Chapter 17: In Which the Story Pauses a Little
This chapter is a time out from the plot as Eliot steps in as the author to explain her style of storytelling. She defends the realism of it and eschews being sentimental or using ideal character types. She is writing from “nature” and “fact” (p. 177), as if she were in a courtroom. She cannot lie or whitewash the details. She reminds us that we must accept the flawed human beings around us, “the real breathing men and women” (p. 178), for these are the only ones who can be helped and encouraged. She compares her storytelling to Dutch painting, known for its homely and realistic detail. Instead of the beautiful gentry as her subjects, she would rather write about the village wedding with old people, peasants with large noses and vulgar ways. There is family love among them, and beauty of outward form is not as important as the beauty of human sympathy.
An example of this kind of beauty is found in Mr. Irwine who did not preach informative sermons on doctrine but was good to his parishioners. She reminds the reader that the events of the story happened sixty years ago, before pastors were overzealous. Mr. Ryde, who succeeded Mr. Irwine, was better known for preaching doctrine, but he was not loved as Mr. Irwine was. She has asked the old Adam Bede about these things, and he has told her that religion is not notions, but the emotion that helps people do the right thing. The author concludes that human nature is lovable as it is; love and heroism as we picture them don’t exist as depicted in romances.
Commentary on Chapter 17
Eliot does what modern novelists do not usually do: she interrupts her story to write an essay on her own literary style. Authors who want to comment on their storytelling frequently put the words in the mouth of a character or use some other indirect means. Direct addresses to the reader were more common in nineteenth-century fiction, and in fact, Victorian novelists enjoyed a forum on the novel within their fiction, because they were conscious of shaping their art. Fiction was moving, as Eliot says, away from being an ideal romance with upper or middle class heroes towards greater realism, and Eliot herself was a big contributor to this trend. The lower classes in fiction had usually provided comic relief (like Mrs. Poyser) or were servants in the background of the story rather than in the foreground as main characters. Eliot breaks down the class barriers in fictional subject matter, as Wordsworth had done in poetry a half century before.
Eliot is objecting to the mid-century Victorian fiction that was sentimentalized, reinforcing strict moral codes by relying on stereotyped good and bad characters. Eliot introduced a greater concern for the subtle psychological motivation of characters into the novel and in this way, avoided stereotypes. Her characters are like all people who have mixed strengths and weaknesses. A fallen woman like Hetty would not have received much sympathy or understanding in a usual Victorian story. Eliot is interested in tracking the thinking of the servant girl, however, to see how she could have arrived at doing what she did. The shift to the inner life of the characters teaches us about human behavior, which Eliot finds lovable even with the big noses and ignorant ideas. She preaches tolerance, and for this theme, she utilizes a realistic style so readers must face and understand the lives of real people. Real people include not only the lady and gentleman, but farmers, servants, mill workers, old people with rheumatism, people who speak in dialect, the kind of folks that Arthur Donnithorne, for instance, sees as too insignificant to cause him problems. We must include such people in our religion and philosophy, or else it is false.