Showing and Telling in Adam Bede

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?

This Week In My Classes: Mercy and Tenderness in “Lizzie Leigh”

gif-eg-lizzieOur reading for today in The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ was Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1850 short story “Lizzie Leigh.” We’re reading it at the end of a cluster of other works that deal with ‘fallen women,’ including Aurora Leigh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny,” Augusta Webster’s “A Castaway,” and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” (which, we agreed, is certainly about women and sexual temptation in some way, even though it is as frustrating as it is fun to try to figure out exactly which way).

“Lizzie Leigh” is certainly the most heavy-handed of these texts. Gaskell wants you to forgive poor Lizzie, who was “led astray” then dismissed by her hard-hearted employer “as soon as he had heard of her condition — and she not seventeen!” as her grieving mother Anne laments. Driven to the streets (“whatten kind o’ work would be open to her … and her baby to keep?”), Lizzie has abandoned her child, dropping her into the arms of kind, virtuous young Susan, who raises her with all the loving tenderness her mother could wish for. Despite her own desperate straits, Lizzie still provides what she can for her daughter: “Every now and then,” Susan tells Anne, “a little packet is thrust in under our door . . . I’ve often thought the poor mother feels near to God when she brings this money.” The story is built around Anne’s search for her lost daughter, but her courage and love is not enough to save Lizzie from one final tragedy.

marybartonGaskell’s most obvious literary device in the story is pathos. Oscar Wilde not withstanding, the Victorians knew the potential social and political power of a tearjerker, and Gaskell had already used heartfelt emotion and personal tragedy to effect reconciliation across the classes in her first novel, Mary Barton:

He was my sunshine, and now it is night! Oh, my God! comfort me, comfort me!” cried the old man aloud.

The eyes of John Barton grew dim with tears.

Rich and poor, masters and men, were then brothers in the deep suffering of the heart; for was not this the very anguish he had felt for little Tom, in years so long gone by, that they seemed like another life!

The mourner before him was no longer the employer; a being of another race, eternally placed in antagonistic attitude; going through the world glittering like gold, with a stony heart within, which knew no sorrow but through the accidents of Trade; no longer the enemy, the oppressor, but a very poor and desolate old man.

I understand why a jaded modern reader (never mind a superior Modernist one) might snicker at a moment like this — and there’s no doubt, either, that Gaskell’s analysis of class conflict, not to mention her solution to it, could be accused of a certain naivete. There’s still something very humanly touching, though, about this picture of two old men brought low by loss and then brought together by hard-won mutual recognition and sympathy. There are moments in “Lizzie Leigh” that work this way too, particularly when Lizzie is once more in her mother’s arms, finding long-denied comfort:

“Oh woe! Oh woe!” She shook with exceeding sorrow.

In her earnestness of speech she had uncovered her face, and tried to read Mrs Leigh’s thoughts through her looks. And when she saw those aged eyes brimming full of tears, and marked the quivering lips, she threw her arms round the faithful mother’s neck, and wept there as she had done in many a childish sorrow; but with a deeper, a more wretched grief.

Her mother hushed her on her breast; and lulled her as if she were a baby; and she grew still and quiet.

Their embrace reminds me of the reflections on mortality in Chapter 42 of Middlemarch:

When the commonplace ‘We must die’ transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness ‘I must die–and soon,’ then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards, he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first.

Lizzie does not die (one way in which Gaskell breaks with the literary rules for fallen women), but she has been “as one dead” to her family, and now her mother’s tenderness restores her to life once again.

gaskellGaskell was a minister’s wife and “Lizzie Leigh” casts its story of forgiveness in explicitly Christian terms. Susan “is not one to judge and scorn the sinner,” Anne insists to her son Will, for instance (soothing his horror that she has shared Lizzie’s story with one he sees as “downright holy”); “She’s too deep read in her New Testament for that.” What I think is so powerful about the story is the way Gaskell pits Anne’s (and Susan’s) definition of Christian virtue against the “hard, stern, and inflexible” judgments, first of Anne’s husband James (who had forbidden her to seek out “her poor, sinning child”) and then of Will, who has inherited his father’s patriarchal role and with it his rigid righteousness. Anne grows into her own authority as the story progresses, eventually confronting Will directly:

“I’m not afeard of you now, and I must speak, and you must listen. I am your mother, and I dare to command you, because I know I am in the right, and that God is on my side. . . .

She stood, no longer, as the meek, imploring, gentle mother, but firm and dignified, as if the interpreter of God’s will.

Susan, in turn, criticizes Will for saying that Lizzie “deserved” her sufferings, “every jot”:

Will Leigh! I have thought so well of you; don’t go and make me think you cruel and hard. Goodness is not goodness unless there is mercy and tenderness with it.

Between them, Anne and Susan (and, eventually, Lizzie) create a community of women united in their service to others, whose definition of virtue does not depend on righteous indignation or stern judgment but on the practice of that “mercy and tenderness.” Their power arises, as Gaskell tells it, not so much in defiance of masculine authority (not at first, anyway) but through the gradual assertion of their female authority — through their maternal roles and the moral authority this brings — as well as through their independent claim to interpret God’s laws.

wivesanddaughtersoxfordThere are definitely things about “Lizzie Leigh” that are hard to take, including the fate of “the little, unconscious sacrifice, whose early calling-home had reclaimed her poor, wandering mother” as well as the extreme seclusion that is Lizzie’s fate after her reclamation. She’s not (like Hetty, or Little Emily) sent entirely out of her world, but Gaskell can’t quite imagine a place for her fully in it either. What I love about “Lizzie Leigh,” though, is the same thing I love about Mary BartonNorth and South, and Wives and Daughters: there’s just something so humane about Gaskell’s vision of the good. She wants us all to be kinder to each other, to understand each other better, to define virtue as something we have to practice, not just a quality we can passively exhibit. For her, these are religious imperatives, but they needn’t be; George Eliot’s Silas Marner urges us to much the same conclusions, as does Middlemarch. I think for both writers, it matters much less why you make sympathy a guiding principle than that you do it: ultimately, for both of them, it’s small human acts of grace that give us all a chance at redemption.

Happy New Year! and New Books! and New OLM!

Books2016

2016 is getting off to a good start in my corner of the world. For one thing, I have a lovely array of new books, thanks to the kind people who basically ran my entire Chapters wish list. Isn’t that an enticing stack? My problem now is that I can’t decide where to start: rereading Mr. Impossible, because I know how fun that will be? rereading Little Women, because I finally have my own elegant edition? embarking on Jane Smiley’s ‘100 Years’ trilogy? plunging into Fates and Furies? wandering New York with Vivian Gornick? I suppose I could postpone the decision by settling down to finish The Portrait of a Lady — not least because I don’t want to read The House of Mirth until I’ve done that.

It’s not just the beginning of a new year, of course: it’s also the beginning of the month, and that means, as always, that a new issue of Open Letters Monthly has just gone live. I’m in it a couple of times: in brief in our feature of most-anticipated books of 2016,and at greater length in an essay about different editions of Middlemarch that is also a review of the elegant new Penguin Classics Deluxe edition. I’m always wary of writing autobiographically, but I couldn’t think how else to approach this review, and I enjoyed reflecting on the versions of the novel I’ve accumulated over the years as well as on how the editions we read of a book affect the relationship we develop with it.

oxfordlawrenceAs usual, the issue includes a wide range of other interesting pieces. One of my favorites this time is Dorian’s essay on D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. My own experience with Lawrence so far is limited and ambivalent — but it has certainly made me curious, and Dorian writes so eloquently about both the language and the ideas of Women in Love that I’m feeling emboldened to read more Lawrence before too long. My co-editor Robert Minto offers a fascinating essay on Nietzsche’s Anti-Education, recently reissued by NYRB Classics, finding in it strains that might serve as cautionary to today’s “anxious citizens of academia”; Steve Donoghue reviews (as only he can) a new book on Sigismondo Malatesta, the only man ever to be reverse-canonized; Barrett Hathcock explores the hall-of-mirrors sensation of finding himself fictionalized by a student in his own creative writing class; and that’s just the top half of the Table of Contents. I hope you’ll check it out, and if you like anything about what we produce every month at Open Letters, I also hope you’ll consider supporting our efforts — we are entirely sincere when we say that a comment or a link is as welcome as a donation.

Very soon, I will also be launched on the new term. My classes this time are familiar ones in my teaching rotation: Mystery and Detective Fiction and 19th-Century British Fiction (Austen to Dickens edition). As usual, I’m feeling equal parts anticipation and dread at the prospect of starting it all up again. (I have already had one very typical anxiety dream in which I was unable to print notes or handouts because my files had disappeared, and the computer kept auto-updating as I desperately tried to find them, and the start time for class came and went … you’d think after all these years I would not need my subconscious warning me to prepare for class, but this did prompt me to go to campus early and print all my notes and handouts for Monday, so that’s good, I guess!) I’m also feeling very aware that this time last year my sabbatical term was just beginning: inevitably, I guess, that is provoking some reflection on how I used that time and what has become of the projects I worked on since it ended — more about that eventually, along with more of my regular posts on how things go in my classes.

But I still have one more full day, and since I did print my materials early (and have also built my Blackboard sites and labelled my folders and made my Powerpoint slides for opening day), I will spend it reading — if I can just settle on which book. Happy New Year!

Happy Birthday, Marian Evans!

Durade GEThe woman we now refer to almost exclusively as ‘George Eliot’ was born on this day in 1819. Imagine the bicentennial celebrations we’ll be having in a few years! I hope so, anyway. Remember all the hoopla for the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice? Surely the author of Middlemarch deserves at least as much fanfare — even if her books almost never leave us feeling altogether like celebrating.

I’ve written so much about George Eliot here over the years (and here — more than once — and here, and here) that it almost feels redundant to say anything more. And yet there always turns out to be more I want to say, which is one of the reasons I admire and appreciate her novels so much. Little did I know when I plucked a random edition of Middlemarch off the bookstore shelf for reading on the train during a youthful odyssey across Europe that the book would end up making more difference to my life than anything else I read or saw or did during those eventful six months. “Destiny stands by sarcastic,” as she said herself, “with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.” (Whatever your experience, she always turns out to have anticipated it in a wise, witty, or tender saying.)

I don’t know a more apt or moving tribute to George Eliot than Virginia Woolf’s:

Triumphant was the issue for her, whatever it may have been for her creations, and as we recollect all that she dared and achieved, how with every obstacle against her – sex and health and convention – she sought more knowledge and more freedom till the body, weighted with its double burden, sank worn out, we must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose.

I’ve never had the opportunity to lay a literal bouquet on her grave. The next time I travel to England, I hope finally to make it to Highgate Cemetery — my own modest pilgrimage in honor of a brave and brilliant woman whose work has been an inspiration, a provocation, and a comfort to me for almost three decades. Until then, my own writing — thin and inadequate as it inevitably is by comparison — is the best tribute I can offer.

George Eliot and “Fine Old Christmas”

snowfall

I don’t usually think about George Eliot and Christmas together, and when I do, it’s usually by way of Silas Marner, which is a lovely secular version of the Christmas story (among other things). Rereading The Mill on the Floss for my class this week, though, I was struck by this little passage, which somehow had never really stood out to me before:

Fine old Christmas, with the snowy hair and ruddy face, had done his duty that year in the noblest fashion, and had set off his rich gifts of warmth and color with all the heightening contrast of frost and snow.

Snow lay on the croft and river-bank in undulations softer than the limbs of infancy; it lay with the neatliest finished border on every sloping roof, making the dark-red gables stand out with a new depth of color; it weighed heavily on the laurels and fir-trees, till it fell from them with a shuddering sound; it clothed the rough turnip-field with whiteness, and made the sheep look like dark blotches; the gates were all blocked up with the sloping drifts, and here and there a disregarded four-footed beast stood as if petrified “in unrecumbent sadness”; there was no gleam, no shadow, for the heavens, too, were one still, pale cloud; no sound or motion in anything but the dark river that flowed and moaned like an unresting sorrow. But old Christmas smiled as he laid this cruel-seeming spell on the outdoor world, for he meant to light up home with new brightness, to deepen all the richness of indoor color, and give a keener edge of delight to the warm fragrance of food; he meant to prepare a sweet imprisonment that would strengthen the primitive fellowship of kindred, and make the sunshine of familiar human faces as welcome as the hidden day-star. His kindness fell but hardly on the homeless — fell but hardly on the homes where the hearth was not very warm, and where the food had little fragrance; where the human faces had had no sunshine in them, but rather the leaden, blank-eyed gaze of unexpectant want. But the fine old season meant well; and if he has not learned the secret how to bless men impartially, it is because his father Time, with ever-unrelenting unrelenting purpose, still hides that secret in his own mighty, slow-beating heart.

The immediate context is Tom’s return from Mr. Stelling’s school for the holidays, and the emphasis on coziness and fellowship helps bring out both his happiness at being at home again and the novel’s larger emphasis on home and family as the roots of memory and thus morality. The penultimate sentence here does something rather different, though, doesn’t it? It introduces (on a small scale) a Dickens-like critique of exclusion from these blessings, a quick but painful sketch of the unhappiness the season exacerbates for those unable to rejoice in its warmth and bounty. I find the personification of Christmas, and then ‘his’ characterization as the son of ‘father Time,’ strategically interesting. The “fine old season” could just as easily be winter, especially given the evocative descriptions of the snow, but we can’t do anything about winter, (sadly!): its sorrows are indeed “unresting.” Christmas, however, is what people have made of the season: it is the consolation we’ve come up with for its cold and privation. It is, in other words, a man-made, not a natural (or a supernatural), phenomenon. Eliot’s personification reminds us of that, and hints that we could perhaps do something about “unexpectant want.” The “rich gifts” of Christmas, after all, really come from us.

I’ve been trying to think of other explicit Christmas scenes in Eliot’s novels and am coming up blank. Anyone?

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.

Appearing Elsewhere: “Middlemarch and the ‘Cry From Soul to Soul'”

Dorothea_and_Will_LadislawAn essay I worked on during my sabbatical on faith and fellowship in Middlemarch has just been published in Berfrois. The general themes will not surprise any regular visitors to Novel Readings (or readers of my other essays on George Eliot, particularly my essay on Silas Marner in the Los Angeles Review of Books). In fact, the germ of this essay was a blog post I wrote years ago on George Eliot and prayer; ever since then I have wanted to expand those passing comments into a fuller reading of Middlemarch along those lines, and now I have!

I’ve also written about Middlemarch in a somewhat less consoling way, in my essay on the novel’s “miserable morality” at Open Letters Monthly.