George Eliot, the Stranger, and Narrative Form: Adam Bede Part 1

July 9, 2008

I am reading through George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and will be commenting on it in segments. Skipping the obligatory biographical information—for the moment—I’d like to get right to it.

The book follows the happenings of a cast of rural farmers, carpenters, preachers, and the like. It is ripe with pastoral motifs and, so far, deals heavily with the themes of romance, religion, and social/ecclesiastical structure, though I don’t know yet (in just these early chapters) how these are related.

For the first chapters of the book, I am principally interested in the curious example of a character being created to—as I see it—draw out the readers’ curiosity. I am referring to the nameless traveler.

The second chapter, titled “The Preaching”, has a young “prophetess” giving a passionate speech to some bystanders of the small town of Hayslope. Just before the scene, an unnamed character approaches:

…his thoughts were diverted by the approach of the horseman whom we lately saw pausing to have another look at our friend Adam, and who now pulled up at the door of the Donnithorne Arms.
‘Take off the bridle and give him a drink, ostler,’ said the traveler to the lad in a smock frock, who had come out of the yard at the sound of the horse’s hoofs.
‘Why, what’s up in your pretty village, landlord?’ he continued, getting down. ‘There seems to be quite a stir.’
‘It’s a Methodis preaching, sir; it’s been gev hout as a young woman’s a-going to preach on the Green,’ answered Mr Casson, in a treble and wheezy voice, with a slightly mincing accent. ‘Will you please to step in, sir, an’ tek somethink?”
‘No, I must be getting on to Drosseter. I only want a drink for my horse. And what does your parson say, I wonder, to a young woman preaching just under his nose?’

While the true identity of the man is not revealed here, I think he plays an integral part in this scene. Shortly after:

The traveler put his horse into a quick walk up the village, but when he approached the Green, the beauty of the view that lay on his right hand, the singular contrast presented by the groups of villagers with the knot of Methodists near the maple, and perhaps yet more, curiosity to see the young female preacher, proved too much for his anxiety to get to the end of his journey, and he paused.

At this point early in the novel, Eliot has described several characters in physical detail, and almost all are given names, including Adam Bede, Seth Bede, and Dinah Morris. Yet, the first ‘action proper’ of the story (if you discount the opening description of the carpenters) involves the horseman. In the scene above, Eliot provides a physical context, and suspends the moment briefly to allow for insight into the character’s thoughts. He “put his horse into a quick walk” and “approached” the Green, then is explained as being struck by a “curiosity” and “anxiety”. Finally, when the sermon is over, he leaves Hayslope:

…[he] now turned his horse aside and pursued his way, while Dinah said, ‘Let us sing a little, dear friends;’ and as he was still winding down the slope, the voices of the Methodists reached him, rising and falling in that strange blending of exultation and sadness which belongs to the cadence of a hymn.

And so, he makes a simple exit, not affecting anybody or influencing the plot. For the reader, he serves as a narrative buoy, a figure whose reference by the author might provide stability after what is an emotional sermon by Dinah. The term “cadence” for me brings to mind the sound of the horse’s hoofs as they tread away from the singing, perhaps an apt comparison to the reader’s leaving the scene behind (well, the chapter ends!).

What do we know about the horseman? He is described as “elderly” and as carrying a portmanteau (19th century suitcase). He is unfamiliar with the town, but recognizes its beauty. He does not talk like the citizens of Hayslope and the surrounding areas, as can be seen by the first quote, above (no, those aren’t misspellings). Mr Casson, with whom the stranger speaks at the onset of chapter 2, explains the native language of “this country”:

They’re cur’ous talkers i’ this country, sir; the gentry’s hard work to hunderstand ‘em. I was brought hup among the gentry, sir, an’ got the turn o’ their tongue when I was a bye. Why, what do you think the folks here says for “hevn’t you”?—the gentry, you know, says “hevn’t you”—well, the people about here says, “hanna yey.” It’s what they call the dileck as is spoke hereabout, sir…
‘Ay, ay,’ said the stranger, smiling. ‘I know it very well…’

Perhaps the horseman is traveling to the big city, where they don’t speak the “dileck.” Certainly, his own speech is not in line with this style, yet he is familiar with it, though this is unexplained. This being my first reading of Adam Bede, I think Eliot is going out of her way to make the distinction between the two forms. This separation is alluded to—if you subscribe to the notion—in the situation between Seth and Dinah: Seth and his tendency to say “I canna think” and “thee artna going” against Dinah’s seemingly unblemished speech. They are of different natural groups, perhaps.

My curiosity about the role of the stranger in this story is enough to keep me reading. He is like me: a curious onlooker anxious about the end result, but aware that the show must go on, just as Seth Bede is rejected by Dinah, yet the story continues on to perhaps new encounters.

1. Eliot, George. Adam Bede. New York: Oxford University Press; 1996.