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.