Monday, August 11, 2008
Adam Bede: Conclusions?
This is the final installment of our Adam Bede reading project. In case anyone is inspired to go back and read through the posts and comments in sequence, here they are:
June 16: Chapters I-V
June 23: Chapters VI-XI
July 1: Chapters XII-XVI
July 8: Chapters XVII-XXI
July 15: Chapters XXII-XXVI
July 22: Chapters XXVII-XXXV
July 29: Chapters XXXVI-XLVIII
August 5: The Whole Novel
Was Adam Bede the best choice for a project like this? I don’t know, but clearly some people enjoyed it, or at least persevered with it, and probably we all know things we didn’t know before, whether about George Eliot, Dutch painting, fanfic, or just ourselves as readers. I don’t have any sense of how many people were reading along but not commenting. If there are any of you still lurking out there, I hope you’ll take this opportunity to say a few words about you and your experience of reading Adam Bede this summer. I’m sure the people who have been commenting all along don’t need any special prompting from me to add their own last words!
A thumbnail version of my own reaction on this rereading of the novel is that it’s an extraordinary first book. (I know: Scenes of Clerical Life was her first published fiction, but it’s a different kind of thing.) My initial inability to read it without making mental connections and comparisons to her later work came to confirm for me that she learned how to do, better, many of the things she is trying to do here, novelistically and artistically as well as philosophically and dramatically. But she could already do remarkable things in all of these categories, from passages of memorable wisdom and poignancy in the intrusive narration to scenes of striking pathos and suspense, such as Hetty’s forlorn pilgrimage. If Adam is a bit of a stump (though arguably better, as a hunk, than Felix Holt a couple of novels later), he is excellent practice for Caleb Garth; Mr Irwine fumbles the ball Mr Farebrother will pick up and run with; Dorothea is a thoroughly secularized saint--but Mrs Poyser is as good as a Dickens character, and I mean that without irony, someone who livens up your imagination from having lived in it for a while. The overall structure seems beautifully balanced, better than The Mill on the Floss (heavily weighted, GE admitted, towards the childhood scenes and so rushed through to the end), and the set pieces such as the birthday feast work better for me for my having considered them (like the harvest supper at the end) in light of the painterly analogies explored in Yeazell’s book. But here my own limitations and preoccupations are showing: I’m thinking about the novel in the context of GE’s other novels, and there are lots of other ways we could go.
In closing, then, here’s my favourite passage from the last section of the novel. I think it captures something that really struck me this time about the underlying tone of the story, in which nostalgia for the past is charged with mourning (it’s the past, after all, and not to be recovered) but at the same time counteracted with energy for a new life richer with meaning and sympathy because of that history, just as Adam’s love for Dinah is stronger, not weaker, because of their shared memories of Hetty. We can’t really long for the past because we are no longer the same people:
It would be a poor result of all our anguish and our wrestling, if we won nothing but our old selves at the end of it--if we could return to the same blind loves, the same self-confident blame, the same light thoughts of human suffering the same frivolous gossip over blighted human lives, the same feeble sense of that Unknown towards which we have sent forth irrepressible cries in our loneliness. Let us rather be thankful that our sorrow lives in us as an indestructible force, only changing its form, as forces do, and passing from pain into sympathy--the one poor word which includes all our best insight and our best love.
And, a bit later on,
The growth of higher feeling within us is like the growth of faculty, bringing with it a sense of added strength: we can no more wish to return to a narrower sympathy, than a painter or musician can wish to return to his cruder manner, or a philosopher to his less complete formula.
As someone who has a few times this summer felt strongly inclined to “hide her eyes in selfish complaining” (Middlemarch Ch. 80), I can at least aspire to this condition of mental growth and “added strength.”
“Other critics have been less generous. Henry James, among others, resented the narrator’s interventions. In particular, Chapter 15 has fared poorly among scholars because of the author’s/narrator’s moralizing and meddling in an attempt to sway readers’ opinions of Hetty and Dinah. Other critics have objected to the resolution of the story. [i.e. Hetty’s life being saved] In addition, some scholars feel that Adam’s marriage to Dinah is another instance of the author’s/narrator’s intrusiveness. These instances have been found to directly conflict with the otherwise realistic images and events of the novel.”
I had the feeling, as I was writing comments on this book, that I was treading down a well-travelled critical path.
Im my memory, the book is divided into three major sections:
1. Books One - Four. The major interest here is Eliot’s own narratorial mischief. Whether she’s embodying herself as a sort of spirit peeking into windows, insistently and cruelly metaphorizing her characters, or winning an argument by the testimony of her sock puppet, it’s an amazing, rather impish performance. Later in the book, this largely disappears and is replaced by a more conventional realist narrative style. I’m not sure whether this is good or bad; the earlier style didn’t “work”, exactly, but it certainly had its moments.
Some critics seem to find the nostalgic depictions of a rural idyll to be a major attraction of the book. In my opinion those elements of the book are a weakness, or at least a misreading. I think that nostalgia for an idealized past that readers have never experienced is sentimentality—not one of the features of Victorian novels that I really look forward to.
2. Chapters 36-37. Hetty’s journey is what I find most valuable about the novel. Eliot really doesn’t seem to want you to sympathize with Hetty overmuch—there are the usual Hetty/animal characterizations—but the characters runs away from Eliot, so to speak. Perhaps because Hetty is not a heroine, there is more space for the reader to feel her situation as a person trapped by the intersection of biology and society, still moving with nowhere to go.
3. Chapters 38+. Melodrama leavened by libido.
Overall, this seemed to me to be a novel that invited a good deal of excavation, in which the authorial narration was stronger than the material being narrated—a first novel by a great author, in short. Comments about seeing what’s good in the book, or about something not being in the book, therefore seemed to me to be misdirected. The book is what we make of it, and this book in particular seems to me to benefit from as idiosyncratic a reading as can be made.
Are we planning another of these book readings? Perhaps we can do one that almost no one has likely read: James Branch Cabell’s The Silver Stallion. Perhaps it would be too misogynist, but it’s in my opinion his best work despite that. And it would carry of the Valve‘s conversion to all F & SF and comic books.
Oh, and thanks again to Rohan for doing this.
I would like to add my thanks to Rich’s for all your hard work, Rohan - even the fights were fun!
I have read AB many times and taught it to undergraduate and graduate students but have really learnt to look at it differently this summer. I think I feel less ‘forgiving’ towards it, somehow, less prepared to overlook its faults. Though I still find much to admire in it, I now see it more ‘objectively’, I think, thanks to everyone’s comments. (Special thanks to my former ‘sparring partner’, Rich who showed me how blinkered my views were, by the way.)
Oddly, I had a similar experience reading Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with a group of quite cynical students a few years ago and it did me no end of good as I realized that I was just too much ‘in love’ with the novel to be able to judge it. I think when you get too close to literature you can become entrenched.
I do hope there will be another ‘shared read’ but could I suggest that a text be chosen that’s available online to encourage as many people as possible to join in? This might preclude more modern copyright texts but there are many early works that don’t fall into the standard ‘Age of the Novel’ idea.
How about some Henry James or some Gissing, for example, or maybe short stories?
Will definitely be spreading the word amongst my students about The Valve when the new term begins!
"it would carry of the Valve‘s conversion to all F & SF and comic books”
That trend in Valve coverage was part of what began to turn me away from the blog, as these are genres I’ve never found very congenial--but with the right leadership, I might do better, I suppose! With fall courses looming, though, I’m not sure the time will be right for me to add any more required reading.
I admit that I do wish we had gotten broader participation in this discussion. Even some Valve regulars who were pretty enthusiastic at the idea were never heard from again.... Maybe Adam Bede was a bit too earnest for summer after all. Other than that, though, I’m glad I gave this a try, though I’m not sure I’d do quite the same again.
Um, err, Rohan, I suspect one of the reasons for inviting you to The Valve was to help slow the drift to F&SF-Landia.
Thanks for hosting this conversation.
I’ll try to make some more substantive comments a bit later.
Hi Rohan and others,
I do hope you do this again with a 19c novel - I’ve greatly enjoyed reading the discussions. I’d have liked to join in this time around, but I only came across the group a few weeks ago, and I didn’t manage to catch up with the reading until last week. The debates in the last two threads, about the novel’s ‘central silences’ on the major issues of sex and Hetty’s transportation experience, were especially compelling.
Thank you all, Rohan for leading the group, and everyone else for contributing.
For what it’s worth, I’ve also been following the conversation without contributing, and like Mary I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. I read Adam Bede about a year ago, and at first I planned to reread it and take part in the discussion; events got in the way, though, and I soon despaired of ever catching up properly. But I think it was an excellent idea, nicely realized, and I would hope actually to participate in a new project, whenever it got started and whichever work was chosen.
Mary and John--Thanks for your comments; it’s nice to know that the effects of the discussion were more “incalculably diffusive” than I knew.
Bill--I’m sure you’re right, in which case, by settling on Adam Bede for this (though it wasn’t actually my initial suggestion) I have so far fulfilled my destiny here!
As a rule of thumb, any medium-sized blog (smaller than Daily Kos, the big tech ones, etc.) has about ten regular commenters who make 90% of all comments. It doesn’t do any good to look at your stats and say “We’re being read by tens of thousands of people—we should have more commenters!” Very few readers actually comment. Not only that, it’s often the same commenters across multiple blogs. I could go to any mid-sized blog in the humanities/academic blogosphere and see many of the same people commenting.
Sue, we were talking about evaluative readings before Adam Bede came up, so I tried out an evaluative one. Evaluative readings aren’t really more objective, they’re just more willing to say what’s good and what isn’t, or what works and what didn’t—and since this is inherently a comparative question, there will always be something in a reading that didn’t work, either by comparison to other parts of the same text or to other texts. More theoretically inclined readers scorn the whole idea of evaluative readings, being more interested in readings that, for example, examine how the text can be shoehorned into Lacan’s ideas.
James Branch Cabell wrote in the 1920’s and 30’s, so surely he’s respectable now, isn’t he? How about you doing a reading, Scott? JBC is sort of close to your area, to turn-of-the-century Americana, isn’t he? Let’s see whether Our Editor is actually reading these comments.
Yo, Scott, what about Pudd’nhead Wilson?
The question that was going through my mind during the last two weeks or so of reading Adam Bede was: Why religion? That is, why would someone who was no longer religious put a devout believer at the center of a novel and in a favorable light? Now I think the question is a misleading one that, to some extent, arises out of a presupposition that only a believer could give credence to another believer and that a book by such a believer must necessarily be a religious tract. That presupposition is false, but there’s something like it behind my question.
But there’s something else as well. What? And why?
As I indicated in a comment in one of the earlier discussions, I believe that Hetty’s confession to Dinah is at the moral center of Adam Bede. It is not at all clear to me how we could have that event without Dinah being religious. That is, it is not clear to me how George Eliot could have arranged that confession in those circumstances (in prison, the night before execution) without having a devout Christian as the confessor. On the one hand, she has ample precedent for Christians acting in this way, e.g. her evangelical aunt with Mary Voce; and presumably her audience would have some (perhaps only vague) familiarity with such cases. The action thus has prima facie credibility. On the other hand . . . well, what is the other hand? I think Eliot would have had to work very hard to create an explicitly secular character who wanted to visit a convicted infanticide on the eve of her execution and then to give that secular person convincing language and actions with which to elicit such a confession. No, it seems to me that if Eliot wanted that confession in her novel, she needed a devout Christian to elicit it.
Why would she want that confession in the novel? As far as I can tell, that confession has no causal impact on subsequent events. To be sure, Hetty’s sentence is commuted from death to transportation on the day of execution, after that confession. But the confession cannot have played any role in that decision. Whoever made the decision certainly didn’t know of the confession; the decision was probably made even before Hetty had confessed. And once the commutation was made public, which is also when we, the readers learned of it, Hetty was effectively out of the story.
But then, what’s there to Othello once Othello owns up to his crime as “one who loved not wisely, but too well”? Nothing. He kills himself and the play ends. Hetty is no Othello and Adam Bede is not a tragedy.
The question remains: what’s the point of that confession? If it is a good thing that Dinah was able to bring Hetty out of her guilt-ridden and fearful silence, why? Why should it matter to anyone that this young woman was finally able to come to terms with what she had done, abandoned an infant that she never wanted and whose existence spelled the definitive death of her hopes and dreams? When she gave birth to that child – an event we never see – her life was over.
Another of Shakespeare’s characters said “the quality of mercy is not strained.” Dinah’s action is a merciful one. Why is that important?
At this moment, all I’ve got to say is that the confession scene brought me to the edge of tears, or perhaps over the edge, I forget just what happened. Obviously that’s not in the novel at all, nor is it the kind of thing of which literary analysis and criticism are made, though it is surely an element in people’s experience of literature. I have no idea how many people were similarly moved by that passage, or how many people have responded in that way to other passages in other texts. I would expect that such reactions are common enough, though I don’t really know. [I’ve seen several discussions of “music that’s moved you to tears” here and there on the web. And neuroscientists have looked at brain activation in response to music that induces “chills” in listeners. But that’s music.] In the case of Adam Bede I would go so far as to say that, if you are inclined to tears by literature, that the confession scene is the one most likely to move you in that way. If you are not so inclined, well, you aren’t.
Still, so what? How does that emotional reaction color your reading of subsequent events, if at all?
And that’s where I am, with more questions than answers. Many more.
Rich: I just wanted to thank you, sincerely, in my earliercomment, for altering my perspective on a familiar novel. Perhaps ‘objective’ was the wrong term to use but nonetheless, you have made the comments more interesting for me by showing me a different outlook from what I had been used to encountering with discussions on Victorian literature; that’s what I meant by my being ‘blinkered’.
Bill:I, too, have more questions than answers but I’m quite glad about that! More discussions anyone?
To Rohan, and the regular commenters, thanks for the work and the insights. If the discussion schedule had fit my weird summer travel schedule better, I might have tried to participate a bit, but regardless it was useful to read through the comments.
I might write about the book on my own site some time soon.
I posted this in the wrong place, so let me try again:
Hello, fellow travelers. I’m sorry to say that “real life” and an article deadline pulled me away from Adam Bede for the last few weeks. However I am back to reading it again (I just finished chapter 43 - “Guilty!") and I plan to check out your comments and reactions as I finish the remaining sections.
I just wanted to thank Rohan for organizing this project. This was a wonderful way to read the book. Much better than a book club where one only discusses the entire work at once. You really stayed on top of the weekly postings, which made it an easy experience for us as particpants.
Further thanks to Rohan, Sue, Rich, Bill, Adam and any other regular contributors I forgot for your comments. All of you enriched my reading of the novel with your perspectives. Will there be a Summer Reading Project Two next year? If so, count me in! I think something more nuanced and less moralistic than Adam Bede would be a good follow-up choice. Maybe something 20th century like Henry James or Salman Rushdie?
Oops. I was switching around my suggested authors. I know that most Henry James is late 19th century, but still - nuanced and modern!
I fancy a Henry James, too, Julie - how about Washington Square? It’s quite short ...!
p.s. My favourite HJ is The Golden Bowl but that’s very long ... definitely ‘nuanced’, though!
I was reading along as well, although I fell behind some weeks and so could not keep up with the discussion. It was my first time with Adam Bede and honestly, in comparison with the discussions in the comment section, my insights weren’t of particular worth (I thought).
It did not help that I had to reread two Austens to recover from Eliot’s “dramatic sermon”. The Broadview edition’s introduction asserts that Eliot did not think Austen’s moral investigations went far enough. Well, Eliot went too far for my tastes and if I’m not truly enjoying a book and it is not for homework I am less inclined to work at it. The novel would have been a preachy bore if not for her (occasional) irony, entertaining characters like Hetty’s Aunt, and her prose which did make the book something like those gorgeous 17th C Dutch painting. (There’s a metaphor in the book’s first paragraph where she compares her pen to a paintbrush—one of the most apt lines.)
Thanks to that and notable Hetty scenes from her journey to execution I will go on to read “Mill on The Floss” although “Middlemarch” is hailed as her best. So thanks to you Rohan for holding this reading. I did enjoy the discussion which made me aware of certain facets I would not have gleaned otherwise. And I would not have finished it at all if there had not ben a schedule + discussion to keep things interesting.
I wanted to make a comment on Bill Benzon’s comment. Thank you very much for these thoughts. I am sorry I have not been taking part in this reading. I have read Adam Bede, however, though some time ago. The point I wanted to make is that among psychologists who work on literature, the issue of emotional responses is salient. A good deal of evidence has been collected that emotions during the reading of fiction are frequent and sometimes strong. Most of the studies have been done on short stories and some on poetry. We even know of a short story that we have used in our research group, Russell Banks’s “Sarah Cole” which elicits strong emotional reactions in people, but different reactions: in some people there is mainly anger, in some there is sadness, in others there is disgust.
Keith: Since I encountered The Valve this summer, I have never stopped learning! This short story is astonishing, disturbing, haunting ... like Carver at his best. I’m teaching a short story course this autumn and will definitely include this; thanks.
(Sorry, Rohan, I know this has nothing whatever to do with Adam Bede!)