alliance of proletariats (the working populace) which can alone prevent the return of the atrocities of revolution and warfare.
To summarize, Anatole France believed strongly in the ideals of the French Revolution, but did not care for its excesses. As such, he rejected the ideological demagoguery prevalent in either religion or secularism, and warned against both.
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