Monday, June 16, 2008
Summer Reading Project: Adam Bede (Chapters I-V)
Welcome to the inaugural post of our Adam Bede summer reading project. The plan is to work our way through the novel in instalments; see here for the preliminary schedule. At each deadline, I’ll put up a basic post inviting comments. For June 17, we were to read at least the first five chapters. I look forward to seeing your comments, questions, critiques, objections, and appreciations. The only guidelines I’d like to propose are the following (though I’m in no position to enforce them and not inclined to police them):
1. Let’s be cautious about “spoilers.” Some of us have read the novel before, or have read enough about it to know the story. Others are new to it. I’ve found that opinions are often divided on the issue of “spoiler alerts.” Personally, I think it’s nice to allow other readers to enjoy suspense and surprises, especially in a long book when curiosity about what happens next can be both pleasurable and motivating. Others see little or no value in such deference to plot, or argue for the interpretive benefits of knowing key developments ahead of time. Perhaps we can compromise by alluding to events beyond the ‘assigned’ material obliquely or elliptically, if the occasion arises.
2. By all means let’s bring in critical or contextual knowledge from “outside” the novel if we think it bears interestingly on our reading. But let’s avoid doing so in a way that shuts down discussion--by, for instance, implying that everything we might think of to talk about here has already been said, and better, by others--or that we can’t talk intelligently about this book unless we’ve read 86 others.
3. It’s summer: let’s have fun and not be snarky.
Though I won’t usually do this kind of thing in my initial posts, I thought that this time I would provide one additional bit of contextual material myself right up front. In 1856, just before she turned her hand to fiction, Marian Evans published two (now famous) essays in the Westminster Review that (though ostensibly reviews of other people’s books) were manifestos for what would become her own brand of moral and aesthetic realism: “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” and “The Natural History of German Life.” The latter is most obviously relevant to Adam Bede, and so, by way of an overture to the novel, here’s an excerpt:
The notion that peasants are joyous, that the typical moment to represent a man in a smock-frock is when he is cracking a joke and showing a row of sound teeth, that cottage matrons are usually buxom, and village children necessarily rosy and merry, are prejudices difficult to dislodge from the artistic mind, which looks for its subjects into literature instead of life. The painter is still under the influence of idyllic literature, which has always expressed the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred, rather than the truth of rustic life. Idyllic ploughmen are jocund when they drive their team afield; idyllic shepherds make bashful love under hawthorn bushes; idyllic villagers dance in the chequered shade and refresh themselves, not immoderately, with spicy nut-brown ale. But no one who has seen much of actual ploughmen thinks them jocund; no one who is well acquainted with the English peasantry can pronounce them merry. The slow gaze, in which no sense of beauty beams, no humour twinkles, the slow utterance, and the heavy slouching walk, remind one rather of that melancholy animal the camel, than of the sturdy countryman, with striped stockings, red waistcoat, and hat aside, who represents the traditional English peasant. . . .
The conventional countryman of the stage, who picks up pocket-books and never looks into them, and who is too simple even to know that honesty has its opposite, represents the still lingering mistake, that an unintelligible dialect is a guarantee for ingenuousness, and that slouching shoulders indicate an upright disposition. It is quite true that a thresher is likely to be innocent of any adroit arithmetical cheating, but he is not the less likely to carry home his master’s corn in his shoes and pocket; a reaper is not given to writing begging-letters, but he is quite capable of cajoling the dairymaid into filling his small-beer bottle with ale. The selfish instincts are not subdued by the sight of buttercups, nor is integrity in the least established by that classic rural occupation, sheep-washing. To make men moral something more is requisite than to turn them out to grass.
Opera peasants, whose unreality excites Mr. Ruskin’s indignation, are surely too frank an idealization to be misleading; and since popular chorus is one of the most effective elements of the opera, we can hardly object to lyric rustics in elegant laced boddices and picturesque motley, unless we are prepared to advocate a chorus of colliers in their pit costume, or a ballet of char-women and stocking-weavers. But our social novels profess to represent the people as they are, and the unreality of their representations is a grave evil. The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment. When Scott takes us into Luckie Mucklebackit’s cottage, or tells the story of “The Two Drovers,”--when Wordsworth sings to us the reverie of “Poor Susan,”--when Kingsley shows us Alton Locke gazing yearningly over the gate which leads from the highway into the first wood he ever saw,--when Hornung paints a group of chimney-sweepers, --more is done towards linking the higher classes with the lower, towards obliterating the vulgarity of exclusiveness than by hundreds of sermons and philosophical dissertations. Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot. All the more sacred is the task of the artist when he undertakes to paint the life of the People. Falsification here is far more pernicious than in the more artificial aspects of life. It is not so very serious that we should have false ideas about evanescent fashions--about the manners and conversation of beaux and duchesses; but it is serious that our sympathy with the perennial joys and struggles, the toil, the tragedy, and the humour in the life of our more heavily-laden fellow-men, should be perverted, and turned towards a false object instead of the true one.
This perversion is not the less fatal because the misrepresentation which gives rise to it has what the artist considers a moral end. The thing for mankind to know is, not what are the motives and influences which the moralist thinks ought to act on the labourer or the artisan, but what are the motives and influences which do act on him. We want to be taught to feel, not for the heroic artisan or the sentimental peasant, but for the peasant in all his coarse apathy, and the artisan in all his suspicious selfishness.
We have one great novelist who is gifted with the utmost power of rendering the external traits of our town population; and if he could give us their psychological character--their conception of life, and their emotions--with the same truth as their idiom and manners, his books would be the greatest contribution Art has ever made to the awakening of social sympathies. But while he can copy Mrs. Plornish’s colloquial style with the delicate accuracy of a sun-picture, while there is the same startling inspiration in his description of the gestures and phrases of Boots, as in the speeches of Shakespeare’s mobs or numskulls, he scarcely ever passes from the humorous and external to the emotional and tragic, without becoming as transcendent in his unreality as he was a moment before in his artistic truthfulness. But for the precious salt of his humour, which compels him to reproduce external traits that serve in some degree as a corrective to his frequently false psychology, his preternaturally virtuous poor children and artisans, his melodramatic boatmen and courtezans, would be as obnoxious as Eugène Sue’s idealized proletaires, in encouraging the miserable fallacy, that high morality and refined sentiment can grow out of harsh social relations, ignorance, and want; or that the working-classes are in a condition to enter at once into a millennial state of altruism, wherein everyone is caring for everyone else, and no one for himself. If we need a true conception of the popular character to guide our sympathies rightly, we need it equally to check our theories, and direct us in their application. The tendency created by the splendid conquests of modern generalization, to believe that all social questions are merged in economical science, and that the relations of men to their neighbours may be settled by algebraic equations,--the dream that the uncultured classes are prepared for a condition which appeals principally to their moral sensibilities,--the aristocratic dilettantism which attempts to restore the “good old times” by a sort of idyllic masquerading, and to grow feudal fidelity and veneration as we grow prize turnips, by an artificial system of culture,--none of these diverging mistakes can co-exist with a real knowledge of the People, with a thorough study of their habits, their ideas, their motives. The landholder, the clergyman, the mill-owner, the mining-agent, have each an opportunity for making precious observations on different sections of the working-classes, but unfortunately their experience is too often not registered at all, or its results are too scattered to be available as a source of information and stimulus to the public mind generally. If any man of sufficient moral and intellectual breadth, whose observations would not be vitiated by a foregone conclusion, or by a professional point of view, would devote himself to studying the natural history of our social classes, especially of the small shopkeepers, artisans, and peasantry,--the degree in which they are influenced by local conditions, their maxims and habits, the points of view from which they regard their religious teachers, and the degree in which they are influenced by religious doctrines, the interaction of the various classes on each other, and what are the tendencies in their position towards disintegration or towards development,--and if, after all this study, he would give us the result of his observations in a book well nourished with specific facts, his work would be a valuable aid to the social and political reformer.
And now, let the games begin!