You are here:   Civilisation >  Books > Travels with Tocqueville

In the second volume of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, there is a chapter devoted to "How Democracy Modifies the Relations of Servant and Master". In aristocracies such as France, Tocqueville tells us, the master views his servant as "inferior and as a secondary part of himself". In democratic America, however, no such relationship exists. There, the equality of conditions is such that the servant could aspire to become the master. Masters expected neither respect nor love nor devotion, only the honest execution of a contract. Servants saw nothing degrading about their condition as it was freely chosen and created no permanent inequality of status. Tensions arose, however, at the point when society vacillated between the aristocratic notion of subjugation and the democratic notion of obedience. Then the servant saw his master only as an unjust usurper. 

Peter Carey's new novel is located at this precise moment in time. Somewhat improbably, the story he tells is an imaginative reconstruction of Tocqueville's voyage to America in the early 1830s. In real life, Tocqueville was accompanied by his close friend and fellow aristocrat, Gustave de Beaumont, but in Carey's tale, his companion is his servant John Larrit, son of a journeyman printer from Devon and known by the nickname of Parrot. As for Tocqueville himself, he is reconfigured as the pompous and snobbish Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, scion of a family that narrowly avoided the guillotine during the 1789 Revolution and somewhat at a loss as to what to do in the France of the July Monarchy. Through two parallel but interwoven narratives, Carey not only recounts how these two unlikely travelling companions confront each other but also how they respond to their many adventurous and romantic experiences in the New World. In the course of their journey their relationship changes, each man coming to have a grudging respect for the other. 

Peter Carey: Brilliant but unconvincing 

There are some brilliant touches to Carey's story. Anyone who has tried to read Tocqueville's manuscripts knows that his handwriting was appalling. One of Parrot's jobs is to take dictation. Tocqueville always had a lively interest in women and he was especially fascinated by their place in American society. Olivier falls in love with the emancipated Amelia Godefroy from Connecticut. Tocqueville was deeply attached to his private tutor, the Jansenist Abbé Lesueur. Olivier is similarly in thrall to his beloved Bébé, the devout and royalist Abbé de la Londe. Above all, both Tocqueville and his fictional counterpart set out for America not knowing what they will find and are transformed in the process. From the moment they set off from Le Havre they discover democracy.

View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.