Friday, July 29, 2016

Adam Bede - George Elliot

Picture this, you're a girl (named Dinah) and you've recently found Jesus and Methodism and Chastity and you're into wearing super ugly clothing and street preaching around the Victorian English countryside. You travel to the most inhospitable places ever to work alongside coal miners and contribute your wage to the poor. Occasionally when your aunt can't take your prolonged absences anymore, you make your way to your relative's house where you will cook and clean and tend to your nieces and nephews. Yet, while perhaps domestic service can be draining and tending to little “Totty” isn’t always pleasant, since you have plenty of food and are not in contact with people actively dying, this does not classify as a hardship tour. While the luxury you must endure is all very grievous to does bring you into close proximity with the penultimate model of Victorian masculinity: Adam Bede. 

Adam is what everyone would expect of a Victorian hero; chivalrous, hard working, demanding perfection, but willing to pick up the slack that is constantly around him, because deep down inside he realizes he is the only one with standards. He is a woodworker and while at one point he had amassed enough of a fortune to potentially buy into a partnership, he used up the majority of his money to buy his brother's place out of the military and the rest has been drained away keeping his drunkard father solvent. So basically he’s the full package: hardworking, muscley, and a loyal and devoted son. He’s almost just perfect enough for you to reevaluate your life goals and maybe…entertain the idea of falling in love.

Luckily for you, Adam doesn’t really realize you exist. He’s too obsessed with Hetty Sorrel, a coquettish beauty that knows she’s gorgeous and spends too much time looking at her reflection in milk jugs. Hetty, although a cousin, is the exact opposite end of the spectrum, potentially even a different species altogether from your own. While you are industrious, hard working and never complaining, sacrificing daily for the needs of others, Hetty does just enough to classify whatever she is doing as being “done” while resenting the fact that she has to do it to begin with. She hates Totty and spends far too long churning butter. But what she is good at is flirting with everyone and fantasizing about her future. 

As is common with beautiful flirtatious women, she has many suitors, one of which is the most eligible bachelor - Adam Bede. And while she tolerates his overtures and gives him just enough attention for him to think they're basically dating, she is keeping her options open in case a better option presents itself.

Not that you need or even want suitors, but while everyone and their brother is chasing Hetty around, the one brother that seems devoted to you, is Seth Bede. He has become a methodist and follows you around like a little puppy, kind of like a Lennie Small. Seth may not crush you in his big bear arms like a little bunny, but his devotion is of the same caliber. So while a part of your heart is secretly pining for the Bede you can never have, the Bede you never wanted follows you around wanting to discuss your potential relationship. In this scenario, obviously celibacy is the preferred and higher calling. But that Adam Bede. If only he knew how that trashy Hetty was two timing him behind his back…but what can you do. You love that trashy Hetty Sorrel for what she is, a sinner in need of redemption. 

But…you do have a point. Hetty is two timing Adam. And whether Adam is too good natured to notice, or whether he is giving her space and time to look around and weigh all her options, he is confident that eventually she will make  the right decision, and in the meantime he can diligently work to pay off his father’s debt and hopefully accrue enough to purchase a share in the local woodworking business. Then there will literally be no reason for Hetty to not jump into his arms, he is far superior to all his competitors. 

Or is he?

Little does Adam know, but his childhood friend and next in line to be squire, Arthur Donnithorne, has taken a fancy to little Hetty Sorrel. In his summer boredom, while he waits to come into his inheritance (his grandfather while sickly will not die and insists on carrying out all the estate business on his own with little help from the enthusiastic Arthur) he wanders around checking up on the tenants. And one day while making such rounds he stumbles upon the scene of Hetty churning the butter, her dimpled little arms (arms are always little and dimpled in Victorian literature) churning away, a blush upon her fresh cheeks etc. And what can he do but ascertain her weekly itinerary and know just when she will be walking across the green alone. Hm, interesting information. He is not a reprobate. He believes in class order and such, but if he happens to be running an errand at the same time Hetty Sorrel is running an errand…isn’t that more like fate? 

And so, as only luck would have it, after totally not planning to be on the green at the same time as Hetty…he finds himself there, walking in the twilight with a beautiful girl. And for a moment he rues the day classes and social structure were invented, taking offense that one so incredibly beautiful could be relegated to a lower class simply from order of birth. It’s really quite base that such a perfect specimen should spend her whole life scrubbing floors and babies and making gruel etc. But within the next second he is no longer a rational man, no longer a Victorian man, but merely a 23 year old man. 

And so one tête-à-tête leads to another until that fateful day when Adam, whistling a toon and walking through the forrest happens upon the couple kissing under the shade of a tree. Now this is problematic for a bevy of reasons, but to name the top three: 

1: What is a squire doing making out with a milkmaid? That can only go poorly for the milkmaid, and shows very poor character of the squire. While the maid’s head will balloon into enormous self importance, when she realizes she will never be married to the squire and must henceforth live a life of comparative squalor and misery with the gardener…this can only lead to chronic depression. 

2: Why would Hetty be making out with Arthur when she’s supposed to have the hots for Adam? They’ve never exchanged more than a conversational pleasantry and that took effort, they were slowly working their way up, one building block cemented with mortar at a time, to that beautiful day when they had built a bedrock foundation and could finally in good conscience take their first kiss. Now literally everything is ruined!

3: Isn’t Arthur supposed to be Adam’s friend. Isn’t this stabbing your friend in the back?!

For all the above reasons and sundry more, Adam finds himself understandably apoplectic. Hetty runs away and Adam charges on his friend, a true fist to cuffs if ever there was one, culminating in the gentry being landed and Adam feeling less angry…but still pretty angry.

When Arthur regains consciousness, they hobble their way back to the Hermitage which Arthur has remodeled for his obviously nefarious reasons. While Adam scurries around looking for supplies, Arthur, clutching his ribs and internal organs scurries around looking for something quite different: a pink neckerchief. 

At this point it’s all really quite obvious what has happened. But since this in Victorian literature, we gasp, and slowly begin rocking back and forth praying it isn’t true. 

Arthur is persuaded to write Hetty a letter calling the whole thing off and decides it would be best if he joins the military, he can’t sit around forever waiting for his grandfather to die. So he writes his letter and then makes his way to the colonies or the harbor or somewhere very militaryish. 

Meanwhile Hetty, after all only a girl of 16, has been loved and petted her whole life getting the cherry on top in every situation. But now, after falling in love with the biggest cherry and having that love seemingly reciprocated…she gets a “Dear Jane” letter? 

At first her plan is to pretend she’s ok with everything and just marry Adam after all and then slowly maim him with her bitterness…but as the months progress, seven months to be specific, she feels less and less energetic and more cut-off, hurt and confused. She can not marry Adam. It is true now. There is nothing left in her heart, or rather in the shadow that was once her heart. She collects her few insignificant belongings, and makes her way, only a couple weeks before her wedding, to find Arthur and escape into the life that he promised her. 

But of course this plan is impossible to execute, because she has no idea where Arthur is! After she makes it all the way to the address on his last postscript only to realize he has left the country for military training…she has nothing to do but survive the best she can by pawning off her jewelry and special items and trying to make it back home…before the BABY IS BORN! 

But the baby is born. And everything is sad and devastating but also happy in that way only new life can allow. But Hetty is a narcissist and add postpartum depression into the mix of her already high levels of depression and the result is bat #$@^ crazy. So she sneaks off into the woods, two days of motherhood being more than she can handle, and hides her baby in a hole in the ground by a tree stump. She hopes that a goodly woodsman will come along and rescue the baby. She then attempts to escape, but is haunted by the baby’s cries and after she makes her way back to the tree stump the baby is ….dead or gone…I don’t really remember the chronology. It dies. 

So then of course Hetty is borderline catatonic and thrown into prison for the murder of her child, a soul on the cusp of eternal damnation. And that’s where you come in…

You were waiting this whole time, just on the periphery of the scene in some mining town or other inhospitable climate where you tended to the poor, the helpless and the needy, and now you make haste to your cousin’s prison in her time of distress. (You sort of mentioned something like this could happen back on page 12 but now is not the time to mention that). The guards escort you past the vermin and stench filled cells, deeper and deeper into the labyrinthine prison system until a door is opened and you stare into the pitch black room and whisper “Hetty?”

Hetty, barely conscious, consumed with shame and regret at a cellular level, has refused to speak to anyone, but now, after hearing your sweet charitable voice, a spark appears. At first there is resistance to talk, but talk is what you must do, because while the body faces perdition the soul can still be rescued. 

And there you sit for days. Your arms wrapped around your jaded and dejected cousin who has lost everything. Day after day you hold her and tell her the truth: that God can still save her soul. She has already been found guilty, she has already been sentenced to “hanging by the neck until you be dead”…the terror is engulfing, but she allows herself to hope, and she gives her life, the last remaining dregs of it to Christ and meets her destiny with the strength that comes only from Faith. 

Months pass. You’re back in Adam Bede country because his mother is obsessed with you and you're always the first person/ only person she calls to come stay when she isn’t feeling well…which is often. There is now a mutual respect between you and Adam, you both cared for Hetty down to the last second and in doing so revealed a greater depth of character than either of you may have imagined existed. Adam talks to you, walks you home, though never offers you his arm, he seems to think of you as a sister, and while that is so good…it’s also so sad. Your cheeks burn whenever he looks at you with the direct gaze of his, and it’s beginning to become obvious that your affections may not only be for God…

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