Adam Bede, Chapters I through V

I tried reading Middlemarch a few months ago, on the recommendation of a resolutely misogynistic friend who proclaimed that reading it had convinced him that George Eliot was not only the only woman novelist worth reading (ever!) but that she was an exceptional novelist in the first place. This was praise of a special kind, coming as it did from someone who was rarely moved to any kind of positive opinion of things. So I proceeded to read the novel, even though I had an initial twinge of despair when I saw how large it was.

I did not finish the book — too quickly I found the plot slow and the situation of the characters rather tepid, on the whole. I wasn’t expecting a Michael Crichton blockbuster or a James Cameron screenplay, but once it dawned on me that all the action of the novel would not stray far from a small part of nineteenth century England, that indeed I should have considered myself forewarned by the bloody title itself, this grain of realization quickly became a desert of insight in which my stream of early motivations sputtered to a dry and sorry death.

I mention this at length because it is an important part of the context which I have brought with me to the reading of Adam Bede as part of this Summer Reading Project. I anticipated that the format of discussion would provide a better motivation than the one that drove me to try and read Middlemarch, because it would be more ongoing. I hope also that there will be a community engaged in the same task as I, whereas with Middlemarch I had only the implicit approval of my friend and perhaps the added benefit that we could add a discussion of the book to our existing topics of conversation.

I also bring to the analysis of this book no literary context other than the attempts I have made at writing, attempts that have largely been self motivated and unschooled in any formal way. I have acquired various ideas of literary criticism through osmosis rather than pedagogy. My own ideas of criticism, I think, are dominated more by personal moods and where my personal history situates me, rather than any absolute criteria of artistic merit. To me, reading a book is akin to drinking wine — I don’t believe there is any true merit detectable in either object of my experience that is completely divorced from a vast host of concomitant factors. Such a judgment would rely on too Romantic an ideal of art or experience. And yet, I am not a supporter of what I believe is commonly called the doctrine of cultural relativism. Go figure.

Disclaimers aside, let’s get on with my thoughts about the book so far. With a certain solipsistic glee, I declare that the outstanding reason that I like this book is because it fit frighteningly aptly into a conversation I was recently in. It was a very real and pragmatic conversation I was having with a friend about romantic relationships and our respective troubles with women. He mentioned to me that in contrast with the layers of introspective analysis he employs to feel comfortable with his emotional investments with women, his relationship with his dog is fraught with no such impediments and is in fact pure and unfiltered. I immediately fished my copy of Adam Bede out of my backpack and quoted from Chapter IV: “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?” The flourish with which I could pull this out in the middle of our conversation made me fall very deeply in love with the book, as if it was a pet parrot that I had taught in the morning the very trick that I needed it to perform to win a bet later that night.

In Adam Bede, Eliot performs repeatedly but without being tiresome, the trick of making a sly observation about the way the world is without being clear about where the observation came from or what its speaker’s perspective is. As in the statement above comparing women to dogs, we are left with the slightly dirty feeling that Eliot is really talking about the way we all feel, that she is nudging-and-winking at us in a gesture of complicity that we are not sure she has the license to thrust on us. These sentences come at you like a Candid Camera jokester who rushes in and pulls down your pants, pulls them back up skillfully and disappears without a trace. Before and after the humiliation, all you see is the crowd around you — the same descriptions of the scene, the same characters continuing their respective roles, the same themes and concerns. Yet, everything has changed subtlely because for the briefest moment, you know your privates felt the clammy wind of personal exposure.

So far, nothing has lacked in the drama and the construction of the world it is taking place in. The flourish with which Eliot compares herself to ancient and arcane Egyptian sorcerers with her very first sentence still lingers. Reading each new scene that Eliot conjures up for us is like watching another part of the sorcerer’s parchment being touched by the magical ink. The ink spreads, thread by pulped thread, and the growing stain becomes increasingly fascinating and unpredictable in its direction. Indeed, this very comparison Eliot indulges in right at the beginning not only presages the lightning sleight of hand she will pull on the reader at regular intervals through the novel, but also warns us that here is a novelist who commands her readers and characters from a great height and is very aware of it.

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