In praise of George Eliot’s Adam Bede on its 150th anniversary – Part 1

Published on WSWS, by David Walsh, 30 December 2009.

(4 short excerpts of a long text): This year marked the 150th anniversary, widely and deservedly celebrated, of the publication of Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking On the Origin of Species. Marx, who immediately recognized the significance of Darwin’s work, published his own A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that same year … //

… A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens appeared in 1859, as did Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov. Gustave Courbet was the acknowledged, if embattled, leader of the Realist current in painting. He held a Grand fête du Réalisme at his studio in Paris in October, writing a friend two months later that “Realism is very much under attack at the moment…we must marshal new forces and do everything we can.”

Before 2009 comes to an end, the publication of George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede early in 1859 also deserves to be noted. 

There are numerous biographies of Eliot, and Adam Bede is easy enough to obtain, but certain details about the author and her first novel are worth commenting upon.

Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commissar of Education following the Russian Revolution and a literary critic of note, once recommended, “be born a genius by all means—but the most important thing is to be born at the right time,” adding Goethe’s observation, “Had I been born 20 years earlier or later, I would have been quite a different person.”

Eliot’s life, 1819-1880, coincides almost exactly with Marx’s (1818-1883). Important developments at the material base of society, in industry and technology, in the natural sciences, as well as in art and culture, influenced their lives—in different ways and under different conditions, of course … //

… Realism:

The question of realism is an enormous one that can only be touched on here. It seems reasonable to ask our “advanced” critics from what viewpoint they are criticizing Eliot’s “traditional” and “naïve” conceptions, especially as she outlines them in Adam Bede’s Chapter XVII (“In Which the Story Pauses a Little,” discussed below). Do they favor richer and closer approximations of life than Eliot was capable of creating, taking into account the artistic advances and social experiences of the past century and a half, or does their criticism represent a regression, bound up with a rejection of the very ability to reproduce the truth about the objective world in art? … //

… Intriguingly, Marx and Engels made comments to the same effect in 1859, in letters to German socialist leader Ferdinand Lassalle, who had written the tragedy Franz von Sickingen, about a sixteenth century revolt by Swabian and Rhineland knights. Engels politely, but pointedly, expressed his preference for realism over idealism in art: “In my view of drama, the realistic should not be neglected in favour of the intellectual elements, nor Shakespeare in favour of Schiller.… What wonderfully expressive characters are to be found during this period of the breakdown of feudalism—penniless ruling kings, impoverished hireling soldiers and adventurers of all sorts—a Falstaffian background….”

In his letter to Lassalle, Marx too framed his preferences in terms of Shakespeare versus Schiller: “As to particular points of criticism, you sometimes allow your characters much too much self-reflection—which is due to your preference for Schiller.” (2)

To be continued: … (full long text and 2 notes).

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