July 22, 2008

Adam Bede at The Valve: Book Four (Chapters 27-35)


Our group reading of Adam Bede continues at The Valve. This week's installment includes the immortal Mrs. Poyser having "her say out":
"Yis, I know I've done it," said Mrs Poyser, "but I've had my say out, and I shall be th' easier for 't all my life. There's no pleasure i' living, if you're to be corked up for iver, and only dribble your mind out by the sly, like a leaky barrel."

To which any one of us who has ever been accused of speaking out of turn (or just speaking too much) can say a hearty "hear, hear!"

Now, too, we've reached, not the crisis of the book, but a crisis at least, as Arthur's guilty secret comes out and he and Adam face off "with the instinctive fierceness of panthers."

One of the most compelling aspects of this volume for me is Arthur's growing realization of one of GE's most stringent moral laws: you cannot escape your deeds:
Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds; and until we know what has been or will be the peculiar combination of outward with inward facts, which constitutes a man's critical actions, it will be better not to think ourselves wise about his character. There is a terrible coercion in our deeds which may first turn the honest man into a deceiver, and then reconcile him to the change; for this reason--that the second wrong presents itself to him in the guise of the only practicable right. . . . Europe adjusts itself to a fait accompli, and so does an individual character,--until the placid adjustment is disturbed by a convulsive retribution.

She returns to the fatality of action in Romola--
Our deeds are like children that are born to us; they live and act apart from our own will. Nay, children may be strangled, but deeds never: they have an indestructible life both in and out of our consciousness.

and again in Middlemarch--
1st Gent. Our deeds are fetters that we forge ourselves.
2nd Gent. Ay, truly, but I think it is the world
That brings the iron.

How often, in George Eliot's fiction, do past deeds return to haunt, confound, or indict those who seek to leave their pasts behind? Your own actions are her version of Nemesis, as many critics have pointed out; when disaster comes, most of the time you have only yourself to blame--or, yourself and the particular "combination of outward with inward facts" that has created the context in which your actions became inevitable. Often, though, she embodies that doom: Baldassare confronts Tito, Raffles returns to Bulstrode--here Hetty and her unborn child represent Arthur's moral degradation. One explanation that is sometimes given for the length and detail of George Eliot's novels (in which, as has been pointed out here, there is often a long, largely discursive prelude to any distinct event) is that these outward and inward circumstances need to be established fully enough that we can appreciate the causes of the action, as well as anticipate the consequences. This is her idea of determinism, summed up by George Levine (in "Determinism and Responsibility in the Works of George Eliot," PMLA 77:3, 1962) as an "idea-simple at bottom but leading to enormous complications-that every event has its causal antecedents." Here's a bit more of Levine's explanation of this theory:
George Eliot saw a deterministic universe as a marvelously complex unit in which all parts are intricately related to each other, where nothing is really isolable, and where past and future are both implicit in the present. Nothing in such a universe is explicable without reference to the time and place in which it occurs or exists. This suggested that one can never make a clearcut break with the society in which one has been brought up, with one's friends and relations, with one's past. Any such break diminishes a man's wholeness and is the result of his failure to recognize his ultimate dependence on others, their claims on him, and the consequent need for human solidarity. For George Eliot, every man's life is at the center of a vast and complex web of causes," a good many of which exert pressure on him from the outside and come into direct conflict with his own desires and motives.

Of course, as Levine discusses in detail, this view went hand-in-hand for her with a stringent commitment to individual responsibility. Interestingly, Levine uses Adam Bede to illustrate this point:
The point is that although every action is caused, few causes are uncontrollable in the sense that no effort to alter them can succeed. As long as the cause is not a compulsion, that is, as long as it is not physically impossible or excessively dangerous to will differently and as long as one is not so mentally ill that one cannot will differently even if one wants to, one is responsible for his actions. To take an example: in Adam Bede, Arthur Donnithorne was free to avoid the circumstances which drew him into sexual relations with Hetty Sorrel. He was aware that he should have told Mr. Irwine about his feelings, but he chose not to. And even though he was helped in avoiding confession by Irwine's overly decorous refusal to make him talk, Arthur was under no compulsion to be silent. At one point in the conversation between Arthur and Irwine, Irwine figuratively and implicitly makes the distinction between cause and compulsion. Arthur says to him:

"Well, but one may be betrayed into doing things by a combination of circumstances, which one might never have done otherwise." "Why, yes [Irwine replies], a man can't very well steal a bank-note unless the bank-note lies within convenient reach; but he won't make us think him an honest man because he begins to howl at the banknote for falling in his way." (Ch. XVI)

The bank-note's presence, that is to say, is one of the causes of the theft, but there is nothing in its presence serving as a compulsion to make a man steal it.

This is one line of interpretation we might wish to pursue, but as always, questions and comments on any topic are welcome.

In case anyone needs reminders or is joining in a bit belatedly, the overall schedule is here. Previous discussions have covered Chapters 1-5, Chapters 6-11, Chapters 12-16, Chapters 17-21, and Chapters 22-26.


Vwriter said...

Hello Rohan!

Your blog is one of the most interesting blog I've come across on the web. If providing intellectual content were a crime, you would most likely be in prison for providing such intriguing insights. I enjoy what you've written very much, and will drop by again.

Please don't quit posting- I only just found you!

Rohan Maitzen said...

Thanks! I have no plans to stop posting, though things have been a bit slow here recently (summertime and the livin' is...lazy).