Tomorrow we start our work on Adam Bede in my 19th-Century Fiction class. As I was rereading the opening chapters last week, I tweeted, a bit facetiously, that you could probably “launch a successful attack on the whole foolish ‘show, don’t tell’ myth using excerpts from Adam Bede alone.” This was in part a delayed reaction to a comment on my post about Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk: “it didn’t work for me at all as fiction,” Irene said; “A lot of telling, not showing.” To which I replied, “I’m a fan of telling. How could I not be, as a Victorianist?” Because when people invoke this supposed rule, what they usually seem to mean is that good writing should be dramatic, not descriptive, and that, above all, it should avoid extended passages of exposition — and what would Victorian fiction be without description and exposition? Frankly, I’ve also read a few too many recent novels that leave empty space where telling might in fact be really valuable, and where its absence looked to me a bit like shirking the admittedly hard work of doing it well.
Obviously, the casual assumption that good writers show rather than tell is a pet peeve of mine, but it’s also not an assumption that I think is actually that widely or strongly held by avid readers, who in my experience tend to agree with Henry James that “the house of fiction has many windows.” (Not that we don’t have own own favorite styles, but confusing taste with objective evaluation is … well, OK, it’s inevitable, but it should at least be self-conscious!) The source of this “rule” seems to be creative writing classes, but I wonder how strong its hold is even there. The creative writers I know seem unlikely to be so narrow-minded, and here is an admirably nuanced ‘lesson’ on showing vs. telling from novelist Emma Darwin.* The right technique, surely, is the one that best achieves a writer’s goals, including not just formal, stylistic, and aesthetic ones but also substantial ones. There are things that exposition in particular can do that simply can’t be provided in any other way: historical or philosophical context for the novel’s action, for instance, or psychological insights unavailable to the characters themselves.
If your ideal fiction is not analytical in these ways, then showing might be enough for you. But that means your novels will never include anything like Chapter 15 of Middlemarch — in which almost nothing actually happens, but we, as readers, learn an enormous amount — or, to get back to Adam Bede, anything like its Chapter 15, “The Two Bed-Chambers,” which is a stunning set piece of characterization. It includes both showing and telling. The actions of both Hetty and Dinah, for instance, speak volumes about who they are: most obviously, Hetty stares into her mirror while Dinah gazes out the window. The narrator layers meaning onto their actions with pointed descriptions — Hetty’s “pigeon-like stateliness” as she paces back and forth in her shabby faux-finery, for instance, and Dinah’s tranquility as she feels “the presence of a Love and Sympathy deeper and more tender than was breathed from the earth and sky.” We are brought close into each character’s consciousness, and then drawn out again to a broader perception, which is the characteristic pulse of George Eliot’s fiction, and running through it all is her perspicacious commentary:
Nature has her language, and she is not unveracious; but we don’t know all the intricacies of her syntax just yet, and in a hasty reading we may happen to extract the very opposite of her real meaning. Long dark eyelashes, now — what can be more exquisite? I find it impossible not to expect some depth of soul behind a deep grey eye with a long dark eyelash, in spite of an experience which has shown me that they may go along with deceit, peculation, and stupidity. But if, in the reaction of disgust, I have betaken myself to a fishy eye, there has been a surprising similarity of result. One begins to suspect at length that there is no direct correlation between eyelashes and morals; or else, that the eyelashes express the disposition of the fair one’s grandmother, which is on the whole less important to us.
“What a strange contrast the two figures made!” exclaims the narrator after Dinah, provoked by intuitive anxiety about where Hetty’s “blank” nature might lead her, interrupts Hetty’s dreams of becoming a “lady” by rapping on her door:
Hetty, her cheeks flushed and her eyes glistening from her imaginary drama, her beautiful neck and arms bare, her hair hanging in a curly tangle down her back, and the baubles in her ears. Dinah, covered with her long white dress, her pale face full of subdued emotion, almost like a lovely corpse into which the soul has returned charged with sublimer secrets and a sublimer love.
I’m pretty sure that’s telling — but how could you simply show that contrast, which lies less in the details visible in the “mingled twilight and moonlight” than in the difference they represent between the flesh and the spirit, or between egotism and altruism, which the whole previous sequence has prepared us to realize?
I know that what some readers object to in Eliot’s style of telling is that she doesn’t seem to leave us to draw our own conclusions about her characters: her commentary usually steers us firmly in a particular direction. Her narrator is much less forgiving than Dinah, for example, about Hetty’s vanity, and so too is Mrs. Poyser, who sees Hetty’s “moral deficiencies” quite clearly. It’s not that she doesn’t leave us plenty to think about, though. Adam Bede dedicates much more than this one chapter to analyzing Hetty’s character and motives, for example, as well as to exploring the effect on them of her specific circumstances. A great deal of effort, in other words, goes into understanding Hetty — including the unarguable fact of her vanity, which means not just her pleasure in her own beauty but her inability to tell any story without herself at the center of it. Also, we know that “Hetty could have cast all her past life behind her and never cared to be reminded of it again” — which, in Eliot’s world, means she is morally unmoored. (“If the past is not to bind us,” as Maggie Tulliver will say in Eliot’s next novel, “where shall duty lie?”) What, though, is the relationship between this deep understanding (the kind required by Eliot’s theory of determinism) and forgiveness? If we can explain so thoroughly what someone does so, and if we are under a moral obligation to sympathize with them, what happens to accountability, to blame, to justice? If you know where Hetty’s journey takes her, and why, then you know how painfully these questions arise in Adam Bede.
My point, I guess, is that this central problem of the novel is vivid to us — it matters to us — in part because of what we have been told. It is an intellectual problem, not (to borrow from Darwin’s post) a “scratch-and-sniff” one. Yet, having said that, it’s absolutely true that we feel its urgency in part because the narrator gets out of the way at crucial dramatic moments, such as during the novel’s second great set piece with Dinah and Hetty much, much later, in Hetty’s prison cell:
Slowly, while Dinah was speaking, Hetty rose, took a step forward, and was clasped in Dinah’s arms.
They stood so a long while, for neither of them felt the impulse to move apart again. Hetty, without any distinct thought of it, hung on this something that was come to clasp her now, while she was sinking helpless in a dark gulf; and Dinah felt a deep joy in the first sign that her love was welcomed by the wretched lost one. The light got fainter as they stood, and when at last they sat down on the straw pallet together, their faces had become indistinct.
What a great return this is to the earlier scene, with Dinah’s premonition of trouble: “Dear Hetty,” she says, “it has been borne in upon my mind to- night that you may some day be in trouble . . . I want to tell you that if ever you are in trouble, and need a friend that will always feel for you and love you, you have got that friend in Dinah Morris at Snowfield.” When her prediction comes true and Dinah comes to her in her time of trouble, almost all the telling in the chapter is Hetty’s own.
*Actually, after reading her post I am not so sure I really understand what people mean by “showing,” which going by her examples just means “doing description better.” That has never seemed to me to be the implication of “show, don’t tell.” If it is, I don’t think I disagree after all, and you can disregard this entire post! What do you think that rule means — or, perhaps a different question, what do you think people typically mean when they sling it around?