"The grand still mirror of eternity": Temporal dualism and subjectification in Carlyle and Dickens

Justin Prystash*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


When Carlyle praises "wondrous Dualism" in Past and Present, he invokes a model for conceptualizing man's role in the world that held widespread, even hegemonic currency in mid-Victorian culture. The centrality of dualist discourse during the mid-Victorian period, thanks in part to Carlyle's translations of German literature and philosophy in the 1830s, cannot be overstated. Carlyle argues that dualism transhistorically frames all human activity: "In wondrous Dualism, then [in the year 1200] as now, lived nations of breathing men; alternating, in all ways, between Light and Dark; between joy and sorrow, between rest and toil" (50; bk. 2, ch. 1). The subject "man" - I use the masculine advisedly - endlessly oscillates between the opposing elements that constitute the universe. This, for Carlyle, is the position of all men. To be heroic, however, one must recognize and negotiate the most wondrous dualism of all, time and eternity: "this Earthly life, and its riches and possessions, and good and evil hap, are not intrinsically a reality at all, but are a shadow of realities eternal, infinite; that this Time-world, as an air-image, fearfully emblematic, plays and flickers in the grand still mirror of Eternity; and man's little Life has Duties that are great, that are alone great, and go up to Heaven and down to Hell" (72; bk. 2, ch. 6). Minor dualisms are subsumed in the opposition between "Time-world" and "Eternity," and in the "mirror" of the latter, man discerns himself: his ultimate insignificance, yet the greatness of his "Duties." Carlyle emphasizes that these duties demand the payment of obedience to one's temporal and eternal superiors - heroic ancestors, captains of industry, colonial governors, and God. Only then can heroic men once again be born, like the laboring Hercules or the humble Christ, from temporal-eternal intercourse.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)89-106
Number of pages18
JournalVictorian Literature and Culture
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2010 Mar
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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