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.

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One thought on “Adam Bede and beauty

  1. Miss

    Speaking only for myself and not Ms. George, an excess of feminine beauty can lead a woman praised solely for her character (“You’re such a sweet girl!” said in consoling tones…”You’re so smart!”) into a mental bedlam.

    There is envy of beauty’s enormous power, comingled with anger towards the object of beauty (for she is an object–and you’re afraid for her); guilt about the anger; shame at not meeting these beauty standards; secret relief about not meeting them; sadness at the lack of alternate models of female power; contempt for men so easily taken; anger at yourself for even giving a damn.

    Reply

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