Tuesday, July 08, 2008
Summer Reading Project: Adam Bede (Chapters 17-21)
Comments are now invited on this week’s installment of Adam Bede. Finally--the famous (infamous?) Chapter 17:
All honour and reverence to the divine beauty of form! Let us cultivate it to the utmost in men, women, and children--in our gardens and in our houses. But let us love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy.... [D]o not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the region of Art those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands, those heavy clowns taking holiday in a dingy pot-house, those rounded backs and stupid weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done the rough work of the world--those homes with their tin pans, their brown pitchers, their rough curs, and their clusters of onions. In this world there are so many of these common, coarse people, who have no picturesque, sentimental wretchedness! It is no needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy, and frame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes. Therefore let Art always remind us of them; therefore let us always have men ready to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things....
Also, Hetty goes to church, Adam goes to work, and Bartle Massey has been “such a fool as to let a woman into his house,” but he makes up for it by swearing and snarling at her.
Now may be a good time to take stock. Are you finding the installments reasonable, too short, too long? Are people happy to continue with the open-ended structure of the discussion? If not, are there specific alternatives people would like, such as focused discussion questions or topics, critical comments or posts to respond to, or something else? If you are reading along but have not posted a comment so far, can you suggest anything that would increase your willingness to go public? As I’ve said before, I don’t believe blogging is at its best as a spectator sport. Come on in--the water’s fine! And people are being good about respecting Rule 3 ("It’s summer; let’s have fun and not be snarky.")
From Chapter XVII of Average Indeed:
“This criticism of Eliot through parody is self-indulgent!” I hear one of my readers exclaim. “How much more edifying it would be if we focussed on how the novel works, on what it does well. You might look at only the most beautiful things.”
Certainly I could, if I held it to be the highest vocation of the critic to represent books as they never have been and never will be. But my strongest effort is to avoid such an arbitrary selection, and give a faithful account of the text as it has mirrored itself in my mind.
Now, it is for this quality of truthfulness that I delight in the start of Chapter XVII of Adam Bede. What could be more refreshing than the author addressing her readers openly and directly? I find a source of delicious sympathy in Eliot’s appeal to the aesthetic of inclusion of ordinary people, who have not even picturesque sentimental wretchedness. One of the best justifications for literary realism, I feel, must be this ideal that it encourages sympathy with fallible people.
Then I come back to Mr. Irwine, who is held up as ordinary clergy rather than extraordinary. But I gathered from Weirdy Ben, to whom I talked of these matters in his middle age, that the refreshing narrative openness of this chapter rather fails when the deck is stacked later on. The effect of Mr. Irwine’s benign Burkean tolerance is held up as good in comparison with a rather hateful clergyman, Mr. Ryde, who served after him.
“Mr. Ryde is rather a caricature,” said Weirdy, settling back comfortably in his chair, his eye twinkling above his humble academic tweeds. “It’s easy for an author to support her points by writing characters that make them for her. Why, of course they will say whatever she wants said. I agree with you completely in that these narrative tricks really are one of the most striking features of this work.” Weirdy smiled happily at his charming wife, Mary Rosh, as she brought us tea.
“But isn’t her conversation with Adam Bede just a way of showing us what she means in her character’s voice, Weirdy? After all, the reader knows that Adam Bede doesn’t really exist, than he’s really Eliot’s character. It’s just a way of presenting how Eliot thinks a Mr. Ryde would be perceived by people like Adam.”
“Eh, I don’t know. Mr. Irvine is presented as an ordinary, fallible clergyman, which excuses his failure in zeal to Eliot’s Victorian readers. But even a realist need not always choose average characters! Later on, Eliot writes of Adam ‘He was not an average man.’ And indeed he isn’t, being as sympathetic as Eliot can reasonably make him. And if he’s ‘a warm admirer, perhaps a partial judge’ of Mr. Irwine, then insofar as Eliot is a good writer who can influence our sympathies, why so must we be too.”
“But what harm does that do, Weirdy?” I asked the jolly academic figure, now sipping his tea and peering over his spectacles. “It only develops Eliot’s argument, after all.”
“Aye, it develops it as through clockwork. The plain fact is that Adam is not average, and Mr. Irwine is average, in order that they may each gain our sympathies in their own ways. A realist hides his or her choice of character behind this idea of what’s average, when really they’re chosen to make a good story, or to make the author’s points, just as much as the most unreal fantasist.” Weirdy gestured up towards his shrine-like picture of PKD, and I had to laugh at his eccentric though harmless partiality.
But really, I had to agree with Weirdy in every important respect. And though he had his crotchets—which didn’t detract from his authoritative status as a full professor—I felt that Weirdy agreed with me too.
very entertaining parody, but I am struggling to understand the point underlying it. Are you saying that Eliot’s writing has no more claim to “realism” than “the most unreal fantasist”? I get the sense that you have some axe to grind against the idea of realism in literature, or its superior status with regard to fantasy, but maybe I am taking the import of your sarcasm too far.
My own opinions on these chapters in a later post!
Zachary, I’m not trying to be all that subtle. I liked the direct authorial intervention at the beginning of Chapter 17. It’s not what other people have called the “intrusiveness” of the narrator that bothers me, not at all. I found what Eliot had to say to be interesting, sympathetic, and well-put. But the whole thing, for me, takes a turn into comedy when Eliot starts a conversation between herself and Adam Bede, and he duly agrees with everything she says.
My point is that the author, of course, controls everything about the book. In Chapter 17, Eliot makes a claim about Mr. Irwine, that it’s justified for her to depict him as fallible because he’s average, and depicting paragons wouldn’t be true to life. But just a chapter or so later, she says, by way of cautioning the reader, that Adam Bede isn’t average. The fact is that there is no realist rule that only average people can be chosen—there is no one to define what average is other than the author in any case. It seems clear to me that the characters are chosen not because they are average or not average, but to make the story work, and to support the points that Eliot wants to make. Therefore I find the whole average-or-not-average authorial discussion to be so much chaff thrown into the air behind the author.
I know that I said that I wouldn’t write about these matters as much, but the concept of Eliot sock puppeting away with her character was just too charming and outre to pass up. She’s an interesting narrator, to me, precisely because she tries these transparent manipulations of the reader.
OMG, Rich, so cool!
I find myself somewhat at sea in Eliot’s discussion of realism. The term itself invites comparison of the fiction to reality, and I fear that’s pretty much a mug’s game these days. But that’s not all that Eliot’s doing. In the essay Rohan quoted at the beginning of these readings, Eliot’s contrasting what she thinks should be written with other things that have, in fact, been written. That’s a bit different. But I’m not familiar with those other novels. I can imagine what they might be like, given her description of them, but I don’t really know. The problem with those novels seems to be one of a “prettifying” idealization.
In Ch 17 she starts off with a hypothetical objection to Mr. Irwine phoned in by a hypothetical reader. She then goes on, again, in opposition to idealization. Things get interesting when she brings in a comparison from the visual arts, a fondness for the realism of Dutch genre paintings. She opposes them to what seem to be allegorical and mythological paintings complete with “cloud-borne angels,...prophets, sibyls, and heroic warriors.” Being more realistic than that does not, it seems to me, set the bar too high.
From there she goes on about human sympathy and then works her way back to Mr. Irwine about half-way through the chapter. At this point she enters into her discussion with Adam. That discussion is not about realism in fiction. It’s about doctrine vs. feelings in religious practice. A rather different subject, especially when you consider that GE had given up religious belief, though one that’s been addressed before in the novel.
That discussion compares Irwine with his replacement, Mr. Ryde. Ryde wasn’t nearly so well-liked as Irwine. Is Ryde being offered as an example of that ideal minister with uplifting advice invoked at the chapter’s beginning? That doesn’t seem right to me. Is he supposed to be the best reality has to offer along those lines? Perhaps. Or perhaps that ideal creature been completely forgotten at this point. It’s not clear. But GE certain seems to be staging that comparison as one between two exemplars of equal reality value.
How either of them holds up against real reality, that’s another matter. But the Irwin-Ryde discussion is not about that. Which may be why GE put much of the comparison into Adam’s mouth.
Once Adam has had his say GE returns to her narrator’s voice and, once again, sets her preferred practice over against idealization. She ends with the inn-keeper, Mr. Gedge, who, she asserts, has the same dim view of his neighbors regardless of who those neighbors are. This man’s view of the world would seem to be in his mind, and has little to do with the world. That’s idealism, not of the prettifying sort, but of the philosophical sort, that mind makes reality.
A strange note on which to end what began as a brief for realism.
‘But Adam’s thoughts of Hetty did not deafen him to the service; they rather blended with all the other deep feelings for which the church service was a channel to him this afternoon, as a certain consciousness of our entire past and our imagined future blends itself with all our moments of keen sensibility.’(Chapter XVIII)
The church scene has, before this, engaged the reader in a picture of rustic church-going in 1799 with its attendant class-ridden behaviour but in this short passage, I feel she realises a ‘truth’ rather than what can only ever be a poor approximation of reality, as Eliot realises, of course.
Yet, the above seems to me an interesting crystallisation of what I must call ‘the art of the novel’: Eliot has been writing about religion, emotion and the manipulation of time and here she ‘blends’ all three as Adam ‘blended’ his ‘deep feelings’ on Hetty via the ‘channel’ of the ‘church service’; it is as if one love encompasses, nurtures and feeds another.
Eliot then moves on from particularisation to generic, via the connective of ‘a certain consciousness’; the elusive quality of ‘certain’ – being used with conviction in an oddly ‘uncertain’ way - renders the instability of time and emotion a composite wherein the playing of ‘entire past’ against ‘imagined future’ is allied to ‘keen sensibility’: in memory and the novel all is one, as in a dream or, occasionally, nightmare.
Like the paintings she has described in Chapter XVII, as bearing ‘faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence’, here the author moves me, as so often, by her ‘simple story’ underpinned by a continuous ‘consciousness’ of what ‘might’ be present and what actually ‘is’.
Here’s some other bits I wanted to comment on for these chapters. Call it the happy funtime roundup.
1. Hetty is like cute kittens and ducklings, or like the dog that Mr. Irwine says would be too expensive to buy. Who can guess what the next animal is?
She walking alonf with Mr Craig, and: “Mr. Craig was never aware that his conversation and advances were received coldly, for to shift one’s point of view beyond certain limits is impossible to the most liberal and expansive mind; we are none of us aware of the impression we produce on Brazilian monkeys of feeble understanding—it is possible they see hardly anything in us.”
Very funny, though.
2. Adam decides at church that he never said enough kind words to his dad while he was alive. So next day he decides to tell Lisbeth that “But a man has other feelings than what he owes to’s father and mother; and thee oughtna to want to rule over me body and soul. And thee must make up thy mind, as I’ll not give way to thee where I’ve a right to do what I like.”
George Eliot really must have hated someone like Lisbeth. Or her mother, or something. Adam’s a bit old to be teenage-defiantly yelling “you’re not the boss of me” just after his dad’s funeral.
3. Molly gets docked a month’s wage for breaking a jug. What fun it must be to be Mrs. Poyser’s servant!
4. I’ll leave out Bartle Massey’s misogyny, but:
“Satchell’s got a paralytic stroke.”
“Well, I daresay there’d be more rejoicing than sorrow in the parish at his being laid up.”
Chapter 17 is strange indeed. Rather than commenting at my elbow, Eliot is now turning me by the shoulder, staring me in the face, and giving me a lecture! The part where the narrator starts to recount a conversation with Adam Bede that took place in his old age is just weird.
When I read it, I was so surprised by the way the chapter broke the flow of the novel that I wondered what provoked it. And according to the footnote in my very affordable Wordsworth Classics edition, Eliot “had recently received the comments sent by her publisher John Blackwood… after reading the first thirteen chapters of A. B. Though he admired the work, he expressed some reservations about… the unspiritual character of Irwine as an Anglican clergyman” (among other reservations). It made sense to me that this defensive diatribe could have been made in response to such specific criticism of her portrayal of the character.
That discussion compares Irwine with his replacement, Mr. Ryde. Ryde wasn’t nearly so well-liked as Irwine. Is Ryde being offered as an example of that ideal minister with uplifting advice invoked at the chapter’s beginning?
I think as contemporary readers who are interested in Eliot’s perspective as a writer, we may be inclined to view the chapter as a defense of realism that somewhere goes off track. But perhaps if we view the whole chapter as a defense of the character of Mr. Irwine, it hangs together better. First, Eliot defends him on the grounds that she believes in realism, and that by presenting this “non zealous” clergyman she is representing the world more accurately than if she had created an improbably spiritual clergyman. Mr. Irwine is one of those middle people she is interested in representing - neither a noble hero nor a romantic criminal.
Then she begins to defend the character on the grounds that a lackadaisical clergyman might be better for the community than a supremely spiritual clergyman anyway. So I don’t think she’s presenting him as an example of an ideal minister, but poking holes in the very idea of an ideal minister.
Finally she says that those who “pant after the ideal” (like her publisher Blackwood, perhaps) are cut from the same cloth as the Mr. Gedges of the world, who can’t appreciate those around them but keep searching for a better lot in the next parish.
It was the tone of ch.17 that struck me most, reading it this time round: a not altogether pleasant tone of almost-smugness, going to such lengths to make a signal literary virtue out of not dismissing ordinary people and ordinary life as entirely outwith the bounds of art. The problem is one of, and? Of course we don’t believe ordinary people have no place in fiction; we’re sixteen chapters into a book almost wholly given over to their doings. Like we’d have reached this far if we didn’t already agree wholehearted with Eliot on that point: she’s preaching to the choir. Like the undergraduate essays on Morrison’s Beloved of which I have marked too many in my time, and which consist of elaborations of the point ‘slavery is bad’, it makes me want to say; but who ever argues otherwise? And to add: do you really think this complex novel is reducible to so one-dimensional a position?
I like Julie G.’s suggestion that the chapter is not a defense of realism in art as such, but a defense of the specific character of Mr Irwin. But I wonder if that doesn’t entail some problems. Here:
my good friend, what will you do then with your fellow-parishioner who opposes your husband in the vestry? - with your newly appointed vicar, whose style of preaching you find painfully below that of his regretted predecessor? - with the honest servant, who worries your soul with her one failing, - with your neighbour, Mrs Green, who was really kind to you in your last illness, but has said several ill-natured things about you since your convalescence ? - nay, with your excellent husband himself, who has other irritating habits besides that of not wiping his shoes? These fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are: you can neither straighten their noses, nor brighten their wit, nor rectify their dispositions; and it is these people - amongst whom your life is passed - that it is needful you should tolerate, pity, and loye: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people, whose movements of goodness you should be able to admire - for whom you should cherish all possible hopes, all possible patience.
As a defense of artistic ‘realism’ this is vanilla; but if we read it in a spiritual context, doesn’t it come close to saying, in effect: ‘people do bad things, but there’s nothing we can do about it’? Refract it back upon the case of Hetty: all the stuff about love flowing like a river regardless ... read ‘sexual desire’ for ‘love’ and the passage is in effect saying: ‘preachers may preach about the need to Do The Right Thing, but they might as well save their breath, because that’s not how people are’.
Which is to say, anti-idealism is one thing in aesthetics, but comes close to washing one’s hands like Pilate, morally speaking. And isn’t this novel, amongst other things, an exploration of moral questions? Surely Adam Bede is about not only human nature, but also, in Katharine Hepburn’s words from The African Queen the sense of human nature as what we were put on this earth to rise above.
... ‘preachers may preach about the need to Do The Right Thing, but they might as well save their breath, because that’s not how people are’.
Given the context of the immediately preceding chapter, that is what she seems to be saying. Irwin could have exhorted and inspired Arthur till the cows came home and it wouldn’t have much to do with his behavior. And her careful distinction between doctrine in religion and, well, decent human sympathy, would seem to amount to tossing over the religion part and sticking with the man’s basic character, which she need not credit to his religious vocation.
Doesn’t seem like we’re in for a novel in which morality springs from religion. But where does it spring from?
"I like Julie G.’s suggestion that the chapter is not a defense of realism in art as such, but a defense of the specific character of Mr Irwin.”
One seamlessly blends into the other, or rather, it starts as a defense of Mr. Irwine, proceeds into a generalized defense of realism, and then goes back (through the discussion with Adam) to a defense of Mr. Irwine again.
I do think that most of the tension is around the word “average”, which I’ve already written about above—Eliot is not really rejecting ideological writing per se. She’s not saying that “I shouldn’t write Mr. Irwine as a paragon of what we think would be good because art should stay away from politics.” She’s saying that average people have to be depicted for various reasons—truthfulness, to encourage sympathy, and so on. But that only brings up the question of what average is, and calls into the question the writer’s own use of admittedly non-average characters by her own description. If Adam is not average, why not then Mr. Irwine? Is Mr. Irwine himself really average, in terms of his rather unnatural affability? The whole thing tends to collapse, in my opinion.
I asked Weirdy Ben, and he agrees with me.
"Eliot“‘s conversation with Adam informs the reader that whatever tragedy is about to unfold, Adam Bede is alive and in sound mind long after. It also shifts the place occupied by the narrator - now “Eliot”, whatever omniscient signals you may have picked up from earlier chapters, is just passing on the story that actually happened. This is like Scott, so often insisting that the story was told to him, or in a manuscript, and he has just filled it out with additional research.
Yes, that tradition has survived, from Scott (or whatever earlier source) into a good deal of middle-era fantasy—the idea that the writer has found a manuscript by someone else. Moorcock is the only contemporary fantasist that I know of who still writes that way at times, mostly when he’s trying for a Victorian or Edwardian feel. (Oh, and the “Princess Bride” guy. Who uses it for a sort of tedious narrative-about-the-narrative that I could have done without.) I’ve never really understood the reason for it, and to me it feels like a crutch that people kicked away when they were confident enough to go without it—a sort of vestigial inability to admit that this was fiction and that they were making it up.
But this really does seem different than shifting the place of the narrator, and signaling the survival of the main character. It’s not really a conversation that Eliot has with Adam; he’s offered as evidence in an argument that she’s having with her imaginary (or, if Julie Grob is right, all too real) objector to her depiction of Mr. Irwine. Her argumentative sally goes like this: you think Mr. Irwine is bad? Then I’ll make up this Mr. Ryde person, who served after him, and let this sympathetic character who I’ve already built up as a real person in your mind tell you why Mr. Ryde was actually worse.
That’s what makes Adam a sock puppet, rather than merely a narrative character who survives the tale in Call me Ishmael style. He’s brought on stage not to narrate, but to score points.
I think part of (perhaps much of) what is at stake in the Irwine/Ryde face-off, which I admit seems pretty clearly set up to serve authorial purposes, is Eliot’s interest in separating putatively religious impulses from the men and institutions and doctrines claiming divine authority over them. In a strongly evangelical culture (and coming from an evangelical background herself), how do you ease people into some recognition that the values and behaviours they cherish and admire in the name of Christianity do not in fact require Christian trappings? Her worldly, imperfect, genial clergymen (and she does this whole thing again, but better, with Tyke and Farebrother, in Middlemarch) are such good fellows, and do great human good and foster fellow-feeling despite their lack of doctrinal severity, and her preachy types show that strict adherence to the letter of Christian law may work against generosity and sympathy. The oddity here (well, I suppose it’s one among several oddities) is that Mr Irwine is actually not quite good enough, as he fails to elicit the crucial confession from Arthur. By extension we might note that much of the good Dinah has done so far is not attributable to her Methodism, except insofar as that makes her bold about interfering--but to her capacity for sympathetic feeling.
There’s a weird moment late in Vanity Fair in which our narrator, who has never said anything before about knowing the actual characters, starts talking about a dinner party he was at with some of them. There, as here, it is so obvious that this is fiction, it’s hard to see it as a crutch, exactly, since nobody could ever be expected to be fooled by it.
I was thinking about Adam’s remark that the tone of Chapter 17 rubbed him the wrong way this time. When I don’t like GE’s narrator, it’s usually because it’s frustrating keeping company with someone who so often assumes the worst of me ("Pray think no ill of Miss Noble!” she says in Middlemarch--but I wasn’t about to!). In contrast, reading Jane Austen we have the flattering experience of being kind of in her pocket all the time, feeling superior as we like her favourites the best and see the folly and pretensions of the others. We never overlook Anne Elliot’s virtues! We would never marry Mr. Collins! The thing is, though, we all do have our worst selves as well as our best; our sympathies maybe do falter when we are dealing with “heavy clowns” or, as Prop Joe says in The Wire, “burdensome ******s"--so is at least a little of our resistance laced with guilt or shame? I dunno, maybe it’s just me and I’m a petty, shallow person.
I haven’t had any replies so far to my questions about format or pacing…
"I haven’t had any replies so far to my questions about format or pacing…”
Having read the next set of chapters ahead of time, I can say (spoiler!):
...that nothing happens in them. I have no idea what we’re going to write about them that would be interesting. It’s too bad we can’t just advance everything by a week, so we can write about the next set of chapters after that as well. But actually I don’t think we can really make any changes to the pacing at this stage; it would be too hard to coordinate with everyone.
...is Eliot’s interest in separating putatively religious impulses from the men and institutions and doctrines claiming divine authority over them.
I’ll buy that.
FWIW, at this point, I’m a bit behind. I’ve not yet finished this week’s readings. But I wouldn’t want to change the schedule on that account. Perhaps I’ll catch-up over the weekend.
I have no idea what we’re going to write about them that would be interesting.
Does that mean you find them faultless, or only that there are no new kinds of faults in them?
"The thing is, though, we all do have our worst selves as well as our best; our sympathies maybe do falter when we are dealing with “heavy clowns” or, as Prop Joe says in The Wire, “burdensome ******s"--so is at least a little of our resistance laced with guilt or shame?”
I don’t have that reaction, myself. Yes, Eliot tells us not to think ill of people, but she also very definitely tells us to think ill of people. Hetty, for instance, and her menagerie of authorial metaphors (kitten / duckling / dog / Brazilian monkey / little bird / butterfly). I’m always finding myself thinking better of Hetty than Eliot would have me think of her. Or Lisbeth, who Eliot clearly thinks is really, really annoying, but who I find rather sympathetic. I think that Eliot simply is rather a dom, as an author, at least in this book. She likes to tell you “feel this. Now feel that.”
I think it sounds quite right that beyond Mr. Irwine himself, there is “Eliot’s interest in separating putatively religious impulses from the men and institutions and doctrines claiming divine authority over them.” But it doesn’t really change the structure of the scene. Adam is still brought on to further Eliot’s argument.
’Moorcock is the only contemporary fantasist that I know of who still writes that way at times, mostly when he’s trying for a Victorian or Edwardian feel. (Oh, and the “Princess Bride” guy. Who uses it for a sort of tedious narrative-about-the-narrative that I could have done without.) I’ve never really understood the reason for it, and to me it feels like a crutch that people kicked away when they were confident enough to go without it—a sort of vestigial inability to admit that this was fiction and that they were making it up.’
Yann Martel uses the technique in his prize-winning novel ‘Life of Pi’ (2001).
’I have no idea what we’re going to write about them that would be interesting.’
There will be much to say when we get there, I imagine, the pace seems right to me.
However, it is a pity Bartle Massey hasn’t been discussed more fully in these comments; he has been rather overlooked, I feel - any thoughts?
Playing around with “authentic” documents or the role of the narrator is very common in modern and postmodern literature. Look at what happens to the omniscient narrator in Pnin, for example.
We’re allowed to give Eliot credit for technical and structural sophistication, right? Perhaps Adam Bede’s apperance in Chapter 17 has more than one purpose? If Adam ends up face down in the pond, just like his father, driven to drink by cruel Hetty, or is transported to Botany Bay, I’ll admit that the Chapter 17 appearance of the long-dead Adam Bede was pretty clumsy.
But it looks to me like one thing Eliot slyly does is reveal a significant piece of information about where the story is going.
I haven’t had any replies so far to my questions about format or pacing…
I think the pacing is fine. At first I was reading ahead, but I realized that made it hard to remember whether something was a spoiler or not on discussion day. (You guys all know Hetty is murdered in chapter 22, right? ;-) ) And since
the readings are shortish we don’t have to worry about falling behind if we go on a summer trip or something.
I like the open-ended format, too. Everyone has been doing a good job of bringing up interesting points for discussion and exploring them together. This is a really nice way to read… even if I don’t respond to or agree with someone’s comments, they are in the back of my mind as I continue reading.
Having read the next set of chapters ahead of time, I can say (spoiler!):
...that nothing happens in them.
I suppose it depends by what we mean by “happens.” I see a big party happening, and Adam invited to sit at the high table, no less! What may be interesting for us will be seeing how all the action (internal and external, personal and social) that we’ve seen so far provides a context for what might otherwise be a kind of pastoral idyll. All that tradition looks so stable on the surface, but underneath…
Of course, my idea of a “happening” has been affected by having read lots of Trollope recently. He is very good at (wonderful) novels in which not much happens but every nuance is cherished. Here’s the plot of The Last Chronicle of Barset, for instance (approx. 800 pages): a clergyman may--or may not--have misused a cheque. Really, that’s about it. Or He Knew He Was Right (900+ pages): a husband thinks his wife has behaved improperly. Maybe she has, maybe she hasn’t! Adam Bede looks positively rushed by comparison, which is not to say that there isn’t plenty of action and interest in these Trollope examples.
’ … nothing happens in them’
The idea of what we perceive to be ‘happening’, or more precisely ‘not’, as individual and collective readers, seems to me a very interesting point. An author may present a variety of ideas, descriptions etc. yet this may not be seen as containing something that ‘happens’ i.e. as an ‘event’, thus it is dismissed. I think
Rohan’s point about Trollope is particularly pertinent, where even in the political Palliser series hundreds of pages are expended to produce, perhaps, one ‘event’. Summing up the plot of ‘great novels’ is useful because it gives an insight into what the novel is for, what it is actually doing, what the author intended etc.
This leads me to consider whether, especially as the novel has developed, plot in the specific sense of events, is really primary. For example, few would argue, would they, that Shakespeare’s plays are meaningful or important principally because of ‘what happens’. Rather, it is the language, structure and characterisation which continue to reach out to us across the centuries.
This attention to the importance of ‘events’ has been questioned since the novels inception, with Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’ being remarkably post-modernist, for example, in producing a novel which challenges the then fairly new genre by creating a work which is narratively anarchic in every sense. I would venture to suggest that the advance of the novel was towards the subjugation of ‘plot’ and in this, Eliot is an important voice. Joyce is taken by many to have been strongly influenced by Sterne’s eighteenth century work in his seminal twentieth century ‘Ulysses’, for instance.
Perhaps this is one reason why some readers have struggled with ‘Adam Bede’. As perhaps, the greatest exponent of the nineteenth century novel in full flower, Eliot’s perilously close to ‘penny-dreadful’ plot in the book has been lifted to a pre-eminence which she didn’t intend but which allowed her to voice what was of interest to her - and not just via the active narrative voice or varying degrees of verisimilitude - but as a way of discussing history as it was in the memories, still, of many of her readers.
One example of this is the feudal society which is represented so skilfully in what doesn’t ‘happen’ in the chapters we are about to discuss.
I’ve just finished chapters 20 & 21 and have spotted things I’d think long and hard about if I were going to work on the novel. At the moment all I can do is point these things out without having much to say about why they are important.
In chapter 20, what’s up with having Molly spill the beer and thus, as Rich pointed out, losing a month’s wages for having broken yet more crockery? This is followed hard by an incident where Mr. Poyser herself breaks some crockery. She’s spooked by the appearance of Hetty dressed Methodist style and drops her jug. What’s that about? Why make such a deal of it with all the broken crockery?
There’s been a lot written in the past decade or two about narrative as a mode of thought. Well, that’s what GE is doing here, she’s thinking (and, obviously, leading us to think as well). But I don’t know what the point is.
Anyhow, this mode of thought continues into the Bartle Massey chapter. Adam shows up at evening class, where we are patiently shown grown men struggling with their letters. They’re competent at their trades, but writing defies them. Why the detailed demonstratation? To contrast them with Adam, a tradesman, but also a skilled reader? Is that why? But why do that, we already know that Adam is a paragon among men; why belabor the point?
This is set in counterpoint to Vixen and her two new-born pups, which kept Massey from church the previous day. Massy, however, refers to and seems to think of his dog as a woman. It’s as though we’ve got maternity without humanity and this is set over against whatever Adam and Hetty were (divergently) thinking in the previous chapter. Whatever they were thinking, it wasn’t about babies.
"In chapter 20, what’s up with having Molly spill the beer and thus, as Rich pointed out, losing a month’s wages for having broken yet more crockery? This is followed hard by an incident where Mr. Poyser herself breaks some crockery. She’s spooked by the appearance of Hetty dressed Methodist style and drops her jug. What’s that about? Why make such a deal of it with all the broken crockery?”
Presumably the jug that Molly breaks has the same value as a month of her wages, so Mrs. Poyser is within her rights (given whatever implicit rules governed the time) to recompense herself for the jug by docking Molly for breaking it. Of course, Molly broke it because she was nervous about Mrs. Poyser suddenly yelling at her for carrying too many things at once, so Mrs. Poyser is rather a jerk by our standards. Molly, of course, has no bargaining position; Mrs. Poyser keeps saying that she took Molly without a real reference, so if Mrs. Poyser sent her off with a bad one, Molly can probably look forward to even worse poverty.
Hetty dresses up Methodist style in reaction to some remark of Adam’s—the whole thing seems a bit contrived—and spooks Mrs. Poyser ostensibly because she looks like Dinah. However, the reference to “a ghost in the house” makes me think, together with some other poorly remembered reference, that what Mrs. Poyser is really thinking of is her dead sister, who Dinah has reminder her of before—Dinah’s mother, presumably, although I keep getting confused about that because both Dinah and Hetty are orphaned nieces. That leads to familial laughter when Mrs. Poyser blames Fate or a curse for her jug-breaking, although she’d blamed clumsiness for Molly’s just before.
On a deeper level, Dinah is frequently associated with the uncanny. When Hetty dresses up as Dinah, she becomes uncanny due to incongruity. It’s as if Eliot is saying that it just isn’t natural for physical beauty to be accompanied by spiritual beauty; you can have one or the other, but the two together would make a ghost—both a monster and something unreal.
I haven’t been addressing the Trollope comments because it’s only going to cause more complaints about why can’t I be positive if I write that Eliot (at least, first-novel Eliot) isn’t Trollope. This novel has a fairly standard plot; it’s a bit too late at this point to make it be about a plotless, intensive dwelling on every nuance. I’m not writing that Trollope is bad; I’m writing that given what the author appears to be doing with this novel, the next set of chapters is padding—it’s hinted that a crisis is going to occur, but none actually does. Similarly, these characters have some interiority, but no character development really takes place.
Likewise, further up with Amateur Reader’s “Playing around with “authentic” documents or the role of the narrator is very common in modern and postmodern literature.” I’m not criticizing Borges at all, but Eliot is not Borges. This gets back all the way to the first Adam Bede comment thread here; you can either trust an author to the point where any apparent infelicities are explained as irony or as bits that we just aren’t subtle enough to pick out, or you can do your best to see what the author is trying to do, which implies that they may not always do it well.
Hetty dresses up Methodist style in reaction to some remark of Adam’s—the whole thing seems a bit contrived. . .
Yes, and I generally take such contrivance as a clue that something significant is going on. That is, it’s more important to have a contrived incident that accomplishes something that’s important, than to drop that important thing from the story all together.
The statue scene at the end of The Winter’s Tale is a good example. It’s as though Shakespeare just gave up and decided to crank up the old deus ex machina as the only way to bring his play to a close. He needed to give life to a woman presumed dead for 16 years and that was the best device he could imagine. Without her, though, the play wouldn’t have worked.
Rich, I wasn’t trying to say that Eliot is doing what Trollope does--just that by some standards, AB has quite a lot of action, and the birthday feast stuff seems more eventful to me than it did to you. Also, I’m fine with saying, not just implying, that the author may not be doing everything well. I think that’s pretty certainly the case in AB (I’ve made a few remarks along the way about how I think she tries certain kinds of things again in later novels, especially Middlemarch, and does them better--which is no great surprise). On the other hand, I also like to work away at “apparent infelicities” for a while before I conclude they are just that. After all, there might be some way in which they are interesting that I haven’t seen yet, and that way too I feel I’m doing my best by the author, plus it’s more fun.
Sure, no problem. But I’m having more fun writing parody fanfic, which requires a quick reaction.
I see Ruth Yeazell has a new book out from Princeton, Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel. I bet it has some good discussion of Adam Bede, including Chapter 17; I’ll see if our library has it yet.
Here’s a chapter from the book, which mentions AB and Ch 17: