In Adam Bede, Eliot again represents the humor and wit of the lower classes through their rural dialect and idiom, a skill that had captivated readers of “Amos Barton” and helped to establish her as a writer of humor, pathos, and social realism. Where the earlier work had divided such wit between a few characters and the narrator, however, Adam Bede concentrates it in Mrs. Poyser, master of the colorful maxim, and leaves the narrator more distant than in the earlier story. Eliot interrupts the narrative, nevertheless, to instruct the reader in the aesthetic rules of realism. The well-known chapter 17 is often quoted as Eliot’s artistic creed, favoring truthfulness over idealism, exhorting the reader to find beauty in “old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands” as well as in “a face paled by the celestial light,” and urging the reader to “tolerate, pity, and love” his “more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent” fellow mortals.
For the germ of her story, Eliot recalled an episode recounted during her youth by her Methodist Aunt Samuel, who had visited in prison a young woman condemned to execution for the murder of her child, and who had wrought from her a penitential confession after the failure of others to do so. The novel goes far beyond the historical event, however, rendering it as art by the detailed fictional creation of Hetty Sorrel as childishly and unconsciously self-engrossed, hardly capable of any moral awareness that her acts...
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