“Signs of the Times,” establishes Carlyle's credibility by including his audience in his statemens. This technique appears to rest on his use of the word “we.” While it is not remarkable to use “we” in place of “one” or “you” in essay writing, in this piece, the word’s referent shifts in a manner that heightens the essay’s persuasive power. The following passage illustrates how Carlyle avoids creating a defensive reader by implying that the audience shares both his opinion and experience:

How often have we heard, for the last fifty years, that the country was wrecked, and fast sinking; whereas, up to this date, the country is entire and afloat. The "State in Danger" is a condition of things, which we have witnessed a hundred times; and as for the Church, it has seldom been out of "danger" since we can remember it.

The use of “we” and the references to collective experiences — “How often have we heard,” “since we can remember it” — prevent the reader from feeling as if they are the object of Carlyle’s ensuing attack, while also creating an element of trust through the sense of history. However, as the essay continues, the use of “we” reverses — instead of uniting the reader with himself, Carlyle refigures himself and his audience as among those he is criticizing.

By arguing on the "force of circumstances," we have argued away all force from ourselves; and stand leashed together, uniform in dress and movement, like the rowers of some boundless galley. This and that may be right and true; but we must not do it. Wonderful "Force of Public Opinion"! We must act and walk in all points as it prescribes; follow the traffic it bids us, realise the sum of money, the degree of "influence" it expects of us, or we shall be lightly esteemed; certain mouthfuls of articulate wind will be blown at us, and this what mortal courage can front? Thus, while civil liberty is more and more secured to us, our moral liberty is all but lost. Practically considered, our creed is Fatalism; and, free in hand and foot, we are shackled in heart and soul with far straiter than feudal chains. Truly may we say, with the Philosopher, "the deep meaning of the Laws of Mechanism lies heavy on us"; and in the closet, in the Marketplace, in the temple, by the social hearth, encumbers the whole movements of our mind, and over our noblest faculties is spreading a nightmare sleep.

In this selection, the use of “we” ensures that the reader knows that Carlyle is not excluding himself — he too is one of those “leashed together” by the faith in the “force of circumstance.” By affiliating himself and his readers with the objects of his criticism, Carlyle manages — at the very height of his argument — to make the problem he confronts seem all the more grave and thus forces the reader to feel more responsible for its resolution.


1. Although in the second passage above, Carlyle positions himself as equally susceptible to the mechanization he criticizes, do you think he actually sees himself as part of this? Does his status as a sage writer necessitate that he is removed from the problem?

2. What elements of sage writing is Carlyle fulfilling by using this technique?

3. In the first passage above, Carlyle establishes a relationship to his audience through a shared experience. How does this compare to the opening of “The White Album,” where Didion lists specific references to popular culture and current events to make her point?

Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle Leading Questions

Last modified 23 February 2011