The Family Romance of the French Revolution Critique Throughout much of history, the transition between governments has proven to be chaotic. Whether this be recent Arabic transition of authoritarian states to Democracies, or old absolute monarchies to Republics they all seem to temporarily go through an era of confusion, violence and inquiry of the future. In Chapter one of “The Family Romance of the French Revolution” by Lynn Hunt the French Revolution was no exception.
It brought about a new social order in which obedience of the people was in question. Hunt’s argument involves the evolution of French Politics and how this revolutionary society intertwined with the arguments of English critic Burke, and the psychoanalysis of Freud and literary critic Rene Girard. Up until 1789, France had been ruled by series of absolute monarchies in which the King had been the head of the social order. This social order as the Hunt analyzes was broken with the death of King Louis XVI.
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Using imagery as it starts out in the opening sentence Hunt describes the setting of his death in a “cold and foggy morning in the winter “, “The recently installed guillotine had been designed as the great equalizer; with it every death would be the same, virtually automatic, presumably painless. ” This imagery here and in the following sentences gives the reader the sensation that these revolutionaries were emotionally disconnected from the royal family.
The death of the king as Hunt explains in the starting paragraph, is just another man being taken up for death, except this death has much symbolic significance for which the future of France depends on. Essentially Hunt is asking that if the people were able to kill the king, who is supposed to be the ruler and law, what is to say any rule impose by a new government would be obeyed? The symbolism is the social order being broken, meaning that there was no model for citizens to obey out of deference anymore. Peasants deferred to their landlords, journeymen to their masters, great magnates to their king, wives to their husbands and children to their parents” (3) Hunt uses the English critic Edmund Burke to help the reader better understand the connection between devotion and willingness to obey. Burke argues that because people had respect and sense of loyalty to the kings before, there was harmony in all sorts of life, there was no need for brutal power.
However once the revolutionaries had a new empire reigned with reason that sense loyalty was gone force would be needed. Hunt uses a mocking tone when reinstating Burke’s argument (4), ” Political obedience always rests on a set of assumptions about the proper working of the social order, consent- is never automatic, even when it most appears to be so, as in so called traditional societies. ” Hunt then notable shows her bias towards women rights as she highlights the problems faced by revolutionaries as they try to make their new basis for political consent.
She questions the role of women in this new system even though the patriarchy as it used to be was destroyed. Since the family order was destroyed with the death of the king what’s justifying the exclusion of women from political affairs?. Hunt elaborates to the extent that the reader can see her frustration for how little interest political theorists show in women rights in the last paragraph of page 5. “And all of them tried to devise solutions that would ensure the continued subordination of women their husbands after the breakdown of patriarchy. The frustration to seek out answers leads Hunt to the primary documents of Freud particularly “Totem and Taboo” in which Freud through a story of brothers killing their father and eating him to keep women ultimately explains the right of men to dominate women. Hunt effectively uses Freud’s work to explain the idea that in this new social contract, there was still no place in political or social orders for women.
In fact, the author says in page 7, paragraph 2 that “Freud’ vision was so patriarchal that the only contests he could imagine were between fathers and sons; women were merely objects of these conflicts. ” Freud’s story is not only used to analyze the role of women but it also to compare the death of the king as a ritual sacrifice and the reactions of the people. Hunt gives us the idea that as the father was killed and eaten in Freud’s story, the revolutionaries metaphorically ate the king as the crowd of people dipped their handkerchiefs in the blood of the king after the execution.
Hunt then goes to show the reader a different scope to which we can analyze the French Revolution. This scope brings the psychoanalytical perspective of Rene Girard within Freud’s story. The ritual sacrifice in killing the father is simply a way of “disguising the community’s terror of its own violence. ” Therefore in comparing that to the revolution, the king was simply used as a scapegoat sacrifice that as Girard explains was to restore harmony to the community and reinforce the social fabric.
At many points Hunt introduces the topics that she will discuss in the chapters to follow as she tries to breakdown the many parts of the family romance. Ultimately through the works of Burke, Freud, and Girard, the author explores what the killing of the father king Louis XVI meant to the revolutionaries creating a new political order. Hunt was frustrated to see the evolution of French politics exclude women from any important role in the new society and according to Freud and Girard, women are only viewed as objects of desire.
Although we can also conclude that through her seeking a women’s role, she gave the reader a glimpse of what could have been women equal rights much earlier in society. At many points Hunt also introduces the topics that she will discuss in the chapters to follow as she tries to breakdown the many parts of the family romance. She tells the reader what to expect and she does it by telling us that her analysis is limited as her sources “rarely wrote with self conscious aim of supporting a particular political order. “