Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Hetty's Hanky

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Hetty's Hanky

Article excerpt

The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends Or other testimony of summer nights.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

THREE TIMES IN GEORGE ELIOT'S ADAM BEDE, the narrator mentions a certain mysterious object. The first is in Chapter 28, "A Dilemma," in which Arthur, after sending Adam for some brandy following their fight, looks about his Hermitage in search of something:

   Arthur lay still for some minutes after Adam was gone, but
   presently he rose feebly from the ottoman and peered about
   slowly in the broken moonlight, seeking something. It was
   a short bit of wax candle that stood amongst a confusion of
   writing and drawing materials. There was more searching for
   the means of lighting the candle, and when that was done, he
   went cautiously round the room as if wishing to assure himself
   of the presence or absence of something. At last he found a
   slight thing, which he put first in his pocket, and then, on a
   second thought, took it out again and thrust deep down into
   a waste-paper basket. It was a woman's little pink silk
   handkerchief. (350)

The next time we hear of the handkerchief is twenty chapters later, in "Another Meeting in the Wood," when Arthur and Adam again visit the Hermitage, after Hetty's conviction and sentence for transportation. The description is a reprise of the earlier scene, focalized through both Adam's remembering and Arthur's feeling:

   The Hermitage had never been entered since they left it
   together, for Arthur had locked up the key in his desk. And
   now, when he opened the door, there was the candle burnt
   out in the socket; there was the chair in the same place where
   Adam remembered sitting; there was the waste-paper basket
   full of scraps, and deep down in it, Arthur felt in an instant,
   there was the little pink silk handkerchief. (511)

And finally, the last appearance of the handkerchief is at the end of this same chapter, in the concluding sentence after Adam's exit: "As soon as the door was closed behind him, Arthur went to the waste-paper basket and took out the little pink silk handkerchief" (516). These are the only times that we are told about this "little pink silk handkerchief"; these three brief mentions. That is all. How are we to interpret this "slight thing," this slim but overdetermined bit of business?

To build an article on something as light as a handkerchief might give pause over both matter and manner, yet there is precedent in literary commentary for both my method and its object of scrutiny. (1) My contention, in unfolding the significance of this device, is that Eliot's treatment of the handkerchief opens up new perspectives on the forensics of Adam Bede--that is, on its discourse of investigation, evidentiary and intertextual witness, courtroom drama, and verdict. At the same time, however, Eliot's handling of the hanky points beyond forensics, beyond a strictly juridical binarism of guilty / not guilty toward the more complicated ethical question of "how far a man is to be held responsible for the unforeseen consequences of his own deed" (468). By no means a simple condemnation of the forensic and a vindication of the ethical, Adam Bede tries the limits of these discursive fields, revealing their shared legal, moral, and rhetorical jurisdiction but also the points at which the conviction of one domain gives way to the belief of another. My close-up analysis will focus on one strand in the prosecution of the case: with a simple, quotidian accessory such as a handkerchief, Eliot quietly plants evidence of a mute witness in the novel whose unspoken testimony implicates everyone. Can a "little pink silk handkerchief" do that?

I. Evidence

I begin forensically, in keeping with Eliot's dominant rhetoric in Adam Bede. Chapter 17, "In Which the Story Pauses a Little," and in which Eliot gives readers a central, well-known document in the history of nineteenth-century realism, employs a crucial courtroom metaphor that governs both the theme of the novel and its presentation. …

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