Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 389

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In his book Past and Present, published in 1843, Thomas Carlyle compares and contrasts medieval times with then-modern England. Carlyle is disappointed with the economic state and governance in England. The main conflict and themes deal with work, motivation, and poverty vs. greed.

He sets up Abbot Samson as the archetype of a motivated individual who can, by their deeds, bring good to society. In a quote from the book, Samson muses to himself:

Why not? What is to hinder this Samson from governing? There is in him what far transcends all apprenticeships, in the man himself there exists a model of governing, something to govern by!

He is saying here that he has a purpose and a goal in mind—to rid the abbey of dereliction and laziness and to instill strong work ethic therein.

Carlyle highlights this characterization by speaking at length about the current state of affairs in England. He discusses how the advent of industrialization and the departure from the Church has led to greed by both the government and wealthy business owners. He presents the business owner as unsympathetic and callous towards the needs of his workers because the economic climate has allowed him to separate himself from them emotionally, much like Ebenezer Scrooge of Dickens's A Christmas Carol (also published in 1843) did.

Did I not pay them, to the last sixpence, the sum covenanted for? What have I to do with them more?

This quote expresses the attitude that Carlyle reviles in his work and the major theme that he is addressing—the cold, harsh society that has been created by an economic system separate from human interaction.

Carlyle laments that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. He believes that someone of Abbott Samson's personality is needed to bring some compassion into society. In addition, he addresses the Corn Laws and property taxes and criticizes them outright for burdening the impoverished masses further.

Thematically, Carlyle explores poverty in depth and discusses the corrupt political and economic systems that are entrenching people further in poverty. Compassion and sympathy are themes throughout, with Carlyle expressing a desire that more should act on those virtues instead of greed, and that, by acting kindly, one can still build something that is both of great value and profitable, such as Abbott Samson had done.

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