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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Summer Reading Project: Adam Bede (Chapters 36-48)

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 07/29/08 at 07:38 AM

This week’s installment of our summer reading project brings us to the emotional and moral climax of Adam Bede.  This is a section full of pathos, suspense, and melodrama as we follow Hetty on her journeys in hope and despair, as we see the painful process by which Adam and our other friends at Hayslope are brought into knowledge and suffering by “the terrible illumination which the present sheds back upon the past,” and as we go with Dinah into Hetty’s dark cell.  How far do the lessons we have been offered about sympathy and forgiveness move us past the horror of this moment:

‘I hadn’t got far out of the road into one of the open places, before I heard a strange cry. I thought it didn’t come from any animal I knew, but I wasn’t for stopping to look about just then. But it went on, and seemed so strange to me in that place, I couldn’t help stopping to look. . . . And I looked about among them, but could find nothing; and at last the cry stopped. So I was for giving it up, and I went on about my business. But when I came back the same way pretty nigh an hour after, I couldn’t help laying down my stakes to have another look. And just as I was stooping and laying down the stakes, I saw something odd and round and whitish lying on the ground under a nut-bush by the side of me. And I stooped down on hands and knees to pick it up. And I saw it was a little baby’s hand.’

How far, also, is the dramatic turn of events at the end of Chapter XLVII a break from the novel’s program of realism?  I’m also interested in Bartle Massey’s role in this section as well as Mr. Irwine’s, and in the structural symmetries of many of the scenes here to earlier ones.  As always, everyone is welcome to pitch in on these or any other topics.


I haven’t quite read to the end of the section yet, but Chapters 36-37, the journeys in hope and despair, are so far what I think is mostly likely to stay with me from the book.  Yes, Eliot feels it necessary to reinforce her usual authorial bit about Hetty—“And the dread of bodily hardship mingled with the dread of shame; for Hetty had the luxurious nature of a round, soft-coated pet animal.”—but it isn’t a pet animal that struggles through these chapters.  It’s a deeply human portrait of someone caught without social or even religious resources, whose plans have failed, but who nevertheless doesn’t stop moving.

One striking aspect of those chapters was the way that Hetty’s journey turns into a sort of random walk.  When she’s setting out to find Arthur, she realizes that she doesn’t know how to get there, and she travels a sort of half-improvised journey, sometimes ending up at places where she doesn’t want to be, but those are inconveniences.  On the way “back”, she thinks that she might appeal to Dinah for help, but after all, what can Dinah really do for her?  So the accidents of the journey there become the journey itself, as she travels not quite randomly—she’s supposed to be heading in a general direction—but almost so.

Are the dramatic events a turn away from realism?  Well, this gets back to the question that I raised earlier about what “average” could really mean in the context of realism… surely there were some women transported to Australia for infanticide.  But the large majority of them seem to have been transported for petty crime, which normally carried the death penalty.  In terms of style the depiction seems more melodramatic than the realist style usually is, but I don’t know whether Adam Bede was early enough so that a specifically realist style hadn’t formed yet.

Hetty’s continuing life after transportation would have been—well, as wiki puts it: “Approximately 20% of the transportees were women, for whom conditions could be particularly harsh. For protection, most immediately attached themselves to men, particularly officers, or other convicts as soon as possible.” There are a couple of illustrative lives of founding mothers of Australia here and here, although their stories are probably a decade or two before Hetty’s time.

Parenthetically, something does feel odd about the immediate timeline of Hetty’s travels.  She travels for a fortnight, or a bit more, and then gives birth to a healthy child?  She was described as being slim; you’d think that she’d have shown her pregnancy more if she set out in her eighth month.  Some people on her trip see that she’s pregnant, but they are described as especially worldly-wise innkeepers.  I wonder whether Victorian disinclination to mention the subject made this more credible.  But some people don’t show much, I suppose, especially if they’re malnourished.

Lastly, the mysterious observer on horseback at the beginning turns out to have a name.  He’s Colonel Townley, a magistrate.  Whatever his function as symbolic observer, he seems to have been additionally put into the narrative as a device for getting Dinah into prison with Hetty.

By on 07/29/08 at 11:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m rather behind in my reading, but I’ve done a bit of skipping ahead, so I know about the dramatic turn of events at the end of chapter 47. I agree with Rich that it does some rather melodramatic. That Arthur would do it seems reasonable enough; I don’t know enough about legal and criminal matters to have any sense of whether or not it is reasonable to think he would have been successful in getting Hetty’s sentence changed from death to transportation. What’s incredible is the timing.

As for the novel’s program of realism, that’s mostly been discussed in terms of what kinds of characters are suitable to starring roles. That melodramatic reprieve certainly doesn’t violate that. But resting with that observation is surely a cop-out. And, that, in turn, raises the thorny question of just what realism is or should be. If we’re going to go there, well, I’m going to cop out in a different way by observing that realism is a set of conventions and should not be accorded any more privileged status than any other set of conventions.

The question that interests me is why would GE introduce the commutation into the plot. For Hetty’s sake? Arthur’s? The reader’s?

By Bill Benzon on 07/29/08 at 12:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

’Hetty felt her face flushing and then turning pale. She thought this coachman must know something about her. He must know Adam, and might tell him where she was gone, for it is difficult to country people to believe that those who make a figure in their own parish are not known everywhere else ...’

I thought this was interesting because it shows the parochial attitude with which GE’s readers might not be familiar. By 1859, movement to the cities was established and increasingly the idea which Hetty displays, common in 1799 when few moved at all, that ‘everyone knows everyone’s business’ was disappearing. Is GE, even at this crucial moment taking time to remind the reader of the ‘change in the village’, which Sturt was later to research and record?

I’m not sure, personally, though the point interested me, because it could just be that when we feel ‘guilty’ we feel everyone knows - kind of like always thinking a ‘sermon’ is directed at you!

I like your point about the ‘improvised’ nature of the journey, Rich, as I agree it’s important that Hetty has direction but sort of drifts. It made me think of Dickens’ ‘improvised’ novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, in this connection as almost the entire book is such a journey of desperation, with Nell running from what she fears and yet, in the person of her grandfather, carrying it with her, as Hetty has to carry her child (I agree the child’s birth does come on rather rapidly, though).

I think that the reappearance of the horseman, now named, is important because it provides a link between what Dinah says and what she does i.e. the man who has observed her preaching Christianity now sees her living it. At first, then, IMO, he’s a means of GE vicariously indicating a ‘moment in time’, one of the novels themes; then he links two aspects of religion, another major theme; both contained within the dramatic structure. Contrived? Maybe. But clever, no?

Thanks for those interesting links, Rich, I was especially interested in the first as I’m from Liverpool too and live only a few miles from Ormskirk - it’s still a very small place!

(A confession: I know this makes me very obviously a potential reader of fanfic but when I first read AB, about thirty years ago, I literally gasped when Arthur arrived in the nick of time - whether it was melodramatic or not, it worked for me! Notwithstanding, I do see that this is not exactly the most subtle of moments ... guess I’m just a sucker for knights on chargers - however improbable or flawed!)

By on 07/29/08 at 08:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why was the commutation in the plot?  Well, who knows, of course, but classically there are only three melodramatic options for an approaching-execution scene: 1) last-minute pardon, 2) noble death, generally accompanied by religious enthusiasm, 3) ignoble death, generally with everyone happy that the bad person got theirs.  The third here presents certain problems of undeniable sympathy for Hetty.  The second is what might have been done, perhaps, if Eliot could bring herself to write an enthusiastic deathbed conversion for Hetty, but it’s contrary both to Hetty’s depicted character and to the apparent authorial goals for the book.

This is where my objections to Eliot’s realism have to surface again—not because of the melodrama of the scene, per se, but because it’s a realism wedded to what we seem to have agreed is a rather Burkean politics.  Books were clearly being written at this time with a more or less liberal, activist politics: compare Dickens.  But Eliot can, for instance, write at length about how Mr. Irwine fits into the countryside, and not mention anything about transportation, which had ended only a decade or so before the book was written.

Because, as I mentioned above, transportation for Hetty wouldn’t have been only being separated from her family and home country and sent to a harsh frontier.  From my brief reading) the women sent to Australia seem to have been universally referred to as prostitutes, or some synonym.  I’m not sure whether the Lady Juliana voyage is illustrative of what happened later, but it is notable that the most well-known (later) convict from that ship was an 11-year-old who had been given the death sentence for stealing the clothes of an 8-year-old.  In fact, the large majority of women transported seem to have been sent for petty theft, often of goods worth less than a shilling; prostitution was not a transportable offense.  And this seems to have been a deliberate policy, done because of a variety of bad effects predicted for the male colonists otherwise.

Maybe Victorians just didn’t think about this kind of thing.  But the typical transportee wasn’t an infanticide, she was someone like the character Molly, say, if she’d taken that jug instead of breaking it.  The problem isn’t merely that I disagree with the politics, it’s that it seems literally short-sighted—a novelist who prides herself on observation as a guide to social reform is missing some mountains, it seems.

By on 07/30/08 at 10:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s a deeply human portrait of someone caught without social or even religious resources, whose plans have failed, but who nevertheless doesn’t stop moving.

I think you capture the quality that I too respond to in this section, Rich.  It’s very poignant how strong the urge to move and to live is for her even as she despairingly contemplates suicide, also.

The impulse behind my quick question about realism had more to do with genre or, maybe, tone: the shift to melodrama, the dramatic last-minute rescue, Arthur as (belated) knight in shining armor.  I think Rich is on to something in pointing out that (unbearable as it might have been emotionally) hanging Hetty would have had some political charge, since so much effort has been spent getting us to see that she does not deserve such a harsh punishment--the court calls for an all-or-nothing judgment in a book that has dedicated itself to complicating our understanding of motives and causes.  But then, judicial reform is not really the point of the novel, I suppose.

By Rohan Maitzen on 07/30/08 at 01:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich’s mini-catalogue of ways to handle execution made me think of A Tale of Two Cities, which also came out in 1859 (in serial form), and which ends in an execution that doesn’t fit any of his three patterns (unless you think of it as an ingenious version of the noble death). Here an innocent man is condemned by the French revolution and his body double (also innocent, though of lesser character) sneaks into the jail at night and takes his place. Now that’s a noble soul.

In thinking about AB, I can imagine it would have been emotionally possible to have Hetty succeed in committing suicide, especially if it had been done off-scene as something reported to us rather than as something we witnessed. But that would have cost us the opportunity of seeing Dinah bring comfort to her and bring her to confess. And that’s important.

By Bill Benzon on 07/30/08 at 03:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

’Eliot drew the plot of Adam Bede from the death of Mary Voce, who was executed in 1802 for killing her child. Eliot’s Methodist aunt told her about Voce, whom her aunt visited and converted in jail.’


Worth remembering, maybe, when we refer to the need for GE to be ‘realistic’ and, as Rich remarks, ‘the typical transportee wasn’t an infanticide’. Whilst I’m sure this is true, we are dealing with a need for ‘drama’ as well as ‘truth’, aren’t we? Most novels deal with the unusual, after all.

I do agree, with Rohan, Rich, that your description of Hetty’s need to keep going is powerfully moving. It’s as if she can’t keep still, isn’t it, maybe because that would be too much like acceptance? Even in her movement, I sense denial and she still seems very much a child herself to me and, IMO, to the author, who is immensely tender to Hetty at this point.

To me, once again, this makes the individual generic: like Dickens in Oliver Twist (and elsewhere) by making us care for one ‘child’ she hopes, perhaps, we’ll care for others like her. Gaskell tried the same with Ruth (1853) and, later, George Moore with Esther Waters (1894) amongst others, of course.

p.s. Are you a ‘sucker for knights on chargers’, too, Rohan?

By on 07/30/08 at 03:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with novels dealing with the unusual, with dramatic events.  But it does call into question Eliot’s defense of her realism back in chapter 13 or so.  There she says that if Mr. Irwine isn’t a paragon, well, most people aren’t, so she has to represent people as they are.  And that she’s trying to depict the ordinary people more generally, neither those who are paragons of virtue, nor those who are unusually oppressed.  But the more elements of her story turn out to be unusual, the more this is subverted, isn’t it?

By on 07/30/08 at 04:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

p.s. Are you a ‘sucker for knights on chargers’, too, Rohan?

You know, not so much, at least not anymore!  I enjoy stories that subvert this model. Actually, Heart of Midlothian is one, and Jane Eyre another: in both of them, the ‘heroic’ men ride up on and then fall off of their horses!  I like a girl who fights for herself...(For all its materialism and other faults, I think Sex and the City does a good job interrogating this fairy-tale expectation with modern, self-sufficient women in mind...but that’s a subject for another thread.)

By Rohan Maitzen on 07/30/08 at 05:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich and Rohan:

Indulging myself, briefly, here, in a bit of ‘close-reading’, noticed you both used the word ‘subverted’ in your latest comments and both with reference to how the ‘romantic’ or, if you like, ‘unreal’, is ‘subverted’ by what some fictional structures set up as ‘ideal’ or ‘expected’.

It’s a moot point, I think, because unless we are sucked in by the ‘model’ at some stage, we cannot, even if we choose, reject it.

I was, of course, being facetious by asking about ‘knights’, Rohan, as you know, but somehow what began as a joke has made me think more about the idea that this acceptance of the ‘fairytale’ has to be part of our recognition of reality.

Most of us are indoctrinated - despite the best efforts of the pc/feminist world - to see the male as the ‘rescuer’ even when - maybe especially when - he’s a ‘rotten (but sexy) scoundrel’, like Arthur. It’s not just the basis of ‘bodice-rippers’ but of Freudian psychoanalysis. Fairy tales form our earliest responses so when elements of them show up in novels, we subconsciously recognize them even if only to reject them, don’t we?

I mean, I ‘like a girl who fights for herself’, too, but I prefer Lizzie Bennet to Jane Eyre because Darcy doesn’t have to be emasculated to be accepted, as Rochester does. Nevertheless both stories rely on a fundamental romantic tradition and the ending of AB, I think, really subverts its schema ... but must not go there yet!

By on 07/30/08 at 07:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s interesting, Sue, for it gets us both Hetty and Dinah. But GE’s novel, nonetheless, is not Hetty Sorrel: A Cautionary Tale, it’s Adam Bede. So GE took a story about a young woman who kills her child and subordinates it to one about a man who loved the woman, but lost her only to gain another. Hmmm....

By Bill Benzon on 07/30/08 at 08:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It may be worth noting that Mary Voce was executed, with a full last-minute conversion narrative claimed by contemporary broadsheets.  The few words I’ve read from Eliot’s Methodist aunt on the subject are nowhere near as flattering as fiction; unlike Dinah with Hetty, the aunt is rather disparaging of Mary, and has a good deal to say about her own prayerful exertions and the inspiring effect the execution had on her.

By on 07/30/08 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

’Hetty Sorrel: A Cautionary Tale ...’

Bill, from what I’ve gathered this week that’s a fanfic title - and one that gives away the plot!

Seriously, I don’t think she exactly ‘subordinates’ Hetty’s story to Adam’s but she does ‘use’ her to reveal aspects of his emotional development etc. so I can see where you’re coming from. I still think that the book is about Adam but also what he represents, it’s not just Adam Bede: He Was Poor But He Was Honest, either, is it?

(I believe I am becom,ing rather worryingly ‘hooked’ on this ‘fanfic’ idea ... if I burst into print, Bill, you and Rich get a ‘dedication’ - boy, will you be embarrassed, huh?!)

By on 07/30/08 at 10:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeh, you can’t trust the Press, Rich, nor family tales! Mind you, GE wouldn’t exactly have gone along with her aunt by this point, would she? I mean, she was more of a ‘Humanist’ when she wrote AB, so maybe she would be more compassionate, less judgemental, like Dinah, whom you suggested might be her ‘Mary Sue’ ...?

By on 07/30/08 at 10:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I’d say that Dinah has been considerably idealized, with a humanist slant, from the original model.  That original model being—well, here is part of the aunt’s autobiography, quoted from here.  I can’t resist quoting it at length, although I’m going to skip the part where she says that “the vilest and worst may come unto Him” and refers to the moment before execution as “she was about to be turned off”.  Here is the part after the execution:

“And she died almost without a struggle.  At this awful spot I lost a great deal of the fear of man, which to me had been a great hindrance for a long time. I felt if God would send me to the uttermost parts of the earth I would go, and at intervals felt I could embrace a martyr’s flame. Oh, this burning love of God, what will it not endure? I could not think I had an enemy in the world. I am certain I enjoyed that salvation that if they had smote me on one cheek, I could have turned to them the other also. I lived

“‘The life of heaven above,
All the life of glorious love.’

“I seemed myself to live between heaven and earth. I was not in heaven because of my body, nor upon earth because of my soul. Earth was a scale to heaven, and all I tasted was God. I could pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks. I felt that the secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him. If I wanted to know anything I had only to ask, and it was given, generally in a moment. Whether I was in the public street, or at my work, or in my private room, I had continued intercourse with my God; and many, I think I may say hundreds of times, He shone upon His Word, and showed me the meaning thereof, that is, texts of scripture, so as to furnish me with sufficient matter to speak to poor sinners for a sufficient length of time.”

TMI: I don’t want to hear about you having continued intercourse with your God in the public street!  No, seriously, there’s something odd about this description.  The execution turns immediately into its personal effect on the writer, who is made fearless thereby, enjoys a presentiment of salvation, and is inspired with direct revelation from God—not, as Dinah experiences, in an uncertain way and at God’s chosen time, but “If I wanted to know anything I had only to ask, and it was given, generally in a moment.”

I find this interesting because, frankly, it conforms to my preconceptions.  I already had gotten the impression from the text that behind the idealized Dinah there was lurking a figure with a good deal more straightforward will-to-power.  And that power is expressed through shutting people up, making them stop complaining and start to act appropriately.  A while back I wrote a parody bit which no one seemed to understand, Abedecadabra, in which the Dinah-quieting-Lisbeth scene is refigured as a literal quieting via Aztec human sacrifice.  And what’s the final, approving thing written about the execution above?  “And she died almost without a struggle.” The value in this kind of religious work is always expressed as service to the person ministered to, but it always functions by suppressing their voice.

By on 07/31/08 at 03:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why does Eliot give us Hetty’s wanderings in something close to limited third person detail, but stop, as it turns out, at such a crucial point?

We hear about what happened next through a rather different narrative method, courtroom testimony.

By Amateur Reader on 07/31/08 at 09:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmmmm . . . Interesting question. I’m not sure what kind of answer you’re looking for, or even what kind of answers are possible. But I’ll start with another question and ramble on from there.

Why did Eliot follow Hetty’s flight in such detail and sympathy? The obvious answer is that she wants us to identify with her, to “feel her pain,” as the phrase goes. But there are a number of chapters between Hetty’s flight in 36 & 37 and the trial itself in 42 & 43. What happens in those chapters is that the harmonious world that had gathered for the young squire’s birthday now falls apart. That, of course, had started when Adam oversaw Arthur and Hetty, with the resulting fight and Arthur’s flight. Hetty’s flight continues the collapse. When news of her arrest makes its way back to Hayslope, Adam becomes undone, the Poysers become undone, and the whole village is gossiping about Hetty and Arthur. Mr. Irwine and Bartle Massey try to hold things together, with Adam himself as Bartle’s specific assignment. Once arrested it seems that Hetty said little and denied everthing, including her identity.

Now, you ask why we didn’t see the birth, abandonment, and death of the child as they happened, rather than seeing them in retrospect, through trial testimony? OTOH, there is the technical problem of narrating parallel streams of events. GE could have followed the events of 36 & 37 with the birth, abandonment, arrest . . . But at some point she has to stop and pick up on Adam, the Poysers, etc. The further she goes into Hetty’s story, the more awkward that becomes. By doing it this way, she gets back to Hayslope fairly expediciously and keep us in suspense about Hetty even as we follow the efforts of others to find out what had happened.

OTOH, if GE had narrated these events “from over Hetty’s shoulder,” as it were, in the way she’d narrated the flight, then they would be presented as episodes in Hetty’s life, which, of course, they are. The effect of bringing them out in court is that we experience them as public events, which they are in the sense that the community has an interest in the life of the dead child. Hetty herself doesn’t admit to anything until Dinah is with her after the trial. That’s when we get her account. This has the effect of creating an identity/bond between Hetty and Dinah similar to the identity between Adam and Arthur that was created in their fight.

The book to this point: Phase 1: We enter Hayslope, meet the people, and at all comes together in the coming-of-age party for the young squire. Phase 2: It all falls apart, leading up to a rather different public event, Hetty’s trial for murder and subsquent (stay of) execution.

By Bill Benzon on 08/01/08 at 10:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The rules of melodrama decree that if there’s going to be a courtroom scene, the reader can’t find out what happened during the crime until afterwards.

I don’t think I agree with your “the book to this point”, Bill.  The party for Arthur already has things noticeably going wrong, at least for Hetty and Adam, and for the reader.  If you want to mark sections of the book by public events, there are only two of note, so of course they are going to divide the book into three sections.  One of those two events, the trial, seems to me to be the crisis of the book—but it isn’t the trial alone, it’s also the confession afterwards, which is a private scene. 

The other important event isn’t the party; it’s also a private scene.  It’s the time (not depicted, of course) when Arthur and / or Hetty decide to take things past flirtation, and she gets pregnant.  If they had only flirted, everything would have been resolved by Hetty marrying Adam; it’s the pregnancy that makes that plan unravel.

By on 08/01/08 at 12:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Bill, that helps me organize my thoughts. Your answer suggests other ways of telling the story. We could alternate Hetty’s struggles with the hardening of the Poysers (Hetty’s right, there’s no hope) and the softening of Adam (Hetty’s wrong, there’s hope). The trial could have been entirely “offstage” - no rules of melodrama needed.

I have the feeling Eliot is averting her gaze, or the narrator’s gaze, or the reader’s, from the infant’s death for some reason.

A good part of why I’m wondering about this is that the scenes of Hetty’s wanderings are, I think, the best part of the novel. Why does that section stop when it does?

By Amateur Reader on 08/02/08 at 06:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I have the feeling Eliot is averting her gaze, or the narrator’s gaze, or the reader’s, from the infant’s death for some reason.

Well, it is true that we don’t see the moment of death at all, not through the narrator and not through anyone else. Judging from the courtroom testimony and Hetty’s confession, the infant died alone. Hetty left it before it had died, and the laborer found it after it had died. What would we have gained had the narrator reported that death?

OTOH, if the narrator had done so, then the force of Hetty’s confession would have been blunted. And surely that confession is a humanly and morally significant event. Here we have a decent young woman who, in desperate circumstances, abandons her infant and it dies. She must have been consumed with guilt over her action and fear for herself. Being able to admit her action, to herself and to Dinah, was important.

But in what terms are we to understand that importance? Religious terms are there in the text; but GE was not writing this as a Christian morality tale. How do we understand that in secular terms? We can decry the various benighted circumstances that forced Hetty into this mess, but given that she’s in it, how is she to come to terms with her actions and how are we to understand Dinah’s role in that process?

* * * * *

Rohan, I don’t have anything to say about Bartle Massey’s role that isn’t obvious enough. He was presented to us as a curmudgeonly misogynist. Now he’s being remarkably caring with Adam.

By Bill Benzon on 08/02/08 at 01:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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