Learning to Read: Interpersonal Literacy in Adam Bede

By Mitchell, Rebecca N. | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Learning to Read: Interpersonal Literacy in Adam Bede


Mitchell, Rebecca N., Papers on Language & Literature


"Book Second" of George Eliot's Adam Bede opens with the novel's seventeenth chapter, in which the authorial voice interrupts the story to justify her creation, commanding that artists not exclude from their works the "common, coarse people" who populate the world. Should art portray more completely that world, a change is required in artists' subject choices as well as in the expectations of viewers and readers. In this extra-narrative disquisition, the novelist implores readers to be patient and charitable, to expand their understanding of art, and by doing so expand their sympathies: "the way in which I have come to the conclusion that human nature is loveable," she writes, "has been by living a great deal among people more or less commonplace and vulgar" (185). "Book Second" closes with another, diegetic rendering of this instruction in reading in the twenty-first chapter, "The Night-School and the Schoolmaster." Townspeople of Hayslope do not hold books in church because "not one of them could read" (197), but there is a palpable desire among the common workers to learn, despite very basic challenges. Bartle Massey's schoolhouse offers them the opportunity, in the evening and after long days of physically exhausting work. Learning to read is no less exhausting. Bill, a young stone-sawyer, "found a reading lesson in words of one syllable a harder matter to deal with than the hardest stone he had ever had to saw," as he was unable to discern differences between letters, noting that they are so "'uncommon alike, there was no tellin' 'em one from another'" (233). But Bill, and others like him, continues to try, and this slow process of learning how to read is aligned with an act of achieving humanity itself. "It was," the narrator remarks, "almost if three rough animals were making humble efforts to learn how they might become human" (235). If becoming literate is tantamount to becoming human, the converse--illiteracy--would seem to imply a limitation of humanity, a limitation in the ability to extend human understanding. This version of literacy comprises more than just reading texts, but rather careful discernment and patient attention to difference.

The achievement of this careful discernment and its subsequent effect on an individual's understanding of her community and herself is, I argue, a primary motivation of Adam Bede. It also is the motivation that, perhaps surprisingly, unites the characters of Hetty Sorrel and Dinah Morris, as both women must learn to control the "texts" they present to others via their bodies and to control the way they read the other individuals who comprise the community of Hayslope. This analysis--which seeks to articulate the ground shared by the two women--thus challenges the readings of Dinah and Hetty that have persisted since the novel's publication: Dinah is good, saintly, and selfless while Hetty is flawed, deviant, and selfish. In her 1883 analysis of Eliot's works, Mathilde Blind established this formulation, describing Dinah as "a beautiful soul; whose spring of love is so abundant that it overflows the narrow limits of private affection, and blesses multitudes of toiling, suffering men and women with its wealth of pity, hope, and sympathy" (119) and Hetty as a "shallow, frivolous little soul" (120) who hides a "hard little heart" under her "soft dimpling beauty" (119). Over one hundred years later, Judith Mitchell perpetuates this characterization, noting again that Hetty's "shallow, selfish nature" (17) opposes Dinah's benevolence. Mitchell suggests that Dinah's heroism is due to her selflessness and that her beauty is a "true signifier" for her good soul whereas Hetty's exterior beauty is a "false" signifier (19). By continually placing Dinah and Hetty in such formulations--good/bad; selfless/selfish; true signifier/false signifier--much of the past scholarship on the novel only supports these bifurcated categories.

Critical assessments have begun to unseat Eliot's heroines from these binaries. …

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