The March of Folly Critical Essays

Barbara Wertheim


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

One literary criticism that has been leveled at Tuchman involves her penchant for comparing seemingly unrelated incidents in history. Some historians have asked what the wooden horse affair has to do with the Protestant Reformation, Great Britain losing America, and the Vietnam War. The answer lies in Tuchman’s ability to yoke fable to folly. “Myths are prototypes of human behavior,” she writes. Tuchman thus expresses the idea that folly is the essential element in misgovernment. The March of Folly challenges people to initiate constructive change with common sense. In “Pursuit of Policy Contrary to Self-Interest,” Tuchman reminds readers of the impractical, repeated political blunders that have led peoples into periods of decline. Folly is a child of power, claims Tuchman, and often results in nonreversible social upheaval.

Hence, legend becomes the legitimate mind-child of history for Tuchman in “The Trojans Take the Wooden Horse Within Their Walls.” Cassandra, the Trojan king’s daughter, thinks that the wooden horse (left outside Troy by the retreating Greek army) is a Greek ruse, but her warning goes unheeded and she cannot convince her father, who orders the wooden horse to be towed within the walls, where Greek soldiers, hidden within its belly, open the gates to a returning Greek army under the cover of darkness. Troy is razed, a demise that has left indelible patterns of unworthiness, says Tuchman, and folly as the paradigm for unsound judgment.

“The Renaissance Popes Provoke the Protestant Secession: 1470-1530” discloses mockery in the vicar’s office. One hundred years after the Great Schism, when Christopher Columbus sails for the New World and the Moors are expelled from Spain, the papacy crumbles. Tuchman validates a problem in church authority: no social protest, no need for reform. Politicizing the papacy was nothing new: Simony had existed for centuries in the form of the sale of commercial indulgences for the remission of sins, making ripe the Protestant Reformation, when, according to Tuchman, papal decay was offset by Martin Luther’s public outcry and history once again corrected itself of folly, with...

(The entire section is 893 words.)