skip to primary navigationskip to content

Thomas Carlyle: The French Revolution: Extract


In this extract Carlyle describes the scene in 1789 as the Paris mob closes in on the menacing royal fortress, symbol of royal power and oppression, the Bastille. The fortress's governor, the Marquis De Launay, has to decide how to react as a representative of the crowd advances over the plank that has been placed over the fortress's defensive stone ditch to discuss surrender terms.

All morning, since nine, there has been a cry everywhere: To the Bastille! Repeated 'deputations of citizens' have been here, passionate for arms; whom De Launay has got dismissed by soft speeches through portholes. Towards noon, Elector Thuriot de la Rosière gains admittance; finds De Launay indisposed for surrender; nay disposed for blowing up the place rather. Thuriot mounts with him to the battlements: heaps of paving-stones, old iron and missiles lie piled; cannon all duly levelled; in every embrasure a cannon, - only drawn back a little! But outwards, behold, O Thuriot, how the multitude flows on, welling through every street: tocsin furiously pealing, all drums beating the générale: the Suburb Saint-Antoine rolling hitherward wholly, as one man! Such vision (spectral yet real) thou, O Thuriot, as from thy Mount of Vision, beholdest in this moment: prophetic of what other Phantasmagories, and loud-gibbering Spectral Realities, which thou yet beholdest not, but shalt! "Que voulez-vous?" said De Launay, turning pale at the sight, with an air of reproach, almost of menace. "Monsieur," said Thuriot, rising into the moral-sublime, "what mean you? Consider if I could not precipitate both of us from this height," – say only a hundred feet, exclusive of the walled ditch! Whereupon De Launay fell silent. Thuriot shows himself from some pinnacle, to comfort the multitude becoming suspicious, fremescent: then descends; departs with protest; with warning addressed also to the Invalides, - on whom, however, it produces but a mixed indistinct impression. The old heads are none of the clearest; besides, it is said, De Launay has been profuse of beverages (prodigua des buissons). They think, they will not fire, - if not fired on, if they can help it; but must, on the whole, be ruled considerably by circumstances.
Wo to thee, De Launay, in such an hour, if thou canst not, talking some one firm decision, rule circumstances! Soft speeches will not serve; hard grapeshot is questionable; but hovering between the two is unquestionable. Ever wider swells the tide of men; their infinite hum waxing ever louder, into imprecations, perhaps into crackle of stray musketry, - which latter, on walls nine feet thick, cannot do execution. The Outer Drawbridge has been lowered for Thuriot; new deputation of citizens (it is the third, and noisiest of all) penetrates that way into the Outer Court: soft speeches producing no clearance of these, De Launay gives fire; pulls up his Drawbridge. A slight sputter; - which has kindled the too combustible chaos; made it a roaring fire-chaos! Bursts forth Insurrection, at sight of its own blood (for there were deaths by that sputter of fire), into endless rolling explosion of musketry, distraction, execration; - and over head, from the Fortress, let one great gun, with its grapeshot, go booming, to show what we could do. The Bastille is besieged!
Thomas Carlyle The French Revolution I:v Chapter 6
tocsin: an alarm bell rung in times of emergency
Invalides: veteran soldiers constituting the guard of the Bastille
grapeshot: musket balls fired from a cannon

<< Introduction :: What happens in this passage? >>