Showing and Telling in Adam Bede

Tomorrow we start our work on Adam Bede in my 19th-Century Fiction class. As I was rereading the opening chapters last week, I tweeted, a bit facetiously, that you could probably “launch a successful attack on the whole foolish ‘show, don’t tell’ myth using excerpts from Adam Bede alone.” This was in part a delayed reaction to a comment on my post about Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk: “it didn’t work for me at all as fiction,” Irene said; “A lot of telling, not showing.” To which I replied, “I’m a fan of telling. How could I not be, as a Victorianist?” Because when people invoke this supposed rule, what they usually seem to mean is that good writing should be dramatic, not descriptive, and that, above all, it should avoid extended passages of exposition — and what would Victorian fiction be without description and exposition? Frankly, I’ve also read a few too many recent novels that leave empty space where telling might in fact be really valuable, and where its absence looked to me a bit like shirking the admittedly hard work of doing it well.

Obviously, the casual assumption that good writers show rather than tell is a pet peeve of mine, but it’s also not an assumption that I think is actually that widely or strongly held by avid readers, who in my experience tend to agree with Henry James that “the house of fiction has many windows.” (Not that we don’t have own own favorite styles, but confusing taste with objective evaluation is … well, OK, it’s inevitable, but it should at least be self-conscious!) The source of this “rule” seems to be creative writing classes, but I wonder how strong its hold is even there. The creative writers I know seem unlikely to be so narrow-minded, and here is an admirably nuanced ‘lesson’ on showing vs. telling from novelist Emma Darwin.* The right technique, surely, is the one that best achieves a writer’s goals, including not just formal, stylistic, and aesthetic ones but also substantial ones. There are things that exposition in particular can do that simply can’t be provided in any other way: historical or philosophical context for the novel’s action, for instance, or psychological insights unavailable to the characters themselves.

If your ideal fiction is not analytical in these ways, then showing might be enough for you. But that means your novels will never include anything like Chapter 15 of Middlemarch — in which almost nothing actually happens, but we, as readers, learn an enormous amount — or, to get back to Adam Bede, anything like its Chapter 15, “The Two Bed-Chambers,” which is a stunning set piece of characterization. It includes both showing and telling. The actions of both Hetty and Dinah, for instance, speak volumes about who they are: most obviously, Hetty stares into her mirror while Dinah gazes out the window. The  narrator layers meaning onto their actions with pointed descriptions — Hetty’s “pigeon-like stateliness” as she paces back and forth in her shabby faux-finery, for instance, and Dinah’s tranquility as she feels “the presence of a Love and Sympathy deeper and more tender than was breathed from the earth and sky.” We are brought close into each character’s consciousness, and then drawn out again to a broader perception, which is the characteristic pulse of George Eliot’s fiction, and running through it all is her perspicacious commentary:

Nature has her language, and she is not unveracious; but we don’t know all the intricacies of her syntax just yet, and in a hasty reading we may happen to extract the very opposite of her real meaning. Long dark eyelashes, now — what can be more exquisite? I find it impossible not to expect some depth of soul behind a deep grey eye with a long dark eyelash, in spite of an experience which has shown me that they may go along with deceit, peculation, and stupidity. But if, in the reaction of disgust, I have betaken myself to a fishy eye, there has been a surprising similarity of result. One begins to suspect at length that there is no direct correlation between eyelashes and morals; or else, that the eyelashes express the disposition of the fair one’s grandmother, which is on the whole less important to us.

“What a strange contrast the two figures made!” exclaims the narrator after Dinah, provoked by intuitive anxiety about where Hetty’s “blank” nature might lead her, interrupts Hetty’s dreams of becoming a “lady” by rapping on her door:

Hetty, her cheeks flushed and her eyes glistening from her imaginary drama, her beautiful neck and arms bare, her hair hanging in a curly tangle down her back, and the baubles in her ears. Dinah, covered with her long white dress, her pale face full of subdued emotion, almost like a lovely corpse into which the soul has returned charged with sublimer secrets and a sublimer love.

I’m pretty sure that’s telling — but how could you simply show that contrast, which lies less in the details visible in the “mingled twilight and moonlight” than in the difference they represent between the flesh and the spirit, or between egotism and altruism, which the whole previous sequence has prepared us to realize?

I know that what some readers object to in Eliot’s style of telling is that she doesn’t seem to leave us to draw our own conclusions about her characters: her commentary usually steers us firmly in a particular direction. Her narrator is much less forgiving than Dinah, for example, about Hetty’s vanity, and so too is Mrs. Poyser, who sees Hetty’s “moral deficiencies” quite clearly. It’s not that she doesn’t leave us plenty to think about, though. Adam Bede dedicates much more than this one chapter to analyzing Hetty’s character and motives, for example, as well as to exploring the effect on them of her specific circumstances. A great deal of effort, in other words, goes into understanding Hetty — including the unarguable fact of her vanity, which means not just her pleasure in her own beauty but her inability to tell any story without herself at the center of it. Also, we know that “Hetty could have cast all her past life behind her and never cared to be reminded of it again” — which, in Eliot’s world, means she is morally unmoored. (“If the past is not to bind us,” as Maggie Tulliver will say in Eliot’s next novel, “where shall duty lie?”) What, though, is the relationship between this deep understanding (the kind required by Eliot’s theory of determinism) and forgiveness? If we can explain so thoroughly what someone does so, and if we are under a moral obligation to sympathize with them, what happens to accountability, to blame, to justice? If you know where Hetty’s journey takes her, and why, then you know how painfully these questions arise in Adam Bede.

My point, I guess, is that this central problem of the novel is vivid to us — it matters to us — in part because of what we have been told. It is an intellectual problem, not (to borrow from Darwin’s post) a “scratch-and-sniff” one. Yet, having said that, it’s absolutely true that we feel its urgency in part because the narrator gets out of the way at crucial dramatic moments, such as during the novel’s second great set piece with Dinah and Hetty much, much later, in Hetty’s prison cell:

Slowly, while Dinah was speaking, Hetty rose, took a step forward, and was clasped in Dinah’s arms.

They stood so a long while, for neither of them felt the impulse to move apart again. Hetty, without any distinct thought of it, hung on this something that was come to clasp her now, while she was sinking helpless in a dark gulf; and Dinah felt a deep joy in the first sign that her love was welcomed by the wretched lost one. The light got fainter as they stood, and when at last they sat down on the straw pallet together, their faces had become indistinct.

What a great return this is to the earlier scene, with Dinah’s premonition of trouble: “Dear Hetty,” she says, “it has been borne in upon my mind to- night that you may some day be in trouble . . . I want to tell you that if ever you are in trouble, and need a friend that will always feel for you and love you, you have got that friend in Dinah Morris at Snowfield.” When her prediction comes true and Dinah comes to her in her time of trouble, almost all the telling in the chapter is Hetty’s own.

*Actually, after reading her post I am not so sure I really understand what people mean by “showing,” which going by her examples just means “doing description better.” That has never seemed to me to be the implication of “show, don’t tell.” If it is, I don’t think I disagree after all, and you can disregard this entire post! What do you think that rule means — or, perhaps a different question, what do you think people typically mean when they sling it around?

16 Comments to Showing and Telling in Adam Bede

  1. February 27, 2017 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    I know we had this disagreement over Eugénie Grandet, too, but for what it’s worth I think description is generally showing – all of the examples in the Darwin post are showing, one set in an efficient plain style, the second in a neurotically fussy plain style. In what possible sense is that “showing” description of the carpenter “better”?

    The “telling” that matters artistically is the author using the authority of the narration to make a special plea, signal distrust of the reader, or deliberately steer the reader away from something sticky – sure, there is “plenty to think about,” but maybe if I ignore the pushy narrator there is even more. Maybe the narrator is trying to get me to think about the wrong things.

    I came to deeply distrust the Daniel Deronda narrator’s judgment of Gwendolen Harleth for example: “a point to be remembered in extenuation of her words, which were usually worse than she was” (Ch. 24). The special pleading put me on alert. I’ve read The Good Soldier and J. Hillis Miller; I know this is just the time to read around the narrator.

    At worst, an author, a lesser author than Eliot, gets blustery to cover up an artistic problem. Eliot’s telling is always interesting, but her intrusive narrator is still just a narrator, and can be treated with the approaches I always bring. I mean, “[Nature] is not unveracious”! Nature is often a gleeful, expert liar. Why is the narrator, in the name of truth, pushing this obvious lie on me? Very interesting.

    • February 27, 2017 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      The moment, at the end of Ch. 37, when the narrator turns away from Hetty – when what happens next cannot be told and definitely cannot be shown – is one of real beauty but is also frightening. “God preserve you and me from being the beginners of such misery!”

  2. February 27, 2017 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    I agree show don’t tell is an overrated rule. I agree it’s better to use the technique that’s more appropriate for your purpose, rather than be tied down by rules. I think it’s quite insulting to readers too. It seems to suggest that people don’t have the time or intelligence to read long passages of exposition. I love eighteenth and nineteenth century literature, and can’t imagine it without telling.

  3. February 27, 2017 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Really fascinating! I will admit that I sometimes use “show don’t tell” when I teach creative writing because it can be useful in getting students to be specific – to move away from big claims about life or emotional purge without nuance. But as someone who fell for the Russians back in my day, of course I love a philosophical telling in the right hands – and I think you are on to something in that there is something anti-intellectual about “show don’t tell” – I’m sometimes stumped by the fact that it’s the exact opposite of what I tell students while essay writing (have a thesis). We are all so trained against fiction having a thesis which I don’t actually think is such a bad thing, and certainly it’s not wrong for it to have an intellectual project. I wonder if this is another thing that MFA programs have to Answer for.

  4. February 27, 2017 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always thought of “showing” as direct dramatization, and “telling” as summary and/or editorializing from the narrator. So something like Lawrence’s constant streams of “She was wild; she was beyond her own control; she could not think” is telling, whereas Lawrence dramatizing his character doing something wild, being out of control, acting without thinking, would be showing. Or something like that. I find the whole debate to be generally irritating and of very little use.

    I read Eliot’s narrator’s “One begins to suspect at length that there is no direct correlation between eyelashes and morals; or else, that the eyelashes express the disposition of the fair one’s grandmother, which is on the whole less important to us.” as the introduction into the novel (or continuation, I guess) of a character, The Narrator, who can be trusted or not. I think it’s all showing, in the sense that dialogue is showing. A monologue from the Narrator. Exposition, scene-setting, description, etc are also showing, showing us the fictional world directly.

    I like to think I can trust an author to know what he’s about, to know what sort of novel he’s writing, and to know what sort of narrative he wants to present to us. Long passages of the Narrator giving opinions about the characters can be quite good, an excellent way to introduce irony, or simply a nice way for one person to tell us about another person. After all, in real life, we don’t learn everything we know about people from direct observation of them. Why can’t the narrator, or even the author, gossip with the reader?

    I know I’m not quite on point with this comment, but it’s early on a Monday.

  5. Leonie's Gravatar Leonie
    March 1, 2017 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    I think what people usually mean, at least in my experience, by the whole “show don’t tell” thing is flat characterisation. You know, when an author tells you a character is funny or charming or ferociously intelligent or a bully or terribly shy and then never has them say or do anything that isn’t completely generic. They tell you a character has a personality trait but don’t show it in their actual characterisation.

    I like descriptive prose and authorial character analysis and see a lack of them in a lot of modern fiction but I’m not sure that a lot of the time this trend isn’t something that doesn’t just slip by people without their realising there’s any other way for books to be. I mean I think it’s part of a wider trend that you can see in very different types of novels that has its roots in too many things to just be the “show, don’t tell” precept. I’d imagine a lot of it is about tv and movies, at least for some types of novel — people grow accustomed to thinking of stories in a certain way, which revolves around what can be shown. In the more literary works I think it’s to do with an idea that you can’t take it upon yourself to act like it’s possible to say anything, that stopping on some ideological ground long enough to tell anyone anything is both dishonest and naïve. I think there’s an idea around that truth is in gaps and you can only expect to have your intelligence respected if you show you know this. I don’t even object to the gaps but I’d prefer to have it agreed more often that while we don’t really know anything approximations can be very useful and interesting in the meantime. I think the “show don’t tell” thing amounts to timidity in a certain kind of writer; they don’t want to be suspected of thinking they have anything to tell you. I think you’re right in drawing a link to moral problems and telling. Writers are shy of appearing to take on moral authority as well as intellectual authority. Not that there isn’t as much moralising in fiction as ever, of course but people don’t seem to see it when it deals with their own language and their own mores, and feel personally outraged by the idea of anyone daring to tell them anything about right and wrong when they can see that’s what happening.

  6. March 3, 2017 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    Agreed–interesting!

    Was it Percy Lubbick who made this claim in his book on Henry James? I’ve always taken it to be the modernists’ shot at their (distorted and mostly false) reading of the 19th century fiction.

    The only time I use this is, like Scott, when I’m teaching Lawrence. He does a lot of telling (and showing too). That is, he’s often overt about characters’ states of minds or motivations.

    Tom’s thoughts about telling as referring to an obstreperous narrator make sense, though I don’t get the Good Soldier reference. How could a first-person narrative involve anything other than telling? I thought the telling/showing distinction applied only to third person narration. And only to omniscient narration, right? Where I get really confused is when it comes to free indirect discourse. Those examples Scott gave, of the sort of things Lawrence’s narrator might say: those could well be the characters’ thoughts as expressed in third person: She was wild, she was beyond her own control, she could not think. (All good faux-Lawrentian sentences. For me the prototypical Lawrence sentence would be something like: “He was hating her now.” But I digress.) In that case, though, I don’t see how the telling/showing distinction makes sense.

  7. March 3, 2017 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    The narrator of Adam Bede is a first-person narrator. She even appears in a scene.

    Narrators are never to be trusted, That well is poisoned.

    • March 3, 2017 at 12:50 am | Permalink

      Ah, I didn’t know that about Adam Bede. And I agree with you about narrators’ general unreliability. But my point was that the whole showing/telling distinction seems meaningless to me for a first-person narrative. How could it be anything but telling? Is Adam Bede all first-person? (Not sure how to put this.) Is it like Good Soldier or Ishiguro or something? Or is it occasionally in first person but usually not? How hidden is the I in that novel, I guess is what I’m asking.

    • March 3, 2017 at 1:44 am | Permalink

      All narrations are nothing but telling. It is the nature of the thing. If that’s where we’re going.

      Some first person narrators sound more like Humbert Humbert and Oskar Matzerath, and some less, so the distinction is still in place. “Show, don’t tell” encourages the creation of first person narrators who sound like they have an MFA from Emerson College.

      Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk is, in form, a first person memoir of an old woman telling her unusual life story. What is unrealistic about it, a convention we – I – accept as good writing, is that it is so full of scenes, as if she were not exactly writing a memoir but rather a novel meant to look like a memoir. But she is also a poet. Maybe that is good enough. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

  8. March 5, 2017 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for interesting Sunday morning reading, since I’m here so late. And for the link to even more interesting Sunday morning reading.

    I’m in agreement with Tom’s first comment. I found the examples of showing fussy overall. I think this is the problem with sticking closely to the rule. Frankly, I don’t need you to show me things like “He’s a carpenter.” Just tell me and get on with it.

    I was thinking about this issue yesterday, mostly about how wrong-headed it is to prefer one over the other. They are both tools in the writer’s toolbox, or ought to be. Use the correct tool. Sometimes you need a chisel, sometimes you need an awl. What matters is how well you can use the tools you have to make something worthwhile.

    Sorry if my example/metaphor is a bit elementary. I’ve been teaching middle school for nearly three decades, it starts to affect you.

  9. Katy's Gravatar Katy
    March 7, 2017 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I think of “show don’t tell” as meaning that scene is better than summary for conveying actual events. I read a book recently in which there was hardly any dialogue because all the conversations were just summed up like this: “They discussed their favorite short stories and made a plan to meet at the zoo.”

    When I think of books that tell rather than show, I don’t think of the kind of description and scene-setting that comes into Adam Bede, I think of something like Narnia, where you’re constantly told that adventures are happening but you’re never immersed in them.

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