Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Catherine Riccio-Berry

Catherine is a college instructor. She has an M.A. in Comparative Literature and is currently completing her Ph.D.

In this lesson, we'll review the major events and ideas in Thomas Carlyle's highly influential book 'Sartor Resartus.' Then we'll analyze some of its key philosophical and satirical elements.

Summary

Let me start by warning you: this is a book with more tangents than actual plot. Basically, it's the biography of the fictional philosopher Diogenes Teufelsdröckh as told by a nameless Editor. There aren't very many actual biographical details, though. Most of the book is filled with asides and philosophical statements that range from brilliant to silly to outright confusing. That being said, let's dive in!

Book One

The first book opens with the Editor lamenting the current scientific worldview, which has reduced 'the Creation of a World' to something 'little more mysterious than the cooking of a dumpling.' He points out that this scientific understanding has ignored the most important 'tissue' of all: clothing. To fix this, the Editor decides to translate the writings of a German philosopher, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, into English. This way, he can share the philosophy of clothes with the English nation.

The Editor believes that a true understanding of Teufelsdröckh's philosophy can only be obtained by also knowing about the man's biography. While he's waiting for documents about Teufelsdröckh to arrive, the Editor rambles about Teufelsdröckh's philosophy of clothes. At last, the Editor gets hold of Teufelsdröckh's writings, but they arrive in a chaotic mess, divided into six paper bags, each bag marked with a different Zodiac sign. The Editor is very frustrated but asserts that the 'noble' pursuit of Teufelsdröckh's philosophy justifies the loss of his own health and sense of self in digging through this jumble of papers.

Book Two

Through Teufelsdröckh's writings, we learn that he was left by a stranger on the doorstep of Andreas and Gretchen Futteral with only a roll of gold and a birth certificate bearing his full name. Teufelsdröckh ponders his own name and compares it to the first garment that a man wears. He says that all of language is a form of naming. He then goes on to suggest that the name one receives dictates one's future actions, and he claims that the name Diogenes Teufelsdröckh led him to create a philosophy of clothes.

After finishing his education, Teufelsdröckh tries law but quickly gives it up and finds himself floundering for a purpose. He is constantly aware of the passage of time as he seeks a meaningful occupation. Eventually, Teufelsdröckh faces his own insignificance in comparison to Time and Nature and uses the consequent sense of despair as a starting point for the evolution of his philosophy.

Book Three

This book veers away from the biography and gets very philosophical. The first few chapters of Book Three review the history of clothing styles before turning to the importance of symbols. A symbolic worldview, for Teufelsdröckh, is the closest a man can come to glimpsing the higher truth of his surroundings.

The next chapters look to the two types of men that Teufelsdröckh views as most exemplary of clothing-wearers: the dandy and the beggar, both of whom wear a 'peculiar Costume.' At this point, the Editor interjects and points out that this portion of Teufelsdröckh's philosophy must be satire. The third book closes with a chapter on the Tailor, who is 'not only a Man, but something of a Creator or a Divinity,' and finally a chapter in which the Editor provides some final remarks about the value of a man like Teufelsdröckh.

Analysis: Nature and Understanding the World

There is a notion put forth by numerous Romantic writers and thinkers that human beings can't ever really understand the world or the universe. We can do our best to figure out how things work using science, but eventually we hit the limit of science's capabilities. There is a spiritual component that will always be beyond us, and that spirituality can be experienced (but not understood) when we are surrounded by nature.

Teufelsdröckh expresses this Romantic idea in his writings when he says, 'Who am I; what is this ME? A Voice, a Motion, an Appearance; -some embodied, visualized Idea in the Eternal Mind? …The answer lies around, written in all colors and motions, uttered in all tones of jubilee and wail, in thousand-figured, thousand-voiced, harmonious Nature.' He talks like this for a while longer and then summarizes the whole idea by saying, 'they only are wise who know that they know nothing.'

In other words, nature is actually a huge collection of symbols. A symbol is basically something that stands for something else. In this case, all the 'colors and motions' that Teufelsdröckh sees in nature symbolize the spiritual component of life and the world that we can't understand. Therefore, when we experience nature, we are symbolically experiencing 'the Eternal Mind.'

Clothing as a Symbol

For Teufelsdröckh's philosophy, clothing is also a symbol, and an extremely important one at that. Even the title itself points to this, since Sartor Resartus translates to mean The Retailored Tailor. So what makes clothing so important? Well, Teufelsdröckh argues that clothing is a symbol for symbols themselves.

Now before I lose you, let me explain that some more. Like I said above, a symbol stands for something else. Think, for example, of a red rose and how it can symbolize love. It's as though love is wearing the rose as a Halloween costume. In this way, all symbols can be thought of as Halloween costumes, as the clothing we put onto important ideas to make them more accessible.

Teufelsdröckh's Philosophy

Now, we can put the last two sections together. Nature is a symbol for the spiritual world, and clothing is a symbol for symbols, right? Therefore, nature is the symbolic clothing that the spiritual world wears! In other words, Teufelsdröckh's attempt to write a Philosophy of Clothes is in fact an attempt to write a philosophical view of the spirituality of the natural world. Pretty cool, huh?

Satire

Sartor Resartus is also a satire. A satire uses humor to point out flaws with the hope of getting people to fix the problem.

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