Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480
The narrative voice, the drama, Adam’s growth, and Dinah’s loving presence structure the dominant spirit of Adam Bede as sympathetic relation, “our best insight and our best love.” Repeatedly, characters are made realistic by the narrator’s passionate reminders that when counselors fail to reach those they would save from disaster, when young people determine their own downfall, when young men in love misread the feelings of the loved one, when mothers are fearfully possessive toward their sons—when struggling mortals fall short of perfection—such everyday conditions prove the very humanity that should call forth “fellow-feeling.”
Eliot’s technique includes dramatizing the realities of class distinctions in mass gatherings and small groups, showing individuals defined by work relationship or its absence. A tone of reverence suffuses the products and the process of human labor. Scenes alternate between the indoors (the workshop, the Bede home, the rectory, the Hall farm) and the outdoors (the green, the woods, the churchyard, the orchard and garden) picturing the full range of a community. Characters are further developed by contrasts, such as Adam and Seth, Adam and Arthur, Dinah and Hetty, and Dinah and the Reverend Irwine. Ironies abound: Adam has been wrathful toward his derelict father just before finding him drowned; he is cheerfully hopeful about Hetty just before he sees her kissing Arthur; unknowingly, he voices confidence in Arthur’s conscience and desire to do right; as Arthur is rationalizing away his earlier resolve to confess, the Reverend Irwine believes that his character will safeguard him from temptation with Hetty; Arthur is unable to understand the just-published poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a tale of wanton destruction leading to guilt followed by ongoing penance.
The story opens with the metaphor of a mirror reflecting reality, as preserved in the narrator’s Wordsworthian memory. Hetty’s mirror, however, reflects not reality but the fantasies that she spins as she admires her alluring face and neck, just as Arthur’s mirror reflects his self-deluded fantasies. Dinah chooses to look not at a mirror but through a window; her prospect lies outward in community, not inward in fantasy-driven isolation. Adam’s vision of the future is based on work and his belief that a man should leave the world a better place than he found it. Arthur pictures his future-self receiving love for his generosity.
Eliot’s theme of sympathy secularizes religious imagery. Seeing the wretched Hetty on trial, Adam remembers her under the apple boughs in the garden. The schoolmaster Bartle Massey reenacts the Last Supper as he brings bread and wine to Adam in an upper room while Dinah watches with Hetty. Adam’s growth to a new power of loving is described as baptism and rebirth. Thus does Eliot embody her themes realistically in her characters, their speech, their action, and the consequences that they suffer or enjoy.
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