Samstag, 25. Februar 2012

Revolution and Turmoil, Uproar and War

Peace is onle the time between two wars. This German proverb seems very appropriate to me considering that I currently seem to be haunted by riots and rebellion, literary at least.
Coincidentally everything I have been reading recently deals with these themes in all variations, from the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities and Les Misérables over World War II and a nameless uproar in The Caucasian Chalk Circle to the American Civil War in Little Women.
War and violent conflicts are of course something horrible, but it is very interesting to observe how different authors use them differently in their works.

Dickens for example is a clear pacifist and describes the terror of the French Revolution so vividly that I cried not only for Sydney Carton but for all the other innocent and nameless people who were murdered in reality.
He uses the novel to warn his readers of what can happen if anger wins over reason and self-administered justice rules over pity.
Victor Hugo in contrast seems not to fully share Dickens's view of the revolution as a series of inhuman crimes, from what I have read until now he apparently regards it as a necessary evil. In my opinion he thinks the revolution was essential for creating a better society, but perhaps I am mistaken because Les Misérables starts after Napoleon's reign, when the terror is long over.
Later in the book Hugo will also focus on the June rebellion, so maybe my impression of his political position changes completely once I have read that.

In The Caucasian Chalk Circle the motive of the uprising is mainly character development. Brecht follows the rule that we only show our true selves in extreme conditions, so the riots are simply his device of putting his characters under pressure. His noblemen act mostly cowardish as soon as they are threatened whereas some of his poor, oppressed people prove their courage and their wits.

The portrayal of the Civil War was in fact the only thing about Little Women I didn't like because it rather unsettled me. All the characters seem to regard the war as something thoroughly positive although Mr March is severly wounded and thousands of other soldiers die. I don't know if that was simply the spirit of that time, but for a modern reader this tolerant representation is pretty shocking, especially visible in the following excerpt:
“I think you would if you had Laurie for a pupil. I shall be very sorry to lose him next year,” said Mr. Brooke, busily punching holes in the turf.
“Going to college, I suppose?” Meg’s lips asked the question, but her eyes added, “And what becomes of you?”
“Yes, it’s high time he went, for he is ready, and as soon as he is off, I shall turn soldier. I am needed.”
“I am glad of that!” exclaimed Meg. “I should think every young man would want to go, though it is hard for the mothers and sisters who stay at home,” she added sorrowfully.
Perhaps this truly was the general opinion, but I would find it very upsetting (and rude) if someone told me they were glad I went to war!

On the whole, reading so much about killing and rebellion I am indeed thankful to live in a country which doesn't even have a real army and hasn't needed one in half a century. Oh, and I am looking forward to reading something more peaceful soon, a really kitschy romance would be fine!



  1. I mentally compared Dickens and Hugo's depiction of the Revolution during my reading recently, too! :)

    The Civil War: I think Alcott romanticises it a bit, but the general feeling (as I understand it) was that a man who was young and healthy should be fighting. I believe this was because so many others had fought and died or lost limbs for their country, so to not fight was essentially to spit on that sacrifice. (I'm not expressing an opinion for or against this stance -- just sharing what I understand the attitude to have been.)

    I think this is true of both the North and South, though the South in particular was extremely patriotic, developing a recognizable "rebel yell" before battle.

    Not everyone was for fighting, though. People who could paid $300 to escape the draft in the North. In the South, the soldiers often "deserted" to check in with their families and tend the fields. It was understood they woukld return in time for the next battle.

    You should luck up the New York Draft Riots of 1863 for a clearer picture of the North...

    Morale was low in the North by about 1862, because the South was winning. By 1864, morale in the South had gone way, way down.

    1. An insightful explanation as always. Thank you, Jillian!
      Being a true European I hardly knew anything about the Civil War (they don't teach us that, but instead I can tell you exactly who of Maximilian I. Children married who!), it just seemed a little odd to me to portray war like that, especially in a children's book.
      Louisa May Alcott's writing is so vivid that I sometimes forget how old Little Women is in fact.

  2. Meg is young and naive, but her attitude is true to life. It was a young man's duty to go to war. It was a woman's duty to encourage him and say goodbye with a smile on her face. A girl who said, "Oh please can't you stay home? I don't want you to get killed!" would be selfish.

    One book that describes that pretty well is "Rilla of Ingleside"--I don't know if you've heard of "Anne of Green Gables," but Rilla is Anne's youngest child and that's the last book in the series. It takes place during WWI. The book was written in 1920 and the saddest part in the whole book (to me) is when the father makes a little speech about how this war is so awful, but when it's over there will be a new and better world. L. M. Montgomery clearly believed it--it was a common belief. If you read that you'll get a better understanding of how and why people thought that way.

    1. Thank you Jean, I'll investigate in that! Being Austrian it is hard for me to understand this patriotism, but things were probably totally different during the empire. I know that a lot of young people welcomed WWI enthusiastically as a chance to avenge the murder of the heir to the throne and to bring Austria back to its old grandeur. I guess they would be shocked to see how little is left of their country today.

    2. I don't think we have that anymore either, but the Civil War happened in a very young country, and the whole endeavor was at stake. Northerners were pretty convinced that if the South seceded, the country would fall apart--they considered themselves attacked and so did the Southerners. And Meg probably has little idea of the horrors of war. As in WWI, everyone was optimistic and full of dreams of glory at first, and then stunned by the carnage and the awfulness. But Meg would not be very aware of that; her parents would not tell her.

      The memory of the Civil War is probably a large part of what kept the US out of WWI for so long. That, and the attitude that if the Europeans wanted to kill each other for no reason, what did that have to do with us? The President at the time got re-elected on the slogan "He kept us out of war." Americans only got involved when they found out that Germany planned to offer the US to Mexico as a reason to become an ally. Rilla, however, is Canadian and her book goes through the whole four years.

      I always find Central-European history terribly confusing and of course we didn't learn any in school. The Austrian Empire is one big muddle in my head. I know Ludwig II and that's all. :)

  3. I also think the attitude towards war Dickens expresses in A Tale of Two Cities is as much an attack on the French as anything else. Jokes about the French permeate literature of the era, but I think there's definitely an undercurrent of truth to it as well.