Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"The Sound of the Scythe Being Whetted": Gender, Genre, and Realism in 'Adam Bede.'

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"The Sound of the Scythe Being Whetted": Gender, Genre, and Realism in 'Adam Bede.'

Article excerpt

Critical analyses of Adam Bede that take genre as their focus tend to treat the novel as essentially monogeneric: the realistic technique revises or modernizes whatever older generic form the critic has identified as the novel's structural or moral ur-text, and such hybrids as the "pastoral novel," the "unhistoric tragedy," the "rural epic," or the "tragicomedy" result.(1) Those critics who find generic conflict in the text (rather than "revision") locate this conflict within the project of realism itself--that is, within the tendency to sneak the "ideal" into the "real."(2) While such accounts acknowledge the competition between what could be considered different generic forms ("moral fable" vs. "historic moment"), they do not treat more than a dyadic or dialectical structure of two "genres" in competition. One recent reading of Adam Bede along these lines argues that the ending of the novel "conveys [Eliot's] final judgment on Hayslope's insularity," since the "purpose" of the novel is to "explode the falsifying myth of the pastoral" in order to "portray natural history" (p. 289).(3) While I agree with this general thesis, I would like to propose the idea that the "pastoral myth" is only one of several such narrative trajectories and that the novel's domestic closure is achieved by a conscientious appropriation or sacrifice of those trajectories by a realism that has been enriched or widened by the encounter. I would also like to propose a way to add gender to the study of genre and realism, in a reading that accounts for the particular descriptive tropes and plot trajectories assigned by generic convention to the "masculinity" and "femininity" that are each needed for closing scenes of stable domesticity. In Eliot's novels, these tropes and trajectories are often reversed, usually with a female character taking on a "masculine" role. Eliot seemed to find in such reversals a means to create a genuine female subjectivity and a field of action for this potential.(4) However, happy domesticity being the desired realistic closure, such characters must be rendered "marriageable"; the alternative genre and the possibility for female activity it offered must be expelled or contained by a process of disillusionment or demystification, so that the "female hero" can become "a wife." That Eliot understood this process and its cost can be seen clearly in Adam Bede, as I hope to demonstrate here.

The novel has two openings: an indoor and an outdoor, a work scene and a landscape, a "realistic" and a "mythic," a masculine and a feminine. These openings provide a generic map of the novel, in which we can find not only the regions that threaten or support a realistic closure, but the system by which a coherent closing scene will be achieved. For the novel has only one ending--a marriage--in which the conflicting trajectories of the double beginning have been made to harmonize. We are conscientiously pointed away from the mythic and into the realistic by the opening paragraph, whose purpose is to focus our attention from the widest possible extent into a pinpoint of specificity, from "the past" to "the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799," from "far-reaching visions" to "the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder," by means of a "single drop of ink," whose transformation from the Egyptian sorcerer's magical "mirror" to literal liquid "at the end of [a] pen" enacts the shift from the world of visionary mythical past to the "real" world of material history.(5) The scene that this narrator presents is thus to be understood as a "real" scene of laborers working and chatting about the "real" things "real" laborers talk about.

Ample work has been done that establishes Adam as the figure of ideal worker who embodies what are essentially middle-class ideals.(6) My reading, therefore, does not seek to establish Adam as middle-class realistic hero but to identify the particular pattern of associations with him and this ideology that is established in this scene, and later used by the narrator as the objective correlative of realism in other moments and characters in the novel. …

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