Does George Eliot's "Adam Bede" show tension between the structure of families and the community? For instance, does the family unit take precedence over the community as the basic social unit?
In George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede, the family is important, but not so important as the village is unimportant as a source of support for those to whom it belongs. Make no mistake: family is important in Eliot’s story. One of the most important relationships is that between Hettie and Dinah, cousins with little in common save for that blood relationship. Hettie is a simple but inordinately beautiful young woman from an impoverished background who is impregnated by the narcissistic upper-class military man, Arthur Donnithorne, whose genuine affection for Hettie is less substantive than his need to remain among his own. If the relationship between Hettie and Dinah represented the fulcrum of moral rectitude, then more could be said about the role of family in Adam Bede. The title character himself, however, Adam, is not related to Hettie and is equally virtuous to Dinah, to whom he will ultimately be wed. Adam and his brother Seth are both highly moral individuals who believe that hard work and coming to the aid of others is God’s will.
With little regard to the adage that “it takes a village,” Eliot presents Hayslope as a decent-enough community, but one that does not necessarily take care of its own, and a place in which human relationships can be kept to a minimum:
“The men were chiefly gathered in the neighborhood of the the blacksmith’s shop. But do not imagine them gathered in a knot. Villagers never swarm: a whisper is unknown among them, and they seem almost as incapable of an undertone as a cow or a stag. Your true rustic turns his back on his interlocutor, throwing a question over his shoulder as if he meant to run away from the answer, and walking a step or two farther off when the interest of the dialogue culminates.”
More importantly, Hettie, a single young woman, getting pregnant does not bode well for her reception by her fellow citizens of Hayslope. Fear of ostracism forces her to isolate herself from the village and to give birth in a field, where she abandons the baby to a death from exposure. It is that very same village that subsequently tries her for the murder of the baby, lending both a sense of legitimate righteousness and hypocrisy to the proceedings that follow. In contrast, the novel’s final sentence is not a quote from one her characters, but Eliot’s own observation, having just blessed the union of Adam and Dinah:
“What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life--to strengthen each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?”
Eliot gives the last word to the concept of family. Unremarked, however, is the earlier description of Adam’s family, specifically, his father’s descent from congenial family-man to whoring drunk:
“But then came the days of sadness, when Adam was someway on in his teens, and Thias began to loiter at the public houses, and Lisbeth [Adam and Seth’s mother] began to cry at home, and to pour forth her plaints in the hearing of her sons.”
In Adam Bede, family is a much stronger bond than village, but in some cases, the connection is tenuous.