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Village Voices: Sonic Fidelity and the Acousmatic in Adam Bede

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 181-198 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0021

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If George Eliot did not have access to sound recording technologies in the 1850s when she began writing novels, she was nevertheless a key voice in a culture that had begun to theorize aural experience in anticipation of the mechanical recording, reproduction, and commodification of sound in the late nineteenth century. As John Picker notes in Victorian Soundscapes, "Eliot recognized the advent of an age defined by new emphases on and understandings of the capacity for listening" (83). Nineteenth-century research on the physiology of hearing, often filtered through a Romantic privileging of audition as the supreme mode of knowing, informed the invention of a range of sound machines that could amplify and reproduce sound in ways that made people rethink everyday communication. Such shifts began long before the first phonographs hit the market. Scholars working in periods before the advent of recorded sound have accordingly begun to ask how we might approach histories of sound, voice, and audition in and through the print archive. To do so requires an expansion of our definition of sonic media beyond machines and their functions, to the relations between people, practices, and the technologies that were available in a given time and place for experiencing sound (Sterne 223). In Victorian literary studies, we may thus look to novels as sound technologies that foreshadowed later ones, such as the telephone, as Picker has shown in his reading of Daniel Deronda. Yet even one of Eliot's earliest novels, Adam Bede, was already doing the cultural work of articulating the desire for a sound recording device that could "faithfully" or "accurately" represent the sound of the human voice. By listening to her characters and their sonic environments with such care, by staging the aural experience with such precision, and by exploring "the lingering presence of the human voice" (Picker 12) in a culture increasingly organized by the silent reading of print, Eliot and her reading/listening audiences helped invent the desire for a sonic realism, one that seemed to find its fulfillment in sound-recording machines several decades later. More precisely, as I will argue through this reading of Adam Bede, Eliot's novel repeatedly dramatizes a disconnection between language and sound and does so in a way that occasionally privileges the sound of speech over its verbal content. For Eliot, everyday sound, especially vocal sound, is meaning itself, rather than a passive conduit of speech.

Adam Bede, like all of Eliot's novels, imagines everyday life in the sonic register, yet this feature of Eliot's first full-length novel has rarely been discussed. Because of the novel's references to Dutch genre painting, its mirror scenes, and the narrator's gaze, attention to visual metaphors has taken precedence in the criticism over the novel's auditory imagination. I will not argue here, however, that hearing is more significant than seeing in Adam Bede, nor will I harness my analysis to a claim that Eliot narrates the story of the "decline" of oral or vocal culture at the hands of print. For one thing, visual and sonic references often co-mingle in both this novel and Eliot's other writing, suggesting that she did not privilege one form of sensory experience over another, but rather probed the ways in which they were mutually reinforcing or contradictory. Even in what is arguably the most famous sentence of the novel, Eliot sutures a visual metaphor onto an oral/vocal one: the novel as "defective mirror" whose reflection is narrated aloud by a courtroom witness (238; ch. 17).

Despite its nostalgic tone and often romanticized depiction of village life, Eliot's novel does not lament the loss of the sounds of the past or the death of the storyteller, so much as it enunciates a cultural moment that had begun to isolate, objectify, and commodify sound and the listening experience. Paradoxically, it does this through acts of remembering and representing "past" sounds. As sound recording and playback machines would later promise, Eliot's novels signaled that it was possible to capture sound, to preserve it; sound would no longer die in the moment of its utterance, but would continue to reverberate, to be experienced repeatedly by the...



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