Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Soldier Boy: Forming Masculinity in Adam Bede

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Soldier Boy: Forming Masculinity in Adam Bede

Article excerpt

A good deal has been written recently about changing ideals of masculinity during the nineteenth century and the depiction of those changing ideals in the literature of the time. (1) The general picture now is that the flamboyant aristocratic model inherited from the eighteenth century was gradually rejected and supplanted by a restrained and virtous middle-class model. (2) Along with this shift in the ideal of manliness downward through the ranks of the middle classes was a corresponding attempt to revive a rural exemplar often associated with the upper ranks of the working class. Craftsmen, yeomen, and the like were gradually represented as embodying a masculine purity opposed to the exploitive corruption of the aristocracy and the economically driven middle-class gentleman. (3) Adam Bede (1859) captures a moment in this double evolution of the "true man" that subtly exploits some conventional tropes and establishes some resonances between the time of narration and the historical time of narrated events to affirm new ideas of masculinity. Eliot is engaged in an enterprise that we tend to identify with twentieth-century feminist literary criticism, but which extends beyond that limit. For example, drawing upon figures such as Althusser, Freud, and Lacan, Kaja Silverman in Male Subjectivity at the Margins argues for the contesting of the current ideology that asserts masculine dominance. "Our dominant fiction," she writes, "calls upon the male subject to see himself, and the female subject to recognize and desire him, only through the mediation of images of an unimpaired masculinity. It urges both the male and the female subject, that is, to deny all knowledge of male castration by believing in the commensurability of penis and phallus, actual and symbolic father." (4) Since male dominance rests on an identification with the phallus and denial of castration, which is displaced to the female, a program must be established to correct this fiction. "Rather that seeking access for all subjects to an illusory `wholeness.'" Silverman asserts, "we need to work at the level of representation and theory to renegotiate our relationship to the Law of Language, and thereby to challenge the dominant fiction at its most vulnerable and yet most critical site: the phallus" (p. 50). Eliot is certainly not following Silverman's program, but she too is trying to rectify an ideology that favors a certain kind of masculinity by recommending a meliorated model. The most obvious distinctions about masculinity in Eliot's novel have to do with class, but they are illuminated by a figure uncharacteristic in Eliot's writing, though significant for the time in which Adam Bede was written and in all times accepted as a clear marker of masculinity. That figure is the soldier. Eliot's unusual use of the soldier figure reveals that this novel, set in the period of the French wars, is actually a manual for mid-Victorian morality and manliness. Moreover, world events, most particularly the Crimean War, had changed popular views not only about manliness, but about officers and common soldiers as well.

In Between Men, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that a major gender issue in Adam Bede "is a transaction of honor between men over the dead, discredited, or disempowered body of a woman." (5) Following Rene Girard, Kosofsky employs a triangular relationship in which two men confront one another supposedly over a female prize, but actually in a "transaction of honor" that emphasizes the homosocial bond even in opposition. I would like to suggest a variation of Sedgwick's position here in which Eliot foregrounds and then subtly supports a contest between definitions of masculinity that incidentally involves a "discredited" woman and that has as its actual prize a true woman. In this variation several men, representing different shades of masculinity, stand in contrast to one another and thereby shape for the reader a figure of true manliness. One version of masculinity is discredited and others subordinated to this true manliness, manifested in Adam Bede. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.