The Devil is in the Detail

When you study literature at university you learn very early that an eye for detail is essential to becoming a good critic (unfortunately, unless you are actually doing a close reading of a text, you will – most of the time – automatically go for the obvious and investigate scenes, dialogues or thoughts that offer themselves to a certain reading).

Scottish historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle, whose enormous impact on 19th century literature is best understood by reading George Eliot’s homage to him in The Leader (1855), where she says

there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings; there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or twelve years that would not have been different if Carlyle had not lived

had such an eye for detail and talent for not going for the obvious. Carlyle concludes one of his shorter pieces, “Goethe’s Portrait”, by saying

Reader! to thee thyself, even now, he has one counsel to give, the secret of his whole poetic alchymy: GEDENKE ZU LEBEN. Yes, “think of living!” Thy life, wert though the “pitifullest of all these sons on earth,” is no idle dream, but a solemn reality. It is thy own; it is all thou hast to front eternity with. Work, then, even as he has done, and does – “LIKE A STAR UNHASTING, YET UNRESTING.”

I stumbled across this quote while writing my master thesis on Carlyle’s views on history simply because his portrait of Goethe precedes his essay “On Biography” in the Critical and Miscellaneous Essays edition I used.

I read this piece at the end of the hardest year of my life which was filled with death, near death and injuries. Which is probably why this quote, which he claims to be the essence of Goethe’s writing, stuck with me. “Gedenke zu leben!” I have to be honest with you, I think that his translation “think of living” is not a good translation. ‘Gedenke’ is one of these almost untranslatable words as it is laden with extra meaning and a multitude of emotions – a word that highly depends on its context. I would rather translate it with ‘remember to live’ but I know that this, too, is an insufficient translation.

But lets get back to the actual reason for me telling you about this quote. As I mentioned already, it got stuck, and I embarked on a search for the origin of this short sentence. It turns out that it is from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Apprenticeship). In fact, it is just an inscription of a painting that is described in the book. A small detail, easily overlooked but so full of meaning and perfect for an analysis. If it can, indeed, be described as “the secret of [Goethe’s] whole poetic alchymy”, I cannot say and one look at my 2017 reading list will show you that Wilhelm Meister is one of the books I haven’t read yet. Which is why I decided to talk a little about another small narrative detail I stumbled across recently and the thoughts it triggered.

I am currently writing a piece on Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. A book, as you might know, so full of events and themes that it can be analysed regarding language, nationalism, feminism, modernism, the impact of WWI and much, much more. In the chapter Drilling of the main part, The Song, the protagonist’s father John Guthrie reflects on the impact of change experienced by him and his fellow crofters. For John Guthrie a general moral decline is obvious and it

[grows] plain to him [John Guthrie] here as never in Echt that the day of the crofter was fell near finished, put by, the day of the folk like himself and Chae and Cuddiestoun, Pooty and Long Rob of the Mill, the last of the farming folk that wrung their living from the land with their own bare hands. Sign of the times he saw Jean Guthrie’s killing of herself shame him and make his name a by-word in the mouths of the neighbours, sign of a time when women would take their own lives or flaunt their harlotries as they pleased, with the country-folk climbing on silver, the few, back in the pit, the many; and a darkness down on the land he loved better than his soul or God.(73-74)

I highlighted the small narrative detail for you. I don’t know how many times I have read Sunset Song, probably 4-5 times and never did I pay any attention to this snippet.


It refers to the suicide of his wife Jean Guthrie, who before she kills herself also murders her youngest children- the twins. The reason behind Jean’s suicide is that she finds herself pregnant again after already having given birth to 6 children, just barely survived the birth of the twins. Jean is married to an almost fanatical Calvinist who does not care for the doctor’s warning regarding future pregnancies and is convinced that God gives them as many children as he sees fit. His old-testament approach to family planning and the fact that he can, indeed, not control his sexual desires (which later in the book almost leads to incest with his daughter Chris), makes another pregnancy inevitable. What is striking in this scene is that the way Gibbon phrases the action of Jean Guthrie. It makes the vehemence of suicide as a woman’s only choice to escape patriarchal oppression almost graphic. Her suicide, according to the narrator, becomes a sign of a time. Jean Guthrie’s fate, however, is not unprecedented, is not unusual, neither for her time nor the times before and, unfortunately, not even today. This is why I think, that Gibbon here refers to the suffragette movement of the late 19th and early 20th century as the “time”. Through this small detail – the phrasing – Jean Guthrie becomes a member of this movement and joins the ranks of women like Emily Davison. She like other women of her time uses drastic measures  – hunger strikes and (public) suicide – to make her voice heard and to be active rather than reactive. She prefers to end her life rather than living her life as it is.


  • Carlyle, Thomas. “Goethe’s Portrait”; The Modern British Essayists Vol. V Thomas Carlyle. Philadelphia: A. Hart, Late Carey & Hart, 1852. 310-311. Print.
  • Grassic Gibbon, Lewis. Sunset Song. Edinburgh: Polygon, 2006. Print.
  • Carlyle Picture was taken from this page.
  • Sunset Song (movie scene) picture taken from this page.
  • Suffragette picture was taken from this page.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s