Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Misogyny and Hero Worship: Carlyle's Representation of Men and Women in the French Revolution

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Misogyny and Hero Worship: Carlyle's Representation of Men and Women in the French Revolution

Article excerpt

When Thomas Carlyle depicts the political struggle in The French Revolution, he is writing more than a "history." His perspective in this work is colored by his Victorian ideology and a traditional political view of men and women, magnified by his own psychological development, which reveres men as his conception of a "hero" and disparages women as objects.

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Over the past century and a half, Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution has received various interpretations from historical as well as rhetorical perspectives. In this essay I will integrate Jessica Benjamin's psychoanalytic and feminist theory from The Bonds of Love and Herbert Sussman's historicist theory on male gender identity from Victorian Masculinities to construct a contemporary feminist reading of the text.

When Thomas Carlyle undertook the monumental enterprise of depicting the political struggle in France in The French Revolution, he was writing more than a "history." His perspective in this work was colored by his Victorian ideology and a traditional political view of men and women that reflected his times. His impressions were influenced by his own psychological development, which revered men and objectified women. His viewpoint was due largely to the vast transformations in society after the Industrial Revolution. Since a man's role was often defined by his work, a shift from an agrarian society engendered an uncertainty regarding masculine identity (Roper 1). Herbert Sussman, in Victorian Masculinities, provides a broad insight into the genesis of these anxieties among various males in Victorian England. He explains how the Victorians determined essential maleness as a male energy, described in metaphors of fluid (semen) and flame, which needed to be controlled and guided into productive purposes (work), rather than sexual expression. This belief, along with the nebulous concept of men's social roles, produced the loss of feelings of control for some Victorian males (12). As a result, the celibate monk in the monastery developed as an appropriate model to counteract various male insecurities on a social and sexual level. The monk served as the paradigm for transforming sexualized energy into the creation of work and art (3-14). Carlyle subscribed to this view of the Victorian ideology of the construction of masculinity, which is the basis of his "hero."

Moreover, in his personal life his psychic development was affected by his inability to relate to his father James, a brawny, stern, and rigid man who was involved solely in physical labor (Reminiscences 13-14). Since Thomas was fragile, sickly, and interested in intellectual pursuits, he had little in common with his father whom he feared, but at the same time admired for his strength. Although his father James supported his son's education, he was neither educated himself nor had an interest in reading. He was a physical laborer who was involved in drunken brawls. In contrast, even as a young child Thomas had an intense interest in learning and made every attempt to avoid physical conflicts (Kaplan 17-25). The father and the son were entirely dissimilar. In addition, his complex relationship with his mother was marked by an oppressive bond between mother and son and by her attempt to control his life (21-30). According to psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin in The Bonds of Love, this type of behavior on the part of the mother produces deep-seated damage to a child (34-39). The child is unable to detach himself psychologically from the mother to form his own identity. If this situation occurs, the mother becomes an object, and this perception extends to the female Other in general (75). Even after his marriage, Carlyle's mother, Margaret, had much control in his life. She demanded that he write to her within two days after his marriage and that his wife Jane should not read the letter. Her son complied and revealed intimate facts about his wedding night (Kaplan 117-18). …

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