Thomas Carlyle claims to capture the essence of the Victorian Age with one adjective: mechanical. Yet his essay "Signs of the Times" is not a simple critique of the Industrial Revolution but one that examines the effects of a mechanical mindset on society and the individual. Early on in the essay Carlyle plays with his broad sense of the word "mechanical." The following passage, for example, seems to concern solely the literal advancements of technology; however, Carlyle hints at something much greater:
Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends. Nothing is now done directly, or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance. For the simplest operation, some helps and accompaniments, some cunning abbreviating process is in readiness. Our old modes of exertion are all discredited, and thrown aside. On every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one. The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster. The sailor furls his sail, and lays [100/101] down his oar; and bids a strong, unwearied servant, on vaporous wings, bear him through the waters. Men have crossed oceans by steam; the Birmingham Fire-king has visited the fabulous East; and the genius of the Cape were there any Camoens now to sing it, has again been alarmed, and with far stranger thunders than Gamas. There is no end to machinery. Even the horse is stripped of his harness, and finds a fleet fire-horse invoked in his stead. Nay, we have an artist that hatches chickens by steam; the very brood-hen is to be superseded! For all earthly, and for some unearthly purposes, we have machines and mechanic furtherances; for mincing our cabbages; for casting us into magnetic sleep. We remove mountains, and make seas our smooth highways; nothing can resist us. We war with rude Nature; and, by our resistless engines, come off always victorious, and loaded with spoils.
Already in the first sentence, Carlyle qualifies and defines "mechanical" by what it is not: "Heroical, Devotional, Philisophical, or Moral." The Age of Machinery, he writes, exists in "every outward and inward sense," a phrase that subtly foreshadows his discussion of marginalized individual inspiration. Carlyle echoes this sentiment when he describes the "living artisan," a phrase that connotes human innovation, replaced by "a speedier, inanimate one:" an inferior, dead machine. Although the rest of the passage seems to laud the power of technology, Carlyle maintains his tone of critique to the last phrase, "We war with rude Nature; and...come off always victorious." Humanity has departed so much from the natural to reduce itself to "resistless engines," and Carlyle reminds us that Nature is neither rude nor a justifiable adversary.
1. Carlyle opens his essay with the general diagnosis of "vaticination," stating that both individuals and societies concern themselves too much with the future. In what ways is this introductory technique similar to that of Samuel Johnson?
2. Carlyle's use of the word "mechanical" morphs throughout the essay, from the discussion of literal machines, to machines of society, and even to the mechanical workings of the mind. How does this progression serve to enforce his characterization of an age? Does he succeed in supporting his somewhat broad generalizations?
3. In this passage, Carlyle does not aim to discount technological innovation, yet he certainly seems to trivialize it: "Nay, we have an artist that hatches chickens by steam; the very brood-hen is to be superseded!" Does this sense of irony aid or hinder his argument? The following paragraph begins with a remark on the "wonderful accessions" that have been made "to the physical power of mankind," yet it ends by questioning the effects of increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. Does Carlyle succeed in maintaining credibility through his critique, even as the reader doubts the sincerity of his praise?
Last modified 27 February 2011