Adam Bede

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 811

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.

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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.”

Bibliography

Barrett, Dorothea. Vocation and Desire: George Eliot’s Heroines. New York: Routledge, 1989. This book offers helpful insights concerning conflicts between women’s desires for creative fulfillment and culturally defined gender limitations.

Beer, Gillian. George Eliot. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. Reappraises Eliot’s struggle toward self-definition as a woman and an artist. Includes historical background, a bibliography, and an index.

Brady, Kristin. George Eliot. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Summarizes contemporary reactions to Eliot and explains the historical gender assumptions that Eliot both worked within and tried to reform.

Haight, Gordon. George Eliot: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. This book offers the essential factual base for studying Eliot and her work.

Haight, Gordon, ed. The George Eliot Letters. 9 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1954-1978. These volumes offer the best source for Eliot’s own voice—candid toward those whom she trusted and distant, circumlocutious, or self-protective toward those whom she did not. Haight’s notes and commentary are indispensable.

Hardy, Barbara. Critical Essays on George Eliot. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1970. This collection by a pioneer in Eliot studies helped interest critics in feminist analyses of her work.

Homans, Margaret. “Dinah’s Blush, Maggie’s Arm: Class, Gender, and Sexuality in George Eliot’s Early Novels.” Victorian Studies 36, no. 2 (Winter, 1993): 155-179. Argues that the euphemistic manner in which Eliot treats her heroines communicates their universal womanhood without regard to class.

Marshall, Joanna Barszewska. “Shades of Innocence and Sympathy: The Intricate Narrative Syntax of Gossip, Metaphor, and Intimacy in Eliot’s Treatment of Hetty Sorrel.” In Dorothea’s Window: The Individual and Community in George Eliot, edited by Patricia Gately, Dennis Leavens, and Cole Woodcox. Kirksville, Mo.: Thomas Jefferson Press, 1994. Analyzing Eliot’s narrative art, this article supports the argument that her treatment of Hetty is more sympathetic than many critics have recognized.

Miller, J. Hillis. The Ethics of Reading: Kant, de Man, Eliot, Trollope, James, and Benjamin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. Reprinted in George Eliot, edited by K. M. Newton. New York: Longman, 1991. In his discussion of Eliot’s “economic-ethical-religious-affective-performative theory of realism,” Miller points out the use of figurative language to depict human experience in art, nature, love, and religion.

Pinney, Thomas, ed. Essays of George Eliot. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963. These selected essays represent some of Eliot’s ideas about religion, education, the role of women, and standards for judging literary art that appear most frequently in her fiction.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. This study relates women writers to one another and suggests ways to place Eliot’s work in a continuity of similar attempts.

Uglow, Jennifer. George Eliot. New York: Pantheon Books, 1987. This critical biography examines in detail the interworkings between Eliot’s life and her art, offering thoughtful analyses of her fiction in the context of Victorian feminism. Includes a chronology, a bibliography, photographs, and an index.

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