In a chapter aptly titled "In which the story pauses a little," Eliot stops to anticipate reader objections to the Reverend Adolphus Irwine, a clergyman who does not show much interest in the nitty gritty of church doctrine. In defending her portrait of Irwine, Eliot lays out her reasons for...
In a chapter aptly titled "In which the story pauses a little," Eliot stops to anticipate reader objections to the Reverend Adolphus Irwine, a clergyman who does not show much interest in the nitty gritty of church doctrine. In defending her portrait of Irwine, Eliot lays out her reasons for adhering to realism over romanticism.
Eliot first imagines her readers saying to her,
The world is not just what we like; do touch it up with a tasteful pencil ...
This is what Romantic writing does: it describes the world as we would like it to be. Romantic writers argue this kind of elevation helps readers to be emotionally stirred to create a better world by enabling them envision what a better world might look like and showing them how people behave when they are functioning at their best and highest level.
Eliot argues that this kind of romanticism is morally suspect. Realism is preferable because it functions to help all of us realize that people are flawed. This helps us develop tolerance towards our neighbors and loved ones because we are not holding them up to impossible ideals and condemning them when they fail to be perfect. As Eliot puts it,
And I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields—on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice.
She goes on to say that, in reality,
In this world there are so many of these common coarse people, who have no picturesque sentimental wretchedness!
Eliot expresses a moral duty to write realistically so that we can all learn to get along patiently in the flawed world we actually occupy.
She then goes on to say that her exemplar, Adam Bede, approves of Mr. Irwine:
Adam, you perceive, was a warm admirer, perhaps a partial judge, of Mr. Irwine, as, happily, some of us still are of the people we have known familiarly. Doubtless it will be despised as a weakness by that lofty order of minds who pant after the ideal, and are oppressed by a general sense that their emotions are of too exquisite a character to find fit objects among their everyday fellowmen.
Eliot makes an eloquent case for truth-telling and realism in this chapter, an argument that still resonates in the twenty-first century as we debate politically how many of the "warts" of our national heroes to reveal: she would assert that we learn more from their real struggles and failings than any from heroic fictions about them.
If we find depicting life as it really is an essential attribute of the novel, as many would argue it is, Eliot makes a strong moral case for this.
Ironically, however, from our modern perspective, a character like Adam can come across as idealized; Eliot, however, admits in this chapter that her own perception, like everyone's, is very likely flawed, which is why we need to treat each other with forbearance.