The French Revolution: Causes & Effects on English Literature

The French Revolution, erupting in 1789, had far-reaching consequences not only for the political and social landscape of France but also exerted a profound influence on the entire continent. Centuries of oppression were brought to an end as democratic ideals spread like wildfire, dismantling the power structures of kings and aristocrats. A surge of humanitarian enthusiasm and dreams of progress swept through the passionate souls of young revolutionaries, as expressed by Wordsworth:

“But Europe at the time was thrilled with joy
France standing on the top of golden hours
And human nature seeming born again.”

The Causes Behind the French Revolution

The French Revolution was fueled by several underlying causes:

  • The French society was divided into three orders or "estates": the clergy, the nobility, and the rest of the population known as the Third Estate. The first two estates enjoyed special privileges, while the Third Estate endured immense suffering and poverty.
  • The lavish extravagance of Louis XVI's court and the belief in divine right theory, combined with the arrogance of Queen Marie Antoinette, further infuriated the already disgruntled masses.
  • Influential thinkers and writers like Rousseau and Voltaire, through their works, fueled the revolutionary spirit and planted seeds of change.
  • The American War of Independence served as a catalyst, inspiring the French people to seek liberty and independence.

All these factors came to a boiling point, leading to the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, marking the beginning of the French Revolution. As the concept of absolute monarchy was rejected, Louis XVI sought foreign intervention, further enraging the populace. This triggered the horrifying September Massacre, resulting in the street execution of thousands of royalists, priests, and nobles. Louis XVI himself was eventually beheaded. From 1789 to 1799, the Reign of Terror gripped the nation.

The Effects Reshaping French Society

The French Revolution brought about significant transformations with lasting effects:

  • Catholicism, once the official religion of France, lost its dominance and influence over society as the power of the French Catholic Church waned.
  • The revolution shattered the social hierarchy and declared equality for all. It introduced the principle of career opportunities based on merit and talents.
  • The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, issued by the constitutional assembly, granted political liberties such as freedom of speech, press, association, worship, and property ownership.
  • The Bourbon monarchy, which had ruled France for centuries, was abolished in 1792, replaced by a republican form of government.
  • The French Revolution paved the way for Napoleon Bonaparte's rise to power, providing a strong military leader who would shape European history.
  • Revolutionary ideals like "liberty, equality, and fraternity" emerged as the foundation of democracy worldwide.

The Impact on English Literature

The French Revolution had a profound impact on British society and deeply influenced English literature. Here are some of the key impacts:

  1. Romantic Revival: The French Revolution marked a sharp departure from the Age of Reason, giving rise to the Romantic Revival in English literature. This literary movement, epitomized by the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, transformed the poetic landscape. Poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Byron, Shelley, and Keats embraced this new style of poetry, exploring themes of nature, emotions, and individualism. They celebrated the power of imagination, intuition, and the sublime, reflecting the revolutionary spirit and the desire for freedom.
  2. Exploration of Human Experience: The revolutionary fervor and societal upheaval unleashed by the French Revolution inspired English writers to delve into the complexities of the human experience. They sought to capture the emotional and psychological impact of revolutionary change, reflecting the uncertainties and anxieties of the time. Poets and writers explored themes of identity, social injustice, and the quest for individual freedom and fulfillment.
  3. Challenges to Established Authority: The French Revolution challenged traditional structures of authority, sparking a spirit of rebellion and questioning of hierarchies. English literature of the period echoed these sentiments, challenging existing power structures, social norms, and conventional morality. Writers engaged in political and social critique, advocating for equality, justice, and the rights of the individual.
  4. Revolutionary Ideals in Prose: The revolutionary ideals of "liberty, equality, and fraternity" found expression in prose literature as well. Writers such as Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Thomas De Quincey illuminated the literary landscape with their insightful essays and literary criticism. They explored the philosophical and moral implications of the French Revolution, grappling with issues of human nature, social progress, and the pursuit of individual happiness.
  5. Industrial Revolution and Social Change: The French Revolution coincided with the rapid industrialization of England during the Industrial Revolution. The societal changes brought about by this transformation had a profound impact on literature. Writers began to depict the effects of urbanization, the alienation of the individual in the face of industrialization, and the human cost of progress. Themes of industrialization, class struggle, and social inequality became prevalent in novels, reflecting the realities of the changing world.

In conclusion, the French Revolution shook Europe to its core, reshaping nations and inspiring profound societal changes. Its effects reverberated through English literature, fueling a new wave of artistic expression and serving as a catalyst for literary movements that would leave an indelible mark on the literary landscape.

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