Posted by: zhiv | May 5, 2009

Blithedale to Gatsby, by way of Adam Bede

Maybe this will just be a quick note. After writing up a few thoughts on George Eliot, I discovered that Amateur Reader had read the book last year, following in the wake of a group-read over at The Valve, that was directed by Rohan Maitzen. I haven’t read all of the posts from the reading group, but I reviewed the basic plot of Adam Bede and had fun looking at a lot of commentary. I suppose I knew that GE has no shortage of fans and plenty of people have read Adam Bede, but all of this was nice to see.

In AR’s posts he’s curious about GE’s commitment to realism, and he wants to mention, if not highlight, the fact that Madame Bovary was published in 1857, three years before Adam Bede appeared. I remember looking up the Bovary publication date recently, in the last few months, probably with regards to Chekhov and Tolstoy, but also perhaps with Middlemarch in mind, and being surprised by the 50’s date, as I would have guess early 70’s. Just shows how out of the 19th century mix I am sometimes, and also, this creeping sense that the 19th century and the 20th century have some crazy “decade” similarities, which I first noticed when Chekhov mentioned the “holy 60’s.” AR’s mention is a good note, but it’s important to remember just how radical and, well, French, Madame Bovary was. George Eliot wanted to write about the world that she knew from her childhood in the English midlands, and its past, the world where her father lived as a young man. Wordsworth and the pastoral romanticism of the Lyrical Ballads is an important and obvious influence, and the book can be seen as a revision of sorts of Jane Austen, or perhaps better as an extension. Eliot centers her moral standing on her hero Adam, in an appreciation of labor, and her antagonist Arthur Donnithorne is drawn from the idle gentry. The fact that Arthur seduces Hetty Sorrel might make us think of Madame Bovary, but it’s probably better to see it as a new spin on some of the racier subplots in Jane Austen, such as Wickham’s seduction of Lydia in Pride and Prejudice. That, along with innumerable other seduction plots out there in the world of novels.

A quick comparison of P&P and Adam Bede as a “four hander” helps set things up. Adam Bede-Arthur Donnithorne contrasts with Darcy-Wickham, and Dinah-Hetty makes a nice change on Elizabeth-Lydia. Sense and Sensibility is an even simpler sister-based four-hander.

It should be obvious where I’m going with this. What if we put Flaubert aside, and consider Hawthorne as an influence on George Eliot? (It helps that we can assume that Eliot read and absorbed everything.) The seduction plot in The Scarlet Letter, along with its historicity, seems like it would have been covered easily enough in relation to the subject matter of Adam Bede. Is it safe to say that The Scarlet Letter set a new standard for a seduction novel, one that held for a short 7 years until Madame Bovary was published?

I’m more interested at the moment in Blithedale, my book of the month. The four-hander breakdown is an interesting match: Hollingsworth & Coverdale/Adam & Arthur, and Zenobia & Priscilla/Hetty & Dinah. It appears from this perspective that Eliot is determined to take the curse off of the countryside, as it were, and treat it as a serious subject for fiction. There’s a strong contrast between Hollingsworth’s zealotry about criminal reform and the jaundiced view of the Blithedale experiment, and Adam Bede’s presence in the organic pastoral setting Eliot wants to portray. Eliot seems to be just as concerned with origiinal sin in her Eden as Hawthorne. Hetty’s “walk of shame”–the only term that leaps to mind; AR did a nice job of tying it to the Heart of Midlothian–comes close to Zenobia’s flight and drowning. Later, in Mill on the Floss, Maggie Tolliver shares Zenobia’s fate, although in Maggie’s case it’s unintentional. Unless, of course, you count the intention of the author.

In my last posts about Blithedale and The Bostonians I talked about how Henry James adapted Hawthorne’s romance. James didn’t use the “four hander” structure, choosing instead to present a single hero, Basil Ransom. But after reading Blithedale and thinking about Zenobia’s death, April Wheeler’s complex version of suicide/abortion in Revolutionary Road came to mind (big surprise), which somehow made a connection to The Great Gatsby for me–no doubt through mindfulness of Yates’ obsession with Fitzgerald. And somehow The Blithedale Romance tied this basic plot structure together in a rather profound way.

It would be hard to find a closer match to Hollingsworth/Coverdale than Gatsby/Nick Carraway. Blithedale is essential to the creation of The Bostonians, but is its line to Gatsby even tighter and more direct? The first-person narrator alone seems to give the game away. Gatsby’s character is reminiscent of a Jazz Age Hollingsworth, isn’t it? Fitzgerald didn’t push forward so much on the women of the story, although Daisy’s marriage to Tom Buchanan sets up a cleaner and more effective plot in which seduction and infidelity are routine, but jealousy provides a drive towards death and murder. When thinking about Tom Buchanan, it’s worth remembering Westerfelt (and Coverdale’s reaction to him) and his relationship with Zenobia. And Fitzgerald doesn’t neglect the sexual ambiguity in Hawthorne’s model either, as Nick manages to match Coverdale’s achievement as a voyeur and he’s either deeply ambivalent or gay, depending on how you want to read it. Jordan Baker, whose identity as a female pro golfer seems more obvious to us today, picks up on the line that Henry James took with Olive and Vernea. So did Fitzgerald read both Blithedale and The Bostonians, did he see all the connections and the power of the materials, and he shaped it to his own concerns, experience, and era? You tell me. My guess would be Blithedale yes, Bostonians probably no, but I’d be interested to see a study of Fitzgerald’s reading and influences, which I generally have thought of for a long time as starting and stopping with Flaubert.

That would be a fun American Lit class, wouldn’t it? Blithedale-Bostonians-Gatsby-Revolutionary Road? What else would go in there? Madame Bovary might put some of the discussion on firmer ground, and there would be time for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a Howells book that I’m missing.



  1. Uh oh, what did I write? Let’s see. Mmm hmm. OK. Oh, I get it.

    I was actually thinking of something quite different – style and artistry rather than ideas, the discovery of le mot juste, the perfect detail that is carried through the novel, the original image. Nothing particularly French (or realistic) about this – Dead Souls, Mansfield Park, Bleak House, and Elective Affinities all do what I want. So does George Eliot, it turns out.

    It had not even occurred to me that Flaubert and Eliot were both telling seduction stories! The story of Madame Bovary is, easily, the aspect of the novel that interests me the least. Kind of true of Adam Bede, too, come to think of it.

    F. R. Leavis, by the way, thinks that you are entirely correct linking Adam Bede and Hawthorne.

    The Awakening might fit on your class list. Or Sister Carrie? Now there’s some bad writing!

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