The Gods Will Have Blood (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics) - Anatole France, Frederick Davies 3.5 - 4 stars

What happens when we let an idea, an ideal of what humanity ought to be, perhaps even a good one of what it could be, consume us? What happens when the idea becomes more important than the people it is meant to represent? What happens when this idea becomes a god to be worshipped blindly and that god thirsts for human blood in the name of necessity and perfection? Well, the answer is pretty self-evident I guess.

Anatole France’s The Gods will Have Blood aka The Gods are Athirst shows just such a crisis, when the Revolution in France, meant to topple the unjust regime of monarchy and aristocracy in the name of the downtrodden people, became transmuted into a literal Terror, where madam Guillotine reigned supreme and all were suspect. Even those in authority were not safe from the accusing glances and denunciations of all and sundry, and the heroes and champions of liberty of today were all too soon the martyrs and victims of tomorrow. At this time of turmoil we are introduced to the young painter Évariste Gamelin, living in poverty with his widowed mother in a garret in Paris, dreaming of possible fame as an artist and ardently committed to the revolutionary cause. His neighbour, the ci-devant nobleman and secular philosopher Maurice Brotteaux, now makes children’s puppets and reads his Lucretius, giving aid to his neighbours when he can and grumbling of the deceitful nature of the revolution and its adherents. Finally there is Élodie Blaise, the voluptuous daughter of a clever printseller who has thus far proven able to navigate the tempestuous seas of the revolution and still manage to make a profit amidst the poverty that surrounds him, who pursues the handsome young Gamelin with a desire that is almost bestial in its hunger.

We see Gamelin at first as a young man of great feeling and sensibility. Unable to bear the suffering of a young mother unable to feed her newborn child, he gives her half of his loaf, the last available at the baker’s and he goes hungry while he gives his old mother the other half. He is smitten with ardour for the beauteous Élodie, but approaches her with only the most trepidatious of steps. Soon, however, we see that Gamelin’s ardent sensibility is a double-edged sword, for it is that which has caused him to throw in his lot whole-heartedly with the Jacobins, willing to accept any sacrifice or demand made by them in the name of liberty, fraternity, and equality. Gamelin soon becomes a juror sitting in judgment of the many suspected traitors and conspirators that the Jacobins aver will be the downfall of all they have fought for. Some of these victims sacrificed in the name of the new government are former leaders and politicians like Danton and Desmoulins caught on the wrong side of the winds of politics, or generals unable to win the victories desired by the authorities against “the enemies of the people”. In the true spirit of ‘equality’ espoused by the powers that be, however, the vast majority of these victims are merely poor souls caught in the net of avarice and fear that permeates the city. Denounced by friends and neighbours they are bakers and prostitutes, soldiers and priests deemed dangerous by virtue of an ill-considered utterance or the chance of being on the wrong side of a hungry mob waiting for bread at a bakery.

These courts soon become nothing more than a death machine, accepting that all accused are guilty and sending them to their deaths by the dozen after mere single trials (with the needless excess of examining evidence and questioning the accused) become inefficient. The real tragedy of all of this is that this Terror was not simply the act of evil men, but of those of a normal, or even good character who were either too weak in the face of fear, too enamoured with the call of power, or too trusting in the aims of the Revolution to fight against it. Gamelin becomes a true believer. He adheres to the dictates of his party with a religious fervour and can placidly send to the guillotine all with whom he is presented for is it not the fault of these headstrong victims that such extreme measures are taken? It certainly cannot be that of the virtuous state that longs only for the regeneration of mankind.

Élodie soon becomes inordinately enamored of Gamelin. Added to his mere physical attractions are those of authority. This young man, who holds in his hands the power of life and death over all of Paris, becomes irresistible. Her dreams of love are mingled with those of blood, and at one point
…at the thought of the knife at her neck, all her flesh melted in an ecstasy of horror and voluptuous transport.

For his part Gamelin’s mind becomes fevered and burdened by the weight of the enormity of his actions and it is only in the languishing arms of Élodie that he can find repose. These two youths, each thirsting for more blood, though for decidedly different reasons, cannot truly rest and seem unable to understand the obvious reasons for their uneasiness and distress.

On the other side we see Brotteaux. A former aristocrat and man of pleasure who while he denies the truths preached on behalf of both God and man is contrariwise unable to accept the suffering of those he sees around him. Despite his professed creed of indifference we see him constantly aiding those in need in both small and large ways. Whether this is in the shape of the defrocked priest Pére Longuemare who regrets his own cowardice at the Revolution’s outset and admires the conviction of the atheistic philosopher with whom he has many a spirited argument, or the young prostitute Athenaïs who is by turns a lamb and a lion in the face of persecution, or even Gamelin’s mother, sitting hungry in the empty garret she shares with her son the avenger, Brotteaux puts himself out for the individuals he meets in disdain for the great mass of the people…nothing more than a mob that thirsts for death.

Both sides of the spectrum will of course come into contention. Is it any wonder who, in the short term at least, will win? I’m uncertain after reading this who was worse, the idealists who promulgated the ideas that led to these acts of terror and death, or the fickle mob that heeded them thoughtlessly and became the true god of the title that thirsted for blood. This was an excellent examination of the period of the Terror in France. The various levels of society and points of view, the varied stresses that pushed on individuals making them act both more and less than human, are all well presented. Mankind in all its complexity is on view here in a pitiable tale of idealism and evil, a cautionary tale of the need to see the trees that make up the forest. If we forget that even the mob is made up of individual people, then we are destined to be nothing more than a mere atom in its makeup, a fragment of the nameless masses that are swayed by history instead of human affection.

The story ends with ‘normalcy’ apparently reinstated, the people freed from the tyranny of one set of revolutionaries and granted an apparent respite from the hunger of the guillotine. This respite will be short-lived and it is ironically the materialist Brotteaux who becomes an unwitting prophet. In an utterance which will be used against him by the very people he warns he foresees a day when “…one of these warriors you make gods of swallows you all up like the stork in the fable who gobbles up the frogs.” The Revolution and the Terror were not the end of the upheavals France was to experience in these days. The cult of personality was also going to consume them in the name of a Corsican soldier with an iron will and a genius for war.