Monday, June 23, 2008
Summer Reading Project (Chapters 6-11)
Finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: time to talk about Hetty! That’s right, it’s Week 2 of our Adam Bede reading project. (To review the general plan and reading schedule, look here; check out the comments on last week’s installment here.) Here’s a teaser, for those of you who have not caught the Bede bug yet:
There are various orders of beauty, causing men to make fools of themselves in various styles, from the desperate to the sheepish; but there is one order of beauty which seems made to turn the heads not only of men, but of all intelligent mammals, even of women. It is a beauty like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks making gentle rippling noises with their soft bills, or babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief--a beauty with which you can never be angry, but that you feel ready to crush for inability to comprehend the state of mind into which it throws you. Hetty Sorrel’s was that sort of beauty. . . .
And here’s some wisdom from Mrs Poyser:
“Ah, it’s all very fine having a ready-made rich man, but may-happen he’ll be a ready-made fool; and it’s no use filling your pocket full o’ money if you’ve got a hole in the corner. It’ll do you no good to sit in a spring-cart o’ your own, if you’ve got a soft to drive you; he’ll soon turn you over into the ditch. I allays said I’d never marry a man as had got no brains; for where’s the use of a woman having brains of her own if she’s tackled to a geck as everybody’s a-laughing at? She might as well dress herself fine to sit back’ards on a donkey."
How will the “struggle between arithmetic and inclination” turn out? And why does Dinah blush? Read along with us and find out. Everyone’s observations, interpretations, queries, and curiosities are welcome.
"There are various orders of beauty, causing men to make fools of themselves in various styles, from the desperate to the sheepish; but there is one order of beauty which seems made to turn the heads not only of men, but of all intelligent mammals, even of women.”
Every time I read a passage like this I thank the brave protesters at Stonewall, who have made it, hopefully, permanently impossible to write such a thing ever again.
And “feel ready to crush”? Kittens and downy ducks and toddling babies? George Eliot loves to tell the reader how they feel, but really that’s a bit much.
I was struck by this passage from chapter 11, where Adam talks about how he prefers living in a hilly country rather than a flat one.
“Bartle Massey says … in some o’ those counties it’s as flat as the back o’ your hand, and you can see nothing of a distance without climbing up the highest trees. I couldn’t abide that. I like to go to work by a road that’ll take me up a bit of a hill, and see the fields for miles round me, and a bridge, or a town, or a bit of a steeple here and there. It makes you feel the world’s a big place, and there’s other men working in it with their heads and hands besides yourself."
What Adam values, in other words, is a properly panoptic view of things. That’s what a novelist wants too; and a novel-reader as well. And Eliot gives us a wide hill-top perspective of many features of her pastoral world. But there is one thing she can’t show us, even though it is right at the centre of what the novel is about, and that is Hetty’s actual seduction: that happens properly shrouded in obscurity in the woods. But it got me thinking of this necessary blind-spot in the book; necessary by the logic of mid-nineteenth-century propriety, but also, perhaps, necessary in terms of the way the book as a whole is structured. Which is to say, Adam Bede is a novel about what people don’t see, sometimes the very obvious, important centrally human things they don’t see. Sex is only, actually, the most obvious symbolic trope of this social blindness. So, when Dinah stays in Adam’s house, and even though he’s right there (and even though by the end of the novel he [SPOILER REDACTED]) he just can’t see her. He can’t see her because his mind is running on Hetty.
Which leads me (as John Cleese might say) to Sex. Sex sex sex.
Chapter 7 is ‘The Dairy’, which is where Hetty works. Arthur comes to gawp at Hetty, on account of her looking so kittenish and pretty and so on; but the chapter is looking forward to (it’s hardly a spoiler to say so) Arthur’s seduction of Hetty. One of the foreshadowings involves the little child Totty, a sort of miniature prepubescent version of Hetty herself. Here Captain Arthur gives her some money. (Three shillings, actually … really quite a lot of money …)
“Totty’s a capital name. Why, she looks like a Totty. Has she got a pocket on?” said the captain, feeling in his own waistcoat pockets.
Totty immediately with great gravity lifted up her frock, and showed a tiny pink pocket at present in a state of collapse.
“It dot notin’ in it,” she said, as she looked down at it very earnestly.
“No! What a pity! Such a pretty pocket. Well, I think I’ve got some things in mine that will make a pretty jingle in it. Yes! I declare I’ve got five little round silver things, and hear what a pretty noise they make in Totty’s pink pocket.” Here he shook the pocket with the five sixpences in it, and Totty showed her teeth and wrinkled her nose in great glee.
Is it just me, or does this not seem bizarrely and rather disturbingly sexual? ‘Totty’ is short for Charlotte; but ‘totty’ is also slang for a sexually available woman. ‘Purse’ has been a euphemism for vagina for many centuries. Three shillings is far too much money to give a rural six-year-old, but it’s enough to buy sex with a country prostitute: the gentleman asks, and since money is involved she lifts up her skirt. The encounter bounces weirdly between ‘aren’t little children sweet with their inability to pronounce words properly’ on the one hand, and a coded mode of the representation of sex on the other. I’m not suggesting that Arthur is a paedophile; the scene operates, if it operates at all, on a symbolic rather than a literal level. But it does seem to me to enact in miniature the larger drama of the book: a gentleman using his status (and money) to put something into a pocket he admires. Or perhaps this takes the principle of hiding things in plain view too far. Or perhaps I have a filthy mind.
Rich, there was some discussion in the previous thread about the unstable positioning of “you” and “we” in the narration of this novel. Here, is she telling us how we feel? Or is she summoning up a problematic reaction and exposing it? How close, here, is it to approximating Arthur’s state of mind rather than a supposedly universal one, for instance?
Adam, it seems hard to escape the connotations you give that scene, though I agree it isn’t setting Arthur up as a paedophile (nice British spelling, btw)--not with regard to Totty anyway. But re Hetty? With her kittenish, downy duckling, babyish beauty? I’m reminded of other novels in which an infantilized beauty is idealized and desired--Dora, in David Copperfield, for instance, the “child wife.” David, of course, has to learn to love a mature woman. The innocence that is idealized not only makes the sexual interest problematic but also becomes a curse on the woman, whose sheltered perspective (blindness, as you say) inhibits her from properly moral action, or just from understanding the realities of her situation. All of this is abundantly true of Hetty, isn’t it? And these scenes with Arthur help diffuse the responsibility for Hetty’s moral stuntedness, sharing it with the men who feed her self-satisfaction. This has to reflect on Adam, too, whose crush on Hetty is not that different than Arthur’s--except, of course, for the crucial issue of class.
...a beauty like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks making gentle rippling noises with their soft bills, or babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief...
There is a Japanese word for this, kawaii, which translates as “cute,” and it has come to designate a broad range of cultural goods centered on manga and anime (with all those big-headed, large-eyed, small-nosed people). Yoshitomo Nara, among others, has managed to exploit those conventions to render some decidedly uncuddly creatures.
There is an evolutionary psych angle to this. Konrad Lorenz talked about an “infant schema” (which I’m taking from ch. 31 of Wolfgang Wickler, The Sexual Code). He observed that, in a wide variety of animal species (reptile, bird, mammal), the infants have rounder faces than adults, with less prominent noses, relatively larger eyes, and rounder cheeks. The notion is that it is very important for animals to distinguish between adults and juveniles, as juveniles require different treatment from adults, so juveniles look distinctly different.
Notice that, as we were introduced to Dinah only after we’d met Seth Bede, so we’re introduced to Hetty only after we’ve met Capt. Arthur. As we first see Dinah “over the shoulder” of an unnamed elderly man, so we first see Hetty over the shoulder of Arthur.
"Rich, there was some discussion in the previous thread about the unstable positioning of “you” and “we” in the narration of this novel. Here, is she telling us how we feel? Or is she summoning up a problematic reaction and exposing it? How close, here, is it to approximating Arthur’s state of mind rather than a supposedly universal one, for instance?”
The problem is that this writing style, or whatever it is, really doesn’t seem to me to work, and “telling us how we feel” is a shorthand way of saying that I don’t think that it works under any of these cases. Is she really summoning up a problematic reaction? But she’s already made sure to generalize it—“causing men to make fools of themselves”, “not only of men, but of all intelligent mammals”, etc.
The problem with it being Arthur’s reaction—other than an exasperated “then why doesn’t she just take a word or two to imply that”—is that it vitiates the characters. We’re told everything from this pseudo-omniscient narrator who nevertheless appears to like humanesque points of view. (Such as, in Chapter 6, peering through the fence.) Bits of personal judgement and personal viewpoint about the world are mixed in with narratorial description and only associated with character by proximity, as it were.
As a result, these characters appear to me to occupy a highly circumscribed middle ground. They don’t have interiority, precisely. People feel fine summarizing them in a word or two —Adam is a “hunk”, for instance. But they aren’t Dickens flat characters who can hold up under the weight of having a symbolic name, either.
That section on Hetty is indicative, I think, of the purity and innocence of her sexuality: she is simply adorable; cute, in a ‘Marilyn Monroe’ way - as Norman Mailer wrote of the star, sex with her would be ‘ice-cream’! I think that’s why we get all these images of a ‘baby’, ‘kitten’ etc. - it also makes her the perfect antithesis of Dinah.
The comparison with Dickens is interesting but I think he uses (must choose my words carefully)his young, faux pre-pubescent women rather differently.
Dora is a complex mixture of David’s mother (whose life he seeks to ‘complete’ and ‘perfect’ in his care of her ‘surrogate’ whom he ironically destroys by condemning her for being what he once loved) and Dickens’ young sister in law, Mary (who died in his arms and whose hair he carried always in a locket).
Like Nell, in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’, who is lusted after by the loathsome - but charismatic - Quilp, Dora HAS to be a child, to remain ‘inviolate’.
Hetty doesn’t. Her embryonic sexuality is involved with vanity, she knows what she’s got and and how to use it - and why not? Eliot’s charm, here, is in the non-judgemental description: ‘kittenish’ not ‘catty’!
Rich, I think Eliot outright admits she can’t actually tell us how or what to feel:
“It is of little use for me to tell you that Hetty’s cheek was like a rose-petal… of little use, unless you have seen a woman who affected you as Hetty affected her beholders, for otherwise, though you might conjure up the image of a lovely woman, she would not in the least resemble that distracting kitten-like maiden.” (128)
This passage suggests a serious limitation in any representation’s ability to evoke specific emotions in a reader, since the narrator outright says that we won’t understand Hetty’s power accurately if we haven’t met someone who’s made us feel the same. (I also like how it really depreciates the value of courtly inventories of a beloved’s virtues, e.g. blazons.)
But I do think the narrator’s control over the narrative is an issue. On one hand, Eliot’s narrator tells us who and what we’re watching (and the above passage does suggest we can have a more or less accurate “picture” of Hetty). And the novel is presented as a sort of live-action mirror image that we’re simply observing (e.g. “Put your face to one of the glass panes in the right-hand window: what do you see?” ). But, on the other hand, if we’re just watching people as though we were actually there, isn’t it entirely fitting that we’d have little access to their interiority? This is certainly the problem in the “eye witness” historical narratives of Troy, for example (only I don’t think their authors are conscious of it). Does that make sense?
Joel, perhaps I should just write that it’s a first novel and leave it at that. But in the passage you cite, Eliot addresses her readers directly, addresses directly the age-old limitation of a writer. That would seem to weigh the scale towards the moral or philosophical or what have you interjections in the text being Eliot’s, not subtle attributions to her characters… as such, it’s more distracting to me when they over-assert. Let me go back to a sentence that Rohan quoted:
“There are various orders of beauty, causing men to make fools of themselves in various styles, from the desperate to the sheepish; but there is one order of beauty which seems made to turn the heads not only of men, but of all intelligent mammals, even of women.”
All right, so this was written in the Victorian era, when everything sexual needed to be unstated. But it could have been written to be unstated but without untruthful implication by changing the end to something like “to turn the heads of all, even of intelligent mammals.” I don’t know whether Eliot just didn’t know that women are sometimes attracted to other women—didn’t she read Sappho?— or whether this was one of the moral-aesthetic judgments that she chose to make with her work. It’s a matter of having, not an unreliable narrator, but an unreliable author.
Perhaps it would be less distracting if there wasn’t such incessant mirror imagery. From Ch. 6, the sun is “[...] turning even the muddy water that is hurrying along the channel to the drain into a mirror for the yellow-billed ducks, who are seizing the opportunity of getting a drink with as much body in it as possible.” Then a page later, when we first see Hetty, its: “Hetty Sorel often took the opportunity, when her aunt’s back was turned, of looking at the pleasing reflection of herself in these polished surfaces [...]”. From the start, Eliot has said that she’s going to show up the world as in a mirror (for that’s how divination by ink pool goes). But it’s hard to imagine less striving for mirror-like absence of the author from the scene.
When I teach this stuff there is always a point where everyone begins to feel ‘we’ve said that, haven’t we?’ Yes, Eliot’s narrative voice CAN be intrusive, most agree its one of the biggest problems readers seem to encounter with her work ... can you feel the BUT coming? Here goes:
BUT she SAYS that SHE is going to hold up the mirror, it’s acknowledged, to many it’s welcome! There are so many things to discuss besides the ‘narrative voice’, aren’t there?
Rohan, I’m glad you selected that first passage because I have been mulling over the idea of Hetty and her “kittenish” beauty. I was curious enough to track down some Hettys of the silver screen. Here’s Ivy Close from the 1918 film of Adam Bede and Patsy Kensit from the 1991 BBC production.
I agree with the idea of Hetty having a Marilyn Monroe-type beauty but I think it goes beyond purity and innocence. There seems to be a soft, blossoming quality to it which is set off by her coquettishness. The passage being discussed also compares Hetty to “babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief”... which suggests both a beauty which is not so innocent and yet another parallel to Totty.
I agree it does go ‘beyond purity and innocence’ but that’s part of her sexual appeal, isn’t it? You know, the sense that she’s a conscious flirt but still ‘on the brink’, so to speak, not seeing the danger until much too late. I think your comparison with ‘babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief’ gels perfectly with this and with the image of Totty (not used as a pejorative sexual term until the 19th Century, apparently, so probably not intentionally a connective, Adam).
Interestingly, Patsy Kensit also played Silas’ adopted daughter in the BBC’s fantastic adaptation of ‘Silas Marner’, Ben Kingsley was Silas, you may recall.
The term “intrusive narrator” seems completely proleptic to me. Narrators, from Chaucer to Hawthorne, have always been active presences. It’s only from the perspective of, say, Chekhov that normal narrative behavior becomes marked as intrusive.
Personally, I find the absent narrator of *Dubliners* or *In Our Time* to be more self-consciously artistic, more nudge-nudge-wink-wink, than anything Eliot’s narrator does. Storytellers tell stories. Only artists try to hide the fact that they’re telling stories, and by doing so, they only highlight the artificiality.
Most interesting, Adam. I’d picked up some kind of vague “vibe” from that Totty & the coins passage, but didn’t think much of it. The thing is, I didn’t know how to estimate the value of those coins so I didn’t know that it was a large amount. Given that it is a large amount, surely GE’s readers would have noticed it and given some thought to it. Just what they would have thought . . . is not quite the point.
That scene takes place in Hetty’s presence and Arthur takes leave of her after he’s given the coins to Totty and after Mrs Poyser had apologized for Totty’s bad manners. Perhaps Hetty saw the coins and noted the amount - which would have meant nothing to Totty herself beyond their jingly shinyness. Perhaps the Capt gave the coins to Totty with Hetty in mind, as though he was signaling his interest in filling her purse, but with what coin?
Hi Luther - Had to go and look up ‘proleptic’ before responding. Yep, I agree, sorry for the tautology but I thought the debate was getting tortuous so employed a clumsy term! Humble apologies, as I actually think you are absolutely right, for what it’s worth!
Tortuous? Sue, I’m not really sure what your concern is. I can only interpret “There are so many things to discuss besides the ‘narrative voice’, aren’t there?” as a suggestion that I stop discussing the narrative voice and turn to something else. Well, feel free to, if that’s what interests you. The comment box will not run out of room.
Luther, of course authors can not absent themselves from their stories. But they can suit an authorial voice to the story and to its apparent purpose. The author of Dubliners wanted to be self-consciously artistic. The author of Adam Bede apparently wants something to do with realism. It doesn’t help that this author keeps saying things that are ... unreal.
And it’s a matter of authorial control, too. Let’s take Adam Roberts’ excellent comment:
“Which is to say, Adam Bede is a novel about what people don’t see, sometimes the very obvious, important centrally human things they don’t see. Sex is only, actually, the most obvious symbolic trope of this social blindness.”
All right, fine. That makes the scene between Seth and Dinah rather sly; she puts him off by saying that all her thoughts are of God and that she doesn’t want a husband, and because of our lack of access to her interiority, we are free to perceive that she isn’t attracted to Seth, and to wonder whether how complicit she is in fooling herself and rationalizing this lack of attraction. Because, of course—and I haven’t read the novel before, and it’s a spoiler, etc.—it’s safe to guess that she’s going to change her mind for Adam Bede the considerate, masterful hunk.
But then what happens in Chapter IX, “Hetty’s World”? We get pages of omniscient narration about what Hetty is thinking, that tells us that Hetty really is as shallow as she has been depicted. We are assured authorially that her heart is playing “foolish little tunes”. So much for, well, trusting the reader. And so much for the idea that there may be more going on in Dinah’s head than we have access to, implicitly. Surely we would have gotten a couple of pages of that if the author thought that it existed.
So really these seem to me like classic first novel mistakes. The author isn’t sure of their form yet, and the narration is uneven. I don’t think it’s something to be smoothed over with calls for appreciation of 19th century novels or of George Eliot in general or for finding something to enjoy; I think that there are serious problems with this particular work. Which isn’t to say that it’s all bad—but certainly, if we’re going to discuss it, this unevenness is the part that seems most interesting to me.
I should make such ‘mistakes’, Rich! No, really, the form is professedly experimental, isn’t it? I don’t think it’s perfect, of course it’s ‘uneven’, so is all writing, so is life. I just think that if we get too hung up on what we perceive to be ‘wrong’, we may miss what’s ‘right’. Just a thought and not meant to offend - wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to tell you what to think ... sorry, couldn’t resist that one!
In thinking about Dinah and Hetty I couldn’t help but recall two concepts the late David Reisman introduced in his book, The Lonely Crowd. It was a study of of character structure in America (after the Industrial Revolution). Some people are inner-directed, while others are outer-directed. As I recall - it’s been years and years since I read the book - he regarded the outer-directed person as the most recent type. To a first approximation, the terms explicate themselves. Now, whether Reisman’s concepts actually apply to these characters, living in a world much different from the one for which Reisman developed those concepts, is an issue. But if we just take the terms . . . .
We have Hetty who is keenly aware of how men regard her and is seeking her own advantage, which is a reasonable thing to do. That seems like something one might call outer-direction. Dinah, however, listens to inner experience (divine inspiration) and there-in finds her direction.
Bill: “Most interesting, Adam. I’d picked up some kind of vague “vibe” from that Totty & the coins passage, but didn’t think much of it. The thing is, I didn’t know how to estimate the value of those coins so I didn’t know that it was a large amount...”
It’s 2/6 he gives her, not three shillings as I say above (five sixpences: the maths is not hard ... not sure what I was thinking). As for value; well the Speenhamland system, instituted during the Napoleonic wars to relieve rural poverty, used to top up wages for a family of four to 8/- or 8/6(depending on the price of bread, which was how they calculated subsistence; sometimes it was higher). So (a) some families were subsisting on less than eight shillings a week, and (b) eight shillings was considered a living wage. Arthur is giving this toddler almost the third of a family-of-four’s wekly wage. Not sure what that would be in modern terms; but a fairly substantial sum, especially for a little kid.
Incidentally, Julie G., them’s some interesting photos. Ivy Close in particular is about as far from Eliot’s description as could be imagined. That enormous Roman nose! That rather chilly statuesque Stockton beauty. Voted most beautiful woman in the world, in her day, was she? Blimey.
Sue: “Totty (not used as a pejorative sexual term until the 19th Century, apparently, so probably not intentionally a connective, Adam)”
Yes, checking my OED (which I should have done before posting, of course) I see that the first recorded usage is an 1890 dictionary of slang; so it was in use a little before then, but probably not so early as the 1850s. Ah well.
So really these seem to me like classic first novel mistakes. The author isn’t sure of their form yet, and the narration is uneven.
I basically agree with this, though I’m more inclined to just move past it and think (as Sue suggests) about what the novel is able to do, and what its struggles with form seem to be in aid of. For one thing, the effort put into developing Hetty’s interiority (including its egotistical limitations) seems driven in part by an interest in the kind of thing Bill has been pointing to: the biological responses that prompt our first judgments, but then the resulting risks and errors because we can’t in fact interpret Nature’s characters with such confidence. Because of her beauty, Hetty (wrongly) has a powerful influence, and this is something the novel is working to make it’s self-conscious about. There were strong fictional traditions of beauty indicating moral worth at the time, so part of the interest is presumably in replacing that kind of symbolic use or reading of female appearance and working out other ways to think about it. (In the upcoming chapter “The Two Bed-Chambers” we do get some balance with analysis of Dinah.)
I think, too, that with the signs of formal confusion (keeping in mind that there was really no ‘theory’ of fiction or established vocabulary for the technical features of the form), we see lots of evidence here already of what will become the strengths of the novel and of GE’s later work. I include here the long sections of psychological analysis, which included prescient indications of unconscious or subconscious forces at work in the characters--which are also, though, rendered through physical symptoms such as Dinah’s blush. Sex again, of course! And I include what I will, if anachronistically, still call her intrusive narrator. The movement from story to thought is one of the most appealing things to me about GE’s writing, and here (though again I agree it’s uneven) I find it often exceptionally moving and effective.
Oops, that was supposed to say “working to make US self-conscious about.”
(keeping in mind that there was really no ‘theory’ of fiction or established vocabulary for the technical features of the form)
Somewhere early in Harmony, Walter Piston remarks that the composers he discusses didn’t think about their work in the terms he uses. Rather, those terms and concepts were developed after the fact as later composers and pedagogues studied the work of their predecessors.
And I include what I will, if anachronistically, still call her intrusive narrator. The movement from story to thought is one of the most appealing things to me about GE’s writing, and here (though again I agree it’s uneven) I find it often exceptionally moving and effective.
I love this aspect of Eliot’s writing. It makes me feel as though I am watching events unfold with a companion at my elbow who is very wise about human nature. For me, one of the great pleasures of her novels is feeling her presence and smiling at her observations. I would call it a “companion narrator” or an “observing narrator” rather than an “intrusive narrator.”
Just a bit more on the purse issue: I notice that “Goblin Market” dates also to 1859; there’s no question about the sexual symbolism of purses, pennies, and other deposits there.
Sort of related to the voyeurism Hetty invites (or incites), Mr Irwine’s comment to Dinah--and her reply--are interesting:
‘And you never feel any embarrassment from the sense of your youth--that you are a lovely young woman on whom men’s eyes are fixed?’ he said aloud.
‘No, I’ve no room for such feelings, and I don’t believe the people ever take notice about that. I think, sir, when God makes his presence felt through us, we are like the burning bush: Moses never took any heed what sort of bush it was--he only saw the brightness of the Lord.’
Turning away from Hetty, any thoughts on Mrs Poyser? For someone who considers Dinah’s preaching a “fool’s trick,” she has plenty to sermonize about herself.
Rich, I’m not just arguing that authors cannot absent themselves from a text. I’m saying that authors who “show” rather than “tell” are not somehow more sophisticated or natural or realistic than authors who doing a lot of telling. In fact, I find myself more involved in novels with a find amount of telling. *Les Miserable* is a recent example for me: all those essays and prose excursions deepen my concern for the characters and their world. In contrast, I’ve never really cared what happens to Nick Adams or Eveline or the little boy in Araby.
Furthermore, I don’t think Eliot’s narrator is telling us how to feel. She’s giving us a road map of the sort of reactions one might tyipcally have in a given situation. If a hard-boiled detective narrator says, “She was the kind of woman who made your skin crawl,” he’s not telling the reader how to feel, but he’s also not telling us how he feels. He telling us how people typically feel. (And realism is all about that sort of typifying representation.)
Finally, I don’t think there’s anything particularly pre-Stonewall about the sentiment that a woman is so beautiful that even women would turn their heads. First off, beauty is not the same as sexual attractiveness (see Thomas Hardy’s writings). Second, the narrator is giving us an important fact: the woman’s beauty was such that even women—by which she clearly means most women, that is, women who ordinarily don’t find themselves admiring another woman’s beauty—find themselves admiring her beauty.
The narrator qualifies the statement: she’s not “hot,” she’s like a baby animal. All mammals find her beautiful. Rich, you want to read this passage as something like, “Scarlett Johannson is so hot that even straight girls want to do her.” But that’s simply not what the narrator is saying. The narrator says: Hetty’s beauty was attractive to men, but also attractive to mammals and women. And it’s attractive to women and mammals precisely insofar as it’s a sort of heartbreaking cuteness. I don’t read Eliot as saying “Even straight women find her attractive” but rather “Women, who might otherwise be jealous or angry about other women’s beauty, are disarmed and attracted to it.”
No, LB, that’s not it at all. I certainly didn’t suggest that Eliot is describing Hetty as hot. What I meant was that she circumscribes the universe as part of her description. “There are various orders of beauty, causing men to make fools of themselves ... but there is one order of beauty...”—the universe itself becomes strangely Eliot-tinged, so that the possibilities that she doesn’t consider simply don’t exist. It’s not a matter of showing rather than telling, it’s a matter of insinuating the author’s persona into matters that seem false, asserting odd things as generalities. As a reaction to cuteness, for instance, feeling ready to crush seems rather atypical.
But I can only take so many hints about seeing the good instead of the bad. All right, I’ll stop already. Instead, here is:
From Book 1, Chapter X of Abedecadabra:
Family likeness often has a deep sadness in it. Nature, that great tragic dramatist, knits us together by bone and muscle, and divides us by the subtler web of our brains; blends yearning and repulsion; and ties us by our heartstrings to the beings that jar us at every movement. Lisbeth’s grieving mother’s voice had that quality to her sons. Adam could not help being irritated by this plaint. It was not possible for poor Lisbeth to know how it affected Adam, any more than it is possible for a wounded dog to know how his moans affect the nerves of his master, of for a kitten to know how its beauty brings forth the feeling of readiness to crush its skull.
It had been almost two days that this complaining grief for her unexpectedly killed husband had gone on. Now Lisbeth suddenly felt a hand placed in hers, and a sweet treble voice said to her “Dear sister, the Lord has sent me to see whether I can be a comfort to you.”
Lisbeth was surprised by Dinah’s presence, and wondered at it, but soon began to cry and rock herself again; and Dinah said, “Yes, dear friend, your affliction is great. It would be hardness of heart to say that your trouble was not heavy to bear. Our Lord, Huitzilopochtli, didn’t send me to you to make light of your sorrow, but to mourn with you, if you will let me. And then, why, to take away your trouble altogether. You won’t send me away? You’re not angered at me for coming?”
“Nay, nay; angered! who said I war angered? It war good on you to come,” said Lisbeth. And then preparations went forward, everything as natural as our familiar world is when a magician’s wand gestures before the mirror to replace one feature with another that, why, must have always been there. As the kitchen was cleaned, Dinah and Seth were both inwardly offering thanks for the greater quietness of spirit that had come over Lisbeth.
And then Dinah’s stone knife reached Lisbeth, rising and falling in that strange blending of exultation and sadness which belongs to the cadence of a sacrifice. And so there was earnest prayer—there was faith, love, hope, and blood pouring itself forth in that evening in that little kitchen. And poor aged fretful Lisbeth, without grasping any distinct idea, without going through any course of religious emotions, felt a vague sense of goodness and love, and of something right lying underneath and beyond all this sorrowing life. She couldn’t understand the sorrow, but, for these last moments, under the subduing influence of Dinah’s spirit, and as her still-beating heart was lifted from her body, she felt that she must be patient and still.
Rich, I think I understand your complaint better. Still, I don’t think the narrator is closing off options here. She’s not saying, “There is *only* one form of female beauty that both men and women find beautiful.” Instead, she’s saying, “While men are easily made fools of by all sorts of what passes for beauty, there is one form of beauty that is guaranteed to make men, women, deer, and cats melt, and Hetty has it.”
And the “it’s so beautiful you want to smush it” trope is pretty old, I’d think.
In any case, I don’t care if you love or hate the novel. Hate away! My only horse in the race was intrusive narrators, which I personally find effective.
Some of GE’s finest writing might be classified as emerging directly from the specific ‘narrative voice’ (’we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence’, from ‘Middlemarch’, springs to mind) so I am compelled to be ambivalent about the ‘intrusion’. It can be annoying when she leaps in with, ‘NO! STOP! I know what you’re thinking but it’s wrong, think this instead, everyone else does’! Yet sometimes it stops me jumping to conclusions she didn’t mean to imply (and I think that might be true of the sexual connotations WE attribute to Totty and the half crown). Notwithstanding, I very much enjoy doing the ‘detective work’ for myself, making the subliminal primary and unpicking the threads - so long as it doesn’t destroy the tapestry, so ‘mixed feelings’.
Which brings me to this ‘crushing beauty’ issue. The text runs:
‘a beauty with which you can never be angry, but that you feel ready to crush for inability to comprehend the state of mind into which it throws you’.
Now, to me, totally subjective (!), the reason for wanting to ‘crush’ is primary. Doesn’t she mean that there is a space between the effect and the cognisance of the being in causing it and that it is the gap which makes you feel frustrated? Certainly, Hetty seems well aware of the effect she’s having but nonetheless she belongs to the category of creatures that possesses ‘something’ which entrances, often unwittingly.
By the way Rohan, LOVE Mrs Poyser but she gets better as the novel progresses, I think, we haven’t seen the best of her, yet.
I’m glad that we understand each other better, LD, but I’m still kind of boggled that “so cute I want to stomp it” is considered a common trope, especially among the 19th century novelist set.
Ah well. I’m still happy that I managed to add only two words to “And so there was earnest prayer—there was faith, love, hope, and blood pouring itself forth in that evening in that little kitchen” and re-write the scene around it so that it made sense.
Insert ONE word into, ‘that you feel ready to crush for [its] inability to comprehend the state of mind into which it throws you’ and I think you get closer to Eliot’s subliminal meaning.
It’s like Blake’s:
‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires’
(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790-3).
The punning around ‘infant’ and ‘cradle’ is the key: clearly he’s not saying, ‘kill babies rather than fail to fulfil lustful cravings’, is he? We need to think about what GE implies, don’t we? In many ways, the ‘observer’ is in control and therefore the more culpable.
(I have a student who loves ‘happy endings’ so I wrote one for The Mill on the Floss - I enjoyed doing it, the class thought it hilarious but GE’s made more ‘sense’!)
I’m more sympathetic to Rich’s criticisms, because I think the companion / observing / intrusive narrator is trying to do something with realism here. And if we (I don’t know, unfairly?) put GE alongside her contemporaries amongst the continental realist novel, then so far, her narrator is much more than merely ‘observing’.
The passage from “The Natural History of German Life” which we began with last week certainly primed me to look for the places where Eliot disrupts our expectations as beautiful kitten-like people appear to be morally transcendent, honest artisans happily make coffins out of fallen trees and undivided labour, drunkards are punished with midnight drownings and simple smithies’ daughters are scared out of their skin by visions of being dragged into a dark bottomless pit. Or maybe this is actually intended as a satire on such ‘idealized proletaires’?
So our observing narrator has shown (rather than told) us how Lisbeth speaks in a dialect that largely isn’t shared with her aspirant children, we’ve seen the fawning and self-abasement of Mrs Poyser over Captain Donnithorne, the latter’s happy anti-intellectualism - all these things make me hope that GE intends to subvert the Ptolemaic order of this world, that the ‘identity of a morphology and a vocation’, and the hints at phrenology, are there to be eroded rather than confirmed - otherwise she’s surely guilty of exactly the same elisions she attacks in Westminster Review? In which case the narrator who looms in to tell us that they may not have read their religious history right, and that the world is formed around men, mammals and women, in that order, really hasn’t read their religious history right, and really does think the world is ordered around men, mammals and women, in that order?
Joe, I think maybe I’m misreading you here. Do you take Hetty as a “beautiful kitten-like” person who appears “to be morally transcendent”? The opposite is true, isn’t it?
I’m not sure “fawning and self-abasement” describes Mrs Poyser, either. We know she has a “preliminary awe of the gentry,” a feeling that seems to be associated in a positive way with the sense of strong historical and family continuities we’re shown in this community--alas, of course, we know Arthur does not (or at any rate will not) deserve her deference. But even at this early stage we see her “powers of exposition” taking her perilously close to overt criticism of the system she works in:
“Not as I wish to speak disrespectful o’ them as have got the power i’ their hands, but it’s more than flesh and blood ‘ull bear sometimes, to be toiling and striving, and up early and down late, and hardly sleeping a wink when you lie down for thinking as the cheese may swell, or the cows may slip their calf, or the wheat may grow green again i’ the sheaf--and after all, at th’ end o’ the year, it’s like as if you’d been cooking a feast and had got the smell of it for your pains."
We do have “honest artisans” in Seth and Adam, sure, but the crowd that gathers to listen to Dinah has no Joe Gargery in it. I’m not seeing “idealized proletaires” generally here--I’m not sure even Adam is really “idealized,” though he is stalwart and basically upright and virtuous (is that so unrealistic?).
I don’t really understand the point of Rich’s “Abedecadabra” thing above, but I’ve been thinking about his remark about “seeing the good instead of the bad” partly in the context of an earlier discussion here about “evaluative criticism.” I think I sense some resistance (maybe I misread here as well?) to what I might call ‘enthusiastic’ readings, and I admit that some of us may be too quick to offer excuses for, or just forgive, weaknesses in one of our favourite novelists. It’s good to have a skeptical perspective to counteract that! But in my own defense, I also prefer to move past possible problems in the writing and construction here because I feel as if the alternative (besides arguing endlessly about those standards) is to close the book (literally and metaphorically). Suppose one judged the narration to be simply inept--a bad job overall. Even establishing that is tricky (inept at what? by what standard? or by whose? yours? mine?), and then deciding how much it matters to our broader evaluation of the novel is trickier still (in the mid 19thC, character, social engagement, and morality were the major critical issues for fiction--why insist on the primacy of form?). But if you did so to your own satisfaction, do you just put the book aside? Maybe. Do you just keep objecting all the way through--at least, if these things don’t get better? Again, maybe, but how dull is that… If you are really trying to get some sense of what the book is--what it achieves--focusing on what’s interesting in it just seems more fruitful.
Rohan, for what it’s worth, a rousing: ‘HEAR, HEAR!’ Everyone is entitled to their opinion but it is, as I think you suggest, ‘time to move on’.
I didn’t get Rich’s parodiacal [is that a word?] point, either, but HE seems very pleased with it ... having, it appears, ‘made sense’ of the original (and there was I thinking Eliot hadn’t done too badly herself ... how very unsophisticated of me)!
P.S. Mrs Poyser, ‘FAWNING’? We’re reading different books!
"I don’t really understand the point of Rich’s “Abedecadabra” thing above, but I’ve been thinking about his remark about “seeing the good instead of the bad” partly in the context of an earlier discussion here about “evaluative criticism.””
I agree that it would be dull to go through the entire book making the same objections. But really, I think a preference to move past possible problems is encouraging you to miss things that are interesting.
That’s what “Abedecadabra” is about, really, the way in which trust in an author can turn into the acceptance of things that are really very odd, because after all the author has control over word choice, description, the narrated reaction of other characters, everything that would normally tell you that something is going on, other than your own judgement. “Abedecadabra” was an attempt to show how naturally the scene flowed along, even when Dinah’s ministering efforts are replaced by the slightly different religious ministry of a Aztec human sacrifice. You or I might not feel a “strange blending of exultation and sadness” as the sacrificial knife rose and fell, but then we might not feel that during a hymn, either, and no one doubts Eliot’s ability to inform us of that generality.
Among the items that I think that people are missing is “a beauty with which you can never be angry, but that you feel ready to crush for inability to comprehend the state of mind into which it throws you.” That’s really odd. I mean, try to forget what you know about Eliot, and really read it fresh. We’re hearing about the beauty of kittens, and then we’re hearing about un-angry, but selfish, willingness to crush that beauty because that beauty does not comprehend the disturbance that it causes you. I’m sorry, that is just not a standard reaction to kittens or to kittenish beauty.
None of the explanatory statements that people have made work; for instance, in Sue’s quotation of ‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires’, you clearly wouldn’t murder an infant in its cradle, so this becomes a hyperbolic way for Blake to say that you shouldn’t nurse unacted desires.
I would class the statement as casually sadistic. And that really fits a good deal of this book, doesn’t it? For instance, the primary purpose of ministering to Lisbeth is really presented as the shutting up of an annoyingly persistently grieving person. How dare she keep complaining two days after her husband has died? She should be more stoic. Alright, let’s throw out matters of writing and construction if you want—if taken directly, this is an interesting narrator because it’s like (slightly contra Julie above) having the Marquis de Sade at your elbow.
Sorry, Rich, that is NOT what Blake is saying, hyperbolically or otherwise: the ‘infant’ and ‘cradle’ are metaphorical (as you realise, of course) - as are the ‘kittens’ and ‘ducklings’ - symbolically, he means get rid of them before they become obsessions (the ‘desires’, that is, not the ‘infants’).
And speaking of ‘obsessions’ ... it was an interesting point two days (three?) ago, Rich, but Rohan is right, if we consider it an overwhelming defeat of the novel, even if we agree with you, which a lot of us don’t, where does that take us? And I’m sorry but it is very presumptuous to suggest that your self-indulgent scribblings can somehow achieve what Eliot can’t.
p.s. Please don’t write a parody of Blake just to make another point ‘clear’ to us, I’m losing the will to live!
Sue, I really don’t understand why you feel that it’s OK to be personally insulting. Obsessions? Self-indulgent scribblings? Then don’t read them. And I never suggested that I can do achieve what Eliot can’t; I’m afraid that you pulled that out of thin air.
You may feel free to treat your class as if they were kindergardeners, guiding them away from points that you don’t want made to those that you think are acceptable. But you don’t control what people write in this forum. If people aren’t interested in your standard-issue sugar and spice, please don’t blame me.
I just gave my opinion, Rich, as you have given yours and it wouldn’t be fair to comment on something I hadn’t read (I was referring to the ‘Abedecadabra thing’, as Rohan called it, not I). You have, I think, laboured the point, that’s all. Let’s talk about other aspects of the book as well, please, that’s all I’m saying.
Oh, I see what Sue is getting on at above. No, Sue, I didn’t suggest that I’d improved Eliot. I wrote that I had added two words—two rather incongruous words—and re-written the scene around it so that the scene still made sense, even with those two words added. You might want to work on your reading comprehension.
No, Sue, I gave my opinion about Eliot’s text. You insist on giving your opinion about my comments as if they reflect some personal failing of mine. It’s as if I wrote “Sue, you’re about to use up the world’s supply of air quotes, and you never bother to explain what you mean with reference to the text, instead preferring to use ALL CAPS when you just can’t believe that someone would have a different reading than you do. Could you write less like a teenager who can’t believe that someone just dissed Harry Potter, and more like an adult?”
And now you write “Let’s talk about other aspects of the book as well.” Sue, you can talk about whatever you want to talk about. Have I told you to stop making fannish comments about how great Mrs. Poyser is? No. Is anyone that interested in replying to them? Sadly, no. Unfortunately, that’s your problem, not mine.
Now, I really couldn’t care less whether you think I’ve gone on two or three days too long. Rohan took the trouble to phrase her concern without reference to my tortuous, obsessive, self-indulgent qualities, and wrote “Do you just keep objecting all the way through--at least, if these things don’t get better?” I answered “I agree that it would be dull to go through the entire book making the same objections.” So, you know, I’m not going to. I would have thought that maybe we could have gotten through the second week. But rest assured, future weeks will be untroubled by this particular set of concerns of mine, and I invite you to write “OMG Mrs. Poyser ‘so cool’” to your heart’s content.
Rich, you’re sending my Snarkometer into the red zone. I think I’ll go out and crush some puppies.
Speaking of which, I believe that Heathcliff hangs a puppy from a gate post in one of the later chapters of Wuthering Heights. It’s one of a number of images involving animals and thresholds, another example being when Skulker (is that the name?) bites young Catherine on the ankle as she and Heathcliff were peeking through the window of the Linton residence.
But this is all a digression from the business at hand.
I’ve been thinking some more about Mr Irwine’s question to Dinah about speaking to an audience, in the context of the other outspoken women we’ve met so far, Lisbeth and Mrs Poyser. This remark by the narrator’s was mentioned last week: “We are apt to be kinder to the brutes that love us than to the women that love us. Is it because the brutes are dumb?” As the notes to my Broadview edition point out, this is “an example of Eliot’s deliberate emphasis of the male authorial voice"--that is, the “we” here is certainly masculine. So the issue of male tolerance of women’s speech is highlighted from early on--it’s hard not to see this as significant in the context of a woman writer using a male pseudonym, and thus to read in some irony (or defensiveness?) to that remark.
At the same time, so far it seems impossible to read the novel as simply demanding that women’s voices be respected. Dinah’s sermon has quite a different status than Lisbeth’s plaintive garrulousness, even though, as public speech, it sort of should be the most problematic; even Mr Irwine cannot bring himself to “act the pedagogue here,” and he characterizes it as a force of nature ("one might as well go and lecture the trees for growing in their own shape"). Dinah’s lack of theatricality or self-consciousness (which also surprises our horseback rider early on) grants her some legitimacy.
With Lisbeth and Mrs Poyser, does their excessive speech seem compensatory in some way, a sign perhaps of their lack of other forms of power or agency--a way of claiming some control over their environment, or their men? But in Lisbeth’s case we see pretty clearly that it works against her.
Hetty speaks very little, by comparison to these other women. But, again, contrary to what we might conventionally expect, this seems not like admirable self-restraint but like an absence or lack. Is she being associated in this way as well with the “dumb” animals (kittens and ducks again?) who get kind treatment? Later on, of course, her failure to speak becomes critically important--but we can’t talk more about that now!
An interesting set of comments, Rohan.
You know, there are various reasons people take courses in public speaking. There is the desire to learn the technique. But, for many, there’s something deeper and more basic, simply being able to do it at all. It’s one thing to talk directly to someone with whom you have a relationship. It’s quite different to stand in a public and address yourself to the house at large. How do you muster the authority to do that? How do you make yourself comfortable in that role?
Dinah, of course, was not speaking on her own authority. She invoked a divine authority. But what’s the social process that grants her that authority? She’s most definitely not a member of the clergy. Not only is she a laymen, but she’s female as well.
The authority of the male/female voice is interesting, I think, especially as Dinah comments:
“It isn’t for men to make channels for God’s Spirit, as they make channels for the watercourses, and say, ‘Flow here, but flow not there.’”
Of course, she’s speaking specifically about preaching but it might, I infer, be extended into a generic. As you say, Rohan, we are reacting to writing by a woman using a male pseudonym so the comparison is inevitable - perhaps, in fact, precisely because she is writing about a vocation.
It is, moreover, interesting to note that the only work published under her own name was her translation of Feuerbach’s ‘The Essence of Christianity’. Of course, this might be because she considered this ‘scholarly’ work as opposed to her novels but it is tempting to connect the two thoughts.
Where does Eliot believe her ‘authority’ comes from, I wonder and, despite her loss of faith, does she seem to consider it, like Dinah’s ‘voice’, a God-given gift?
I found the idea of this reading interesting but have not had time to keep up, though I would have liked to. (Maybe I’ll catch up, somehow, but it definitely won’t be this weekend.) But I was wondering whether “we” have any kind of informed idea as to what George Eliot read.
Given that she was a liberal, I suppose we could assume that she read the reviews liberals at the time generally read and wrote, and the books those reviews reviewed. I’d have to assume she read Carlyle and I’d equally have to assume she found his politics disgusting, and would have preferably abstained from publishing rather than give support to his partisans (if he had any). Presumably she read “condition of England” novels. I do know she read Fielding, and passing mentions in Adam Bede suggest at least an acquaintance with popular romantic novels, maybe Scott.
The above is very much off-topic (and my background in formal literary studies is more than sketchy), but I’m brought to the question by something Adam Roberts said in one of the first posts in this thread. What he posted about Hetty’s seduction brought to mind that famous scene in Emma, and I was wondering how much the practice of witholding information from the reader originates with (what in present-day literature would surely be) sex scenes. Do these kinds of scenes “work” better—in the context of the novel—with GE’s kind of narrator, or with Jane Austen’s, or with something that would be developed later? And that led me to the question whether Eliot would have read Austen.
I’d have to assume she read Carlyle and I’d equally have to assume she found his politics disgusting, and would have preferably abstained from publishing rather than give support to his partisans (if he had any).
Bianca, actually Carlyle was a very influential figure, especially among social reformers (he numbered Dickens, who dedicated Hard Times to him, among his “partisans"). Clearly there were aspects of his views, especially later in his career, with which many disagreed (e.g. the famous dispute with Mill), but GE herself wrote that “there is hardly an active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings.” The idea that his politics were simply “disgusting” in a general way would not, I think, have had much currency then.
There’s a lot of information about GE’s reading. I don’t have any good sources to hand where I’m writing now, but I feel confident she would have read Austen--she was probably one of the best-read British intellectuals of her time, and not, of course, just in fiction but in philosophy, the natural sciences, theology, etc. She had certainly read Scott, and wrote eloquently about her love for him. She was herself an editor, reviewer, and writer for the (liberal) Westminster Review.
I always think it’s really important to look at what an author was reading, it gives tremendous insight into what was informing their writing. (A good example is the Brontes, whose heroes come straight from their combined love of Byron and Wellington!)
GE wrote a very funny essay called, I think ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ for The Westminster Review, (October 1856)which you’ll get if you follow this link:
I was also very struck by the line about the beauty of infants, that invites destruction. I think that there is more to this line than Eliot is being given credit for. It’s a chilling thought that Eliot is presenting to us, and one that I believe conceals a strikingly deep, if cynical, understanding of power. Something as beautiful as a child threatens traditional power because it is seductive. The child itself is not threatening but Eliot uses the tiny Totty effectively as a metaphor, for how we can be overwhelmed by beauty until we become obsessive about it. In retaliation, we find ourselves developing a Fight response to this seductive force, and we want to crush it.
Moving on from Hetty to Dinah, I don’t find Dinah’s lack of ‘interiority’ to be a flaw in Eliot’s style but rather the truth of who Dinah is. I found Dinah’s role in the bereaved Bede household surprising in how mean she is made out to be, which is of course a very relative thing to say given that Dinah is clearly on her way to beatification within the normal course of things. Her desire to bring the word of God on every lip seems so strong that we begin to suspect her motives in comforting Ma Bede. She’s itching to make the old woman kneel before the Lord’s omnipotence and is barely able to contain herself --- perhaps held back eventually only by the attraction she will begin to betray for the “hunky hero,” Mr. Adam Bede himself. We can only forgive Dinah for her almost overbearing and single-minded behavior when it comes to religious responsibility only because we know she lacks “interiority” and is compelled by forces she doesn’t understand, a fact that becomes even more abundantly clear in the later chapters of the first book.
More on my latest blog post at http://clicheniche.wordpress.com --- enjoy!
"It’s a chilling thought that Eliot is presenting to us, and one that I believe conceals a strikingly deep, if cynical, understanding of power. Something as beautiful as a child threatens traditional power because it is seductive.”
That’s an interesting linkage, Zachary. I’d been wondering how to read the Totty scene that Adam Roberts pointed out.
“Moving on from Hetty to Dinah, I don’t find Dinah’s lack of ‘interiority’ to be a flaw in Eliot’s style but rather the truth of who Dinah is.”
I don’t agree there. The Seth / Dinah scene, for instance, features Dinah lying to get rid of Seth, does it not? She’s telling him that she’s not interested in having a husband, when really she’s not interested in him. Now, she’s almost certainly sincerely fooling herself rather than lying consciously, but it indicates that there is more going on there under the surface.
One of the phrases that I copied for Abedecadabra direct from the text was “under the subduing influence of Dinah’s spirit”. It’s a Victorian value, I suppose, to think of of a good influence as subduing, as restraining the natural impulses that would lead to disorder or sinfulness. (Social disorder, in this case—Eliot’s essay, linked earlier, types the writer as a valuable informant for social reform.) It may be only under our somewhat different set of values that it appears as a desire for personal control.
’Something as beautiful as a child threatens traditional power because it is seductive. The child itself is not threatening but Eliot uses the tiny Totty effectively as a metaphor, for how we can be overwhelmed by beauty until we become obsessive about it. In retaliation, we find ourselves developing a Fight response to this seductive force, and we want to crush it.’
Following on from your interesting response, Zachary, what do you make of the unavoidable connection Eliot makes between Hetty and her ‘childishness’ as a moral ‘power’? (Especially as Hetty doesn’t like animals or children herself.) It’s not as if we can say that she is consciously threatening can we, despite her self-awareness? In fact, rather the reverse since she is the truly vulnerable creature here. So, as you suggest, she has the potential for power but it is ultimately self-destructive, isn’t it?
Also, she seems to represent a ‘lost’ or ‘abandoned’ child, as an orphan, who has to belong to the Poysers if she is to belong anywhere though she seems a ‘cuckoo in the nest’, tolerated but not loved. Does this alter her view of what the attention she achieves via her beauty can get? Might she, in fact, be, as Eliot seems to suggest, seeking love as much as attention and/or power? So many questions, so little time ...
Is there a sense, perhaps, of the author making early excuses for Hetty: as a ‘child’ she is less culpable when things go wrong. In this sense, I think her power is a double-edged sword and maybe that conects to the desire to ‘crush’. Is it only ‘retaliation’ and who is attacking whom? I’m not sure but thanks for the thought-provoking comment.
Rohan, Sue, thanks for your replies.
It sounds as if there may have been little political division among thinkers and literary figures—this could have something to do with the unitary culture that was so famously lost (according to people like Woolf and T.S. Eliot) near the beginning of the twentieth century. My memory of The Victorian Temper seems to include a fair amount of disagreement and polarization, so possibly it may be that literary figures simply didn’t concern themselves with electoral politics or with policy (maybe how they maintained that unitary culture in the first place). I think others have pointed out in these threads that Adam appears to be a somewhat Carlylean figure, so it could be that GE changed her mind in the course of her career, or maybe her support for a conservative like Carlyle was inconsistent on her part. I’ll have to read more about it.
The Victorian Temper: should be The Victorian Frame of Mind.
It sounds as if there may have been little political division among thinkers and literary figures
That certainly isn’t what I meant to imply. It’s just that the idea of Carlyle as a “disgusting” “conservative” is misleadingly reductive, though this is probably not the place to try and sort out exactly what he was. Like many 19thC social critics, he does not fit neatly into our political categories.
it may be that literary figures simply didn’t concern themselves with electoral politics or with policy
Well, again, Dickens is the obvious counter-example, though in his fiction he rarely address “electoral politics” specifically. George Eliot does, though, in Felix Holt, the Radical (1866).
Dickens does too, in Our Mutual Friend, and to a lesser extent in Dorrit (and, with a broader satiric brush, in Pickwick’s Eatenswill).
There’s a good bit of what we’ve read of Adam Bede that reminds me of Burkean conservatism, formed in the context of liberalism but concerned about the speed and unpredictability of radical social change and the conservation of organic social structures. The end of Chapter V, where Eliot describes how Mr. Irwine “harmonised extremely well with that peaceful landscape”, seems like an especially Burkean figure.
Rohan, Adam, you’ve started me off on Dickens, now, too. Depending how broadly you define ‘electoral politics’, almost all his work is involved with related issues in some way. ‘Hard Times’(sorry can’t get italics to work) is the obvious example, of course, (coinincidentally, not to say entirely irrelevantly, set near where I am writing this). But if you think ‘socio-political’ not only Dickens but a very large proportion of Victorian writers were deeply involved with politics and GE was certainly, to my way of thinking, ‘right up there’.
I agree with Rich about the Burkean tones, especially re Mr. Irwine. His characterization reminds me of Trollope, especially some parts of The Warden (1855), which also highlights the materialism of the church and the worldiness of its representatives, and yet at the same time cherishes its aesthetic and, sometimes, humane contributions:
Who would not feel charity for a prebendary when walking the quiet length of that long aisle at Winchester, looking at those decent houses, that trim grass-plat, and feeling, as one must, the solemn, orderly comfort of the spot! Who could be hard upon a dean while wandering round the sweet close of Hereford, and owning that in that precinct, tone and colour, design and form, solemn tower and storied window, are all in unison, and all perfect! Who could lie basking in the cloisters of Salisbury, and gaze on Jewel’s library and that unequalled spire, without feeling that bishops should sometimes be rich!
or, maybe even more to the point,
Few parish churches in England are in better repair, or better worth keeping so, than that at Plumstead Episcopi; and yet it is built in a faulty style: the body of the church is low—so low, that the nearly flat leaden roof would be visible from the churchyard, were it not for the carved parapet with which it is surrounded. It is cruciform, though the transepts are irregular, one being larger than the other; and the tower is much too high in proportion to the church. But the colour of the building is perfect; it is that rich yellow gray which one finds nowhere but in the south and west of England, and which is so strong a characteristic of most of our old houses of Tudor architecture. The stone work also is beautiful; the mullions of the windows and the thick tracery of the Gothic workmanship is as rich as fancy can desire; and though in gazing on such a structure one knows by rule that the old priests who built it, built it wrong, one cannot bring oneself to wish that they should have made it other than it is.
Change and reform are both inevitable and necessary, but shouldn’t be rushed; old customs and beliefs may be irrational but they acquire a sort of sacredness in part because they tie people to each other. (Doesn’t this account for much of the respect accorded to religious institutions by someone who no longer believes in their specific doctrines? They provide frameworks for people to express and practice values that GE had come to see, via Feuerbach etc., as human rather than divine in their inspiration; their buildings are also concrete symbols of those values and of tradition and history.)
History and family bind people together; people who are too ready to abandon their roots are most vulnerable to moral collapse (Maggie in The Mill on the Floss: “If the past is not to bind us, where shall duty lie?")--Hetty, to go back to our immediate example, is far too easy with the prospect of a future cut off entirely from the Hall Farm.
I wanted to respond to questions addressed to me here, before I move on to be part of the discussion for the last six chapters of Book 1.
Re Rich’s point about Dinah’s interiorty, I have taken ‘interiority’ to mean self-introspection --- an ability or desire to create an ‘autobiographied’ self. In that respect, Dinah does not, as Hetty does even, have much to say herself about why she reacts one way or the other to her environment. Hetty has her reasons, impetuous and poorly thought out though they may be, and so does Arthur. Dinah on the other hand, simply does things, as for example when she tells Mr. Irwine, that she does not know how she came to start preaching, except that her oratorical skills just beame obvious enough to her that she accepted it as something she should do.
Rohan commented on Eliot making out Hetty as a moral power because of her childishness, and the ultimately self destructive nature of her seductive power. I think that’s a very accurate observation. This whole Hetty/lambs/kittens situation reminds me most strongly of Baudrillard’s ideas on seduction --- seduction is marked by its reflexivity, the way in which the game of seduction can be turned on the seducer and then back again, in an endless (and, to Baudrillard, a virtuous) cycle.