(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The French Revolution is a landmark in the history of nineteenth century English literature, the work that, after the comparative public failure of Sartor Resartus (1833-1834), helped to establish Thomas Carlyle. In its dramatic picture of the French Revolution it offers the reader an estimate of an event that disturbed and shocked the consciences of Carlyle’s grandparents. It offers a measure of revolutionary and socially disruptive narrative, but it is neither optimistic and blindly trustful of progress (here Carlyle differed from Utilitarian friends) nor pessimistic and horrified, as Edmund Burke had been at the time of the revolution. Finally, and perhaps most important for readers, The French Revolution is a more successful self-realization for Carlyle than the comparatively nebulous explorations of ideas in Sartor Resartus. That earlier work presents Carlyle’s ideas in a kind of cloud formation that conceals whatever terrain of fact and real human experience they float over; The French Revolution presents the same ideas in relation to and supported by a bewilderingly rich body of facts: the day-by-day events of the unsettling French years.

Impressive as Carlyle’s method of digesting and arranging the body of facts is, still more memorable is the way he musters them in a readable narrative. Like an Old Testament prophet, Carlyle rides the hurricane and directs the storm of the fall of absolute monarchy in France. He produces not simply another history of a vexed period, full of rationalized information. It is true of Carlyle that his view of one period of history is always on the verge of becoming a vision of all human history. The Frenchwomen who march on Versailles stand for the passionate outbreak of all oppressed human beings, and the sorrows of Marie Antoinette in the Conciergerie stand for the agonies of all trivial human beings carried to their doom by forces they cannot control.

It is possible to identify some of the means that Carlyle employs to create his apocalyptic vision—a vision, not of last things, but certainly of the forces that combine to drive history onward. The arrangement of the facts is rigorously chronological. The book begins with the death pangs of King Louis XV; these are represented as the death throes not simply of one aged monarch but of a regime that once justified itself but that had become a hollow shell. The book continues with an account of the suicidal follies of the young king, Louis XVI, and his pretty and thoughtless wife, Marie Antoinette. It notes the efforts of some of the king’s ministers, Necker, Turgot, and others, to stem the advancing tide: to restore financial soundness and yet provide money for all who thought they had a right to spend it. Carlyle, often with a somewhat uneven pace, one that permits him to stop for angry or compassionate meditation when he wishes to point out the “inevitable” chain of disaster and struggle, continues his year-by-year and month-by-month account. He tells of the meeting of the Estates...

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Clubbe, John. “Carlyle as Epic Historian.” In Victorian Literature and Society, edited by James R. Kincaid. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1984. Carlyle’s reading of the Iliad in 1834 transformed his vision of what history could become. The French Revolution, subsequently, was envisioned as an epic.

Desaulniers, Mary. Carlyle and the Economics of Terror: A Study of Revisionary Gothicism in “The French Revolution.” Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995. An analysis of the book, focusing on its complex language. Desaulniers discusses some of the sources for the work, such as Aristotle, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and gothic romances; she argues that Carlyle used “revisionary gothicism” as a linguistic device to discuss economic and political issues.

Frye, Lowell T. “’Great Burke,’ Thomas Carlyle, and the French Revolution.” In The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture, edited by Lisa Plummer Crafton. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. The French Revolution’s ideas of democratic reform became a major topic of debate in late eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain. This collection of essays examines how various Britons responded to that debate, with Frye’s essay focusing on Carlyle’s and Edmund Burke’s histories of the revolt.

Morrow, John. Thomas Carlyle. New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2006. Chronicles Carlyle’s personal life and intellectual career and discusses his works.

Rosenberg, John D. “Carlyle and Historical Narration.” The Carlyle Annual 10 (Spring, 1989): 14-20. Treats The French Revolution as an experiment in narrative form, an attempt to create a relevant literary structure.

Roy, G. Ross. “The French Reputation of Thomas Carlyle in the Nineteenth Century.” In Thomas Carlyle 1981: Papers Given at the International Thomas Carlyle Centenary Symposium, edited by Horst W. Drescher. Frankfurt: Lang, 1983. Carlyle’s relationship with Germany is well known, but his book on the French Revolution brought him to the attention of French readers. It was the first of his books to be translated.

Trela, D. J., and Rodger L. Tarr, eds. The Critical Response to Thomas Carlyle’s Major Works. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Collection of reviews and essays about The French Revolution and Carlyle’s other major works that date from the initial publication of Carlyle’s works until the end of the twentieth century. The introduction discusses how Carlyle responded to his critics.