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Thomas Carlyle: The French Revolution: Commentary

It is clear where Carlyle’s sympathies lie here: De Launay is a feeble character whereas Thuriot, a true representative of the People, conducts himself with great dignity (‘rising into the moral-sublime’) and sense of occasion. He is courteous, bold (one senses that his warning that he could pull De Launay off the rampart is no idle threat) and magnanimous: he warns the Invalides of what is likely to happen and it is not his fault that they take no notice. Carlyle also makes the crowd a character in itself, rolling forward from Saint-Antoine (one of the working-class districts of Paris, below the Bastille) ‘as one man’ or becoming collectively suspicious when Thuriot seems to have disappeared inside the Bastille for a long time. The crowd here represents the French people, goaded beyond endurance by a weak and ineffective regime, represented by De Launay, who dithers, plies his men with drink and, even when he finally gives the order to open fire, produces only ‘a slight sputter’, enough to kill people and inflame the crowd but not enough to deter them. Carlyle acts sometimes as narrator – ‘All morning, since nine, there has been a cry everywhere: To the Bastille!’ – and sometimes almost as participant, addressing Thuriot and De Launay: ‘’But outwards, behold, O Thuriot, how the multitude flows on’, ‘Wo to thee, De Launay…’ He also employs hindsight, hinting at later events that he knows but his characters cannot: his description of Thuriot looking down at the crowd from the ramparts talks of ‘other Phantasmagories, and loud-gibbering Spectral Realities, which thou yet beholdest not, but shalt!’, referring to similar scenes of angry crowds baying for blood which will come in the next few years.

Even a reader unfamiliar with the period will probably have guessed that Carlyle’s is a highly romanticised version of events, especially if it is pointed out that the crowd will shortly tear De Launay and his men to pieces and parade through the streets with the governor’s head on a pike. The key to Carlyle’s interpretation lies in the phrase, subsequently much quoted, ‘Burst forth Insurrection, at sight of its own blood’. He has made a character, a sort of monstrous figure with head and limbs, not just of the crowd but of the very concept of insurrection, of popular uprising. Out of the character of the crowd grows the allegorical figure of Insurrection, of (the inference is clear) Revolution itself, a wounded monster, stung by the drunken Invalides and terrible therefore in its fury.

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