Friday, December 25, 2009

Felix Holt gets good

This is a good sentence. This is what we came for:

Since those moments on the terrace, Harold had daily become more of the solicitous and indirectly beseeching lover; and Esther, from the very fact that she was weighed on by thoughts that were painfully bewildering to her – by thoughts which, in their newness to her young mind, seemed to shake her belief that life could be anything else than a compromise with things repugnant to the moral taste – had become more passive to his attentions at the very moment that she had begun to feel more profoundly that in accepting Harold Transome she left the high mountain air, the passionate serenity of perfect love for ever behind her, and must adjust her wishes to a life of middling delights, overhung with the languorous haziness of motiveless ease, where poetry was only literature, and the fine ideas had to be taken down from the shelves of the library when her husband’s back was turned. (Ch. XLIV, Penguin Classics p. 426)

More juiciness:

It was the most serious moment in Harold Transome’s life: for the first time the iron had entered into his soul, and he felt the hard pressure of our common lot, the yoke of that mighty resistless destiny laid upon us by the acts of other men as well as our own. (PC, p. 461)

This same theme and language will later be echoed in Middlemarch, in a description of Fred Vincy: “the iron had not entered his soul, but he had begun to imagine what the sharp edge would be.” (The iron-entering-soul image comes from certain translations of Psalm 105; Laurence Sterne, in A Sentimental Journey, used the phrase in 1768, but Eliot makes it do something slightly different here.)

Dorothea in Middlemarch, Dinah in Adam Bede, and Felix here: all of these characters are struggling to figure out how to live with their brightness and ardor intact, rather than succumb to the moral mediocrity we are all born into, and pulled towards, by a thousand threads—of family, circumstance, social norms, lust, business, worldly ambition or material need, in short, by practicality or convenience.

Eliot underlines the opposition of normal-everyday/power/getting-along-in-the-world-as-it-is vs. spiritual/earnest/illuminated with Harold Transome, who sees Felix Holt’s manner as admirable but “possibly impractical.” For Harold, the man of business and means and ends, what use would it be to seriously consider a way of living that even might be impractical? But Esther, who will ultimately reject him because she chooses the other side of this divide, is transported, is illuminated, by such a life:

When a woman feels purely and nobly, that ardour of hers which breaks through formulas too rigorously urged on men by daily practical needs, makes one of her most precious influences: she is the added impulse that shatters the stiffening crust of cautious experience…. Some of that ardour which has flashed out and illuminated all poetry and history was burning to-day in the bosom of sweet Esther Lyon.

Provincial culture is too stiff, too “crusty.” The imagery is of breaking through to something truer: she “shatters” the scene with her ardour, breaks through the formulas, and in so doing leaves the ordinary questions of embarrassment, sexual innuendo, and social nicety behind. And so “her woman’s passion and her reverence for rarest goodness rushed together in an undivided current.” It feels vaguely embarasssing to like this (what would we think if D.H. Lawrence wrote that last bit?), but also not.

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