Waiting for the Dawn to Come

Rachel Bowlby

  • BuyReading for Our Time: ‘Adam Bede’ and ‘Middlemarch’ Revisited by J. Hillis Miller
    Edinburgh, 191 pp, £19.99, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 7486 4728 6

Towards the end of Middlemarch, Dorothea spends a mostly sleepless night following a dream-ending encounter the day before. At dawn, she goes to her window:

She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond, outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving – perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold waking of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.

The passage moves through a graduated fading away, then a redefinition of focus. The minimally identified man, woman and baby – or man with bundle, woman with baby – give way to further, vaguer figures and an infinitely extended and repeating world far beyond the self. Finally, Dorothea is brought back, with Eliot’s moral firmness, to a middle place between two repudiated ways of seeing or not seeing the world – neither just looking nor failing to look at all.

Dorothea will now plunge back into selfless engagement (though her first move, after coming away from the window, is to summon a servant). As narrative reward, her lost illusions are soon restored. It turns out that she was wrong in her reading of the previous day: the man she now knows she loves – Will Ladislaw – loves her and only her after all. But the window scene remains in a place of its own: a paused, breath-taking, momentary suspension of narrative development. Poised between the despair of the night and the return of the day, the sight at the window frames a moving image that takes the watcher elsewhere; and takes the novel, for that still moment, away from the concerns of its particular milieu.

In Reading for Our Time, J. Hillis Miller is moved to comment more than once on this passage about a spectator alone with a view. To readers familiar with Miller, it will come as no surprise. In a literary journey that has now reached its seventh decade (his first book appeared in the 1950s), Miller has often stopped to dwell on scenes resembling this one. In a wonderful article of 1971, published in New Literary History, he looked at the suspension between night and day, and between city and country, in Wordsworth’s sonnet ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’. Miller was at the time himself at a moment of transition, moving towards deconstruction. He read the poem as Wordsworth’s undermining of the naturalistic assumption that we can see the world without or before the cultural languages that shape it for us. ‘Never did sun more beautifully steep/In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill’: in these lines the beauty of the London morning is evoked and confirmed through a comparison with what it is not, and the speaker’s own situation comes to be seen as it would be if he were standing not in the city but in a more characteristically Wordsworthian place. ‘Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!’: this, in Miller’s words, ‘invites the reader to think of all those other contexts, scattered through Wordsworth’s poetry and usually involving pastoral rather than urban landscapes, in which the poet responds to what he sees with a combination of deep excitement and calm, calm hovering on the edge of ecstasy’.

Miller’s Thomas Hardy, published a year before the Wordsworth article, has the subtitle ‘Distance and Desire’. Here Miller was interested in the way this kind of hovering between two contrary states can become in effect the defining stance of an author or the characters he comes up with. For Miller’s Hardy, writing is a specific way of not engaging: of placing the involvement out there, in the world of his fictional people, and thereby protecting himself from the turbulence he projects and portrays. Miller describes this situation with great precision: ‘To change the real world as he has experienced it into a fictional world is to nullify it, to hold it at a distance, to make it over into a linguistic form which renders it less dangerous.’ Or again: ‘His goal seems to have been to escape from the dangers of direct involvement in life and to imagine himself in a position where he could safely see life as it is without being seen and could report on that seeing.’

Matthew Arnold, another of Miller’s subjects, presents a different scenario of ambivalent disengagement from a world seen as out there, beyond the control of an always precariously placed observer. Arnold and his poetic protagonists find reality ‘bewildering’; for the critic, literature itself – the reading rather than the writing of it – is the only potential source of stability. Stability, refuge (Arnold’s word is ‘stay’): this is what is sought, and sought as a counterbalance to an intellectual and spiritual crisis. In the opening words of ‘The Study of Poetry’ (1880): ‘The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve.’

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