04 January 2016

Adam Bede

I am back in company with George Eliot. Years ago—I can’t recall how many—I participated in an NEH seminar in the English Serial Novel: Dickens, Eliot and James. The seminar was held at Longwood College in Farmville, Virginia, which aside from being the residence of what is now Longwood University, also holds renown for being the last town through which Lee marched on his way to Appomattox. During that summer we read and discussed some Dickens (Nicholas Nickleby, I think it was), Eliot’s Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, and James The Princess Cassamasima. But the whole day was left free after the two-hour seminar in the morning and I read a great deal of George Eliot, and I have now 30 or 40 years later set a goal to reread her. And I have started with her second novel (1859), Adam Bede. Its epigraph comes from Wordsworth who seems of late to have entered my life with some force, and especially with two of his poems, the “Intimations Ode” and “Tintern Abbey.” Eliot draws her epigraph from the section of the The Excursion, Book VI, “The Churchyard-Among the Mountains” which reads (in part) “and when/I speak of such among the flock as swerved/Or fell, those only shall be singled out/Upon whose lapse, or error, something more/Than brotherly forgiveness may attend.” I think these lines speak to the book’s subject: characters flawed in very human ways whose tragic fates require more than mere ‘brotherly’ love. And what is greater that brotherly love, I wonder?
     There is a set of brothers in the novel: Adam and Seth Bede, and I am not far enough into the book nor do I remember the fates of these siblings from my prior reading to know to what extent the epigraph refers to them. But in general Eliot seems suspicious of family relations: the epigraph addresses a love that surpasses filial regard, a love that exceeds the normal love of family. The narrator admits, “Family likeness has often a deep sadness in it. Nature, that great tragic dramatist knits us together by bone and muscle, and divides us by the subtler web of our brains; blends yearning and repulsion; and ties us by our heart-strings to the beings that jar us at every movement.” I think that we can be hurt by many but struggle most and always with family. They are our first, our formative and lasting relation to others, and these relations are filled with contradiction. We become our families despite our intent: “We hear a voice with the very cadence of our own uttering the thoughts we despise; we see eyes—ah so like our mother’s!—averted from us in cold alienation; and our last darling child startles us with the air and gestures of the sister we parted from in bitterness long years ago.” We are condemned to repeat and to recreate our families despite our intent, and as son and father I am startle, disturbed and knowing complicit in the thought.
     Perhaps there is no greater joy and no greater sadness than that which derives from family relations because no matter how much we struggle and revolt, there is no escape from them.


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