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.