Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Summer Reading Project: Adam Bede (Chapters 22-26)
This week’s installment of Adam Bede brings us to the birthday feast for Arthur Donnithorne, the ‘young squire,’ complete with speeches, drinking, and, of course, dancing:
Pity it was not a boarded floor! Then the rhythmic stamping of the thick shoes would have been better than any drums. That merry stamping, that gracious nodding of the head, that waving bestowal of the hand--where can we see them now? That simple dancing of well covered matrons, laying aside for an hour the cares of house and dairy, remembering but not affecting youth, not jealous but proud of the young maidens by their side--that holiday sprightliness of portly husbands paying little compliments to their wives, as if their courting days were come again--those lads and lasses a little confused and awkward with their partners, having nothing to say--it would be a pleasant variety to see all that sometimes, instead of low dresses and large skirts, and scanning glances exploring costumes, and languid men in lackered boots smiling with double meaning.
Wiry Ben’s hornpipe deserves notice as well:
Have you ever seen a real English rustic perform a solo dance? Perhaps you have only seen a ballet rustic, smiling like a merry countryman in crockery, with graceful turns of the haunch and insinuating movements of the head. That is as much like the real thing as the ‘Bird Waltz’ is like the song of birds. Wiry Ben never smiled: he looked as serious as a dancing monkey--as serious as if he had been an experimental philosopher ascertaining in his own person the amount of shaking and the varieties of angularity that could be given to the human limbs.
I wonder: can we take the varied reactions to Wiry Ben’s performance as indicative of some of the larger historical currents running through the feast more generally and through the novel as a whole? Most of his audience responds with “abundant laughter”; Mrs Poyser remarks that “the gentry” are “fit to die wi’ laughing,” while Arthur attempts to compensate by clapping and cheering. Only Martin Poyser sincerely appreciates his dancing: “I used to be a pretty good un at dancing myself when I was lighter, but I could niver ha’ hit it just to th’hair like that.” The whole birthday sequence seems to me to hum with tension between nostalgia and a Scott-like sense of the inevitability of historical change, between continuity and transformation, between sentiment and irony. At the center of it, of course, is Arthur himself: his consciousness of wrongdoing (and our knowledge of it) is rot at the heart of the community. Even without noticing that the first chapter in next week’s installment is called “A Crisis,” we can’t simply enjoy the party because we know too much.
As far as I can tell, there are about 7 stalwart souls who are both reading and commenting. If there are more of you out there reading along, please feel free to add your thoughts, questions, insights, curiosities, objections, perplexities, or anything else to the discussion. The more the merrier!
Steve Pinker put me on to the work of Alan Fiske, who’s done some interesting work on human social relations. He argues that we’ve got four different models for social relationships. Since these models imply very different ways of interacting, it’s important that people agree on the model appropriate for their relationship or for a particular interaction within the relationship, for we can use different models in different contexts. It would be an interesting exercise to see how these different models play out in AB and, in particular, to see if this or that relationship comes to grief because the parties are operating from different models.
It would also be an interesting exercise to read this birthday celebration as an attempt to bring the models into some kind of harmony. One model is Authority Ranking, good old hierarchy. That would seem to be the governing model for the affair, what with the high table and the low table and, above all, the fact that this shindig is in honor of the young master.
When Adam is invited to the high table that is, of course, an honor. But it causes him some unease on a number of scores, in particular, with respect to his brother and mother. That puts him above them, and that bothers him. That is to say, it violates a social norm that’s important to him. I suspect it’s Equality Matching in Fiske’s terms. Seth’s reaction is most interesting: “Nay, nay, lad, thy honour’s our honour ...” That’s Communal Sharing; what honors one member of the family, honors the whole family.
So, we’ve got three of the four models in that one little bit of social business. Here’s a few paragraphs from one of Fiske’s accounts of the theory:
What is adaptive (in every sense of the word) is coordinating interaction with the people around you. Patterns of interaction differ greatly across cultures, so people need to be able to fit their sociality to their particular community, meshing their motives and actions with the culture. But the diversity of culturally organized, complex social relationships presents a seemingly impossible learning problem: how can a child, an immigrant, or a visitor possibly discover the principles that underlie relationships in a strange culture (such as the one into which you are born)? The coordination of interaction is all the more challenging because of the variety of domains that must be coordinated: work, exchange, distribution and consumption, moral judgments, sanctions and forms of redressing wrongs, aggression, sexuality, social identity, the meaning of objects, places, and time. If people use different models to coordinate each domain, how can they deal with the resulting cognitive complexity of social life, let alone integrate several domains to form a personal relationship or an institution?
The answer, surprisingly, is that people use just four fundamental models for organizing most aspects of sociality most of the time in all cultures (Fiske 1991a, 1992). These models are Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, and Market Pricing. Communal Sharing (CS) is a relationship in which people treat some dyad or group as equivalent and undifferentiated with respect to the social domain in question. Examples are people using a commons (CS with respect to utilization of the particular resource), people intensely in love (CS with respect to their social selves), people who “ask not for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for thee” (CS with respect to shared suffering and common well-being), or people who kill any member of an enemy group indiscriminately in retaliation for an attack (CS with respect to collective responsibility). In Authority Ranking (AR) people have asymmetric positions in a linear hierarchy in which subordinates defer, respect, and (perhaps) obey, while superiors take precedence and take pastoral responsibility for subordinates. Examples are military hierarchies (AR in decisions, control, and many other matters), ancestor worship (AR in offerings of filial piety and expectations of protection and enforcement of norms), monotheistic religious moralities (AR for the definition of right and wrong by commandments or will of God), social status systems such as class or ethnic rankings (AR with respect to social value of identities), and rankings such as sports team standings (AR with respect to prestige). AR relationships are based on perceptions of legitimate asymmetries, not coercive power; they are not inherently exploitative (although they may involve power or cause harm).
In Equality Matching relationships people keep track of the balance or difference among participants and know what would be required to restore balance. Common manifestations are turn-taking, one-person one-vote elections, equal share distributions, and vengeance based on an-eye-for-an-eye, a-tooth-for-a-tooth. Examples include sports and games (EM with respect to the rules, procedures, equipment and terrain), baby-sitting coops (EM with respect to the exchange of child care), and restitution in-kind (EM with respect to righting a wrong). Market Pricing relationships are oriented to socially meaningful ratios or rates such as prices, wages, interest, rents, tithes, or cost-benefit analyses. Money need not be the medium, and MP relationships need not be selfish, competitive, maximizing, or materialistic—any of the four models may exhibit any of these features. MP relationships are not necessarily individualistic; a family may be the CS or AR unit running a business that operates in an MP mode with respect to other enterprises. Examples are property that can be bought, sold, or treated as investment capital (land or objects as MP), marriages organized contractually or implicitly in terms of costs and benefits to the partners, prostitution (sex as MP), bureaucratic cost-effectiveness standards (resource allocation as MP), utilitarian judgments about the greatest good for the greatest number, or standards of equity in judging entitlements in proportion to contributions (two forms of morality as MP), considerations of “spending time” efficiently, and estimates of expected kill ratios (aggression as MP).
People often use different models for different aspects of their interaction with the same person. For example, roommates may divide the rent evenly and take turns cooking dinner for each other (both EM), buy ingredients for the meal at the store (MP), share their food and drink at the table without regard to who consumes what and share living and bath rooms (CS), pay for long-distance calls according to the costs they each incur (MP), and one may sell her used car to the other. On the softball field one is a coach, the other player (AR); yet in their sexual relations they like to reverse these roles of domination and submission.
People commonly use different models simultaneously for different aspects of the same interaction, or nest one model inside another. For example, in a corporation the AR supervisory relationships involve setting salaries and of course are evaluated as a means to MP profits. Suppose raiders from group A kill a person from group B. Members of group B, responding collectively to this attack in a CS manner as an injury to all of them together, may consider it appropriate to avenge themselves in an EM tit-for-tat idiom, aiming to restore the balance between groups by killing any member of group A, indiscriminately, treating all out-group members as CS equivalent for their purpose.
“On the softball field one is a coach, the other player; yet in their sexual relations they like to reverse these roles of domination and submission"
I hope that’s not a spoiler for chapter 27 ...
Bill, that’s an extremely interesting lens to view this chapter through.
I took Yeazell’s book out from the library yesterday and read through the chapter devoted explicitly to “George Eliot’s Defense of Dutch Painting” as well as some of the introductory material (such as the chapter Bill linked to). It’s all very interesting; though I had come across a few other references to Dutch painting in my own cruising through 19thC periodical writing, I hadn’t understood what a broad debate such allusions would have called up for contemporary readers. Here’s just a clip from the discussion of Adam Bede that seems pertinent to last week’s discussion but also of more general interest for our thinking about the novel:
In the end, of course, Blackwood was not the only resisting reader whom Chapter 17 would address; and George Eliot’s defense of her art was determined by far more than his persistent desire to touch up her portraits. Yet there is no doubt that his questioning of her clerical characters in particular touched a nerve--all the more because George Eliot’s representation of the clergy “in its human . . . aspect” went to the very heart of her self-conception as a novelist. Though it is easier to see why she associated Dutch painting with the “homely details” of “Amos Barton” [one of her Scenes of Clerical Life] than with her portrait of Mr Irwine, all her representations of the clerisy are concerned to work out the relation between what Adam Bede calls religious “notions” and “feelings” (17.180)--a relation that the beginning novelist implicitly makes analogous to that between history painting, on the one hand, and Dutch genre, on the other. While the history painter, in this conception, re-shapes his figures to accord with idealized abstractions, the genre painter teaches us to look sympathetically at people as they are, and in doing so, he teaches us the only form of religion that the early George Eliot was intent on preserving. Just as the narrator’s “idealistic friend” would prefer “the sublimest abstract of all clerical graces . . . ever conceived by an able novelist” to that worldly holder of multiple livings, Mr Irwine” (17.177, 179), so she would presumably prefer pictures of the Madonna to images of old women scraping carrots. And just as she is nonetheless exhorted to look sympathetically at Dutch paintings and “to be in perfect charity” with the faulty Irwine, so Irwine himself approaches his parishioners with a sympathy and respect that finally count more as “real religion” than the purity of doctrine articulated by his zealous successor, Mr. Ryde (17.179, 182).
Yeazell discusses the tension between this Dutch doctrine and GE’s own strong tendency towards abstraction, and points to a shift towards “history painting” as GE’s novel-writing career proceeds. She also links GE’s interest in Dutch painting to her interest in natural history, another practice that requires close attention to “what was around her.” And, of course, she has lots of nice analysis of ways Adam Bede itself presents painterly perspectives--noting, for instance, how many of the chapter titles from the first half of the book could easily be taken as the titles of Dutch genre paintings. But the main points I took away on this first read are (1) the idea of Dutch painting as a desirable model for a novelist (or a painter, for that matter) was highly contested in the period, with Ruskin a prominent opponent, and (2) it’s fruitful to consider the novel not just in terms of novelistic techniques or theories of fictional realism, but also in terms of “genre painting.”
Oh, thanks, Adam. I hadn’t read that far down Bill’s block-quote, and for a strange moment I had to try to figure out just how that could be from someone commenting on the text.
Fiske certainly did make the attempt to spice up his text, didn’t he? His “for example” describes roommates who, from the sort of expenses described, would appear to be college roommates, and he makes it clear that one is a her, so if this is college, than they both probably are. So we’re left with the stereotypical lesbian softball game, but he’s added a BDSM relationship, with the added bit that every “Susan! Shape up or we aren’t going to win the semifinals!” will be requited later… he’s missed his true calling.
Yes, Rohan, it’s one of the most interesting things I’ve gotten from evolutionary psychology. If, by nature, we’ve got several models for ordering social interaction, and they imply distinctly different patterns of precedence, reciprocity, obligation, and reward, then human social arrangements become deeply problematic–surprise, surprise. How do we decide which model to use in this or that case? What’s the decision principle? If the models are “hard-wired,” as it were, but the decision principle is not, then social arrangements are up for grabs. Plenty of room for conflict and negotiation there. So I think the notion is generally useful, but haven’t had much time to spell out some examples.
Consider this passage from Chapter 23:
When they got upstairs, the question which Arthur had left unsettled, as
to who was to be president, and who vice, was still under discussion, so
that Adam’s entrance passed without remark.
“It stands to sense,” Mr. Casson was saying, “as old Mr. Poyser, as is
th’ oldest man i’ the room, should sit at top o’ the table. I wasn’t
butler fifteen year without learning the rights and the wrongs about
“Nay, nay,” said old Martin, “I’n gi’en up to my son; I’m no tenant now:
let my son take my place. Th’ ould foulks ha’ had their turn: they mun
make way for the young uns.”
“I should ha’ thought the biggest tenant had the best right, more nor
th’ oldest,” said Luke Britton, who was not fond of the critical Mr.
Poyser; “there’s Mester Holdsworth has more land nor anybody else on th’
“Well,” said Mr. Poyser, “suppose we say the man wi’ the foulest land
shall sit at top; then whoever gets th’ honour, there’ll be no envying
“Eh, here’s Mester Massey,” said Mr. Craig, who, being a neutral in the
dispute, had no interest but in conciliation; “the schoolmaster ought to
be able to tell you what’s right. Who’s to sit at top o’ the table, Mr.
“Why, the broadest man,” said Bartle; “and then he won’t take up other
folks’ room; and the next broadest must sit at bottom.”
This happy mode of settling the dispute produced much laughter--a
smaller joke would have sufficed for that Mr. Casson, however, did not
feel it compatible with his dignity and superior knowledge to join
in the laugh, until it turned out that he was fixed on as the second
broadest man. Martin Poyser the younger, as the broadest, was to be
president, and Mr. Casson, as next broadest, was to be vice.
Owing to this arrangement, Adam, being, of course, at the bottom of the
table, fell under the immediate observation of Mr. Casson, who, too much
occupied with the question of precedence, had not hitherto noticed his
I don’t know anything about the relevant customs except what I infer from the passage itself. The opening sentence implies that Arthur could have used his authority to decide the presidency, but chose not to do so. That means the decision about the presidency has to be worked out among the candidates themselves, who are all equally different from and below Arthur in the authority system. The class difference seems fairly sharp edged and absolute (the wishes of the owner of certain earings notwithstanding).
So the men have to work it out. But how do they do that? Who’s going to presume to assert precedence over his fellows, or to lobby for the same? Notice the various proposed criteria, and the one that finally won the day. First, they did have resort to some kind of measure, it wasn’t just a matter of naked power politics. Second, the criterion settled upon, by the sagacious school master (and remember that he’s not here on account of his ability to pay rent), breadth of beam, has little to do with real power and authority in the community; but it did produce a decision. Note finally that, as a new-comer to the high table, that Adam sat at the bottom. These men may all be equally below Donnithorne, but their relations among themselves are at least partially graded.
On the whole, a very nice reckonning of social order.
’--where can we see them now?’
For me, quite simply, that is what this novel is about.
Realism: depicting matters as they are, not as we would like them to be. Without either glorification of common people or dwelling on picturesque, sentimental wretchedness. In other words: “low dresses and large skirts, and scanning glances exploring costumes, and languid men in lackered boots smiling with double meaning.”
Sentimentality: a nostalgic, prettified depiction of matters not as they are, but as they were supposed to have been in a time that probably never existed. In other words: “That merry stamping, that gracious nodding of the head, that waving bestowal of the hand--where can we see them now? That simple dancing of well covered matrons, laying aside for an hour the cares of house and dairy, remembering but not affecting youth, not jealous but proud of the young maidens by their side [...]”
’ ... a nostalgic, prettified depiction of matters not as they are, but as they were supposed to have been in a time that probably never existed.’
Precisely so. The ‘reality’(though I prefer fundamental truth) being that most of us, at some time, in some way, imagine the past to have been better than it was and become ‘sentimental’ about it.
Well, that seems fine as a matter of reader enjoyment. But isn’t it slightly problematic to have it be what the novel is about? Eliot does explicitly say that she wants to be writing realism as an author, in a sense that differs from the sense of being what people want—in the sense of representing reality. In the main, I agree with Rohan’s sentence: “At the center of it, of course, is Arthur himself: his consciousness of wrongdoing (and our knowledge of it) is rot at the heart of the community.” That makes for a realist sort of tension. But I read the whole pity-it-was-not-a-boarded-floor scene as a sort of throwback (from the point of view of apparent authorial goals, not of reader enjoyment); a shakiness of the same sort that makes Adam just a little too good a person for a realist novel.
I take your point, Rich, and agree my somewhat trite comment is ‘slightly problematic’ in the context of ‘what the novel is about’; it is, of course, saying and doing much more but I was, and am, speaking as just one reader and maybe that’s the ‘tension’ for me i.e. the space between the subjective and the generic. To some extent, perhaps, it is that very gap between what we experience as individual - and necessarily subjective - readers and authorial intent and, as you say, Eliot has ‘nailed her colours to the mast’ by saying she wants this to be a ‘realist novel’. However, I find that gap itself to be of interest: the difference between journalistic fact and novelistic truth, the photo versus the painting, maybe.
Thinking back to that horseman in the first section, it was his ‘backward glance’ which made Adam seem such a perfect image, I thought, the horseman’s input being ‘nostalgia’ and thus adding to the picture of the man, giving us a vicarious, curiously ‘filtered’ image; like the reflections in the various looking glasses which occur so often - we see what we want to see (even in relationships e.g. Hetty and Arthur).
Eliot is treading dangerous ground in my view by even attempting to reproduce what can only ever be a personal ‘reality’ and often she misses the mark, I agree. But I think that there is nothing so false as the approximation of reality for as soon as you say ‘this is/was real’ you have to add ‘for me’, because, in fact, there never was a generic reality. (I don’t mean to include historical fact, here, just fiction, though even history is recorded by ‘the victors’).
That was why I mentioned Sterne in the last section because he saw very early on that the emerging genre of the novel was fraught with difficulty and in ‘Tristram Shandy’ he completely rips it apart by adopting, as I said, a sort anarchistic narrative to challenge the likes of Fielding and Richardson.
I’m not expressing this very well, as I constantly want to qualify what I’m saying, but what it comes down to is that for me - and maybe just for me - despite what Eliot sets out to do, what she achieves, in my opinion, is an evocation of what is past and, as you say, ‘probably never existed’ and this ever present absence constantly informs the novel. Nevertheless, personal perception is a ‘reality’ of a kind and this, I think she does manage to ‘realise’.
Obviously this is far too simplistic and not really doing Eliot justice but the process of reading does require the reader to become an interpreter of, even a character in, the novel, and there will be as many ‘readings’ as there are ‘readers’ as this blog proves so well and which makes this way of reading so challenging - you have all certainly made me see the novel differently, for which I’m grateful.
Great discussion of this set of chapters. I am thankful to Bill for bringing up the dialogue whereby a seating arrangement is established among the tenants, and appreciate his copying out the sociological analysis by Fiske. I read that part with great interest too --- especially when Massey resolves a part of the dispute by masterfully suggesting the measure of a man’s chest as the yardstick to be applied. He masterfully explains his tactic as in fact beneficial to every one for by removing the broadest to the head, more space is left for others to sit next to each other. He thus notches up a strike for himself—the crowd is mollified and Adam is now at the head. Of course, Eliot has her own ends to achieve here --- her beloved Jesus figure, Adam, is now in his rightful place at this “last supper” before Arthur’s disgrace, and we’ve learned a valuable lesson about the arbitrary nature of hierarchies --- all disputes are essentially as fruitless, she is saying, as imagining that a man’s proportions somehow attest to his capabilities.
I hear Rich’s pain at Adam’s unalloyed goodness – his sensitivity, his consummate skills, his rapid ascent into the good books of all his betters in his village. But all the same, he is realistic to me, because while he’s ideal from our point of view, he only appears to be so in comparison to his surroundings, a piece of crystal in rough environs shining as bright as a gem. And isn’t his attraction to Hetty, all his good sense failing to protect him from her wiles, flaw enough?
Which segues me into the scene last week with Adam and Massey. Massey does seem under-appreciated in the comments so far, as Rohan noticed. Adam’s flaw is first called to our attention there, where Massey cautions him against underestimating things merely because they don’t seem to awaken his own interests, when Adam seems dismissive at first of the stewardship opportunity. Massey is also important to me because I find a thread in this novel about learning and numbers that also hasn’t been discussed much (perhaps I’ve missed it) and Massey seems a personification of those ideas. Adam is constantly talking about what he can measure and be certain about, and how the instructions for building things are set so much clearer than anything one can say or know about “feelings” and “notions” of various kinds, regarding human relationships and God. Funnily enough, the most business minded characters, the Poysers, don’t spend as much time as Adam in analyzing the benefits of a life led by numbers --- in their case, the numbers of commerce.
I think Eliot is calling her readers to recall the role that science is playing during this period in democratizing knowledge, and the power this newfound access to technology gave to the professional class, to which Adam belongs. The merchant class had already benefited a few generations before from the propagation of ideas of the free market, and I see the emphasis on what Massey does as a signal that following the rise of commerce, a new breed of artisans was being created, who could enrich themselves by selling their creations not to rich patrons but simple housewives like Mrs. Poyser who were willing to pay for quality.
I will confess that I have in fact read through to the end of the book, but nothing beyond the young squire’s party, and Adam’s dialogues with Massey, has captured my attention as much. I can’t explain myself fully without peppering this comment with spoilers but suffice to say that while I wasn’t looking for something to “happen,” I found Eliot completely falling apart when she dealing in later chapters with characters interacting one-to-one and unmoored from their social scene. As long as there is a gaggle of characters, acting almost like their own chorus, as at the party and in the kitchen scene in the last week’s set of chapters, Eliot’s wit and insight are sharp but left with one or two characters struggling with their fate or the relationship between them, the dialogue and action fall rather flat.
Anyway, I won’t get ahead of myself and will put off the rest of my bitching to next week.
’The thirtieth of July was come, and it was one of those half-dozen warm days which sometimes occur in the middle of a rainy English summer.’
Even in 1799, the English, it seems, talked constantly about the weather and had bad summers, there’s a Hardyesque resonance in there somewhere because we still do (tune into ‘The Open’, you’ll see what I mean). Maybe that’s why so many writers stayed indoors scribbling: if we’d had better weather do you think we’d have had fewer writers?
(A silly intrusion into our erudite discussion, I know, but definitely ‘real’ - note that ominous ‘sometimes’ ... ah,well!)
I just want to make a few obvious remarks about the novel’s structure. Chapters 22-26 span the middle of the book (by page count). Up to this point GE’s been revealing her characters and their world and, of course, setting up the central action. In these chapters that entire world is brought into focus in one ritual event, a birthday party for Arthur Donnithorne. All of the major characters save one (Dinah Morris) are there. This party is, in effect, this commmunity’s idealization of itself. It presents, in microcosm, the structure of the larger social order. This is how things are supposed to be.
We know, of course, that it’s not quite like that, and so do Arthur and Hetty. By the end of the evening Adam has reason to suspect that something’s amiss, though he doesn’t know quite what.
This structure, it seems to me, all but proclaims that AB isn’t just the story of Adam, Hetty, Dinah, and Arthur; it’s about the whole social order in which they live. At this point we already know that Arthur and Hetty have stepped outside that order. But we haven’t followed them there. And, of course, Dinah, as a Methodist, is also outside that order.
As Zachary has already noted, the whole book is about to go outside that order.
Zachary: “Massey is also important to me because I find a thread in this novel about learning and numbers that also hasn’t been discussed much (perhaps I’ve missed it) and Massey seems a personification of those ideas. Adam is constantly talking about what he can measure and be certain about, and how the instructions for building things are set so much clearer than anything one can say or know about “feelings” and “notions” of various kinds, regarding human relationships and God.”
There’s a certain other other outside the social order in this book—I don’t think there are any Jewish characters, are they? Not that any would probably have appeared in a village setting like this one. I bring it up because Zachary is right, there is a certain thread running through the book about this democritization of numbers—something that Jewish contemporaries of the characters would probably regard as a past fact within their milieu rather than a new phenomenon, given their usual lines of work.
To bring in personal anecdote, I once, as a child, was talking about my family’s history, and asked why all the great-grandparents I’d heard about seeming to be running small businesses of some kind. I got a quick burst of Yiddish that translates into, basically: Gentiles drink—i.e., they’d be bad managers for that reason. I don’t know if that’s specifically Eastern European, or even if it’s at all true beyond the self-conception of the people I talked to, but it puts an interesting light on Adam’s father’s self-destruction. One of the things I noticed about Adam’s and Massey’s conversation is that Massey goes ahead and gives Adam a big mug of ale.
Turns out we found things to say about this section after all, eh?
Bill, I really like your comments about the place of the birthday feast in the novel’s overall structure. I agree: despite the novel’s title, it isn’t really about Adam in particular.
I just want to make a few obvious remarks about the novel’s structure. Chapters 22-26 span the middle of the book (by page count). Up to this point GE’s been revealing her characters and their world and, of course, setting up the central action. In these chapters that entire world is brought into focus in one ritual event, a birthday party for Arthur Donnithorne. All of the major characters save one (Dinah Morris) are there. This party is, in effect, this commmunity’s idealization of itself. It presents, in microcosm, the structure of the larger social order. This is how things are supposed to be…
As Zachary has already noted, the whole book is about to go outside that order.
Thanks for the helpful analysis, Bill. I had found myself agreeing with Rich while I read these chapters (at least to the point of Hetty’s beads breaking) that not much happens in these chapters. Or at least not much that reveals characters in ways they haven’t already been revealed or moves the plot along.
Then this morning while I was brushing my teeth, I was thinking how eventful this scene would feel if it were a Merchant-Ivory or BBC production. You would have wide shots of the grand house and all of the people of the village on the lawn in their Sunday best. You would have comic moments such as the seating discussion or Wiry Ben’s hornpipe. Hetty would be in a pretty frock, absentmindedly touching the place where her locket was hidden, and stealing glances at Donnithorne.
Thinking about these feast chapters in a visual way reminded me of our discussion of Dutch/Flemish genre painting. A quick wander on the web found me this:
I think Eliot was trying to paint a sort of panoramic picture of the community in these feast chapters.
"at least to the point of Hetty’s beads breaking”
It was the Hetty’s beads breaking scene that really motivated that judgement for me. It’s a melodramatic non-event. Her beads break, and the locket is revealed. What happens? 1) We’ve already been told that Arthur has been giving Hetty gifts, including this locket, so nothing is revealed to us; 2) nothing is revealed to any of the many attendees, either, except for Adam; 3) who rationalizes the incident away, confirming 4) the previously known aspect of Adam’s character that he will see only the best of Hetty, and 5) the previously known aspect of Hetty’s character that she’s foolish and careless (as soon as she puts the locket so it will hang just below her neckline, we know that someone is going to see it).
A good turn-up of the Teniers painting. That does give me a better idea of how the feast scene fits into Eliot’s realism.
Bill said, “As Zachary has already noted, the whole book is about to go outside that order.”
Ok, I know I said I’d put off my bitching until later but having heard the structure of the novel articulated so well, I couldn’t help adding a rejoinder here. I guess I had also felt by the end of the book, a lot of confusion about whether the book was really about Adam Bede, and it didn’t feel like it was, as others have noted here. And I felt cheated.
I feel that in contrast to this scene, Eliot doesn’t really make an effort to “do” something more after it. This will have to be discussed in greater detail once we’ve all finished the book, but the events down the line didn’t get me feeling that Eliot actually allows the scene from the party to unravel enough. Sure, Hetty will be lost to us because of her shame, but ... nothing much more will change in the village beyond that. So this middle of the book feels like the end.
The eventfulness of the party itself set it up for failure. Even as I finished this book (of the novel,) I began to feel that there was something so climactic about it, that it couldn’t possibly be surpassed by the rest of the story, given that I had assumed that the essential aspect of the drama was Hetty’s seduction and betrayal.
It’s a melodramatic non-event.
I largely agree with this. I did think it was a scene in which something happened - the previously secret affair is now revealed to someone outside of the romance. And not just to anyone but to Adam, who is himself in love with Hetty. So Adam is forced to confront the fact that Hetty already has another suitor, and that she isn’t the girl he thought she was.
But then when he rationalizes the incident away, as you say, it kind of punctures all the air out of the scene, releasing the tension.
I would also like to make a gentle request that we don’t discuss the book as a whole until we’ve all finished it.
I really can’t grasp this desire for ‘events’ - maybe it’s just me!
Even as I finished this book (of the novel,) I began to feel that there was something so climactic about it, that it couldn’t possibly be surpassed by the rest of the story...
Well, the party really is an important event. It was certainly an important event in the world being depicted. The Donnithorne’s must have spent a pile on it, and there was a party for the gentry that isn’t even depicted. What is it about that world that makes such parties so important? And what kind of novel is this that such a party is spread out over four chapters at the center?
"It was certainly an important event in the world being depicted.”
If the party is focussed around Arthur’s guilty conscience, and our knowledge of it, then it can’t be merely depicted as an important event in the lives of the people. No doubt there are all sorts of other important events. Eliot didn’t choose to show us the yearly fair, or the last time a local notable got married, or the Christmas service (or whatever the most important yearly service was in British culture of the time). She showed us this one because it’s the backdrop for Arthur’s guilt (known), Adam’s new position (heavily foreshadowed and predicted by Massey), Hetty’s receipt of expensive gifts (told to us before the party), and so on. Again, it’s possible to write a perfectly good novel whose plot is “let’s watch people having a party.” But that isn’t this novel.
If the party is focussed around Arthur’s guilty conscience, and our knowledge of it...
That’s going on, yes. But I wouldn’t say that GE focuses the party on that.
Again, it’s possible to write a perfectly good novel whose plot is “let’s watch people having a party.” But that isn’t this novel.
Like it or not, it is this novel for four chapters. Now, maybe GE made a big mistake. Or maybe she’s not writing your kind of novel. Those are not, of course, mutually exclusive.
I think it’s addressing more than just the three main character’s personal stories, because the party is to celebrate Arthur’s coming of age, and the fact that he will soon inherit the estate. In this way it seems more singular for that community than the yearly fair. The party shows how wonderful life could be for everyone when Arthur takes over the Chase, starting with his recognizing Adam Bede’s competence when his father didn’t. I’m probably reaching but since this novel is about looking to an idyllic past, maybe the party also shows how the future could have been idyllic, too, if Arthur, or the British, or the Industrial Revolution or whomever hadn’t cocked it up in George Eliot’s eyes.
It seems to me that parties are still important in our world. We are about to have a week-long investiture for my university’s new president, which strikes me as not unlike Arthur’s coming of age feast!
As an off-beat comparison. Consider Dumbo, the Disney film. The best-known sequence in the film is “Pink Elephants on Parade.” I don’t know now long it lasts, must be four or five minutes (out of a film that’s just over an hour long). What does it do to advance the plot? Not much. We already know that Dumbo’s drunk; seeing his hallucinations doesn’t contribute to that knowledge. At the end of the sequence Dumbo is up in a tree, which presents something of a problem. But it would have been easy to shorten the sequence to a minute or even half a minute and still have Dumbo end up in a tree.
This YouTube clip runs just under 5 minutes:
Obviously a Disney feature animation is a very different kettle of fish from a 19th century novel. You expect musical numbers in the Disney film and you don’t necessarily expect the plot to advance in direct proportion to the length of the numbers.
But if all you’re interested in is checking off plot points as expeditiously as possible, you could just read the Cliffs Notes chapter summaries:
Spare the straw, Bill. I think that we can safely assume that no one is interested in checking off plot points as expeditiously as possible. The point is that the already-established plot of this novel—not of this Disney animation—has been following a classic Freytag’s Triangle structure. The chapter after this one is even called “The Crisis”, though I haven’t yet read it. The four-chapter sequence is squarely in the position of rising action. And rising action is what we seem to be getting, with Hetty’s locket foreshadowing, and her locket breaking, and Adam going from happy to oh-no, and you wondering how he’s going to handle the inevitable realization that his new boss is also his dishonorable romantic competition—but then, as Julie wrote, the whole thing deflates.
Sure, Eliot could be writing any kind of novel. But most often I find that kind of sentiment to be an excuse for withholding judgement until never. To get something out of the book, you have to do more than say “Wow, four chapters in the middle that I don’t understand. Wonder what that’s about?” and then go on and read something else.
And rising action is what we seem to be getting, with Hetty’s locket foreshadowing, and her locket breaking, and Adam going from happy to oh-no, and you wondering how he’s going to handle the inevitable realization that his new boss is also his dishonorable romantic competition—but then, as Julie wrote, the whole thing deflates.
Not quite, Rich. The business with the locket is the last thing in these four chapters and so it comes after the “deflating” events of the celebration.
Sure, Eliot could be writing any kind of novel. But most often I find that kind of sentiment to be an excuse for withholding judgement until never.
What’s this with the desire for judgment? You’re not even finished with the novel, but you know the GE’s off track. She’s not following the classic Freytag structure, so she’s wrong.
I certainly don’t feel the need to pass judgment that you seem to feel, but it’s not as though I’m sitting around twiddling my thumbs in boredom hoping things will get better. I like these chapters. I’ve said a few things about what I find interesting in these chapters. I’m not mystified by them, and I could care less about Fretag. I certainly don’t feel that GE’s deviated from some course she’s already established & I’m quite willing to let her lead me where she will.
"I could care less about Freytag.”
Yeah, OK. But since this is a blog where people talk about literary criticism, other people do care about aesthetic structure. That doesn’t mean that they want a set of Cliff’s Notes.
This is to add nothing more than ‘thanks’ to all who have commented in the last few hours and brightened a rainy summer’s day for me.
First, Julie summed up everything wonderfully by saying someone ‘cocked-up’ what ‘could have been’ an ‘idyllic future’ - never heard it expressed better, Julie, go and arrange that party!
Then, we have had the superbly surreal and unnervingly rational connection with ‘Dumbo’, from Bill: there is truly no division in the Arts only between those who study them.
Sorry if this seems too ‘fannish’ but, hey, I’m a fan: of the book, of the blog and ‘all who wail on her’ (ouch!) - so shoot me!
"I’m probably reaching but since this novel is about looking to an idyllic past, maybe the party also shows how the future could have been idyllic, too, if Arthur, or the British, or the Industrial Revolution or whomever hadn’t cocked it up in George Eliot’s eyes”
I like Julie’s use of the expression, “cocked it up” to describe Eliot’s possible feelings in this matter --- her bringing up this interpretation does make me wonder what Eliot’s hopes and dreams were, for such communities in British life!
I do think the party is important to the novel, because it brings together the entire village in a way that doesn’t happen elsewhere in it, helping us take the entire scene in, as it were, noticing all the fault lines and strata all in one go. A novel about village life without such a party would, in my imagination of these things, be like a novel about American teenage suburbia without some kind of big drug incident. Even if it doesn’t feel like it “informs” the rest of the novel, it does create the right atmosphere, a true feeling of immersion.
I am trying to figure out, from this novel’s events and structure, if Eliot could be classified as “liberal” or “conservative.” On the one hand, she’s classically liberal, with her emphasis on individual access to knowledge, both secular and divine. On the other hand, the idealization of village life as evidenced by this party feels a little parochial. Every one is essentially a “good fellow,” and injustices are to be borne until they die a natural death within the natural course of social life. Every one pays their respects to the social order and is happy for, or in spite of, having done so. Perhaps I’m offended that she’s not being revolutionary enough, or maybe the structure of the party scene just leaves me very unclear about it.
I apologize for moving ahead with the scope of the discussion. I debated the point of doing that, and were it not for the strong reaction I had on finishing this book, where I did feel that Eliot had pretty much said all she could say, I wouldn’t have brought it up. There is something in the fullness of the party that seemed to foreshadow to me nothing else so much as the notion that we have filled the narrative cup of this novel to the brim, and one can add a few drops of coloring perhaps to liven it up a bit but the bulk of the novel’s “take away” had already been presented.
Adam Bede: When Gemeinschaft Gave Way to Gesselschaft
By George Eliot and a bunch of German sociologists.
BTW, this party, in the middle, has gotten me to wondering whether or not this novel has a ring structure, the subject of the last book by the late Mary Douglas. That, and the fact that the nameless elderly horseman does, as Rohan indicated (I peeked too), reappear in a minor role near the end of the novel. And that’s what intrigues me, that he finally reappears in a position that is roughly symmetrical to the point where he first appeared, assuming, of course, that these chapters are, in fact, the structural center of the book.
Ring structures are very different from the rise-climax-fall pattern of Freytag.
Yes, Bill, and as I have commented once or twice before that ‘horseman’s glance’ is, to my way of thinking, the vicarious ‘nostalgic’ view that so alters the reader’s perception of a crystallized moment in time.
As I may have mentioned in one of the earlier discussions, Dr. Poison, what struck me about that horseman is that he was unnamed. Every other character that received any appreciable mention was named, but this one was not? Why? My guess is that he was unnamed simply to make us pay attention to him, to take notice and be curious. I expected him to reappear some where in the next few chapters and, on that occasion, to be named. Rohan confirmed my suspicion when she reported that curiosity got the better of her and she went looking for him and found him; but she didn’t say where she found him. So I went on expecting him to show up sometime soon.
And then I simply forgot about him. And didn’t think about him again until I blitzed through to the end of the book to see how things worked out. Then, he reappeared, near the end, with name and job title as well. He is, as Rohan indicated, a minor character. Why give him such oddball prominence?
When he does reappear he’s explicitly identified as that elderly gentleman we first saw bla bla bla; without that identification we’d have no way of knowing that Mr. X was that guy. If this were a movie, then we might recognize and so the explicit calling out wouldn’t be necessary. But this isn’t a movie, so the connection has to be made explicitly. The effect of this explicit connection is that we are reminded of the events in the second chapter of the book. Why?
Why go to this trouble simply to remind us of the beginning of the book when we approach the end? That’s what I’m curious about.
Bill: I think it’s connected to the ring structure which you mentioned but to talk about him too specifically and suggest why I think he is given such ‘oddball prominence’ would give away too much of the plot, I think so ‘more later’, perhaps?
Sure, more later.
I am trying to figure out, from this novel’s events and structure, if Eliot could be classified as “liberal” or “conservative.”
I’ve been meaning to say something about this question Zach raises, which is always a vexed one about 19thC figures (such as Carlyle, as I mentioned in another thread). At one point someone, Bill, I think, compared her to Burke, and that seems a good starting point to me, but the other figure I keep thinking of is Scott--not a political thinker, I realize, but one whose fiction made a deep impression on GE and whose trademark is a rich appreciation for national tradition and history along with an equally rich sense of the inevitability of change--not nostalgic for the past even as he can highlight what is lost as we make our uncertain ways into the future. (This take on Scott would not hold up for all of his novels, I’m sure, but I’m thinking particularly of Waverley.)
In a more strictly political sense, I think GE is kind of a conservative, in that she’s against changing the system before the individuals who make it up are ready to do things differently. At the same time, as the ‘Natural History’ essay indicates, she’s an advocate of social reform. Her class politics make an interesting parallel to her gender politics: she was not a supporter of the movement for women’s suffrage, but she gave money in support of women’s education.
I bring out some of what I would see as key issues and contexts for her politics in a post about teaching Middlemarch last year. It’s Felix Holt in which she deals most directly with politics.
I’ve been reconsidering my earlier remark that the novel is called Adam Bede but is not really about Adam Bede. Given what we’ve been considering about this festive centerpiece to the novel, that looks like a still life along the lines of Dutch paintings but is undermined by forces of change, including social, moral, and political, is Adam himself in any way also this kind of harbinger of change? That is, can we see his individual life as marking out the same shifts we are seeing at a broader level? He looks every part the studly heroic artisan, but his assumptions about his life, his community, and his future are being affected by changing contexts; not just his romantic relationships but also his career seems to be moving him towards what I would tentatively call a more ‘modern’ way of life.
At one point someone, Bill, I think . . .
Nope. Rich, maybe?
Come to think of it, Rohan, your comments about Adam set things up rather nicely for a discussion of the next chapter.
You’re right, Bill, it was definitely Rich who made the interesting connection with Burke.
Actually, I think the book IS about Adam Bede, mainly because, as I infer you suggest, Rohan, he is in some ways ‘representative’ of a wider ‘reality’.
As I have implied a few times in different ways, it is the space and connection between/of individual and generic that structures the novel for me and gives it much of its interest: to put it simply, how one person sees and how that vision affects others.