3. “[I]t will startle you to see what slaves we are to by-gone times—to Death, if we give the matter the right word! . . . We read in Dead Men’s books! We laugh at Dead Men’s jokes, and cry at Dead Men’s pathos! . . . Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a Dead Man’s icy hand obstructs us!”
In Chapter 12, Holgrave utters these words with revolutionary fervor, as he outlines the folly of humankind being slaves to the past and to the future death that awaits us all. Here Holgrave proposes that society’s very foundations are made up of the works of dead men—that the modern world is shaped by people who no longer inhabit it, stifling all contemporary urges and desires. These laws and theories, Holgrave says, are smoothed and rectified by later generations, but this is not enough, and he advocates tearing down all of society’s institutions—from the courtroom to the home—and beginning again with a clean slate. Holgrave’s politics nicely echo the novel’s theme of the tyranny of the past, where Pyncheons and Maules are unable to escape the influence of their dead relatives. Holgrave, himself a Maule and a possessor of both the Maules’ secret and their formidable power of mesmerism, argues that it is foolish to accept fate passively, that legacies like his need to be overthrown and rebuilt from scratch.