Themes and Meanings
The fame of this story rests on its last line of dialogue. Anatole France always enjoyed startling and undermining the assumptions of his contemporaries, especially in matters of religion. In “The Human Tragedy” (1895), for example, a virtuous monk imprisoned by corrupt churchmen is delivered from that evil by Satan. In The Revolt of the Angels (1914), Satan politely declines to lead a second revolution against God on the grounds that the cause of moral progress should not be advanced by violence. Works such as these carried forward a rich French tradition of criticism of the Church and its clergymen, rather than the actual tenets of Christian faith, that had already extended from François Rabelais to Charles Baudelaire. “The Procurator of Judea” was similarly designed to shock and annoy, but it also makes a serious point about the artificiality of history and seeing the past through the lens of hindsight.
France was to expand further on the theme of “The Procurator of Judea” in his philosophical novel The White Stone (1905). This book includes an exemplary tale, set a few years later, in which a group of Roman exiles encounters a ragged wandering preacher. They are as unanimous in declaring that the faith he is preaching cannot possibly endure as they are in hoping that the newly proclaimed emperor will preside over a dramatic resurgence of the fortunes of Rome. The irony is sharpened by the fact that the reader not only knows what became of the preacher (Saint Paul) but also the failure that was actually wrought by the emperor (Nero). Similar playfulness is foreshadowed in “The Procurator of Judea,” in which France is careful to use the name Caius to disguise the emperor known to history as Caligula; he also is scrupulous in saying...
(The entire section is 728 words.)