Adam Bede II – Hetty’s World

November 15, 2008

Continuing my survey of George Eliot’s Adam Bede, I now turn to a second important female lead: Hetty Sorrel. Ultimately (that is, by the end of the book), I hope to make some conclusion about the author through her treatment of these two characters.

The introduction of the young Hetty into the plot of the novel doesn’t come for several chapters (or around 60 pages in my edition). The change in scope toward adding this character represents—in my reading of the text—a change most of all in tone. At this point in the plot, we have seen the calm and rational rejection by Dinah of Seth Bede, relative to male-female relations. However, Hetty’s opportunities for romantic consorting seem to be founded on—and cause for—emotional distress.

Enter Captain Donnithorne, in Chapter 7, “The Dairy”:

Hetty blushed a deep rose-colour when Captain Donnithorne entered the dairy and spoke to her; but it was not at all a distressed blush, for it was inwreathed with smiles and dimples, and with sparkles from under long curled dark eye-lashes; and while her aunt was discoursing to him about the limited amount of milk that was to be spared for butter and cheese so long as the calves were not all weaned, and the large quantity but inferior quality of milk yielded by the short-horn, which had been bought on experiment, together with other matters which must be interesting to a young gentleman who would one day be a land-lord, Hetty tossed and patted her pound of butter with quite a self-possessed, coquettish air, slily conscious that no turn of her head was lost.

Eliot then goes into a long description of Hetty’s beauty, complete with her characteristic personal views on the matter, with direct address to the reader. And as the commentary progresses, I get the feeling that the author is tantalizing the audience with will-she-love-hims and what-comes-nexts. From the beginning, there is no doubt of the soap operatic nature of the plot; the ‘narrative interjections’ as I might call them, imply as much.

Fast forward in time a bit and to provide some background on Adam relevant to Hetty, Dinah is visiting his mother in an effort to console her over the death of her husband (and Adam’s father). When speaking with Adam that night, the following description is given:

Dinah, with her sympathetic divination, knew quite well that Adam was longing to hear if Hetty had said anything about their trouble; she was too rigorously truthful for benevolent invention, but she had contrived to say something in which Hetty was tacitly included. Love has a way of cheating itself consciously, like a child who plays at solitary hide-and-seek; it is pleased with assurances that it all the while disbelieves.

In chapter 9, aptly subtitled “Hetty’s World”, we are provided with a measure of the inside mind of Hetty Sorrel, and the vanities which might later set her up for destruction.

“Hetty was quite used to the thought that people liked to look at her,” Eliot claims. In fact, she’s quite aware of the beauty that she has been given, and—to the extent that a young girl of the working/lower class can—uses it to her advantage. There was Kyle Britton at Hayslope Church, Mr. Craig the gardener (though he was “near forty”), and Adam Bede. Nevertheless, her view of the world is formed by social and familial pressures:

Hetty was quite certain her uncle wanted her to marry him. For those were times when there was no rigid demarcation of rank between the farmer and the respectable artisan…

…and though she [Mrs. Poyser] and her husband might have viewed the subject differently if Hetty had been a daughter of their own, it was clear that they would have welcomed the match with Adam for a penniless niece. For what could Hetty have been but a servant elsewhere, if her uncle had not taken her in and brought her up as a domestic help to her aunt…

Yet, she is not terribly interested in Adam, but “she liked to feel that this strong, skilful, keen-eyed man was in her power…” In her mind, she is fully in control of this admirer, and “took care to entice him back into the net by little airs of meekness and timidity, as if she were in trouble as his neglect.” Subtle mastery over her admirers is a matter of pride for Hetty. In her prescribed world of milking cows and babysitting younger family members, she has but one natural advantage.

In my next entry on Adam Bede, I will attempt to look at how the entry of Arthur Donnithorne changes this equation for Hetty.

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

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.

Identity and Symbols in Fitzgerald’s “The Ice Palace”

June 24, 2008

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “The Ice Palace” deconstructs the assumptions, ideals, and tropes of contemporary society through symbols and parallelism. Specifically, the two geographies of South versus North symbolize stagnation versus progress, respectively, for both Sally Carrol Happer and Harry Bellamy. The two characters’ romance proves misfated, however, not because of any natural or inherent difference, but because of romanticized views on the part of each.

“The Ice Palace” appeared in the May 1920 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, and represents an early Fitzgerald work. Here, the protagonist, Sally Carrol, is courted by Harry Bellamy to move from her town in “southernmost Georgia” to his “Northern city” as part of their eventual marriage. She is optimistic about life in the North, which she associates with intellectualism and personal/societal progress:

Clark stared straight in front of him at a bolt on the clattering windowshield.
“Sally Carrol,” he said with a curious intensity, “don’t you like us?”
“Us down here?”
“Why, Clark, you know I do. I adore all you boys.”
“Then why you gettin’ engaged to a Yankee?”
“Clark, I don’t know. I’m not sure what I’ll do, but—well, I want to go places and see people. I want my mind to grow. I want to live where things happen on a big scale.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, Clark, I love you, and I love Joe here, and Ben Arrot, and you-all, but you’ll—you’ll—
“We’ll be failures?”
“Yes. I don’t mean only money failures, but just sort of—of ineffectual and sad, and—oh, how can I tell you?”
“You mean because we stay here in Tarleton?”
“Yes, Clark; and because you like it and never want to change things or think or go ahead.”

The Ice Palace

“The Ice Palace” as it appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Photo courtesy of The University of South Carolina Web site:

The first line of the story sets up the South as an antithesis (in line with popular assumptions about such things) to the North, and the ice palace, a physical construct which Harry Bellamy and his like-minded northerners seem to worship: “The sunlight dripped over the house like golden paint over an art jar, and the freckling shadows here and there only intensified the rigor of the bath of light.” This description of Sally Carrol’s environ as a geographical and visual opposite to the North is complicated by the graveyard, however, which serves—like the Ice Palace—as a historical/cultural ideal for the corresponding denizen:

“Margery Lee”, she read; “1844-1873. Wasn’t she nice? She died when she was twenty-nine. Dear Margery Lee,” she added softly.

“Oh, she was sweet, Harry! And she was the sort of girl born to stand on a wide, pillared porch and welcome folks in. I think perhaps a lot of men went away to war meanin’ to come back to her; but maybe none of ‘em ever did.”
He stooped down close to the stone, hunting for any record of marriage.
“There’s nothing here to show.”
“Of course not. How could there be anything there better than just ‘Margery Lee’ and that eloquent date?”

Here, Sally Carrol’s romanticization of the Old South is achieved through reminiscences of the Civil War, images of the setting that women held during that time, and the subsequent absence of men in the idealized Margery Lee’s life. The comparison between Lee and Sally Carrol is obvious: “You’re beautiful now, so I know she must have been”, Harry Bellamy claims. Regarding the unmarked graves, she comments, “…they died for the most beautiful thing in the world—the dead South.”

And so the two eventually rendezvous up North, where the climate (physically and socially is conducive to building ice palaces, “…the first they’ve had since eighty-five. Built out of blocks of the clearest ice they could find—on a tremendous scale.” The palace, as well as the North itself, is presented as industrious, bold, and building things “on a tremendous scale.” This is partly what Sally Carrol grasps in her initial assumptions of the place, though she underestimates the level to which the palace (and that which it represents) is adored by Harry Bellamy and company.

Thus, the misunderstandings and misconceptions ensue. In a definitive Sally Carrol moment, Fitzgerald hints that a separation between the two is taking place in the subtext of the story:

“I’ll tell you,” he said softly, “if you just tell me you’re glad to be here.”
“Glad—just awful glad!” She whispered, insinuating herself into his arms in her own peculiar way. “Where you are is home for me, Harry.”
And as she said this she had the feeling for almost the first time in her life that she was acting a part.

Leading into the climax of the story, the pair approaches the ice palace on a dark, snowy night. Sally Carrol “found herself repeating over and over two lines from ‘Kubla Khan’: ‘It was a miracle of rare device, / A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!’” The palace is the object of the Northerners’ blind worship, so I think that the allusion to Kubla Kahn is noteworthy in its adding to the dazed sensibilities that seem to overcome them during the moment when Sally Carrol becomes lost in the labyrinth of the building and traumatized. As the commotion grows…

Still no answer. The sound she made bounced mockingly down to the end of the passage.
Then on an instant the lights went out, and she was in complete darkness. She gave a small, frightened cry, and sank down into a cold little heap on the ice. She felt her left knee do something as she fell. But she scarcely noticed it as some deep terror far greater than any fear of being lost settled upon her.

With a furious, despairing energy she rose again and started blindly down the darkness. She must get out.

Throughout, there is reference to sounds, scenes, and the psychological effects of war, no doubt taking scenes from The Great War in Europe, another way in which Sally Carrol is linked to Margery Lee and her experience during the Civil War: “… chant of marching clubs.”; “… keeping time…”; “…a long column of gray-mackinawed figures… torches soaring and flickering as their voices rose along the great walls.”; “then came a long platoon of blue and white, of green, of white, of brown and yellow.” (A variety of colors here brings thoughts of the varying nation-states’ uniforms.)

This is amplified by the earlier quote of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn.” In his 1816 poem, the narrator describes the hallucinatory sense of being amidst an awesome yet brooding force. Here is some context for the quote:

…Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

Ultimately, Sally Carrol returns home, and the final scene, back in Georgia, has so many parallels to the first—the laziness and seeming contentment and with the status quo—that the story seems to have either a really simple message, or a similarly complex one, requiring analysis of the deeper-than-skin components of the story’s structure. Commenting on the idea of the ending of “The Ice Palace” as expressing a complex ending (courtesy of Fitzgerald’s insight regarding the subtleties of cultural commentary, David W. Ullrich writes:

Fitzgerald encourages his Post readers to identify with Sally Carrol’s credo of enfranchisement through utility and her recognition that beauty is transitory. Such sentiments espouse a potent mix of Puritanism and industriousness endorsed by mainstream America in 1920. As such, Sally Carrol’s anticipated marriage would be read as uniting the separate economic mythologies and geographic regions of the agrarian Old South and industrial Gilded North. However, Fitzgerald’s social criticism states explicitly that, although Sally Carrol desired to incorporate these mythologies, neither geographic region offers her participation in these cultural practices. Her willingness to assimilate both local economic structures actually exacerbates her historical position as a modern woman, alienating her from the South/past and fostering naive fantasies about the North/future. In fact, Sally Carrol discovers that the material forces of culture operating in the North are almost identical to those of the South, and equally repressive.

I think this analysis accurately reflects the meaning at the end of the story. My instinct is to assume that Sally Carrol, as she stands at that same windowsill as is mentioned on the first page, is the same Sally Carrol as appears on that page. Ullrich puts forth—and I agree—that Sally Carrol is the 1920s every-woman; she is a person locked between the two worlds of past/stagnation and future/movement. Here, the protagonist has a desire to actuate the noble ideal, but is kept down by the realization (perhaps overstated, in that the ice palace experience was so traumatizing that she could not return and was compelled to sever ties to the North, including those with the person who purportedly convinced her there, Harry Bellamy) that she does not belong in that environment. Similarly, while Sally Carrol had her misconceptions about her present environment as it relates to her ideal one, so too had Harry Bellamy created an amnesia-inducing social construct.

The notion of paralysis (on both the individual and societal level) which so summarizes James Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners, here is powerful; however, I sense that there is a difference between paralysis as experienced by Eveline & company and the “not belonging” experience by Sally Carrol, perhaps only as simple as the fact that Fitzgerald is to early-century America what Joyce is to early-century Ireland. I look forward to exploring this comparison in the future.

Sally Carrol’s search for identity—complicated by romanticized notions—represents a larger theme which I know Fitzgerald to have explored in other works such as The Great Gatsby. What does the 1910s and 1920s mean for a country traumatized by war and just around the corner from more hardship? Embracing (or shunning) technology, engaging in the “modern” lifestyle, and exploring the concept of self advancement (by women, minorities, social classes, etc.) as a reaction to contemporary events are themes in this early Fitzgerald short story.

1. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Kubla Khan”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Period. Ed. S. Greenblatt. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006; 446-8.
2. Fitzgerald, F.S. “The Ice Palace”. Babylon Revisited and Other Stories. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960.
3. Ullrich, David W. Memorials and monuments: historical method and the construction of memory in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Ice Palace”. Studies in Short Fiction 1999; 417-37.