Although Adam Bede (a young carpenter who is a model of rectitude and diligence) is the titular hero of this novel, the principal actions that develop the plot of the novel are those of Arthur Donnithorne. He is the heir to a large country estate which is the source of income and employment for many of the characters in the novel. A handsome young man whose glamour is enhanced by his being a captain in the local militia, Arthur dreams of the time when he will inherit the estate and win the adoration of his tenants by his wise and generous policies. In spite of these lofty intentions, Arthur begins an affair with Hetty Sorrel, a dairy maid who is the niece of one of his principal tenants.
As infatuated by Arthur as he is by her, Hetty entertains naive fantasies of marrying across the social chasm that separates them and becoming a great lady. Adam, who also loves Hetty, discovers the affair and forces Arthur to break it off before he rejoins his regiment. By this time, however, Hetty is pregnant and desperately follows Arthur until she discovers that he has been sent to Ireland. When her baby is born, she abandons it and is subsequently tried for child murder.
Although Arthur--somewhat melodramatically--wins Hetty a reprieve from hanging, and Dinah Morris, a young Methodist preacher, moves her to repentance, the evil consequences of Arthur and Hetty’s affair cannot be undone.
George Eliot’s first full-length novel, ADAM BEDE has been admired for its rich descriptions and incisive characterization, especially of the often humorous minor figures. Her handling of the plot, however, seems less assured. Despite her psychological insight into Arthur and Hetty as they yield to infatuation, the final disposition of these characters is unsatisfying and the marriage of Adam and Dinah seems largely a concession to the Victorian taste for a “happy ending.”
Barrett, Dorothea. Vocation and Desire: George...
(The entire section is 811 words.)