This Week In My Classes: Reading Against the Grain

adambedeI have really enjoyed rereading Adam Bede for my graduate seminar over the past two weeks. Though I know the novel reasonably well, I have never spent the kind of dedicated time on it that I have on Middlemarch or The Mill on the Floss  — or, for that matter, on Romola. I’ve never even assigned it in an undergraduate class, I realize! Still, I do have a half-finished (well, maybe one-third-finished) essay on it for Open Letters that was (is?) going to focus on the line between explaining and justifying, between understanding and forgiving. This is a problem raised in most of Eliot’s novels, but Hetty’s infanticide is an extreme test case: there’s nothing abstract about the consequences of her crime, nothing diffuse or dispersed about the damage done, as there is with, for example, Bulstrode’s lies or Tito’s betrayal. “Children may be strangled, but deeds never,” says the narrator rather chillingly in Romola, but it’s really only in Adam Bede that there’s a literal child to mourn rather than an intangible (if irrevocable) fault.

Though the novel is called Adam Bede (a faintly puzzling choice that we talked about several times in class), Hetty is by far its most interesting element: both the drama of her story (especially the still-gripping-after-all-these-years journeys in hope and despair) and the meticulous care with which Eliot presents her vain, shallow, artless, and ultimately tragic character. Critics sometimes accuse Eliot of being hard on her beautiful women in general and on Hetty in particular. It’s true we’re shown Hetty in a very unflattering light, despite the emphasis on her kitten-like charms. That seems to me the only plausible option, though, if we are going to go through the moral exercise the novel sets for us of sympathizing with “more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people.” The point is not to help us see Hetty in a kindly light, to show us that she’s somehow better than she seems — but to show us that however irredeemably selfish she is, however incapable of self-reflection, nonetheless the onus is on us to “tolerate, pity, and love” her. Dinah, of course, is our model for that moral transcendence, and though she herself is rather a dull character, I think the meeting between the two women in prison is thrilling. (I wrote a little bit about it near the end of this essay on faith and fellowship in Middlemarch.)

So, there’s all that, and luxurious landscapes, and dramatic rescues, and Mrs. Poyser to boot — what’s not to love?

But I had much less fun rereading some of the critical articles I’d assigned, even though they are smart and well-argued and thought-provoking and all the things that they should be. I was trying to figure out why, and what I came up with was that in many ways they position themselves against George Eliot, against Adam Bede as she offers it to us. I’ve been reading and writing for so long now outside of academic parameters that I’ve become less accustomed to the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” or to readings that are less interested in the discussion the author is overtly having with us than in undermining or second-guessing or critiquing the terms of discussion the author has chosen. I would never argue that such critiques are illegitimate; often, too, they establish a valuable chiaroscuro in a robust appreciation (who today can love Dickens, for instance, without also conceding that his women often disappoint?). It would be naive, or worse, to pretend that there’s nothing objectionable to be found — even in George Eliot! (Yes, her politics are cautious to the point of conservative; yes, she’s essentialist about gender; yes, she can be less than rhapsodic about coarse peasants; etc.) I think that right now, though, for me it’s less rewarding to do or read criticism that digs in on these issues when there is so much that is progressive and aspirational, and also beautiful, in her writing. What are we to do with Adam Bede, after all, if we conclude that it perpetuates or advocates a vision (a version) of society that we reject? Close it and put it away for good?

Almost certainly not, of course, and I don’t think that’s what any of the critics we read are saying either. Usually (as I take it) the implicit subtext is something more like “read it in a more complicated way,” or “approach with skepticism.” Don’t, in other words, take Eliot’s words for granted, which is exactly the mantra I’ve been insisting on in my Introduction to Literature class — except that there, the purpose is not to catch out or undermine the author but to appreciate their artful use of language to serve their ends. That approach is consistent with ultimately finding those ends problematic, but it’s still overall a more positive exercise. (That seems both right and necessary as a first step: you can’t effectively critique what you don’t thoroughly understand, after all.)

Writing this, I am plagued by a sense that I’m being inconsistent, maybe even hypocritical. I definitely resist some books and read them, if not suspiciously, at least with something quite other than appreciation. I’ve also committed a lot of time and thought to the importance of ethical criticism, which is fundamentally about questioning the implications of an author’s literary strategies, as much as or more than it is about identifying their overt or covert political commitments. Maybe I still haven’t rightly identified the source of my annoyance, then — or maybe what it comes down to is just that I prefer my Adam Bede to the Adam Bede I saw in some of the critical essays. The miraculous thing about great books is that all these versions can coexist, that all these things can be going on at once. Love, too, can coexist with criticism — even my love for Middlemarch, which is complicated but not diminished by my anxiety that there is something potentially dangerous about its most beautiful moments.

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