Thursday, September 18, 2008

George Eliot, party girl

I have been getting stuck on the harvest party, near the end of Adam Bede. That party is actually a structural sequel to a remarkable long scene (7% of the novel) in the exact center of the book, Captain Arthur Donnithorne's 21st birthday party. Arthur is the son of the big local landowner, so the whole county is at the party, almost every character in the novel.

Eliot describes everything. The food, the toasts, the dancing. There's a fine two or three pages devoted to the disappointment in her prize of the girl who wins the sack race. There's a sack race! And a donkey race. It's a good party. Lazy movie critics would say the scene is Altmanesque.

The party is the climax of the first half of the novel. Not of the plot - up to this point there has hardly been any. Eliot spends 300 pages setting the scene. This is risky. She risks tedium. The girl and her prize is a good example. After winning an extremely undignified race, she wants something pretty, and is crushed to find that she's won a heavy winter robe and some flannel. This scene advances the crucial "young woman's vanity" theme, and ties it to a "forward motion" theme that won't be understood until later in the book.* The more I look at it, the more artful it seems. But the girl herself is a character of very little importance, and the scene does not move the plot by an inch.

It's not exactly the case that nothing happens up to this point. Adam's father dies in a drunken accident early in the novel, and the love triangle that's the center of the main story begins to develop. But all of this is still part of normal life. The birthday party - now that's an extraordinary event. "It'll serve you to talk on, Hetty, when you're an old woman - how you danced wi' th' young squire the day he come o' age." Poor Hetty.

What are the precedents for this novelistic use of a party? Balzac sets a lot of important scenes at parties and balls, but rarely spends any effort describing the party itself. The ball in Jane Austen's Emma is more what I'm thinking of.

The list of later parties is much longer. Joyce surely knew Adam Bede - "The Dead" is a descendent of Eliot's party. Lampedusa might have known it, too - he was a demonic reader of English novels, and The Leopard has a classic party, more tightly tied to the structure of the novel than Eliot's. I wonder if Proust knew Eliot? Those endless parties of his. Talk about risking tedium! Risked, and achieved.

* And she abandons her prize - she "throw[s] down the odious bundle under a tree"! If you haven't read the book, you won't know what I'm talking about. Tomorrow, maybe.


  1. I DID NOT NOTICE THE THROWING DOWN OF THE BUNDLE UNDER THE TREE!! Well, I did, but I had forgotten it by the time the other 'bundle' was be-treed.

    Also, is it bad that I'm trawling through your posts looking for ideas that I can talk about in class as though they were mine? I will totes macgotes be bringing this striving for a prize that ends up not being what you'd hoped for business.

  2. It might be bad to borrow from me, who knows, but it would be much worse to say, in class, "so here's an idea I got from some anonymous dude on the internet."

    When Nabokov said that there is no reading, only re-reading (which he did not really believe), this is what he meant. The detail, first presented, has no significance, so a reader is unlikely to remember it. Rereading, it jumps right out at you.