Anatole France, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921, lived among books all his life. His father was an antiquarian bookseller, and he worked for some years as an assistant in the library of the Senate. He is understandably careful to contrast the attitude of Sariette, who is driven to madness and murder by the loss of a valuable edition of Lucretius’ exposition of the Epicurean philosophy, and that of Arcade, who discovers the infinitely more precious enlightenment contained therein.
In the end, France acknowledges the need for Arcade’s revolutionary zeal to be reined in, lest it lead to the kind of pointless terror that succeeded the well-intentioned French Revolution of 1789. He has, however, far more sympathy for that youthful zeal than he has for René d’Esparvieu’s cool indifference to the world of learning or Maurice’s absorption in the business of seduction and the niceties of social etiquette. It is significant that France entrusts the duty of restraint to a Satan who has learned to repent his own prideful ambitions and has acquired a true maturity of outlook.
In making this move, France brought to a kind of consummation the tradition of “literary Satanism” that had extended from William Blake’s remark that John Milton “was of the Devil’s party without knowing it” when he wrote Paradise Lost (1667). This tradition carried on through Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820) and...
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