Sunday, September 21, 2008

The best part of Adam Bede - Hetty's ringless hand

Adam Bede has a plot, although I haven't bothered to mention it so far, mostly because I don't care much about it. But about two-thirds of the way through the novel, the story really kicks in and George Eliot gives us the best thing in the novel.

I'm talking about two chapters out of fifty-five, twenty pages out of 560 in the edition I read. In the first of these chapters, Hetty, a pretty teenager, walks and hitchhikes from her country home to Windsor to join her lover Arthur, son of the local squire. The trip takes seven days and most of Hetty's money, plus she lied to her family and her fiancé - she was supposed to be visiting a friend somewhere else entirely. And Arthur turns out to be in Ireland.

Why did Hetty do this? Here's the innkeeper's wife in Windsor:

"[T]he good woman's eyes presently wandered to her [Hetty's] figure, which in her hurried dressing on her journey she had taken no pains to conceal; moreover, the stranger's eye detects what the familiar unsuspecting eye leaves unnoticed.

'Why, you're not very fit for travelling,' she said, glancing while she spoke at Hetty's ringless hand."

Any reader of Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian will be reminded of another walk to Windsor, when Jeanie Dean walks from Edinburgh to Windsor to petition the Queen and save the life of her sister, soon to be hanged for the crime of infanticide. If he doesn't notice the resemblance now, he sure will in a chapter or two. Jeanie's walk is one of the great acts of female heroism in English literature. Hetty's walk is - well, something else.

The next chapter is headed "The Journey of Despair." Hetty wanders around central England, purposeless, crushed. Eliot mostly stays pretty close to her. For the best pages - only five or six, I now realize - Eliot's method is really little different than Flaubert's. Close attention to detail, never too far from Hetty's own thoughts, Hetty's own language. Hetty gathers stones to drown herself, she becomes distracted by the rolls in her basket, she finds a shelter and dreams of the cold pond, and of her aunt. She resolves to get help from the friend she was supposed to visit in the first place. Eliot leaves her then, sort of suspended in her wandering.

George Eliot was a person of almost shocking intellect, while Hetty is sort of stupid, a person of low cognitive abilities. The look into Hetty's internal life is completely convincing, a real achievement, possible only in fiction.

Something much worse is around the corner for Hetty. Having read The Heart of Midlothian, I was pretty sure I knew what it was, and I was right. Eliot relates the rest of Hetty's story from a distance - through courtroom testimony, for example. We're never in her head again. I wonder why not.


  1. Your mention of the difference between Eliot and Hettie is really interesting to me, very much like Flaubert and Emma...the opposite of the kind of person the author would have actually admired. I think I may have to read this soon, while Madame Bovary is still fresh in my mind.

  2. It is a bit like Flaubert and Emma. Here and there in Adam Bede, Eliot is condescending towards Hetty. Not during Hetty's journey, though.

    Flaubert, of course, actively despises Emma. Eliot seems to like Hetty.

  3. GE's contemporary reviewers made the comparison to Heart of Midlothian too, and at least one strongly preferred Scott's treatment of the situation because GE treats Hetty's point of view in such detail and so sympathetically. Does she like her, though? Does understanding someone necessarily make us like them? It keeps us from judging them, maybe.

    Many critics have thought GE is much harsher with Rosamond in Middlemarch. I used to think that was fair enough (Rosamond being who she is) and feel quite sorry for Hetty--until I had children of my own, and now that sad little baby's cry (and hand) haunt me when I read that section. Mind you, Rosamond's not winning any Mother-of-the-Year awards either, but the details of that lie in your reading future!

  4. Well, I couldn't help myself and Adam Bede is on the way via bookmooch.

    I was wondering how far Eliot went with Hetty because yes, Flaubert clearly hates Emma and the other little people like her...

    Is Hetty's situation really all her own fault?

  5. Prof. Maitzen, your comment has provoked thought. First, I think I was lazily leaning on a received idea when I said Eliot "liked" Hetty. Withdrawn!

    Second, you've helped me see why Eliot turns away from Hetty when she does. Perhaps she is taking us up to the limits of sympathy. The novel helps us understand the fictional Hetty in a way that we would be unlikely to understand a real person, but only up to a point. Subject for future research: the ethics of the limited third person.

    So Hetty's situation - is it all her fault? Much of it, no; some of it, yes. The most important part, tragically, yes. One imagines Hetty throwing herself on the mercy of her family, and Adam, a choice that would have come with serious consequences for her, but nothing like what actually happens. Why does she do what she does? That's a good part of why we still read the novel.

  6. subject for future research...

    Sounds like a great project.

    only up to a point: This makes sense to me too. If we get too close, we might do as she does, clearly not the right result.

    I wonder if GE really does enough to clarify why Hetty doesn't trust her family. I'd have to take another look. I think the obstacle we understand best is her almost instinctive knowledge of the family pride. What she can't think through (maybe because she lacks the kind of sympathetic imagination GE is training us in?) is that, nonetheless, they could rise to the occasion and be on her side.

    And just BTW:

    Prof. Maitzen

    'Rohan' is fine. :-)

  7. Just rearranging the plot, Rohan - let's say Hetty reveals her problem not to her family but only to virtuous Adam Bede. Does Adam herocially claim the baby as his? I'll bet he does. But to Hetty, even pillar-of-the-community Adam is untrustworthy or unavailable.

    I think you're right - maybe there's not quite enough there to really pin this down.

  8. Going back to this now that I've read the book is great. Although it made for uncomfortable reading at times, I commend Eliot for never once giving us a reason to admire Hetty...perhaps that isn't exactly what I mean. She doesn't ever give Hetty any intellectual insight into her situation - she begins a vain and ignorant creature and that never changes. Even at the end, she just really wants to save her own skin.

    I'm so glad I reread Madame Bovary and read Adam Bede in the same year. Comparing the two is really interesting.

  9. I'm going to go back to Madame Bovary soon, soonish. I don't remember what I thought of Emma's intelligence. She was smarter than her husband, but not as smart as she thought she was - maybe that was it.

    Mill and the Floss, that's coming up soon, too. So I'll have that much better of an idea what I'm talking about, I hope.