Monthly Archives: August 2006

Adam Bede and beauty

Following up on something I wrote on the PopMatters blog about George Eliot, here’s a paper where I argue about how her jealousy of beauty leads her to create stupid characters. I think the page number reference are to the recent Penguin edition.

Struggle, Always Struggle

When the narrator of Adam Bede introduces us to Hetty Sorrel, the story pauses a moment so that we may receive a brief lesson about beauty. “There are various orders of beauty,” the narrator explains, “causing men to make fools of themselves in various styles, from the desperate to the sheepish; but there is one order of beauty which seems made to turn the heads not only of men, but of all intelligent mammals, even of women” (84). We hope that this statement is laced with irony, not only because it suggests that women can just barely be considered intelligent mammals, but because it connects women intimately with a beauty that is understood as a powerful force, so powerful that it obviates the will of its possessor. But we see its consequence in how the usually clear-headed Mrs. Poyser is led to remark that “the naughtier [Hetty] behaved, the prettier she looked” (85). Hetty’s indisputable beauty creates a morality that exists parallel to the customary morality that assesses and dictates behavior; it forces us to judge Hetty twice, it forces us to see her as fundamentally split. Its force is to obliterate for both its perceiver and possessor the distinctions necessary to evaluate behavior, and ultimately to act ethically. Even the narrator seems to be afflicted. When the narrator claims that “you can never be angry” with such beauty, that instead “you feel ready to crush” it “for inability to comprehend the state of mind into which it throws” one, we realize that the ordinary activities we associate with anger have been, for our narrator, upset (84). We sense the effects of Hetty’s peculiar beauty on the narrator again when she claims “it is of little use” to try to describe it terms of details while she, in fact, attempts to do just that, providing a litany of descriptions that anatomize Hetty into her “pouting lips,” her “dark eyes,” her “curly hair,” her “white shell-like ears,” and so on. After presenting this more or less conventional blazon, the narrator rejects it in favor of a number of diminutive and fairly demeaning metaphors: beauties like Hetty are like “kittens, or very small downy ducks, . . . or babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief.” It seems as if the frustration the narrator meets in trying to describe such beauty encourages her to try to belittle it; but that its essence escapes description only further testifies to its unsettling power.

From certain feminist perspectives, which Langbauer usefully capsulizes in section one of her essay “Recycling Patriarchy’s Garbage,” this aspect of feminine beauty which resists capture in details hints at the root of the female power which can elude co-optation by the male specular order. Hetty’s beauty, from this perspective, intimates “the blind spots and peripheries outside male speculation” that “call that [male visual] standard’s illusions into question” (Langbauer, 195). The narrator’s attempts to belittle Hetty, then, may be seen as a desperate attempt to diminish what cannot be controlled. Hetty’s subsequent fate in the novel can be seen as a working out of the way in which patriarchal structures move to “crush” subversive elements within it, not in an “angry” fashion, but with an efficiency that thrives on ignorant frustration.

Such a reading might help to reclaim Hetty from the vilification the novel wants to call down upon her, but it is undermined by the unsettling effects this beauty appears to have on Hetty herself. “Even women,” we remember, are affected by beauty like Hetty’s, and her own beauty appears to affect Hetty as if it were a thing outside herself. The “conscious mischief” that is ordinarily only a sign of such beauty’s presence is for Hetty both a sign of the beauty she has and a symptom of the consciousness that having such beauty creates. The substance of her own consciousness becomes a thing outside herself; it becomes the image of herself she sees in the “queer old looking glass” (148). The vanity that constitutes the “conscious mischief” in the beautiful baby for an outside observer is also that beautiful baby’s first sense of having consciousness of her own at all, and that vanity then circumscribes everything that baby can subsequently understand. Thus vanity becomes the only guiding principle that dictates Hetty’s behavior. Because she is locked entirely within a solipsistic reasoning process, Hetty has no access to the “law” that Langbauer connects to Adam and Eliot’s own realistic method, a method founded on a sympathetic understanding of alien perspectives. As Langbauer’s analysis suggests, Hetty is barred from participation in the “real” world, she is forced instead to live within her selfish romantic illusions because of the “involuntariness of [women’s] position as subjects within both sides of the specular” (228). If Hetty’s beauty is a source of power, then it is a dubious power, indeed, as it precludes her from any participation in the social world. It seems more apt to characterize Hetty’s beauty as the narrator does, as being “beyond and far above the one woman’s soul it clothes” (354). Not only is that beauty not intrinsic to that soul, it also martyrs that soul who wears it. Eliot’s sympathetic understanding allows her to show us, with grim precision, the inner workings of the mind of a completely objectified subject.

Of course we can reject all of the narrator’s insights into Hetty’s “thinking” as all marred by the frustration the narrator feels faced with Hetty’s implicit power. But then we are forced to reject the entire novel as the distorted product of a “misogynistic self-hatred that, like culture, indicts women for all our ills,” a quality that Langbauer claims “remains part of Eliot’s fiction” (223). However, Langbauer’s claim that Eliot’s novels intimate the feminists’ need for “interminable” struggle seems more in tune with the novel’s moral thrust than that “part” which seems anti-feminist. Struggling with the consequences and implications of Hetty’s beauty would seem more productive finally than accepting it as essential and inarticulate.

Bonus George Eliot coverage

Here’s a paper I wrote about Middlemarch in 1998:

In the epigraph to chapter 64 of Middlemarch, the two gentlemen discuss power and responsibility. Rejecting the notion that power carries with it a complete culpability for its consequences, the passage instead suggests that as “cause is not cause/ Unless effect be there; and action’s self/ Must needs contain a passive. So command/ Exists but with obedience” (616). In order to have power, one must have a cooperative body over whom to exercise it; and that cooperation renders each party equal for that relationship’s outcomes. Not only then is power is shared between those in the dominant and submissive roles, but thay symbiotic relationship must establish itself first in order for any power to exist. An individual, regardless of his position or intentions, cannot effect any changes until these interpersonal connections take shape. Lydgate, who has an ardent wish, like Dorothea, for “some active good,” believes however naively, that he already possess the power to do it. If we accept the epigraph’s assertions about power, though, the important question in regard to Lydgate becomes whether or not he is able to choose the relationships in which he becomes emotionally invested. If these relationships will shape the scope of his power, then those choices will finally determine their capacity to work that “active good.”

If he does, in fact, have the ability to choose his relationships, by the end of the novel it becomes quite clear that he has made a rather limiting choice. In the chapter in which the epigraph appears, we discover the full extent of Lydgate’s limitations. Once “determined to live aloof” from the “abject calculations” that dictate lesser men’s actions, he finds that his marriage to Rosamond has forced him to emulate them (630). This appears to him to be the consequence of Rosamond’s obstinacy, “which would not allow any assertion of power to be final” (628). In marrying Rosamond, we see that he has agreed implicitly that his ability to make her happy predicates his ability to make others happy, to contribute “active good” to the world. When she suggests to him that “she had been deluded with a false vision of happiness in marrying him,” he is forced not only to acknowledge that he is not her superior, but that he is not superior to those lesser men and their “abject calculations” (629). The good that he thought would come from his superiority, the intellectual freedom to pursue his medical inquiries, vanishes.

We may blame Rosamond for this, but then we would make the same mistake Rosamond herself makes later when Rosamond imagines that perhaps Will Laidislaw would have made her a better husband. “No notion could have been falser than this,” our narrator instructs us, “for Rosamond’s discontent in her marriage was due to the conditions of marriage itself, to its demand for self-suppression and tolerance, and not to the nature of her husband” (716). Rosamond, in her typically egoistic fashion, mistakes a structurally flawed scenario for a unique, particular one, which leads her to believe that a change of those particulars will cure her of her torpor: as the narrator explains, “the easy conception of an unreal Better had a sentimental charm which diverted her ennui” (716). Lydgate’s frustration parallels this. His temptation is to hold Rosamond accountable for a situation where power and responsibility really reside in the entire structure of their relationship. Like Rosamond, Lydgate is frustrated by the “conditions of marriage itself,” particularly the condition that demands that relation take priority over all other social relations. Lydgate’s dream of medical advancement becomes the “unreal Better” that he dreams of for distraction, with the real Better being the satisfaction of his marital vow.

Dorothea, in her climactic meeting with Rosamond, addresses this very issue: “Marriage is so unlike everything else. There is something awful in the nearness it brings. Even if we loved some one better than — those we were married to, it would be no use. . . . Marriage drinks up all our power of giving or getting any blessedness in that sort of love” (758). Lydgate does not love a “some one” better, but his medical ambition is the metaphoric other woman he must renounce. That love of his is a vanity, as much as Rosamond’s love for Will is, or Dorothea’s love for Causabon, which she is speaking of here, had been, for that matter. When Dorothea urges the renunciation of these loves, she essentially urges the surrender of one’s vanity, which, we are led to believe, is the real impediment to achieving any “active good.” The institution of marriage, then, allows for this necessary renunciation, allows for this pleasant martyrdom, the highly localized amelioration it permits, and little else. Instead of pursuing his discoveries, Lydgate must “accept his narrowed lot with sad resignation,” carrying the “burthen” of Rosamond “pitifully” (761). Though this resolution has the seemingly curious effect of creating a chain of pity, which, in terminating with Rosamond’s self-pity (Eliot’s narrator pities Lydgate, who pities Rosamond, who pties herself), seems to aggrandize it; it also allows for Lydgate a martyrdom, which, too, is self-pity, under a more respectable name.

This may explain why, in the novel, the conditions of marriage appear beyond question. Dorothea never questions the idea that allowing a marriage to fail is tantamount to “murder,” a crime whose guilt obviates all else (“everything else is gone,” she tells Rosamond as she describes moribund marriages). Marriage provides a fixed point, an unquestionable moral certainty from which all other moral beliefs may emanate. Without some such absolute, the sacrifices one might make may always be relative, and may only amount to some more well-rationalized vanity supplanting the vanity one tries to renounce. Thus “everything else” depends upon it; without its sanctity, “everything else is gone.” But if we reject that absolute, we find that idealistic vanity supplanted with pessimisstic martyrdom is no different than self-aggrandizement supplanted with self-pity, and “active good” outside the immediate circle of oneself remains impossible. The union of two people only seems to diminish both of them, and by extention, the intertwining of all souls with each other in the great social web reduces us all to the lowest common denominator of our decidely narrow mutual interests, the “abject calculations” and “the self-interested anxiety” that Lydgate deplores. The “growing good” we are supposed to have inherited by virtue of Dorothea’s “hidden life” is the stultifying sense of guilt that accompanies any effort to shake off the ball and chain of our common, flawed humanity, figured in the inevitably flawed loves that bind us to each other.