August 11, 2008

Adam Bede at The Valve: The Final Post


The final installment of our Adam Bede reading project is up at The Valve. If you've been reading along, do come over and leave a comment! Here's my 'starter' post:

First, in case anyone is inspired to go back and read through the posts and comments in sequence, here they are:
Was Adam Bede the best choice for a project like this? I don't know, but clearly some people enjoyed it, or at least persevered with it, and probably we all know things we didn't know before, whether about George Eliot, Dutch painting, fanfic, or just ourselves as readers. I don't have any sense of how many people were reading along but not commenting. If there are any of you still lurking out there, I hope you'll take this opportunity to say a few words about you and your experience of reading Adam Bede this summer. I'm sure the people who have been commenting all along don't need any special prompting from me to add their own last words!

A thumbnail version of my own reaction on this rereading of the novel is that it's an extraordinary first book. (I know: Scenes of Clerical Life was her first published fiction, but it's a different kind of thing.) My initial inability to read it without making mental connections and comparisons to her later work came to confirm for me that she learned how to do, better, many of the things she is trying to do here, novelistically and artistically as well as philosophically and dramatically. But she could already do remarkable things in all of these categories, from passages of memorable wisdom and poignancy in the intrusive narration to scenes of striking pathos and suspense, such as Hetty's forlorn pilgrimage. If Adam is a bit of a stump (though arguably better, as a hunk, than Felix Holt a couple of novels later), he is excellent practice for Caleb Garth; Mr Irwine fumbles the ball Mr Farebrother will pick up and run with; Dorothea is a thoroughly secularized saint--but Mrs Poyser is as good as a Dickens character, and I mean that without irony, someone who livens up your imagination from having lived in it for a while. The overall structure seems beautifully balanced, better than The Mill on the Floss (heavily weighted, GE admitted, towards the childhood scenes and so rushed through to the end), and the set pieces such as the birthday feast work better for me for my having considered them (like the harvest supper at the end) in light of the painterly analogies explored in Yeazell's book. But here my own limitations and preoccupations are showing: I'm thinking about the novel in the context of GE's other novels, and there are lots of other ways we could go.

In closing, then, here's my favourite passage from the last section of the novel. I think it captures something that really struck me this time about the underlying tone of the story, in which nostalgia for the past is charged with mourning (it's the past, after all, and not to be recovered) but at the same time counteracted with energy for a new life richer with meaning and sympathy because of that history, just as Adam's love for Dinah is stronger, not weaker, because of their shared memories of Hetty. We can't really long for the past because we are no longer the same people:
It would be a poor result of all our anguish and our wrestling, if we won nothing but our old selves at the end of it--if we could return to the same blind loves, the same self-confident blame, the same light thoughts of human suffering the same frivolous gossip over blighted human lives, the same feeble sense of that Unknown towards which we have sent forth irrepressible cries in our loneliness. Let us rather be thankful that our sorrow lives in us as an indestructible force, only changing its form, as forces do, and passing from pain into sympathy--the one poor word which includes all our best insight and our best love.

And, a bit later on,
The growth of higher feeling within us is like the growth of faculty, bringing with it a sense of added strength: we can no more wish to return to a narrower sympathy, than a painter or musician can wish to return to his cruder manner, or a philosopher to his less complete formula.

As someone who has a few times this summer felt strongly inclined to "hide her eyes in selfish complaining" (Middlemarch Ch. 80), I can at least aspire to this condition of mental growth and "added strength." It's not what everyone reads for (not me either, not all the time), but it's one good thing to take away an idea about how the bad and the good in one's life might come together to make one a more sympathetic person.

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