Themes

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Last Updated on December 3, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

The Sense of a Tenuous Existence

Schama calls the landscape of seventeenth-century culture in the Dutch Republic a "moral geography." At this time, he writes, "men were faced with a stark choice: drown or be Dutch." He bases this in part on a probably apocryphal "drowning house" that was used to force idle young men in Amsterdam to work. They were supposedly placed in a room that was slowly filling with water that they could only pump out themselves. Schama argues that Dutch culture was always shaped by the fact that the country itself was claimed from the ocean, which always threatened to batter down the dikes and flood the city. Similarly, the republic was threatened by external political forces, having won its independence from Spain. These delicate balances fit into Calvinist notions of divine wrath, as well as the emphasis on work that characterized the Dutch commercial society. Schama returns to this theme throughout the work, arguing that it was a foundational piece of Dutch national identity.

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The Tension Between Luxury and Frugality

In the seventeenth century, Dutch society was perhaps the most affluent on the planet—and certainly in Europe. Dutch artists depicted luxury and opulence in their works, especially those that depicted the home. Indeed, Schama sees a preoccupation with consumption in Dutch middle-class life. He notes, however, that displays of wealth were "interior, rather than exterior." Dutch houses tended to be rather plain from the outside, but wealthier Dutch families purchased and displayed expensive furniture and other consumer goods in their homes, especially in their kitchens. Even though these displays of wealth were not as public as one might...

(The entire section contains 416 words.)

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