Feuerbach: His Views and Influence
George Eliot was an intellectual and philosophical novelist, and as is well-known she was much influenced by the views of Feuerbach whose The Essence of Christianity she translated into English. Now in this work Feuerbach points out the religious significance of water, wine and bread. For him bread is sacred, wine is sacred, and water is also sacred. Water is sacred for it is a force of nature, and it is a reminder to us that in common with the lower creatures we have our origins in nature.Thus the taking of water is symbolic of our one-ness with nature. This is the symbolic significance of the Christian ritual of Baptism. Wine and bread, on the other hand, though formed out of material provided by nature, demonstrate man’s superiority over the lower creatures, which cannot so form and transform Nature-objects. Hence the sacrament of Baptimism in which only water is used is for children, the Lord’s Supper in which wine is drunk and bread is taken is for the mature and the grown up, symbolic of his manhood, of his distinction from the animals. Hunger and thirst destroy man’s humanity, taking of bread and wine restores to him his humanity. This truth is symbolically demonstrated in the novel through three suppers which restore to Adam his humanity, his mental and moral powers.
The Three Suppers: Their Significance
As U.C. Knoepfimacher points out, “the first of these suppers is designed to remind Adam of his origin in Nature”, an origin represented by Feuerbach through the symbol of water. The second scene, as ironical as the first, stresses Adam’s inability to see that man must also be distinguished from nature, “a need soon to be accentuated by Hetty’s unnatural murder of her natural child”. In the third scene, Adam finally learns how to celebrate this “distinction” in a manner which will give a truely “religious import” to life. This scene, the most important of the three, relies entirely on Feuerbach’s allegoric treatment of the Lord’s Supper.
The First Supper
In the first supper-scene, the self-righteous Adam finishes a coffin that his father has failed to deliver. He refuses to eat the food that his mother offers to him, but allows his hungry dog to devour his. Soon, however, he calls for “light and a draught of water”, accepts a second “drop of water” and admits that he is getting “very thirsty”. Adam works on, unaware that the intoxicated father to whom he feels so superior has died a “watery death”. His acceptance of the two sips of water foreshadows his acceptance of his father’s drunkenness when, later, he discovers Thias’ body, and a “flood of relenting and pity” sets in and dissolves his hardness. The symbol of water like the parallel between man and dog is designed to remind Adam of his origin from Nature, “an origin which we have in common with plants and animals”.
The Second Supper
But if man, must “bow” to the force of Nature he must also know how to rise above it. Adam’s ignorance of this second rule manifests itself at the supper which takes place during the young Squire’s birthday feast. Separated from his kin, Adam sits “upstairs” at the Squire’s table, no longer drinking water, but the rich Loamshire ale. He accepts a toast in which Arthur Donnithorne, the seducer of Adam’s bride, wishes him to have “sons as faithful and clever as himself. The irony is obvious. Proud of his new capacity as keeper of woods, Adam must still learn that his full “humanity” can only be celebrated through his “distinction” from Nature. Arthur and Hetty, the “natural” creatures he surprises in the woods he keeps, force upon him that suffering which alone can elevate man above the lower creatures.
The Last Supper
The last and most significant supper in this symbolic sequence marks the attainment of maturity on Adam’s part. Sitting “upstairs” once again, but now in a bleak lodging in Stoniton, Adam has become “powerless to contemplate (the) irremediable evil and suffering” that surround Hetty’s trial. Unshaven, brooding, half-starved, he resembles David mourning the ugly beauty of Absalom. At this point, Bartle Massey the crippled schoolmaster, enters the room. Bartle tells Adam about the trial he has witnessed, while pressing on him “a bit of the loaf and some of that wine Mr. Irwine sent”. But Adam pushes the cup aside. It is not until Bartle describes the pain of Hetty’s uncle that Adam is willing to drink “a little”. He asks about Hetty herself, and, on hearing about her suffering and the Rector’s gentle actions, he is provoked into an exclamation: “God bless him, and you too, Mr. Massey”. The involuntary blessing reverses his earlier exclamation about Hetty: “God bless her for loving me”. For Adam can now signify his “distinction” from Nature in an act which George Eliot, describes as “a baptism, a regeneration, the initiation into a new state”. Adam promises to stand by Hetty at court. Immediately, the schoolmaster asks him to eat a “bit” and to have “another sip, Adam, for the love of me”. “Nerved by an active resolution, Adam took a morsel of bread, and drank some wine He was haggard and unshaven, as he had been yesterday, but he stood upright again, and looked like the Adam Bede of former days. Adam’s conversion to that “new awe and new pity” that lie at the core of George Eliot’s religion of humanity is thus completed”. —(U.G. Knoepflmacher)