First published: Les dieux ont soif, 1912 (English translation, 1913)
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Historical satire
Time of work: 1793-1794
Évariste Gamelin, a young painter
Maurice Brotteaux, Évariste’s friend and a maker of dancing dolls
Madame Gamelin, Evariste’s mother
Madame de Rochemaure, the wife of the king’s former procurer
Jean Blaise, a print seller
Elodie, his daughter
Pere Longuemare, a Barnabite monk
Jacques Maubel, a young gallant
Julie Gamelin, Évariste’s sister
Athenais, a prostitute
Robespierre, French revolutionaries
Henry, a dragoon
Philippe Desmahis, an engraver
Evariste Gamelin, a young man who lived with his mother, was a not very talented pupil of Jacques David, the painter. The only one of Evariste’s paintings that gained any recognition was a canvas depicting the story of Orestes and Electra. People claimed that Evariste’s painting of Orestes was really a self-portrait.
An older artist, Maurice Brotteaux, lived in the garret of the Gamelin house in 1793. A former nobleman, he made his living creating Punch and Judy dolls.
Evariste became an active member of the Jacobins, genuinely believing that their success and complete control would bring about a new and better era for all the people in France. He even had a plan to change playing cards from pictures of kings, queens, and jacks to symbols of liberty, equality, and fraternity, but his fellow revolutionaries would not finance his designs. Brotteaux, on the other hand, was an atheist, an intellectual, a skeptic without faith in the goodness of the masses.
Evariste unsuccessfully tried to sell his new designs for playing cards to Jean Blaise, a print seller. Evariste was in love with Blaise’s daughter Elodie, who finally got Evariste, far more naive than she, to propose to her. When Elodie confessed that she had had a lover, Evariste was certain that it must have been a cynical aristocrat who had used her cruelly. On political grounds, he forgave her.
One day, while Brotteaux and Evariste were waiting in a breadline, a woman screamed that her purse was gone and pointed to a cleric, Pere Longuemare, as the thief. The people became excited and ran about accusing Longuemare of being a Capuchin, a member of an order opposed to the Jacobins, even though, by his speech, he was clearly a Barnabite. Brotteaux defended the cleric, but to no avail until the woman found that she had had her purse all along. The idealistic Evariste believed the incident demonstrated that, in the new society, people were so eager for justice that they would leave their places in the breadline to find a thief. The wiser Brotteaux realized that they simply wanted to accuse others. He later gave Pete Longuemare a place of refuge in his garret.
Madame de Rochemaure, whose late husband had been a procurer for the king, was an intriguer who pretended revolutionary ardor. She, trailed by Henry, a young dragoon, was interested in using her new revolutionary connections to make more money. She wanted to meet Marat, who she had heard was easily swayed by flattery, to interest him in some Swiss financial speculations, but Marat was killed by Charlotte Corday before Madame de Rochemaure had her chance. She did, however, manage to use her connections to get Evariste a post as a juror on the Grand Tribunal, the group of Jacobins responsible for trying political crimes. On his first day on the Grand Tribunal, Evariste made an impassioned plea for justice, and the tribunal then voted not...
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to execute an innocent man. Evariste was so excited that he later allowed the experienced Elodie to seduce him; the corruption of the innocent had begun.
Tiring of Henry, Mme de Rochemaure wrote a letter to an old friend who had left France. In it she quoted a few of Brotteaux’s witty remarks about the new state. Henry, jealously believing that Mme de Rochemaure had become Brotteaux’s mistress again, stole the letter and turned it over to the authorities. Both Mme de Rochemaure and Brotteaux became politically suspect. In addition, the loyal “citoyens” began to say that Brotteaux’s dolls were really meant to be caricatures of Jacobins. When Brotteaux was arrested, a prostitute named Athenais, whom he had once befriended, protested and cried out, “Long live the king!” as the soldiers took Brotteaux away. Athenais was also arrested.
The Grand Tribunal became far less just and bloodier. Trials were no longer held; prisoners were brought up in lots of fifty, convicted, and sent away to be executed. Evariste applauded the efficiency of the new arrangement.
A few years earlier, Evariste’s sister Julie had run away to England with her lover. When they returned to France, they were captured, and the lover was condemned to death. Even old Mme Gamelin tried to intercede for Julie’s lover with Evariste. Evariste, however, was an adamant supporter of the new justice, confirming the symbolic fact that his portrait of Orestes was really a self-portrait. Besides his cruelty to his sister, Evariste was obsessed with the desire to discover and punish Elodie’s first lover. He thought that the man must be Jacques Maubel, a quiet but aristocratic young gallant. There was no evidence to support this claim, but Evariste, irritated by Maubel’s lack of faith in the people, had Maubel arrested and executed. In reality, Elodie’s first lover had been Henry, now a dragoon but in those days a clerk. Elodie, the symbol of France itself, was so impressed by Evariste’s cruel power in having Maubel killed that she loved her tribune more than ever.
Brotteaux, Pere Longuemare, Mme de Rochemaure, and Athenais were all brought up before the Grand Tribunal, convicted without trial, and executed in the same lot of fifty. Evariste did not say a word. A short time later, Robespierre, feeling that enough blood had been shed, tried to reform the Grand Tribunal, but the people turned on him and killed him. Soon the mob switched again and killed the members of the Grand Tribunal, including Evariste. For a time, Paris was bathed in anarchy and chaos.
The mob was as irresponsible as the tribunes had been; they killed many, both aristocrats and peasants, political supporters and opponents. After Paris had become quiet and orderly again, Elodie became the mistress of a calm, nonpolitical, young engraver named Philippe Desmahis. Two people entirely unconcerned with politics or causes, governments or liberty, they managed to survive the grim Reign of Terror.
Anatole France was born in the revolutionary era just before the mid-nineteenth century and lived through World War I. His generation saw the rising and unending conflict between religion and science; the rapid growth of industrial capitalism, with its early promise and later disillusionment; the brutalization of workers which led to proletarian revolutionary movements; and the optimism about man’s future which displayed itself in world fairs. Literary experimentalism was active, with new forms and new approaches to subject matter more the rule than the exception. Through all this, France was a man of perspective and therefore a satirist. Although his literary forms, in poetry, essay, and novel, were traditional, his satirical wit could be sharp, as when he defined justice as “the preservation for each of what is his own—for the rich his wealth, for the poor his poverty.” Like Voltaire, his great eighteenth century predecessor, he was skeptical of organized religion and the sincerity of human motives.
In THE GODS ARE ATHIRST, a novel of the Revolution, France condemns the violence and extremism of the jurors on the Revolutionary Tribunal. Although the painter Evariste Gamelin is the central character in the novel, it is the aristocrat Brotteaux who acts as mouthpiece for the author’s ideals. France treats Gamelin’s romantic notion that men are innately virtuous with complete scorn, ascribing instead to Brotteaux’s more cynical evaluation that virtue is instilled in children through their parents’ beatings. Nevertheless, with his characteristic complexity and insight, France does not condemn the struggling idealist Gamelin outright. He is able to sympathize with his fanaticism even while he indicts it; while he bitterly attacks the atrocities perpetrated by the men on the Tribunal, he can still defend them in terms of his skeptical view of mankind: “. . . whoever might have agreed to put himself in their places would have acted as they did.”
France is a critic of man; not a misanthrope by any means, but a critic with the capacity to make readers simultaneously laugh and squirm. THE GODS ARE ATHIRST is not anti-French, nor, indeed, antirevolutionary. Like the short story “The Procurator of Judea,” it is content to show people as they really are—doing the things men have done throughout history—to make us realize that we must somehow learn to do better.