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As the story goes, Gottfried Wolfgang is returning to his lodgings late one night in the Pays Latin, where students usually live. It is a stormy night, with lightning and thunder making their twin presence known to all residents of Paris.
A serious student with an overactive imagination, Gottfried is prone to 'those wild and speculative doctrines which have so often bewildered German students.' Having indulged in 'fanciful speculations on spiritual essences,' he remains convinced that an evil spirit means to ensure his effectual damnation after ensnaring him in its trap. Gottfried is sent to finish his studies in Paris, with friends and family hoping that a change in surroundings and circumstances would aid in bringing back his enthusiasm for life.
Alas, he arrives in Paris during the height of the Reign of Terror. The environment in France is politically toxic for aristocrats and anyone considered a traitor to the present revolutionary government. The guillotine is referred to in the story as a 'dreadful instrument of death,' its scaffold 'continually running with the blood of the virtuous and the brave.' So, Washington Irving describes the environment three ways: weather-wise, it is a stormy night; structurally, sections of Paris are described as filled with old, narrow, and gloomy streets; politically, Paris is at the heart of the Reign of Terror, where aristocrats or anyone considered loyal to the deposed monarchy are sent to their deaths at the guillotine. Put together, the environment in France is portrayed as one of terror, foreboding, and tragedy on the night Gottfried returns to his apartment.
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