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Hetty's hanky.

The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends Or other testimony of summer nights.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

THREE TIMES IN GEORGE ELIOT'S ADAM BEDE, the narrator mentions a certain mysterious object. The first is in Chapter 28, "A Dilemma," in which Arthur, after sending Adam for some brandy following their fight, looks about his Hermitage in search of something:
 Arthur lay still for some minutes after Adam was gone, but
 presently he rose feebly from the ottoman and peered about
 slowly in the broken moonlight, seeking something. It was
 a short bit of wax candle that stood amongst a confusion of
 writing and drawing materials. There was more searching for
 the means of lighting the candle, and when that was done, he
 went cautiously round the room as if wishing to assure himself
 of the presence or absence of something. At last he found a
 slight thing, which he put first in his pocket, and then, on a
 second thought, took it out again and thrust deep down into
 a waste-paper basket. It was a woman's little pink silk
 handkerchief. (350)


The next time we hear of the handkerchief is twenty chapters later, in "Another Meeting in the Wood," when Arthur and Adam again visit the Hermitage, after Hetty's conviction and sentence for transportation. The description is a reprise of the earlier scene, focalized through both Adam's remembering and Arthur's feeling:
 The Hermitage had never been entered since they left it
 together, for Arthur had locked up the key in his desk. And
 now, when he opened the door, there was the candle burnt
 out in the socket; there was the chair in the same place where
 Adam remembered sitting; there was the waste-paper basket
 full of scraps, and deep down in it, Arthur felt in an instant,
 there was the little pink silk handkerchief. (511)


And finally, the last appearance of the handkerchief is at the end of this same chapter, in the concluding sentence after Adam's exit: "As soon as the door was closed behind him, Arthur went to the waste-paper basket and took out the little pink silk handkerchief" (516). These are the only times that we are told about this "little pink silk handkerchief"; these three brief mentions. That is all. How are we to interpret this "slight thing," this slim but overdetermined bit of business?

To build an article on something as light as a handkerchief might give pause over both matter and manner, yet there is precedent in literary commentary for both my method and its object of scrutiny. (1) My contention, in unfolding the significance of this device, is that Eliot's treatment of the handkerchief opens up new perspectives on the forensics of Adam Bede--that is, on its discourse of investigation, evidentiary and intertextual witness, courtroom drama, and verdict. At the same time, however, Eliot's handling of the hanky points beyond forensics, beyond a strictly juridical binarism of guilty / not guilty toward the more complicated ethical question of "how far a man is to be held responsible for the unforeseen consequences of his own deed" (468). By no means a simple condemnation of the forensic and a vindication of the ethical, Adam Bede tries the limits of these discursive fields, revealing their shared legal, moral, and rhetorical jurisdiction but also the points at which the conviction of one domain gives way to the belief of another. My close-up analysis will focus on one strand in the prosecution of the case: with a simple, quotidian accessory such as a handkerchief, Eliot quietly plants evidence of a mute witness in the novel whose unspoken testimony implicates everyone. Can a "little pink silk handkerchief" do that?

I. Evidence

I begin forensically, in keeping with Eliot's dominant rhetoric in Adam Bede. Chapter 17, "In Which the Story Pauses a Little," and in which Eliot gives readers a central, well-known document in the history of nineteenth-century realism, employs a crucial courtroom metaphor that governs both the theme of the novel and its presentation. Blending an empirical language of reflection with a psychological vocabulary of feeling, Eliot links the act of narration to a particular standard of representation. The narrator says:
 I aspire to give no more than a faithful account of men and
 things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind. The
 mirror is doubtless defective; the outlines will sometimes be
 disturbed; the reflection faint or confused; but I feel as much
 bound to tell you, as precisely as I can, what that reflection is,
 as if I were in the witness-box narrating my experience on oath.
 (221; emphasis added)


Not the cursory claim to realistic faithfulness sometimes made by novelists, Eliot's statement casts its own language, and its perceptions, in a deliberately forensic mode. It is a motivated choice, for despite its being a novel of sympathetic realism, Adam Bede is still part murder mystery, part courtroom drama, and a crucial aspect of our response to the novel generally, and to Hetty particularly, depends on the way that our sympathies are controlled by the forensic discourse within the novel (Hetty's trial and the legal rules of engagement that operate there) as much as the forensic framework of the novel (the metaphor of the narrator in a witness-box on oath and the responsibility to tell as "precisely" as possible). Yet what is the relation between courtroom rhetoric and sympathy? How can a discourse as formal, as "precise," as forensic rhetoric be the means to produce a sympathetic response in the reader?

It all depends on perspective, on what the court (or the narrator) allows you to see. Another way of putting this would be to say that it depends on what is entered into evidence, since the inclusion or exclusion of certain evidence--including eye-witness accounts--determines perspective. (2) In Adam Bede, the genius of Eliot's manipulation of perspective lies in her not allowing the reader to witness the murder: at the end of Chapter 37, "The Journey in Despair," the focus shifts away from Hetty, with her "rounded childish face, and the hard unloving despairing soul looking out of it," to the narrator's feelings--"My heart bleeds for her"; the camera pulls back from the close-up on the individual to the moral generality of the final sentence of the chapter: "God preserve you and me from being the beginners of such misery!" (435).

The language of "beginners" is part of Eliot's rhetoric of cause and effect--the "consequences," "links," and "more links" (207, 396) that make up the narrative chain of events as distinct from the moral "web" (83, 295, 334), "fold" (468), or "fibres" (225, 399, 532, 537) of responsibility and of feeling that interweave themselves throughout the novel. (3) The strategy of removing Hetty from our view, and thus of preventing our witnessing the murder, is crucial in this context, for the next time we see Hetty is in the courtroom, in Chapter 43, "The Verdict" (Bartle Massey having described her appearance to Adam in Chapter 42 as preparation for her reappearance in court). As this chapter title, and the titles of the immediately preceding chapters ("The Eve of the Trial," "The Morning of the Trial") reveal, Eliot participates in the forensic mode explicitly, raising to the level of narrative what had been implicit all along in the novel's rhetoric--the language of being "bound to tell you, as precisely as I can ... as if I were in the witness-box narrating my experience on oath" (221). By avoiding the depiction of the murder--something not fit to be represented in the novel's scheme, and related by Hetty to Dinah only later, in Chapter 45 (4)--Eliot resorts to a judicial rhetoric that situates readers not as witnesses to a crime but as courtroom spectators--admittedly, privileged ones, as we shall see--whose judgement depends on the available evidence. Instead of narrating a simple cause-and-effect relation--commit a crime and suffer the penalty--the novel pursues a different path in which the immediate question of guilt becomes part of a larger issue of responsibility.

What is evidently missing from the picture at this point, however, is a moral supplement that Eliot, after Wordsworth, calls "something more / Than brotherly forgiveness" (45). The phrase is part of Eliot's epigraph to Adam Bede; it comes from Wordsworth's poem The Excursion, Book 6, and is spoken by the Pastor:
 And when
 I speak of such among my flock as swerved
 Or fell, those only shall be singled out
 Upon whose lapse, or error, something more
 Than brotherly forgiveness may attend.
 (6.654-58; Poetical Works 5:207)


As the tuning fork for the novel as a whole, the epigraph makes us aware of a prevenient forgiveness, a sympathy or pardon already present before the beginning of the story: the novel may indeed speak of those who "swerved / Or fell," or of "lapse, or error," but it also anticipates in this suspicion of guilt the possibility of "something more." This possibility is especially important in the larger context of Eliot's citation of Wordsworth, for the Pastor's speech deals with aspects of narrative that parallel Eliot's strategies. Responding to the idealization of a country churchyard as a place
 where the voice that speaks
 In envy or detraction is not heard;
 Which malice may not enter; where the traces
 Of evil inclinations are unknown;
 Where love and pity tenderly unite
 With resignation; and no jarring tone
 Intrudes, the peaceful concert to disturb
 Of amity and gratitude ... (6.638-45)


the Pastor adapts his narration accordingly:
 I willingly confine
 My narratives to subjects that excite
 Feelings with these accordant; love, esteem,
 And admiration. (6.649-49)


By choosing only certain subjects, those that fit a plan to arouse feelings of "love, esteem, / And admiration," the Pastor announces a deliberate narrative partiality; and even when he speaks of those who "swerved / Or fell," he claims that he does so with "something more / Than brotherly forgiveness." Eliot likewise strategically chooses to tell her story in a certain way, confining her narrative not just to particular subjects but to particular perspectives that might excite feelings accordant with "love and pity" (Excursion 6.642). What is significant for Eliot is not simply what happens but how it is presented to the reader, how it is offered as evidence. In recounting the composition of the novel in a journal entry for 30 November 1858, Eliot notes that she did not divulge to her publisher Blackwood how the story would turn out, or what the verdict would be: "I refused to tell my story beforehand, on the ground that I would not have it judged apart from my treatment, which alone determines the moral quality of art" (587; emphasis in original). While Eliot here is speaking of her narrative design, one can easily substitute "Hetty" for "it" in the sentence and arrive at the point I have been making: Eliot would not have her judged apart from her treatment, which alone determines our view of the moral quality of the character.

Thus while Adam Bede's structure and style reflect a judicial standpoint, Eliot gives us plenty of clues throughout the novel to suggest that things are more tangled than a forensic perspective might admit. While forensic discourse is based on an adversarial structure, a prosecution/ defense, guilty/not guilty binarism--the very sort of black-and-white clarity that Eliot in Chapter 17 attributes to romance over realism--the novel disturbs this arrangement. One expression of this complication is the pagan/Christian opposition that the narrator foregrounds in the character of the Rev. Irwine: "'This Rector of Broxton is little better than a pagan!'" (221). The classically educated Irwine, with his dog Juno, his copy of Aeschylus open on the table, and his Horatian phraseology, discusses the concept of Nemesis over breakfast with Arthur. In a conversation that manages to talk around its real subject--Arthur's guiltiness over his relations with Hetty--Irwine describes "inward suffering" as "the worst form of Nemesis" (217) and then proceeds to lecture Arthur on forms of causality: "Consequences are unpitying. Our deeds carry their terrible consequences, quite apart from any fluctuations that went before--consequences that are hardly ever confined to ourselves" (217). The Christian complement of forgiveness, omitted here, is later provided by Dinah, but Irwine's statement opens up the "subtler web" (83) of responsibility that cannot be "confined." Irwine repeats his comments to Adam: "[T]he problem how far a man is to be held responsible for the unforeseen consequences of his own deed, is one that might well make us tremble to look into it" (468). Arthur will later reiterate this view to Adam, somewhat unconvincingly (510-11), partly because Arthur believes in the linear reversibility of experience; he wants to think that one can go back and make something right again. Adam, however, teaches him that "There's a sort o' damage, sir, that can't be made up for" (512); as he says to the Rev. Irwine, "that's the deepest curse of all ... that's what makes the blackness of it ... it can never be undone" (468). The lesson is not merely judicial--crime and punishment--but moral--truth and consequences.

But where, then, in this tangled web of ethics and forensics, does the "little pink silk handkerchief" fit in? Can we read it as a piece of evidence, though a piece not entered as evidence in the courtroom drama? As readers we have seen something that none of the spectators in the courtroom--including the jurors--has seen; Eliot once again directs us in such a way as to complicate the "Guilty" (482) verdict. But we need to remember something else, perhaps more important: Adam never sees the hanky either.

II. Witness

Arthur is careful not to let Adam witness the handkerchief on the two occasions when they are in its presence in the Hermitage. In the first citation at the beginning of this essay, there are three linked quests that lead to the handkerchief. First, Arthur is described as "seeking something" --which turns out to be a candle; then there is "more searching" for something with which to light the candle; and still Arthur searches "as if wishing to assure himself of the presence or absence of something." The quest-romance achieves its object, if not its end: "At last he found a slight thing." At work in this chain of investigative events is a decremental repetition: "something ... something ... thing." The deliberate generality of the common nouns heightens the suspense of investigation, provoking the reader to ask, What is it? What is he looking for? It is a curious quest, for its success seems, paradoxically, to depend on either "the presence or absence of something." Finding, not finding: they add up to the same "thing." (5)

This language of "things" has multiple associations. It can suggest something trivial ("a slight thing"), or something less than human (an object rather than a subject), or it can be just the opposite--a term of endearment, not dehumanization. Of all the characters in Adam Bede, Hetty is the one who is repeatedly described as a thing--a poor thing, or a poor little thing, a dear little thing: "dear young, round, soft, flexible thing!" (197); "the prettiest thing in the world" (308); "the prettiest thing God had made" (468); Hetty's beauty "was the beauty of young frisking things" (128); "she was such a young thing" (333). Likened repeatedly to animals or domestic pets--kittens above all ("the little puss ...!" [197]; see also 308), but also downy ducks, young calves, and little birds--Hetty is seen as a thing by both men and women. Like Wordsworth's Lucy, Hetty seems "a thing that could not feel / The touch of earthly years"--a poignant irony, since by the end of the novel we know that Hetty, like Lucy, is dead, "Rolled round in earth's diurnal course / With rocks, and stones, and trees" (Poetical Works 2:216). (6)

Compare this scene to Arthur's later return to the Hermitage. Instead of a fumbling search for a petit objet, Eliot's language is confidently deictic, pointing to the very things that were formerly sought after: "there was the candle ... ; there was the chair ...; there was the waste-paper basket ... and ... there was the little pink silk handkerchief." No confusion this time, and as soon as Adam leaves, Arthur goes straight to the waste-paper basket and pulls out the handkerchief. It is a repetition, with a difference, of the earlier quest, but direct this time, assured; not wavering between either "the presence or absence of something" but assertive and knowing in the fullness of presence (there, there, there, there). Arthur, sole possessor of this knowledge as well as this object, demonstrates that the handkerchief itself possesses something--a value, an affective content, a meaning. But what does this "slight thing" mean? Can we answer such a question when Arthur is the only one who holds it? Or just because he is the single master of the handkerchief, must he also be sole keeper of its meaning?

Let us not protract a false naivete in our inferences. Let us say what every reasonable witness would say under the circumstances: it's Hetty's hanky. Yes, it's Hetty's hanky, all right, but not one that she bought for herself. How could Hetty afford such a fine, expensive "little pink silk handkerchief" when "she had given almost all her spare money" (296) just to buy a new pair of cotton stockings? Obviously, it was a gift from Arthur, like the other gifts he gave her--the gold locket containing the locks of light and dark hair being the prime example, but the "beautiful pair of gold and pearls and garnet" earrings (294) being Hetty's personal favourite. It is Hetty's hanky and it was a gift from Arthur. But it is more than that: it is also a nasty bit of incriminating evidence, a "testimony of summer nights" that discredits Arthur's downplaying of his involvement with Hetty in Chapters 27 and 28. Arthur has tried to deceive Adam into thinking that nothing has happened, that his meeting with Hetty in the dark wood was accidental, and that his kissing her was innocent flirtation: "I overtook pretty little Hetty Sorrel as I was coming to my den--the Hermitage, there" (343). The handkerchief changes all that. Its presence is a token of Arthur's guilt, but that guilt, in this economy of gift exchange, spreads to incriminate the receiver as much as the donor: the hanky means that Hetty was there. There, there, there, there. In "the Hermitage, there"; there alone with Arthur. Hanky-panky? It is a reasonable inference and explains Arthur's anxiousness as if he wished "to assure himself of the presence or absence of something."

Adam cannot be allowed to see this thing for fear that he will interpret it in exactly this way, as any observer would. In the lead-up to their fight in the Grove, Arthur's reaction to Adam's accusation--"This is not the first time you've met Hetty Sorrel in this grove, and this is not the first time you've kissed her" (343)--is expressed in the very language of investigation: "Arthur felt a startled uncertainty how far Adam was speaking from knowledge and how far from mere inference" (343). But put "a woman's little pink silk handkerchief" in plain sight, and whose inference would not quickly become knowledge? And "after such knowledge, what forgiveness?"

What Arthur doesn't know is that Adam has already begun piecing together additional evidence. In the preceding Chapter 26, just before Adam and Hetty dance, Totty breaks the string of beads on which Hetty has slipped the gold locket, and the locket falls to the floor. Adam sees it, picks it up, but cannot interpret it: "Had Hetty a lover he didn't know of?" (332). Adam's questioning turns to fear and "puzzled alarm" (332) as he considers that the locket implies the presence of a rival; he then reverses himself to believe that the locket means just the opposite: her hiding it "was a proof she cared" about Adam and his disdain for such trinkets (333). But Eliot quickly reduces this alleged "proof" to "an ingenious web of probabilities" (334)--until Adam sees Arthur and Hetty kissing. Then, everything becomes clear; Adam is able to interpret it all:
 He understood it all now--the locket, and everything else that
 had been doubtful to him: a terrible scorching light showed
 him the hidden letters that changed the meaning of the past.
 (342)


Like a text that has suddenly and uncannily moved from unreadability to readability, the past is now rewritten in the "terrible scorching light" of the kiss. Arthur can't undo that--he can only try to dismiss it and thereby delude Adam--but there is something else, "a slight thing" (350) but also a huge telltale proof, that he can hide. The hanky is the incriminating evidence of Arthur's and Hetty's mutual guilt; its appearance in Arthur's private Hermitage also marks the scene of the deed. For Adam to see the hanky so soon after the fight would certainly confirm his reading of the situation and would disprove Arthur's version of events. The kiss was seen, and that means mischief, but the hanky is evidence of things not seen, and that spells trouble.

III. Proof

Hetty's hanky is a text, but also an intertext. Recall the precedent set in the case of Othello. In Act 3.3 Emilia, having found Desdemona's "napkin" (3.3.287), tells Iago that she has what he wanted:

Emilia. I have a thing for you.

Iago. A thing for me? It is a common thing-

Emilia. Ha?

Iago. To have a foolish wife.

Emilia. O, is that all? What will you give me now For that same handkerchief?

Iago. What handkerchief?

Emilia. What handkerchief? Why, that the Moor first gave to Desdemona; That which so often you did bid me steal. (3.3.301-09)

Like Eliot, not only does Shakespeare use a language of "things" in the exchange between Emilia and Iago, but the handkerchief itself plays an evidentiary role. In the incremental echoes "handkerchief? / What handkerchief? / What handkerchief?" the epiphoric repetition emphasizes the confusion and deceit, the struggles for and impediments to understanding, that operate throughout the play. This interrogative repetition soon turns to imperative, however, as Othello explosively demands in the next scene, "Fetch me the handkerchief! ... The handkerchief! ... The handkerchief!" (3.3.89-96). Emilia tells us some of the history of Desdemona's hanky:
 Emilia. I am glad I have found this napkin;
 This was her first remembrance from the Moor,
 My wayward husband hath a hundred times
 Wooed me to steal it; but she so loves the token
 (For he conjured her she should ever keep it)
 That she reserves it evermore about her
 To kiss and talk to. I'll have the work ta'en out
 And give't Iago.
 What he will do with it heaven knows, not I;
 I nothing but to please his fantasy. (3.3.290-99)


The "nothing" of the last line prepares us for the play on "thing" that follows--"I have a thing for you. ... A thing for me? It is a common thing"; Emilia's speech also makes us aware that the hanky, as Othello's "first gift" (3.3.436) to Desdemona, has particular value and significance. But when Iago begins to plant suspicion in Othello's mind, this "slight thing"--"Your napkin is too little," Othello says to Desdemona (3.3.287)--gathers forensic weight, becoming a witness for the prosecution of Desdemona: "It speaks against her with the other proofs," Iago says (3.3.441). Iago confirms the paradoxical weighty "proof" of so flimsy a thing in his assertion that "Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ" (3.3.322-24). And when Othello interrogates Desdemona in 3.4 concerning the whereabouts of the handkerchief, he acts like Arthur--that is, "as if wishing to assure himself of the presence or absence of something." (8)

The word "proof" and its variations occur almost a dozen times in this one scene, and when combined with other terms, such as the repeated use of "witness" here and in 3.4.153-54, they amount to a judicial rhetoric that seeks to convict rather than persuade. Compare another Shakespearean example of proof or evidence involving personal property, in Cymbeline: Posthumus gives Imogen a bracelet that Iachimo subsequently steals, offering it as "proof" that he has seduced Imogen. The language that Iachimo uses in the theft scene is gravely forensic, as he thinks about how best to fake evidence to convince Posthumus that his wife has betrayed him:
 Ah, but some natural notes about her body
 Above ten thousand meaner movables
 Would testify, t'enrich mine inventory.
 O sleep, thou ape of death, lie dull upon her.
 And be her sense but as a monument,
 Thus in a chapel lying. Come off, come off-
 [Takes off her bracelet.]
 As slippery as the Gordian knot was hard.
 'Tis mine, and this will witness outwardly,
 As strongly as the conscience does within,
 To th'madding of her lord. (2.2.28-37)


Once again the rhetoric of witness and testifying works to make the evidence of the bracelet "strong / As proofs of holy writ" (Othello 3.3.323-24). Shakespeare dramatizes a strategy of persuasion whose end must lie in a "Guilty" verdict.

In Othello and Cymbeline as in Adam Bede, then, a "slight thing"--a handkerchief or bracelet--becomes a piece of evidence with the power to incriminate. Whether Eliot, "the female Shakespeare," as Herbert Spencer called her, was thinking specifically of Othello when she wrote the scene of Arthur's fumbling in the dark, we know from her letters of her interest in Shakespeare generally at this period, and a certain parallelism with a difference emerges, grounded not only in the detail of the handkerchief itself but in its loss or displacement, its "presence or absence." (9) The Shakespearean associations reinforce the novel's approximation to tragedy, as readers have noted, (10) though Greek influences vie strongly here, as in the references to the concept of Nemesis. Insofar as Adam Bede is about a fall, about those who "swerved / Or fell," Eliot must change her notes to tragic, and yet she must do so while remaining faithful to both the forensic and the forgiving voices of her story. Adam Bede may be a nineteenth-century classical tragedy, but it is also a novel about the illusion of safe sex. Perhaps not coincidentally, in both Othello and Adam Bede the handkerchief appears briefly only three times, (11) yet it plays a role that wraps around the centre of each text, enfolding a crisis that includes betrayal and murder. It would be going too far to suggest, as with Paula Vogel's Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief, that Adam Bede is a novel about a napkin. In fact, Thomas Rymer's ironic observation on Othello--"So much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about an Handkerchief! Why was not this call'd the Tragedy of the Handkerchief?" (139)--is effectively reversed in Adam Bede: so little fuss, such subtle and deliberate handling, such muted repetition--and yet such guilty concern over a handkerchief!

IV. Fifth Business

To describe the hanky as Hetty's is to say that it places her at the scene of the Hermitage. In legal terms, the hanky is a piece of evidence, but in rhetorical terms it is a metonymy, a part that stands for a whole; it is a trace, a trail, "ocular proof" (Othello 3.3.360) that Hetty was there. It is curious that each of the three times that Eliot describes the hanky, she uses the same phrase: "little pink silk handkerchief." The adjectives never vary, nor does their order, so that the object acquires a fixed, official status: mark it Exhibit . But the hanky also has metaphorical values; it is not merely associated with Hetty, as a belonging, but can be read as a sign of Hetty. Yet what would be the metaphorical equivalent of something that a man bestows on a woman, who subsequently loses it or leaves it behind for the man, like a guilty thing, to retrieve, put in his pocket and then, on second thought, throw out in the garbage, and then later retrieve yet again? Possessing it confers worth on the woman, while the loss of it depreciates her value. This mystery isn't hard to solve; the allegorical possibilities all seem to suggest that the fate of the hanky is the fate of Hetty, though which power structure, sex or economics, should dominate such a reading is difficult to judge. It is tempting to say that the hanky is Hetty's hymen, and it is equally inviting to hazard the economic equation that Hetty = trash, at least in the mind of Arthur and his community. "Deep down," in "the waste-paper basket full of scraps," the "little pink silk handkerchief" lies hidden. As hymen, the hanky inhabits a borderland between economics and forensics, being at once a valuable gift and a damning clue. Arthur's irresolute fumbling with the handkerchief, his uncertainty whether to keep or to throw the thing away, suggests an ambivalence that operates on other levels too. Arthur takes away Hetty's hymen, but he gives her a "little pink silk handkerchief" in place of it. Quid pro quo. And the anxious searching in the dark Hermitage betrays an ambiguous quest, with Arthur's behaving "as if wishing to assure himself of the presence or absence of something." Presence, absence: these apply equally to a question of sexual as well as legal innocence. The proof of the hanky points to the loss of the hymen, but the hiding of the hanky (in a pocket or a waste-paper basket) seeks to prevent such an unveiling. Eliot, of course, is not the first author to associate handkerchiefs with virginity. I return to Othello: readers have connected Desdemona's handkerchief, which is "spotted with strawberries" (3.3.435), to the tradition requiring a bride to prove her virginity by offering blood-stained wedding sheets as evidence, and they quote Biblical precedents (Deuteronomy 22) for putting a bride to death if she cannot provide such proof. (12) Hetty's pink hanky, while not spotted red-and-white, arguably evokes this tradition, though ironically not as a proof of virginity but of its loss. But at this point in the text, with no handkerchief as evidence, who is going to arraign Arthur?

And worse: how do you prosecute such an unknown? Eliot carefully avoids fleshing out Arthur as a character. Her first description of him is significant for how little detail it actually offers; unlike the very particularized portraits that we get of Adam, Dinah, and Hetty, Arthur's description contains a displacement from the individual to a type:
 If you want to know more particularly how he looked, call to
 your remembrance some tawny-whiskered, brown-locked,
 clear-complexioned young Englishman whom you have met
 with in a foreign town. (105)


In this non-portrait, we sense that Arthur is almost less a character than a function, a kind of "fifth business"--neither "Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but ... nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement." (13) What we see of him is enough to show that, while good-natured, he is shallow and vacillating, living "a great deal in other people's opinions and feelings concerning himself" (216). Eliot reinforces this image of Arthur intertextually. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a kind of novelistic shorthand was used to imply what characters are like by telling us what they read; in the case of Arthur, we know that he has attempted Lyrical Ballads (Adam Bede opens in 1799, the year after the first edition of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's volume), but he pronounces most of the poems to be "twaddling stuff" (109)--with the exception of "The Ancient Mariner," which is declared "a strange, striking thing" (109). (14) More significant, however, is what Arthur has not read, but what out of all the "twaddling stuff" might have done him good: another "strange, striking thing," by Wordsworth this time, the very title of which Eliot buries within Arthur's last name. I refer to "The Thorn," in which a woman gets pregnant and allegedly murders her illegitimate child:
 I cannot tell; but some will say
 She hanged her baby on the tree;
 Some say she drowned it in the pond,
 Which is a little step beyond:
 But all and each agree,
 The little Babe was buried there,
 Beneath that hill of moss so fair.
 (203-09; Poetical Works 2: 247)


Had Arthur actually gone on to read this poem, Eliot's intertextual irony implies, there's no telling what a help Wordsworth might have been; from deliberate epigraph to subtle allusion, a Wordsworthian sympathy lies within reach, preveniently--but out of the grasp of a character like Arthur. He prefers, as we see in Chapter 12, to read of the seductions of Zeluco, though he seems not to finish that book either, throwing it into the corner of his Hermitage in a fit of frustration after encountering Hetty in Fir-Tree Grove (174, 178). (15)

Arthur's dithering over what to do with the evidence shows his essential weakness as a character. But the progress of the hanky also fits a pattern of Arthur's behaviour that I mentioned earlier: Arthur wants to believe in a linearity of experience that can be reversed, undone--except that in this case "There's a sort o' damage ... that can't be made up for" (512). Still, the reversibility of the process shows through in this movement of the hanky--pocket > waste-paper basket > pocket--in which a transfer of symbolic value occurs from worth to rubbish and back again. This act by Arthur has always been puzzling. Why does he take the hanky out of the garbage and put it back in his pocket? Is this a sentimental gesture, the recovery of a lover's souvenir? Is Arthur's DNA on it? Or is the hanky just too good a thing to throw away, maybe even something to use again in the right circumstances? "Keep a thing, its use will come," said Tennyson.

Up to this point I've been focusing on the handkerchief as if it implicated Arthur in a crime. But Arthur hasn't committed any crime; he is guilty of a moral wrong that later results in the commission of a felony of infanticide, and it is precisely this problem--"the problem how far a man is to be held responsible for the unforeseen consequences of his own deed" (468)--that Adam Bede as a whole forces the reader to consider. It is necessary to weigh Hetty's case at this point, and to ask whether she has any defense, all the more since Adam's immediate response, upon hearing that Hetty has been charged with murder, is to blame Arthur, not Hetty:

"It's his doing," [Adam] said; "if there's been any crime, it's at his door, not at hers. He taught her to deceive--he deceived me first. Let 'em put him on his trial--let him stand in court beside her, and I'll tell 'em how he got hold of her heart, and 'ticed her t'evil, and then lied to me. Is he to go free, while they lay all the punishment on her ...? (455)

Eliot's strategy in handling this problem, like her design in not wanting the reader to judge the story apart from its moral treatment, involves a crucial control of perspective, so that at first we perhaps doubt, as do some characters in the novel, that Hetty has actually killed a child, her child. What reader has not had to back up on first reading to establish just when, exactly, Hetty got pregnant? How did we miss that? While Eliot presents us with a dawning realization of the pregnancy--the description of the "more luxuriant womanliness about Hetty of late" (405) in Chapter 34, for example, leading to the explicit "hidden dread" of the next chapter's title--the announcement of the child-murder comes as a surprise. Adam's immediate reaction upon hearing the news from the Rev. Irwine may mirror the reader's own response as Adam moves from a denial of fact to a verdict of hope. His words recall Wordsworth's narrator in "The Thorn": "But kill a new-born infant thus, / I do not think she could!" (212-13): "It isn't possible. She never had a child. She can't be guilty. Who says it? ... [W]ho says she is guilty?" (454; emphasis in original).

This last question goes directly to the concept of witness in the novel, for no one--including the reader--actually sees Hetty commit the crime. Hetty's plea, entered by her lawyer, is "not guilty" (474), and we are granted only the legal testimony of certain people after the fact and from their own limited perspectives. It is not until after the jury has announced its decision that Eliot gives us the prison confession in which Hetty recounts to Dinah what actually happened. (16) In the courtroom, there are a number of witnesses for the prosecution: the forensic gynecologist, who attests to the fact that Hetty has indeed recently had a baby; Sarah Stone, who took Hetty into her home on the night she gave birth, 27 February, in Stoniton; and John Olding, who discovered the dead infant buried in the woods. We are not told much about the defense's cross-examination; instead, Eliot gives us the response of Adam, who "could not listen to the cross-examination by Hetty's counsel" and who "heard no more of the evidence, and was unconscious when the case for the prosecution had closed" (479, 481). Martin Poyser earlier had been required to testify, and the Rev. Irwine acts as a character witness at the end, but the outcome is known to Adam even before the jury declares its verdict: "It was the supreme moment of his suffering. Hetty was guilty" (481).

Why Eliot should choose to distance us from the crime, to adopt a forensic perspective for the prosecution, and at the same time to focalize an alternative viewpoint through Adam is, I have suggested, part of her desire to present a sympathetic treatment of the subject. Yet Eliot gives us anything but a sympathetic picture of Hetty in the courtroom: "The sympathy of the court was not with the prisoner: the unnaturalness of her crime stood out the more harshly by the side of her hard immovability and obstinate silence" (482). (17) Because the clinical courtroom discourse comes before the prison confession, the reader is required to accept the verdict, but even this acceptance has its "fibres of sympathy" that prepare us for its confirmation in Hetty's admission of her guilt and Dinah's prompting her to "pray to the God of all mercy" (500). In light of her confession, what defense could have been mounted? There is no legal justification for what Hetty did; yet can there not be a moral, sympathetic response to her "lapse, or error" upon which "something more / Than brotherly forgiveness may attend"? That "something" comes not in the form of the withheld recommendation to mercy by the jury, not even in the "hard-won release from death" that Arthur brings at "the last moment" (507), thus commuting Hetty's death sentence to transportation. It comes in another kind of witnessing that never enters the courtroom but which, for Eliot, was intended to be the climax: Dinah's ministry in the prison scene, in which Hetty's denial turns to confession and then to asking for forgiveness from Adam as well as from God. In recounting her composition of Adam Bede, Eliot draws our attention to the incident that functioned both as the "germ" of the novel and as its culmination: starting from the real-crime anecdote told by her aunt of "a very ignorant girl who had murdered her child and refused to confess--how she had stayed with her praying, through the night and how the poor creature at last broke out into tears, and confessed her crime" (585), Eliot builds a brilliantly interwoven tale of suffering, with "the scene in the prison being of course the climax towards which I worked" (586).

Dinah's preaching near the beginning of the novel had already introduced the theme of divine forgiveness, and the trajectory of that theme takes us all the way to the prison scene--a trajectory specially marked by Eliot through the device of the external observer. In Chapter 1 we first see the "elderly horseman" (56) as he and Adam pass each other; then we watch him as he pauses to listen to Dinah's preaching in Chapter 2; and we see him, identified finally as Colonel Townley, in Chapter 45 as he helps Dinah gain access to Hetty in prison. As a narrative function, Townley links origin and climax structurally and thereby underlines the thematic workings of sin, confession, and forgiveness. If sin and confession are in this sense the germ and climax of the novel, they suggest a pattern of evil and good that we saw earlier in the repeated references to images of causality, such as "links" and "consequences." The particular relation in this case is a version of the felix culpa, or happy sin, which is the fallen and fallacious view that it was a fortunate or even necessary thing that Adam and Eve sinned--because then God, through his Son, could come down in all his goodness and grace and show everyone how loving and merciful he is. (18) The felix culpa reasoning is a defensive rationalization by a fallen mind that seeks to justify itself: "Yes, I sinned, but look at the good that is going to come out of the evil I did." To wit: it's a good thing that Arthur seduced Hetty and that she did what she did because if it weren't for that, Adam and Dinah never could have known the love that they do by the end of the novel. It's an outrageous argument--and yet an argument that more than one character makes in the book. Who would make such a defense in Adam Bede?

Above all, Arthur, of course, who wants so badly to believe in the reversibility of actions. On the morning after his fight with Adam, Arthur rationalizes the consequences of his having to break off his relations with Hetty:
 And perhaps hereafter he might be able to do a great deal for her,
 and make up to her for all the tears she would shed about him. She
 would owe the advantage of his care for her in future years to the
 sorrow she had incurred now. So good comes out of evil. Such is the
 beautiful arrangement of things! (358; emphasis in original)


The counter-argument to this fallacy is expressed by Adam when he responds to Bartle Massey's attempt, quoted above, to console him with the notion that "there may good come out of this that we don't see" (504):

"Good come out of it! ... That doesn't alter th'evil: her ruin can't be undone. I hate that talk o' people, as if there was a way o' making amends for everything. They'd more need be brought to see as the wrong they do can never be altered. When a man's spoiled his fellow-creatur's life, he's no right to comfort himself with thinking good may come out of it: somebody else's good doesn't alter her shame and misery." (504; emphasis in original)

Adam perhaps appears to take a somewhat different view later, when he reflects on his new-found love with Dinah:

"I should never ha' come to know that her love 'ud be the greatest o' blessings to me, if what I counted a blessing hadn't been wrenched and torn away from me, and left me with a greater need, so as I could crave and hunger for a greater and a better comfort." (559)

Yet Adam isn't accepting the fallacy of the fortunate fall here; he is stating a fact of experience, not exulting in his "greatest o' blessings" at the expense of Hetty's shame. The law of non-reversibility that he stated earlier still holds, and Adam reiterates the principle that "'There's a sort o' damage ... that can't be made up for'" (512). As if to corroborate this, Eliot has the narrator add a final comment on the idea of a happy sin:
 That is a base and selfish, even a blasphemous spirit, which
 rejoices and is thankful over the past evil that has blighted or
 crushed another, because it has been made a source of unforeseen
 good to ourselves: Adam could never cease to mourn over that
 mystery of human sorrow which had been brought so close to him: he
 could never thank God for another's misery. ... [H]e would have
 shaken his head at such a sentiment, and said, "Evil's evil, and
 sorrow's sorrow, and you can't alter its nature by wrapping it up
 in other words. Other folks were not created for my sake, that I
 should think all square when things turn out well for me." (573)


It is precisely the unalterability of experience, and therefore the unavoidable consequences that result from experience, that carry Adam Bede through anguish to regeneration. There is no defense for Hetty; evil's evil, and no amount of good in after times can alter that. (19) Toward the end of his meeting with Adam after Hetty's sentencing, Arthur shows that he has learned from the whole tragic experience, yet his moral education is perhaps more regretful than regenerative. Asking Adam to help him "lessen the evil consequences of the past, which is unchangeable" (510), Arthur demonstrates his new-found understanding of the linearity of experience and its effects, yet he still wants to make a distinction between real action and the "unforeseen consequences" of an action. (20) Arthur makes an ambiguous slip in his words: "'If I were careless about what I've done-what I've been the cause of ...'" (512). What is the difference between doing and causing here? As a correction of overstatement, "'what I've done'" might be read as murder, and therefore Arthur quickly alters this to the lesser charge of seduction; as an acknowledgment of a cumulative failing, "'what I've been the cause of'" adds up to more than a single, isolated act of doing. "With a single drop of ink" begins the novel: a single cause that adumbrates the multeity that will grow out of unity. Arthur's ambivalent struggle shows an unresolved conflict between a growing sense of sacrifice that contains a wish-fulfilment: "God knows, I'd give my life if I could undo it" (515). Interesting words by a man who, on the next page, "[a]s soon as the door was closed behind him ... went to the waste-paper basket and took out the little pink silk handkerchief" (516).

VI. Closing Statement

While not a scarlet letter, the "little pink silk handkerchief" has nevertheless performed its office. Rhetorically, semiotically, intertextually, Hetty's hanky leads into a forensics of Eliot's novel, as it represents the evidence of error, a lover's token, an erotic prize, a woman's sex, "the presence or absence of something." To analyze this hanky is to discover "long-winding fibres" (537) that are intricately woven into the moral fabric of the novel, into what Eliot sees as its "web" (83) of folly and self-indulgence but finally of responsibility and feeling. "The evil consequences that may lie folded in a single act of selfish indulgence" (468) are shown to be real and irreversible and yet still wrapped within a larger ethic of forgiveness. It is testimony to Eliot's imaginative treatment that such a "slight" motif should weigh so heavily in the text and that an unfolding of the hanky should reveal its grasp of Eliot's master trope: "sympathy--the one poor word which includes all our best insight and our best love" (531). Forensics can go only so far with its rhetoric of consequences and links, and "something more," another type of witness, must take over at the point where the witness-box ends.

Works Cited

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Boose, Lynda E. "Othello's Handkerchief: 'The Recognizance and Pledge of Love:" English Literary Renaissance 5 (197,5): 360-74.

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Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Clayton, Jay. "Visionary Power and Narrative Form: Wordsworth and Adam Bede." ELH 46 (1979): 645-72.

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Cross, J.W., ed. George Eliot's Life as Related in her Letters and Journals. Vol. 3. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1885.

Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business. Toronto: Macmillan, 1970.

Doyle, Mary Ellen. Vi Sympathetic Response: George Eliot's Fictional Rhetoric. East Brunswick: Associated UP, 1981.

Eliot, George. Adam Bede. 1859. Ed. Stephen Gill. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

--. Adam Bede. Project Gutenberg Release #507 (April 1996). http://www.gutenberg.net/etext96/adamb10.txt

--. "[The Progress of the Intellect]." Essays of George Eliot. Ed. Thomas Pinney. New York: Columbia up, 1963. 27-45.

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Hertz, Neil. "Poor Hetty" Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion. Ed. Lauren Berlant. New York: Routledge, 2004.87-103. Rpt. from pages 96-111 in George Eliot's Pulse. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003.

Hodgson, John A. "Desdemona's Handkerchief as an Emblem of her Reputation." TSLL 19 (1977): 313-22.

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Knoepflmacher, U.C. George Eliot's Early Novels: The Limits of Realism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

--. "Daniel Deronda and William Shakespeare." Victorian Newsletter 19 (1961): 27-28.

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Loesberg, Jonathan. "Aesthetics, Ethics, and Unreadable Acts in George Eliot." Knowing the Past: Victorian Literature and Culture. Ed. Suzy Anger. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2001. 121-47.

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Matus, Jill L. Unstable Bodies: Victorian Representations of Sexuality and Maternity. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995.

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Mitchell, Judith. The Stone and the Scorpion: The Female Subject of Desire in the Novels of Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy. Westport: Greenwood, 1994.

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Nowottny, Winifred M.T. "Justice and Love in Othello" University of Toronto Quarterly 21 (1952): 330-44.

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--. Strong Representations: Narrative and Circumstantial Evidence in England. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.

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(1) For initial support, I turn to Eliot herself, in her Westminster Review essay on "[The Progress of the Intellect]": "A correct generalization gives significance to the smallest detail" (31). Schor's book Reading in Detail provides endorsement of the method while pointing out the risks: "To read in detail is, however tacitly, to invest the detail with a truth-bearing function." Yet this turns out to be uncertain: "As the guarantor of meaning, the detail is for that very reason constantly threatened by falsification and misprision" (7). Schor goes on to relate "the rise of the detail" since the eighteenth century to "the birth of realism" but more specifically to a "conceptual space" governed by "the laws of sexual difference" (4)--an observation not irrelevant to Adam Bede.

(2) See Welsh, Strong Representations, especially 48-49 (on Fielding and Scott) for a study of one kind of evidence--circumstantial evidence--and its relation to both legal history and the history of the novel.

(3) An online search of Adam Bede in Project Gutenberg shows that while the word "consequences" appears numerous times throughout the novel, the words "responsibility" and "responsibilities" never appear and the word "responsible" appears only once, in Chapter 41, in the Rev. Irwine's crucial statement: "[T]he problem how far a man is to be held responsible for the unforeseen consequences of his own deed, is one that might well make us tremble to look into it" (468). See Project Gutenberg Release #507 (April 1996) http://gutenberg.net/etext/adamb.txt. A number of commentators have addressed the issue of ethics and moral responsibility in Eliot through these images of links and webs. See, for example, George Levine on determinism and responsibility: his definition of determinism as "the belief that every event has its causal antecedents" (269) branches out into the claim that "For George Eliot, every man's life is at the center of a vast and complex web of causes" (270). More recently, Markovits, in arguing that Eliot's "primary concern is always with the ethical" (785), has rightly noted that "in [Eliot's] novels, the smallest actions can bring about vast and unimaginable consequences" within "the web of human interaction" (31). See also Redfield 141 and 141, n11. Referring to Eliot's statement about an "inexorable law of consequences" in her essay on "[The Progress of the Intellect]" (31), these readers and others have attempted to analyze the relation of Eliot's philosophy to her art of realism. For example, Caroline Levine, in a consideration of Eliot's "critique of Victorian femininity" and its "consequences for realism" (103), writes that "the ethical work of Victorian realism involves forging a new and responsible approach to the world by way of the art object" (104). Loesberg, following Redfield, carefully shows how Eliot often "veils an aesthetic problem that she treats explicitly as a moral one" (124; see also 144, n30, where he compares his argument to Miller's in The Ethics of Reading; compare my note 19 below). See Redfield's excellent discussion of Eliot's "aesthetic and ethical project" (146) and its relation to sympathy (139-70).

(4) Compare Williams and his statement that Eliot's removal of Hetty from our view at this point "abandons her in a moral action more decisive than Hetty's own confused and desperate leaving of her child" (173; see also note 19 below). Williams says this in the context of his criticism of "a recurring problem in [Eliot's] social consciousness" (168)--her inability "to individuate working people" (173)--though this "problem" (moral and aesthetic) may be seen to extend to characters from other classes, as in the case of Arthur.

(5) This is not the only occasion on which Arthur has difficulty searching for something. In Chapter 6, when Mrs Poyser invites Arthur into the parlour at the Hall Farm, Eliot's description of his reply proleptically echoes the handkerchief scene: "'No, indeed, thank you, Mrs Poyser,' said the Captain, looking eagerly round the kitchen, as if his eye were seeking something it could not find. 'I delight in your kitchen. I think it is the most charming room I know. I should like every farmer's wife to come and look at it for a pattern'" (124; emphasis added). What Arthur is looking for literally, of course, is the dairy, with its pretty milkmaid Hetty.

(6) Compare Mitchell's discussion of how Hetty is "constantly trivialized" (97) by Eliot's epithets of "little," "foolish," etc.; see also Hertz on "Poor Hetty." One animal motif that Eliot suggestively embeds is the contrast between Hetty as kitten and Bartle Massey's dog Vixen as mother; in Chapter 21 Eliot has Bartle Massey launch into a long tirade against women, after which he speculates on the father of Vixen's pups:

"I'm pretty sure the father was that hulking bull-terrier of Will Baker's--wasn't he now, eh, you sly hussey?" (Here Vixen tucked her tail between her legs, and ran forward into the house. Subjects are sometimes broached which a well-bred female will ignore.)

"But where's the use of talking to a woman with babbies?" continued Bartle, "she's got no conscience--no conscience--it's all run to milk!" (292)

The questions of fatherhood, babies, behaviour of women, and female conscience all resonate obviously and ominously in the case of Hetty. See Matus on maternal instinct in Adam Bede and Hetty's lack of "the will and the responsibility needed to mother adequately" (174).

(7) Eliot gives us different handkerchiefs in the novel: Seth has a "blue linen handkerchief" (81); old Martin Poyser also has a blue handkerchief (190); young Mr. Poyser goes off to church with "a silk handkerchief of a yellow tone round his neck" (231); Bessy Cranage fans herself with her handkerchief at the games in Chapter 25 (321); and Nancy and Molly have little pocket-handkerchiefs with prayer-books wrapped inside (557). Only Hetty's hanky is given repeated mention. In her chapter "Why There's No Sex in Jane Austen," Morgan makes passing reference to the evidence of the handkerchief, though with a curious misprision: in Austen, she says, "the rooms are littered with nothing so evocative as the 'woman's little pink silk neckerchief' [sic] in Adam Bede" (38). The difference between a handkerchief and a neckerchief is semiotic and sexual. Hetty wears the latter openly: our first sight of her in Chapter 7, when Arthur admires her in the dairy, reveals the loveliness of "the contour of her pink and white neckerchief, tucked into her low plum-coloured stuff bodice" (128); when Adam visits Hetty at the Hall Farm in Chapter 20, she is described as wearing "her neckerchief pushed a little backwards on this warm evening" (276); and for the birthday feast in Chapter 22, Hetty has decided that "at the dance this evening she was not to wear any neckerchief" (294). Thus, while neckerchiefs have their public semiotics, the "little pink silk handkerchief" seems to belong to a private or secret system of signification. In a related observation, Krieger contrasts Bessy Cranage's and Hetty's wearing of earrings in the novel as a difference between a "communal openness" and an "alienating secrecy" (205). He argues that earrings function as "the rather obvious symbol of an errant sexuality" (203). Compare Homans (and Caroline Levine 115-16; and Welsh, Blackmail 151-152) on Dinah's "blushing" and the emergence of her self-conscious sexuality as "a signifier of domesticity" (157).

(8) From the considerable amount of commentary on Othello and the handkerchief, I would refer the reader particularly to the essays by Boose, Berger, and Sofer. Scheman, citing Nowottny, notes the "judicial" quality of "Iago's perspective" (64, n37). Cavell's comments, in his chapter "Othello and the Stake of the Other," on what he calls "the thing denied our sight" (132) apply to the themes of sexuality and knowledge in both Shakespeare and Eliot. Desdemona's handkerchief is a "counterstory" (133) functioning both as the truth and as a counter to the truth--a "cover story for a deeper conviction; a terrible doubt covering a yet more terrible certainty" (138). With Eliot, the handkerchief is also caught up in a question at once forensic and theological, involving witness, proof, and knowledge in more than one register.

(9) Haight recounts how Herbert Spencer called Eliot "the female Shakespeare" (468). For Eliot's declining Macmillan's offer to write a volume on Shakespeare for the "English Men of Letters" series, see Cross 3: 320; and for a speculation as to Eliot's reasons for declining, see Knoepflmacher, "Daniel Deronda and William Shakespeare," where Knoepflmacher states that to her contemporaries Eliot "had become nothing less than a 'modern' Shakespeare" (27). For the centrality of Shakespeare to Eliot's imagination, especially her fictional characterizations, see Novy.

(10) See, for example, Hardy's chapter on "The Tragic Process: Adam Bede," 32-46.

(11) Desdemona's handkerchief appears in Othello 3.3, 3.4, and 4.1. Hetty's handkerchief is brought to our attention in the three passages I cite at the beginning of this essay.

(12) See, for example, Boose. Hodgson, offering a counter-argument to Boose over the significance of Desdemona's handkerchief's being "spotted with strawberries," begins by outlining how critics have claimed that the handkerchief "symbolizes true and honorable love" (313), but he goes on to show how the play refutes this interpretation: "[T]he handkerchief is an emblem of Desdemona's reputation; and as such it closely parallels in its progress through the play the career of her good name" (314). Compare Scheman, who says that in Othello "various characters attempt to fix and control" the meaning of the handkerchief "as love token, talisman, or hard evidence of adultery" (69). While Neely reads the handkerchief as "a symbol of women's loving, civilizing, sexual power," especially "Desdemona's loving power over Othello" (128), she says that "[o]nce lost, the female power it symbolizes is degraded and constrained, and comedy gives way to tragedy" (129).

(13) I take this definition from the epigraph to Davies's novel Fifth Business. Compare Welsh: "Arthur is not [Eliot's] hero" (Blackmail 153).

(14) Gill glosses this allusion to say that Coleridge's poem "is, significantly, about a man who commits a crime against Nature" (596, n6)--though this perhaps misses the reason for Eliot's reference: Arthur's mention of "The Ancient Mariner" is motivated by the Rev. Irwine's mother's reference to eyes, which prompts Arthur's reply: "'Talking of eyes,' said Captain Donnithorne, 'that reminds me, that I've got a book I meant to bring you, godmamma'" (109). Arthur is undoubtedly supposed to be thinking of the "glittering eye" of the Ancient Mariner.

(15) See Buchan for an analogous argument regarding Zeluco, Dr. Moore's tale of seduction and its moral consequences, and especially for how "the more one considers the contents of Zeluco ... the more one laments that [Arthur] had not finished the book and taken its message to heart" (18). See also Harris 51-54 for a discussion of the relevance of Zeluco. Knoepflmacher (George Eliot's Early Novels 95) and Clayton discuss the analogy to Wordsworth's "Thorn."

(16) Carroll says in a fine essay on Adam Bede that "the moral conflict" in Hetty's abandonment of and then attempted return to her infant is expressed structurally in the book: "This is why the legal trial comes first, makes its judgment, and is then superseded by the agony of Hetty's confession, upon which no judgment is possible since she is completely divided in her thoughts and actions" (100). It may be overstating the case to say that no judgement of the latter is possible; rather, I think that Eliot seeks to represent something beyond mere judgement, closer to forgiveness and sympathy. Compare Argyros: "[T]he most important witness and eventual storyteller in Adam Bede will prove to be Hetty Sorrel--who is significantly not allowed by Eliot to tell her story in court (when the telling might have made a material difference in the outcome of events)" (156-57).

(17) Trodd says that Hetty "notably fails in her function of creating a community of sympathy," which "leaves her, despite her beauty, powerless in the court-room" (137). By contrast, Adam's "trials" are both an effect and a cause of sympathy: in Chapter 39, the Rev. Irwine tries to prepare Adam for the bad news about Hetty by saying that Adam has "had some hard trials in [his] life"--but that what he is about to experience goes "far beyond the range of common trial" (409). Dinah likewise uses the metaphor of "trial" to describe human experience, particularly in the sorting out of good and evil: "'But that is our trial:--we must learn to see the good in the midst of much that is unlovely'" (489). Note in passing the motif of "hardness" that runs through the text and which includes both Hetty ("'[H]er heart's as hard as a pibble,'" Mrs Poyser says [201]) and Adam (see especially 86 and 514 for his relation to his alcoholic father). The allegorical landscape of Stonyshire / Stoniton vs. Loamshire / Hayslope appears to provide a natural correlative of the moral hardness of the characters but, as with her realism / romance debate in Chapter 17, Eliot complicates the simple stone / loam opposition by not allowing either literal or figural hardness to be judged apart from its treatment. In contrast to courtroom discourse, Graver show how Eliot's rhetorical strategy of narratorial addresses to the reader help create a bond of sentiment between reader and character--even if that sentiment seems "imposed by the aesthetic of sympathy and the ideology of community rather than prompted by the dramatic action" (282). In any case, "the purpose of direct address," Graver argues, is "to increase sympathetic response through an appeal to common experience" (283). Apropos of direct address and sympathy, Caroline Levine calls attention to the irony inherent in Eliot's extended digression or "pause" in Chapter 17: "[I]t seems particularly odd for the quintessential realist novel to introduce a self-reflexive interlude" (104). Compare Doyle 23-56, for another discussion of the techniques by which Eliot manipulates the reader's sympathetic or unsympathetic responses to different characters, and Argyros, who maintains that sympathy is "primarily an ethical category" for Eliot, yet her "efforts to direct, manipulate, and contain reader sympathies have ideological implications as well: the re-distribution of power is always implicated in the manipulation of reader sympathies" (2).

(18) Knoepflmacher, discussing Eliot's theology in the context of her "highly imaginative appropriation of Paradise Lost" in Adam Bede (Limits 91), broaches this question of the so-called "fortunate fall": like Milton's Adam, Knoepflmacher writes, "Adam Bede, too, learns to recognize that 'there may good come out of this that we don't see'" (103). But this very statement, made by Bartle Massey, is immediately repudiated by Adam: "'Good come out of it! ... That doesn't alter th'evil: her ruin can't be undone ...'" (504; emphasis in original). In other words, it is not that Adam "must overcome despair by recognizing the paradox of a fortunate fall" (Knoepflmacher, Limits 111); it is rather that Adam teaches us that there's no such thing as a fortunate fall: "'Evil's evil, and sorrow's sorrow,'" he says (573). Interestingly, Krieger has back-to-back chapters on "William Wordsworth and the Felix Culpa" (149-95) and "Adam Bede and the Cushioned Fall: The Extenuation of Extremity" (197-220), though he does not make the connection between the felix culpa and Adam Bede. For a revision of Knoepflmacher's reading, see the fine discussion of Eliot's "dialogue with John Milton" by Nardo, especially 152-62, where she by contrast argues that Adam "eventually does read in his life the pattern of the fortunate fall"--though she notes: "Milton's God may be able to bring goodness out of evil, but Arthur Donnithorne cannot" (160).

(19) Creeger makes a related point when he resorts to a legal metaphor to note that the fact that there is "no room for Hetty" at the end of the novel "stands as an indictment against the ethic which the book suggests" (100); for a different view of the "ethic" of Adam Bede, see Miller's reading of Chapter 17, in which "the economic, the ethical, and the legal" (64) dimensions of Eliot's theory of realism are unsettled. In his essay on Eliot in Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion, Hertz, citing Raymond Williams's powerful statement (see note 3 above) that Eliot "abandons [Hetty] in a moral action more decisive than Hetty's own confused and desperate leaving of her child" (87; see Williams 173), ironically suggests that "the best advice to give someone on the receiving end of George Eliot's narrator's sympathy would be: 'Duck!'" (87). In a different vein, Goslee makes an unflinching observation: "From Adam Bedethrough Middlemarch," he says, "Eliot can preach compassion because she has learned how to make her plots dole out justice" (73). In this judicial context, the "explicitly moral perspective" of Adam Bede, Grossman argues, relies on being in a stabilizing tension with the law courts as a complementary scene of justice" (147). Compare Jaffe, who examines "scenes of sympathy" rather than of justice in Victorian fiction--"narratives that render visible otherwise invisible determinations of social identity" (8). But see Luyster's response to Grossman, in which she argues that "a study of the intersection of the law courts with the nineteenth-century British novel cannot be confined to novels with trial scenes" (602), and that there are fundamental differences between story-telling in novels and in the courtroom.

(20) Adam's last speech in the novel reports Arthur's final understanding of consequence: Arthur is said to have told Adam: "'[Y]ou told me the truth when you said to me once, 'There's a sort of wrong that can never be made up for'" (584).

J. Douglas Kneale

University of Western Ontario

J. Douglas Kneale is Professor and Chair of the Department of English at the University of Western Ontario. He is the author of Monumental Writing: Aspects of Rhetoric in Wordsworth's Poetry (University of Nebraska Press, 1998) and Romantic Aversions: Aftermaths of Classicism in Wordsworth and Coleridge (McGill-Queen's and Liverpool University Press, 1999) and the editor of The Mind in Creation: Essays on English Romantic Literature in Honour of Ross G. Woodman (McGill-Queen's, 1992). His articles have appeared in PMLA, ELH, Studies in Romanticism, Ariel, and elsewhere.
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Title Annotation:'Adam Bede'
Author:Kneale, J. Douglas
Publication:English Studies in Canada
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
Words:11781
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