Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2011
This chapter reads Adam Bede as George Eliot’s debate with herself and her generation about the value of sensational moments. It is a subject that must be settled for the first-time novelist, not because it’s more important than her ostensive topics (of which there are plenty – peasant realism, women’s voice and vocation, infanticide, the frayed remnants of noblesse oblige), but because temporality is integral to the representational frame that brings her topics together and casts them in a philosophical light. Eliot made no secret of her desire to take the novel genre in new directions. Her treatment of momentary figures is part of the overall plan. Instead of simply tapping into the powers of narrative pacing, she becomes self-reflexive about it. As part of the protocol, she withdraws from the allure of momentary figures; she makes it difficult simply to enjoy them.
No doubt her withdrawal is related to her membership in a Victorian intellectual vanguard for which critical detachment was a higher response to art than an immersive abandonment to its stimuli. Late in Adam Bede she alludes to the effects of industrial environments on cognitive processes, associating steam power with mental enervation: “ingenious philosophers tell you, perhaps, that the great work of the steam-engine is to create leisure for mankind. Do not believe them: it only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in.” Presumably Eliot will write a novel that mitigates this steam-engine culture from within. But she stacks the deck against herself; instead of identifying “eager thoughts” with easy targets like urban popular culture or “silly women novelists,” she identifies it with religion, something that evokes her deepest and most vexed sympathies.