Adam Bede is so far from being like a timid woman that this is striking, and Eliot uses the idea of recoiling from a surgeon’s knife to convey the anguished passivity and powerlessness of a powerful, active man when confronted with a wrong he can’t act to correct.
As for a woman trembling at the thought of the surgeon’s knife, one of the most harrowing accounts I’ve ever read was Fanny Burney’s description of having a breast tumour removed with nothing but a muslin handkerchief covering her face to protect her from seeing her own gore, and nothing even as weighty as a handkerchief between her and the experience of pain. Just when you thought you were coming to the end of her operation, the surgeon overseeing it concluded that although both breast and tumour had been removed, there was some scraping of the bone needed to be sure no cancerous scrap was left behind.
Had I needed more to convince me of my own timidity, that would have done it!
‘He trembled at the thought of seeing her changed face, as a timid woman trembles at the thought of the surgeon’s knife.’
Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 (1859)), p. 471
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