Adam Bede, Chapters VI through X

I am continuing here from where I left off in a previous post, talking about my endeavor of reading through Adam Bede, about five chapters at a time, while participating in an online group critique of it. At the time of writing this post, I have already read past the eleventh chapter, and that has somewhat dulled the degree of surprise I had experienced after the first ten chapters of how free the novel was of being overwrought and sappy. But nonetheless, I am still enjoying the combination of sheer joy and acerbic disdain that I feel Eliot must have experienced in creating the characters in this novel.

Naturally, Hetty Sorrel is the focal point of these five chapters, and the only reason the character of Mrs. Poyser comes in second, albeit by the breadth of the smallest concession that she might give in a battle for getting her due out of those that associate with her, is because Eliot has taken care to sound the most ominous notes when talking of Hetty before this. We have ample reason to suppose that Hetty is what I term the “broken disciplining paddle” of a good nineteenth century novel — the cause of many a sorry end, including itself. If I were Mel Brooks satirizing this novel, I would, in the first few scenes, have the kettle drums and minor chords playing ostentatiously whenever someone said Hetty’s name, until one of the other characters, perhaps Adam, would be forced to walk “off camera,” revealing the drum band to the right, who he then proceeds to warn off any future scene.

Before I return to Hetty, let me briefly spend time with Mrs. Poyser. Who can represent better the true face of England’s future than this endlessly harrying woman, attempting with every breath to negotiate a materially more satisfying, cleaner and safer world for herself and her brood? Clearly, Eliot’s sympathies lie with Mrs. Poyser and her kind more than any one else in this novel — not with the dying breed of aristocrats, country squires and Anglican clergy that the Donnithornes and Irwines are, nor with the pretentiousness of the religious novelties that Dinah and her Methodists (which would make such a good band name!) nor even with her hero, the man who lays claim to the title of the novel, if not the title of any land, for after all we already know that Hetty is his fatal flaw. The only character that will survive and do so intelligently, instead of because of a last minute Dickensian intervention, is Mrs. Poyser.

What I remember from these chapters more than anything else is the continuation of Eliot’s sarcastic sense of humor. Our introduction to Hetty’s beauty is through a series of metaphors that subvert themselves through Eliot’s insistence that none of them could possibly do Hetty justice, only because the truest justice to such beauty as Hetty’s is done by actually gazing upon it. Her lack of interest in the senior Bede’s death is the expected response; her lack in Totty’s cherubic charms is a surer indictment, coming as it does after the first scene we see Totty in, with her mother, where we’re primed to expect that every one who comes within a few feet of her lisping presence will immediately dissolve into paroxysms of indulgence. That Hetty fails to do so, especially in the presence of a gentleman who is already smitten by the little child and could only gain a favorable impression of Hetty were she to share in the coddling, more clearly marks her as a massive failure than any other past or future insensitivities could.

The discussion of these chapters on The Valve, which motivated me to start reading Adam Bede, has much to say about Eliot’s description of Totty, of her beauty being so intense that lack of understanding it forces one to extinguish it. It’s a chilling thought, 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 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. The discussion on The Valve also touches on Dinah’s lack of “interiority,” which I don’t find to be a flaw in Eliot’s style, but rather the truth of who Dinah is. We can forgive Dinah for her almost overbearing and single-minded behavior when it comes to religious responsibility only because we know she’s compelled by forces she doesn’t understand, a fact that becomes even more abundantly clear in later chapters.

Seen in this respect, the novel is beginning to shape up, rather nicely, I might add, around the question of human desires, secular and transcendental, and how we act under circumstances beyond our control — Hetty’s seduction is almost a red herring in this regard, the obvious story that is itself a microcosm representing the larger story it is a part of. It is almost as if Eliot is setting us up, lulling us, through both Hetty’s story and the calm and idyllic setting of the English Midlands, to not see the larger picture, so that the true drama, when it unfolds, is that much more frightening.

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