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Sunday, February 9, 2020

Adam Bede by George Eliot

Adam Bede by George Eliot is the story of the title character, his family and his friends. I found this novel to be excellent. It is an interesting tale populated with interesting characters that has a lot to say about life. The more that I read of Eliot, the more I am liking her work. I had previously read Middlemarch,The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner.


Though the novel was first published in 1859, most the story takes place around 1799. It is set in the fictional English town of Hayslope and centers on several characters. Adam is a carpenter who is principled, sensible and stoic. His brother is Seth Bede. Seth is younger and is more of an abstract thinker then Adam. Dinah Morris is a Methodist preacher of strong faith who is very charitable, both materially and emotionally. Hetty Sorrel is a girl from a middle - class farm family. Hetty is shallow, self- centered and is a simplistic thinker. Arthur Donnithorne Is a member of the lower gentry who is generally kind and amiable but who also shows great character weakness. Parson Irwine is the local vicar who takes a pragmatic and down – to – earth approach to religion.

Much of the early plot involves romantic entanglements. Adam falls in love with Hetty. However, unbeknownst to the other characters, Arthur and Hetty begin a clandestine affair. Though Arthur seems to have genuine feelings for Hetty, he realizes that their social situation to be an unsurmountable obstacle to marriage, he breaks off the relationship under pressure from Adam and leaves with his military unit for Ireland.  For her part, Hetty is more interested in the increase in social status that a union with Arthur would bring her. Unknown to Arthur, after he leaves for Ireland, the reader becomes aware that Hetty is pregnant. Adam does not know of the pregnancy and he proposes to and becomes engaged to Hetty. Serious complications and tragedy eventually ensue. Many pages are devoted to Hetty’s and Adam’s mental anguish. In the meantime, Seth has fallen in love with Dinah who gently rebuffs his offer of marriage in favor of a life devoted to God and charity. 

Later, Hetty runs away in an attempt to find Arthur and hide her pregnancy. When the child is born on the road Hetty eventually abandons it and the child dies. Hetty's subsequent trial for murder and its aftermath is the subject of the later parts  of the novel. 

There is a lot to this book. Many of the characters are marvelously drawn. Adam  is portrayed as strong and competent. He is religious while at the same time he shies away from the more outward and public side of religion such as preaching. When it comes to Hetty however, he seems unable to see through her narcissism. The pain that he feels as the situation deteriorates leaves him emotionally helpless. This contrast with his otherwise strong and wise nature is so well done.

I found Arthur’s character to be the most interesting. He initially is shown to be a man who tries to do the right thing.  He treats those of lower social class fairly and behaves benevolently toward them. He wants to be liked and is indeed liked by both his peers as well as those who are on the lower social scale. However, he ultimately shows great flaws. Though he develops a strong romantic attraction for Hetty, he is unwilling to buck social conventions and marry her. Thus, he breaks of his liaison with her much too late. Aside from his actions in regards to Hetty, Arthur is a character that is easy to like. However, his actions towards Hetty are certainly questionable. He seems to genuinely fall for her, but through it all, he knows that he cannot, or will not, marry her. Thus, he leads her on. He realizes that what is doing this but cannot help herself. Throughout Hetty’s crises, he is away in Ireland and unaware of dire situation that she finds herself in. In the end he tries to make amends for a terrible situation. 

One of the themes here is how outward appearance can be deceiving. Hetty is portrayed as beautiful and able to give the impression that she is a person of depth, while in actuality she is a superficial person. In contrast, some physically unattractive characters are shown to be virtuous and substantive.

Hetty’s alluring beauty is described,

but there is one order of beauty which seems made to turn the heads not only of men, but of all intelligent mammals, even of women. It is a beauty like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks making gentle rippling noises with their soft bills, or babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief— a beauty with which you can never be angry, but that you feel ready to crush for inability to comprehend the state of mind into which it throws you. Hetty Sorrel's was that sort of beauty….It is of little use for me to tell you that Hetty's cheek was like a rose-petal, that dimples played about her pouting lips, that her large dark eyes hid a soft roguishness under their long lashes, and that her curly hair, though all pushed back under her round cap while she was at work, stole back in dark delicate rings on her forehead, and about her white shell-like ears; it is of little use for me to say how lovely was the contour of her pink-and-white neckerchief, tucked into her low plum-coloured stuff bodice, or how the linen butter-making apron, with its bib, seemed a thing to be imitated in silk by duchesses, since it fell in such charming lines, or how her brown stockings and thick-soled buckled shoes lost all that clumsiness which they must certainly have had when empty of her foot and ankle— of little use, unless you have seen a woman who affected you as Hetty affected her beholders, for otherwise, though you might conjure up the image of a lovely woman, she would not in the least resemble that distracting kittenlike maiden. I might mention all the divine charms of a bright spring day, but if you had never in your life utterly forgotten yourself in straining your eyes after the mounting lark, or in wandering through the still lanes when the fresh-opened blossoms fill them with a sacred silent beauty like that of fretted aisles, where would be the use of my descriptive catalogue? I could never make you know what I meant by a bright spring day. Hetty's was a spring-tide beauty; it was the beauty of young frisking things, round-limbed, gambolling, circumventing you by a false air of innocence— the innocence of a young star-browed calf, for example, that, being inclined for a promenade out of bounds, leads you a severe steeplechase over hedge and ditch, and only comes to a stand in the middle of a bog. And they are the prettiest attitudes and movements into which a pretty girl is thrown in making up butter— tossing movements that give a charming curve to the arm, and a sideward inclination of the round white neck; little patting and rolling movements with the palm of the hand, and nice adaptations and finishings which cannot at all be effected without a great play of the pouting mouth and the dark eyes. And then the butter itself seems to communicate a fresh charm— it is so pure, so sweet-scented; it is turned off the mould with such a beautiful firm surface, like marble in a pale yellow light! 

I think that the above is so well written. The point about how some things, such as a bright spring day, a lark, a calf, Hetty’s beauty are indescribable in words, is effectively and artfully communicated. I also think that the false air of innocence is important, as Hetty is far from innocent. This takes on increased meaning in light of the fact that Hetty has ensnared several ethical men by her charms. 

Another important underlying thread here seems to be the comparison between the practical and pragmatic as compared with the theoretical and emotional. Dinah is a preacher. She has lots of ideas about her religion and expresses them in her preaching. She also puts a lot of emotion into her words and actions. In contrast, Adam and Parson Irwine are also religious people. However, their religion is more practical and down - to - earth.  Adam sees God’s will as being expressed through his carpentry. He also does not talk a lot about God. Instead he tries to just do what is right and remind others to do the same in private conversation. Likewise, Parson Irwine also eschews passionate religious fervor. He tends to believe in practical applications of religion and charity. Both types of people are portrayed as virtuous in this book. Both types effect good throughout the narrative. It may be that Eliot is trying to say that it takes both types to make the world go around. 

One other interesting point is that by the time that this book was written, Eliot had left any organized religion and had become an atheist. However, her treatment of religious people in this book is thoughtful and mostly  positive. My understanding is that Eliot was very much interested in morality and ethics and was very committed to living a moral life. It may be that Eliot was trying to make a bigger point about morality, practicality and theoretical thinking in general. Perhaps she thought that the point she was making transcended religious belief or the lack thereof. 

I rate this book very high as classics go. I thought that it was almost as good as Eliot’s Middlemarch, and better then The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner. I found the plot and characters very interesting and thought provoking. The themes were also worthwhile. I would recommend this book to readers who liked Middlemarch as well as Nineteenth Century literature in general. 

42 comments:

The Liberty Belle said...

Such a good review. After reading your thoughts on the book, I am determined to add Eliot's work to my own collection. Seems like just the sort of thing I would enjoy reading while curled up with a warm afghan and a hot cuppa. Have a wonderful week.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Belle - That sounds like a great way to read!

mudpuddle said...

another dynamite review, Brian... i read this so long ago i really didn't remember it very well... but your excellent post brought it back somewhat... i was too young to make very much out of it so i guess i'll have to reread it some.... day... i confess i'm not a great fan of Eliot: she's a great writer, but i recall feeling hammered after i've spent time with her characters...

Dorothy Borders said...

Like mudpuddle, I read this so long ago that some of the plot points have faded from my memory but your excellent review brought it all back. Middlemarch is my favorite Eliot work but this is a close second.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Muddpuddle. I really would not have gotten much out of this book when I was younger.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Dorothy. It seems like a lot of folks read this when they were younger. I came to it a little late to the party.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

Alas, another classic which I've always meant to read, but have not.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Wonderful review. This year I will be reading Middlemarch and your commentary has me excited to do so. Agree that ssomeone's beauty and also nature scenes are very hard and maybe impossible to express in prose. The great writers like Elliot understand this and so they create a character's beauty through other means, their personality, dialogue etc

Jillian said...

This sounds lovely. I really like that quote you share...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Debra - There are so many classics. I think few of us can read them all. At least when it comes to conventional wisdom, My Middlemarch is considered the essential Eliot to read.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy. The description is beauty here is especially tricky as Hetty is not so beautiful on the inside. Eliot does do this so well.

Brian Joseph said...

That is a really nice quote Jillian.

James said...

A great review of one of my favorites. Eliot's ability to create complex characters is superb. I found Dinah particularly interesting while Seth also intrigued me.

bookertalk said...

delighted to find another George Eliot fan here!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. They were such interesting characters. I barely dug into them here.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Karen - I just discovered Eliot a few years ago. The more I read the more I like.

Fanda Classiclit said...

Nice review, Brian! I have only read The Mill on the Floss, and didn't really like it. Silas Marner would be my next try of Eliot, and now you encouraged me to try Adam Bede as well. Hopefully I'd fin a new love for Eliot this time.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I really like your analysis of this story, Brian. I have not read any Eliot. I tried Silas Marner years ago and couldn't finish it. I do have a number of her works but because of Marner she's not high on my list. Your review goes along with much of what I've read about her, however. Maybe I'll content myself to just read your reviews. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. I liked Silas Mariner but it was a somewhat simple story I thought that there was a lot more going on in this book and in Middlemarch.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fanda - I liked The Mill on the Floss but I thought that it was the slowest of all the Eliot that I have read. I liked the other three that I have read a lot better.

Paula Vince said...

Wow, your review really makes me want to make Adam Bede my next Eliot. I've read the three others you've mentioned, which show her to be an author of great character depth, tackling interesting topical matter in real life settings. It sounds like this one is no different. I also love how she brings her version of Victorian Britain alive.

JacquiWine said...

I feel I ought to read something by Eliot at some point, but the prospect of picking up Middlemarch feels so daunting. Maybe this would be a more approachable one to try? The characterisation sounds excellent.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I confess, I have only read this author’s Jewish-themed novel, Daniel Deronda, which I liked very much, but it was thick as a brick, so just as well I did like it! I guess it’s more than time I read her other books,

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui- This would make a good introduction to Eliot. Silas Marner was short and straightforward.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Paula - You describe Eliot’s strengths very well. I think that you would really like this.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - I need to read Daniel Deronda. Middlemarch was so good but Silas Marner was simple and straightforward if you wanted to read more Eliot.

Judy Krueger said...

Great review, Brian. I once tried to read The Mill on the Floss but gave up on it quite early in the book. My favorite author on the relation of religion to life is Elizabeth Goudge who wrote in the mid 20th century and I am usually somewhat leery of books about religion because of my confused beliefs about all that. But it sounds like in this book, Eliot does a good job of it. Maybe I will read her when I am REALLY old, which is coming up in the next decade. Ha Ha.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Judy - I thought that The Mill on the Floss was the most challenging of the Eliot books that I have read. You might like some of the others better

Religion is such a fertile topic for fiction writers. I find their musings on the topic interesting. With that, I have always gravitated toward non fiction written by secular humanists such as Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World.

Susan Kane said...

Wow. What great writing, so vivid. It is as if I am reading a painting, like The Milk Maid by Vermeer. Every word is lush. Hetty is beautiful, but shallow and it is deceptive. Why are so many deceived and obsessed?

The writer herself is in love with Hetty.

I read Silas Marner and Middlemarch decades ago. Eliot’s writing is amazing. My mind is rambling. Time to give it a rest, maybe have some wine.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Your description of that passage is perfect. I think that somtimes writers do fall in love with their creations. Eliot included references and connections to painting in many of her works. Perhaps that is why her prose reads like one.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

This actually sounds like a 'classic' that I could actually like. The characters certainly appeal to me and then I like that the practical and pragmatic as compared with the theoretical and emotional is explored.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Felicity- The contrast between the two different ways has long been explored in literature. It is an interesting topic.

baili said...

you are so gifted for conveying your thoughts with mastery dear Brain !
this another a very poignant commentary ,i found story powerful and compelling

i have read summery book of Mill On the floss which had sad ending if i remember correct ,an amazing story and artfully carved indeed

i think writer has treated her topic beautifully as for i can know from your wise words

i have never read anything like the paragraph you shared above ,such a work of art ! her description of Hetty is captivating and few terms totally new to me
reading your review is always soul filling experience my friend!
thank you for being insightful always

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Baili.

Mill on the Floss did indeed have a tragic ending.

That is indeed a marvelous quotation. It may be one of the finest passages that Eliot had written.

R.T. said...

First rate analysis .... now I’m going to confess: I’ve read nothing by Eliot. Perhaps I’ll start with AB.
Best wishes from:
https://miscellaneousmusinds2d.blogspot.com/

thecuecard said...

Wow that passage about Hetty's beauty sure goes on at length ... no wonder this author wrote so many pages in her books. I'd like to read Middlemarch someday .... I have yet to try George Eliot. But it sounds like you liked this one quite a lot.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks RT - This was a very good one. I liked Middlemarch a tad better.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - That is a long passage. It went on even a bit longer. I wanted to include what I did though as I thought that it was so good.

I really did like this one. I thought that Middlemarch was just a little better.

Carol said...

Hi Brian, excellent review, yet again.�� Adam Bede is my favourite Eliot novel & I enjoyed the humour sprinkled through it - Mrs Poyser was hilarious.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - I actually should have touched on the humorous characters in this book.

Whispering Gums said...

You've convinced me to add this to my reading group's classics reading suggestions, as I haven't read this one and you've shown that it's well worthy of a bookgroup discussion. I think being a woman writer, she adds something to our understanding of the era because her perspective is just that little bit different.

I enjoyed Mill on the floss when I read it (when I was quite young) but have never felt the need to read it again. I have also read Daniel Deronda which I really liked and I'm sure I've read Middlemarch (I've certainly SEEN it, ha!).

That quote you chose to share is so good - showing so much about her style.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WG - The fact that Eliot was a woman writing at a time that few women were written is significant. Her perspective is indeed a little different. I think that it is also interesting that Adam Gopnik identifies Eliot as being one of the pioneers of universal liberalism. That has gotten me looking for liberal ideas in her books. I am curious to know what your reading group will think of this book.

I need to read Daniel Deronda.