Napoleon Through the Eyes of History: A Hundred Different Perspectives

There are one hundred Hamlets in the hearts of one hundred people, and it is a fact that there are one hundred (perhaps more) different Napoleons in the oil paintings in the Louvre. In the works of the famous painter David alone, Napoleon has more than one look: some are gloriously crowned, some are riding horses, and some are wise and mighty. After all, history is up to anyone to dress it up, and as a historical legend, Napoleon is bound to be tarnished.

In history books, the image of Napoleon also changed according to the needs of public opinion at the time. In the literary works written by the masters, the fictional images of Napoleon are also different.

“The Red and the Black” (also known as “Chronicles of the 1830s”) written by Stendhal, who experienced the Napoleonic era, is full of respect for Napoleon. By 1830, it had been fifteen years since Napoleon had abdicated and nine years since his death, but he was still a legend. In the novel, Julien, the son of a carpenter, regards Napoleon as his idol and believes that Napoleon became the master of the world with a sword. In his era, “bricklayers can become generals.” In the story of “The Red and the Black”, Napoleon is the idol of the oppressed young people who leapt into the upper class society; those who came after him believed that in his era, everything was possible.

Hugo’s “Les Misérables” vividly describes Napoleon on the day of Waterloo. Describe his arrogance, “not only to repel the opponent, but also to overthrow the opponent”; describe Napoleon’s love for joking, and saw twenty-four cannons, saying they were twenty-four beauties; describe his decisiveness when sending armored cavalry to attack He sent people to Paris to report the victory; it also described the most stalemate moment of the Battle of Waterloo, when Napoleon yelled at Ney who asked for help: “Infantry? Where does he want me to find infantry?! Can he improvise it?!”

In Hugo’s writings, Napoleon is a devil: relying on inspiration, using surprise soldiers, having superhuman instincts, agility, conceitedness, unpredictable spirits, and playing with fate. The young people of his generation regarded him as a shining star (just as Julien regarded him), while the rulers of the old era feared him, even if he had fallen.

This fear, in Alexandre Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo”, is astonishing at a glance. At the beginning of the story, Napoleon abdicated the throne for the first time and was imprisoned on the Island of Elba. However, the protagonist Dantès, a Marseille sailor, and his ship owner Mr. Morel were still full of respect for Napoleon. Napoleon only mentioned it. He remembered M. Morel’s uncle, and Morel was flattered and told Dantès, “Go and tell my uncle that your Majesty remembers him! You will see him cry!”

The restored French King Louis XVIII once sat firmly on the Diaoyutai and sneered at Napoleon. However, when he heard that Napoleon had left Elba Island and was about to return as king, he immediately collapsed. He first accused his subordinates of “why they didn’t understand how many troops he had.” Then he sighed, “Yeah, this information is not important.” After all, once Napoleon returns, the hearts of the people will naturally be invincible.

In the novel, Napoleon never actually appears, but these few moments are earth-shattering.

In the eyes of his opponents, Napoleon was much more complicated. The first sentence at the beginning of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is that in the summer of 1805, two Russian nobles were talking about Napoleon. Probably in the eyes of the older generation in Russia, Napoleon is a devil on earth. But the two protagonists set by Tolstoy – Pierre and Prince Andrei of the younger generation of Russia – admire Napoleon.

Pierre publicly praised Napoleon, saying that when the Bourbon dynasty fled the revolution and the people fell into anarchy, Napoleon was good at understanding the revolution, defeated the revolution, and had the courage to take responsibility. Even if he did some extreme actions, he “eliminate prejudice, make citizens equal, and promote human rights.” “, so “I think this is the greatness of his spirit.” These words not only praised Napoleon, but also secretly mocked the entire old Europe at that time-including Russia’s own older generation.

But Tolstoy went a step further. In his novel, when Napoleon saw a Russian grenadier who died in battle, he would sigh: “Excellent people!” When he saw the dying Prince Andrei, he would praise, Rescue him when you find him alive. However, Prince Andrei felt something else: “He knew that this was Napoleon, the hero he admired, but at this moment, compared with what was happening between his mind and that high, boundless sky and floating clouds , he felt that Napoleon was so small and insignificant.”

Probably from Tolstoy’s perspective, Napoleon was great, but in the torrent of time, he was just a pawn of history.

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