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Adam Bede George Eliot

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The following entry presents criticism of Eliot's novel Adam Bede (1859). See also, Felix Holt, the Radical Criticism.

Following the critical and popular success of Scenes of Clerical Life in 1858, George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann, or Marian, Evans) published Adam Bede to further acclaim. Having gained recognition for the realistic characters and situations in the three sketches comprising Scenes, Eliot again sought to create complex characters who display a range of traits, neither all good nor all bad. A pastoral novel, Adam Bede is set at the turn of the nineteenth century and presents realistic images of daily life in a quiet rural community. However, within this apparently peaceful, simple country world, Eliot's character-narrator tells a story of unfulfilled love and selfishness resulting in tragedy and hard-won self-awareness. Through the narrator, the middle-class reading audience is encouraged to look upon the novel's lower-class characters with the same sensibility and sensitivity as they would their peers. Rather than expressing superiority or contempt for the rural people in the novel, readers are invited by the narrator to set aside class or economic biases and view the characters in Adam Bede in light of their humanity and goodness.

Discussing Adam Bede in her personal journals, Eliot cautiously confessed that the character of Adam was inspired by her own father's early life, and the character of Dinah was drawn from her Methodist Aunt Samuel. She insisted, however, that the novel was not biographical beyond those initial inspirations. These same journals, along with her published essays and reviews, have led critics to argue that Adam Bede reflects themes in other literary works with which she was familiar, including Milton's Paradise Lost, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and the Greek Tragedies, among others. However, according to Eliot, she did not intend Adam Bede as a memoir or even as historical fiction; it was her most earnest intent to write realistic fiction at a time when realism was “out of fashion.” Adam Bede, considered by her contemporaries to display “a touch of genius,” has been overshadowed in twentieth-century criticism by the more mature Middlemarch. Nevertheless, its reputation has remained untarnished and many scholars regard Adam Bede as one of the finest examples of realistic fiction of its time.

Plot and Major Characters

Adam Bede is set in the rural community of Loamshire, England, in the summer of 1799. Adam Bede, the eponymous main character, and his younger brother Seth are employed as carpenters. Seth is well-meaning and generous while Adam, who serves as foreman to the crew of rustics who assist him, is serious and hard-working. Outwardly, Adam is a role model for the community, but inwardly he is plagued by resentment towards his alcoholic father and annoyance with his ever-complaining mother. Seth is a devout Methodist who practices his religion over the objections of both his family and the larger community. He is in love with Dinah Morris, a solemn Methodist preacher who, though demure and feminine, refuses to allow her religious mission to be compromised by her gender. Her quiet confidence attracts significant attention in Loamshire, and, in part, fuels Seth's affection. Meanwhile, Adam hopes one day for the financial security to be able to ask Hetty Sorrel, a distractingly beautiful and childishly self-centered young woman, to be his wife. While Dinah refuses Seth's romantic affections believing her duty is to minister to the unsaved, Hetty is deliberately distant and coquettish, while at the same time encouraging Adam's hopes for an eventual union. Although the two women are entirely different in character and morals, their lives are nevertheless entwined; both are orphaned cousins staying with their relations, the Poysners, a prominent tenant farming family.

Like the Poysners, the entire community operates under the patronage of the elderly landowner, Squire Donnithorne. His grandson Arthur, without an income of his own as long as his grandfather remains alive, looks benevolently upon Loamshire as his birthright. He imagines himself making improvements to the land and gaining the love of all his tenant farmers through his generosity and earnestness. But until he gains his inheritance, he is powerless and becomes bored and frustrated with his grandfather's mismanagement of the land. Seeking distraction, he discovers Hetty. While he is drawn to her beauty, she is equally drawn to his social position and the promise of being rescued from domestic servitude to live as the wife of a wealthy, respected man.

Hetty becomes deluded about the nature of their relationship, and Arthur is torn between his determination to live up to his social position and his desire for the young woman. At a pivotal moment, the couple is caught in an embrace by Adam who, despite his inferior social standing, challenges Arthur over the indiscretion. Adam, heartbroken, loses his faith in his long-time friend Arthur, but becomes more protective of Hetty. Shortly after Adam's discovery, Arthur ends the affair and leaves town, and Hetty turns to Adam for comfort. He takes her back, and joyously plans their life together. However, haunted by her scandalous behavior, Hetty discovers that she is pregnant and, unable to take responsibility for her actions, runs away.

Alone, Hetty gives birth to a child, whom she abandons in the wilderness. Her crime is discovered, and she is sentenced to death for infanticide. Adam refuses to believe she could have committed such a crime, and Hetty herself refuses to confess. Arthur, who left the country immediately following the affair, has not been heard from, and Hetty is left with only the comfort of her cousin Dinah. Arthur returns with a stay of execution just in time to save Hetty from death. Through the course of his love and loss of Hetty, Adam learns sympathy and forgiveness, and thus becomes a better person than he was at the start of the novel. With this change, Adam is rewarded with marriage to Dinah, who gives up her ministry in favor of domestic life.

Major Themes

While Adam Bede centers around the title character's progress from a calloused sense of moral superiority to a state of sympathy and understanding for others, there are several other significant themes. Adam Bede is widely recognized as a pastoral novel dealing with rural farm life and country people. Attention to the everyday details of butter-making, berry-picking, and cattle-herding, far away from the political and economic changes of an industrialized society, lend the story a sense of innocence and peacefulness. However, as England crossed from the eighteenth to nineteenth century, the pastoral peace enveloping the Loamshire countryside is disrupted by Hetty and Arthur's affair. The pastoral setting underscores the transition of English society from relative innocence to experience, leaving Eliot's readers nostalgic for simpler times.

In addition, issues of religion, while not at the forefront of the novel, are nonetheless present. Dinah's evangelical Methodist preaching is set against Reverend Irwine's staid traditional church leadership. In the midst of this doctrinal difference, moral weaknesses abound and neither religious leader is able to save Hetty and Arthur from their lack of moral judgement. While Eliot avoids religious sermonizing, the lack of spiritual intervention on behalf of the lovers demonstrates her greater concern with the state of religion in nineteenth-century England and hints at her own religious dissent.

Eliot's use of realism in the novel is also significant. The realistic portrayal of both her characters and situations is reinforced by her pointed description of Dutch genre painting in Chapter 17 of the novel. Dutch painting was considered a low art form by Eliot's contemporaries, not because the technique was inferior, but because the subject matter failed to conform to the aesthetic ideal of beauty so favored by critics and consumers alike. By embracing this genre of painting, where commoners engaged in common tasks were presented in great detail, Eliot attempted to justify her own representation of “common, coarse people.”

Critical Reception

Immediately recognized as a significant literary work, Adam Bede has enjoyed a largely positive critical reputation since its publication. An anonymous review in The Athenaeumin 1859 praised it as a “novel of the highest class,” and The Times called it “a first-rate novel.” Contemporary reviewers, often influenced by nostalgia for the earlier period represented in Bede, enthusiastically praised Eliot's characterizations and realistic representations of rural life. Charles Dickens wrote: “The whole country life that the story is set in, is so real, and so droll and genuine, and yet so selected and polished by art, that I cannot praise it enough to you.” (Hunter, S. 122) In fact, in early criticism, the tragedy of infanticide has often been overlooked in favor of the peaceful idyllic world and familiar personalities Eliot recreated.

Other critics have been less generous. Henry James, among others, resented the narrator's interventions. In particular, Chapter 15 has fared poorly among scholars because of the author's/narrator's moralizing and meddling in an attempt to sway readers' opinions of Hetty and Dinah. Other critics have objected to the resolution of the story. In the final moments, Hetty, about to be executed for infanticide, is saved by her seducer, Arthur Donnithorne. Critics have argued that this deus ex machina ending negates the moral lessons learned by the main characters. Without the eleventh hour reprieve, the suffering of Adam, Arthur, and Hetty would have been more realistically concluded. In addition, some scholars feel that Adam's marriage to Dinah is another instance of the author's/narrator's intrusiveness. These instances have been found to directly conflict with the otherwise realistic images and events of the novel.

Principal Works

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“The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined. Translated from the Fourth German Edition.” 3 vols. [translator; as Marian Evans] (essay) 1846

“The Essence of Christianity” [translator; as Marian Evans] (essay) 1854

*Scenes of Clerical Life (novel) 1858

Adam Bede (novel) 1859

“The Lifted Veil” (short story) 1859

The Mill on the Floss (novel) 1860

Silas Marner, the Weaver of Raveloe (novel) 1861

Romola (novel) 1863

Felix Holt, the Radical (novel) 1866

The Spanish Gypsy (poetry) 1868

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. 4 vols. (novel) 1871-72

The Legend of Jubal, and Other Poems (poetry) 1874

Daniel Deronda. 4 vols. (novel) 1876

Impressions of Theophrastus Such (essays) 1879

The George Eliot Letters. 9 vols. (letters) 1954-78

Essays of George Eliot (essays) 1963

*All of Eliot's novels were originally published serially in magazines.

Geraldine Jewsbury (review date 1859)

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SOURCE: “The Athenaeum, 26 February 1859,” in George Eliot and Her Readers: A Selection of Contemporary Reviews, edited by John Holmstrom and Laurence Lerner, The Bodley Head, 1966, p. 21.

[Originally published in 1859, this early favorable review of Adam Bede recommends the novel for its realism and power.]

Adam Bede is a novel of the highest class. Full of quiet power, without exaggeration and without any strain after effect, it produces a deep impression on the reader, which remains long after the book is closed. It is as though he had made acquaintance with real human beings: the story is not a story, but a true account of a place and people who have really lived; indeed, some of them may even be living yet, though they will be rather old, but that everything happened as here set down we have no doubt in the world. The duty of a critic in the present instance is almost superseded by the reader. Adam Bede is a book to be accepted, not criticized. … It is very seldom we are called on to deal with a book in which there is so little to qualify our praise.

W. L. Collins (review date 1859)

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SOURCE: “Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, April 1859,” in The Critical Response to George Eliot, edited by Karen L. Pangallo, Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 37-38.

[The following excerpt of a review originally published in 1859 discusses Eliot's portrayal of religion and praises her for her rendering of common working class people.]

The great merit of Adam Bede consists in the singular grace and skill with which the characteristic detail of country life are rendered. To say of such a book that it does not depend for its main attraction on the development of a carefully-constructed plot, is little more than saying that it is a novel of character rather than action. With one great exception, the masters of fiction of our own day—and among these Mr. Eliot has incontestably made good his place—either fail in the constructive power, or will not condescend to write a story. They throw all their force into the delineation of character, and the enunciation of their own favourite philosophy by the actors whom they place upon the stage. This Mr. Eliot has done, and done it admirably. The story itself is simple enough, and the interest of a very quiet order, until the commencement of the third volume, when it is worked up with great power of detail, and becomes even painfully absorbing. The whole account of Hetty Sorrell's night-wandering in the fields is as strong an instance of the author's power in vivid melodramatic description, as the lighter parts of the book are of genuine humour and truth. …

One of the most real things in these volumes, which will at once strike all those who have had any experience of its truth, is the picture they give of the state of religious feeling in country villages—as it was fifty years ago, and as it is now, for there has been little change.

Adam Bede is not “a religious novel.” It would hardly be recommended without reservation to that large class of readers who take Miss Yonge and Miss Sewell for their high-priestesses; and will run some risk of being placed in the index expurgatorius of the Evangelicalism. The author has a presentiment that to some minds the Rector of Broxton will seem “little better than a pagan.” Yet for both parties it would be a very wholesome change to lay aside for an hour or two the publications of their own favourite school, and to read Mr. Eliot's story. For its religious principle is a large-hearted charity. And this, after all, is surely the right ground on which to treat religious questions in a work of fiction. … The author of Adam Bede is not one of those who, in the eloquent words of a late preacher, “have restricted God's love, and narrowed the path to heaven.” No one handles Scripture more reverently; none with better effect; because it is not as a weapon against opponents, but as armour of proof.

It is very cheering too, setting the religious question apart, to read a book in which the writer has the courage to say that “by living a great deal among people more or less commonplace and vulgar,” he “has come to the conclusion that human nature is lovable”—and has the ability to maintain his thesis. He does not conceal or palliate the weaknesses of humanity; there is no attempt to paint rural life as an Arcadia of innocence; we have Hetty's silly vanity, and young Donnithorne's weakness of principle, and Lisbeth's petulance, all truthfully set before us; and even Adam, the hero, has quite enough of his old namesake about him to be far from perfect; yet we part from all of them at last with an honest sympathy, or, at the worst, a mild and tearful pity. It is encouraging, as it is unfortunately rare, in fiction, to find ourselves watching the operations of a skilful anatomist, as he lays bare the secrets of our quivering frame, and to feel that the hand is not only sure and steady, but gentle as a woman's. It is pleasant to find, combined with all the power of the satirist, the kindly warmth of human charity, and to mark the light which it throws upon human failings; not concealing them, but softening the harsher outlines, mellowing the glaring tones, and bringing out beauties of which we were before unconscious. We have here no morbid dwelling upon evil, nor yet an unreal optimism which dresses out life in hues of rose-colour; but a hearty manly sympathy with weakness, not inconsistent with a hatred of vice. The “common, coarse people” shame us sometimes, as they do in actual life, by the delicacy of their moral organization; the outwardly gentle and refined shame us no less by their coarse selfishness. It is no small praise to Mr. Eliot, that he has described to us the attractions of sense without allowing them to influence our judgment.

Eneas Sweetland Dallas (review date 1859)

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SOURCE: “Adam Bede, from The Times,” in A Century of George Eliot Criticism, edited by George Haight, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965, pp. 2-8.

[Originally published in 1859, the following review praises Adam Bede for demonstrating that despite social differences, people are more similar than not, and recommends the author for imbuing her characters with goodness.]

There can be no mistake about Adam Bede. It is a first-rate novel, and its author takes rank at once among the masters of the art. Hitherto known but as the writer of certain tales to which he gave the modest title of Scenes, and which displayed only the buds of what we have here in full blossom, he has produced a work which, after making every allowance for certain crudities of execution, impresses us with a sense of the novelist's maturity of thought and feeling. Very seldom are so much freshness of style and warmth of emotion seen combined with so much solid sense and ripened observation. We have a pleasant feeling of security in either laughing or crying with such a companion. Our laughter shall not be trifling, and our tears shall not be maudlin. We need not fear to yield ourselves entirely to all the enchantments of the wizard whose first article of belief is the truism which very few of us comprehend until it has been knocked into us by years of experience—that we are all alike—that the human heart is one. All the novelists and all the dramatists that have ever lived have set themselves to exhibit the differences between man and man. Here, they seem to say, are circumstances precisely similar, and yet mark how various are the characters which grow out of these circumstances. … It is in the enunciation of this difficult truism that Mr. Thackeray differs from all previous novelists. It is the supreme motive of all that he has written, and the key to all the criticism that has been poured upon him. … A novelist, writing in accordance with this philosophy, has a most difficult task to perform. It is comparatively easy to draw a character so long as we dwell mainly on points of difference and contrast. But when the object is to touch lightly on mere peculiarities, and to dwell mainly on those traits which we have all in common, and, which, therefore, are anything but salient, the difficulty of the task is enormously increased.

We do not mean for one moment to detract from Mr. George Eliot's originality when we say that after his own fashion he follows this difficult path in which Mr. Thackeray leads the way. He has fully reached that idea which it is so easy to confess in words, but so hard to admit into the secret heart, that we are all alike, that our natures are the same, and that there is not the mighty difference which is usually assumed between high and low, rich and poor, the fool and the sage, the best of us and the worst of us. In general, it is only matured minds that reach this state of feeling—minds that have gone through a good deal and seen through a good deal, and our author has precisely this broad sympathy and large tolerance combined with ripe reflection and finished style, which we admire in Mr. Thackeray. Here the comparison ends. Mr. Eliot differs so widely from Mr. Thackeray in his mode of working out the philosophy which is common to both that some of our readers may wonder how we could ever see a resemblance between him and the great painter of human vanities and weakness. Whereas Mr. Thackeray is, to the great disgust of many young ladies, continually asserting that we have all got an evil corner in our hearts, and little deceitful ways of working, Mr. Eliot is good enough to tell us that we have all a remnant of Eden in us, that people are not so bad as is commonly supposed, and that every one has affectionate fibres in his nature—fine, loveable traits, in his character. … But, although tending to such opposite results, the principle upon which both novelists work is the same. …

The story is simple enough, and as far as the mere skeleton is concerned, soon told. For the sake of introducing a fair young Methodist who has the gift of preaching, the date of the incidents is thrown to the end of last century, but the time is not strictly observed, and we are not very much surprised to be informed that Bartle Massey “lighted a match furiously on the hob,” which is far from being the only anachronism in the tale. Mrs. Poyser, the chatty wife of a well-to-do farmer, is the pivot on which the plot revolves. She is the chorus who is continually intervening with her opinions.

[A long summary of the plot follows.]

There is not much of a story it will be seen. The great charm of the novel is rather in the characters introduced than in the action which they carry on. All the characters are so true, and so natural, and so racy that we love to hear them talk for the sake of talking. They are so full of strange humours and funny pretty sayings that we entirely overlook the want of movement in the story. Besides which, when the dialogue ceases, the author's reflections are so pointed, and his descriptions are so vivid, that we naturally think more of what we have than of what we have not. There is not a character in the novel which is not well drawn, and even if the portrait is but a sketch still it is a true one. We have not mentioned the name of Mr. Irwine, the parson, who is very carefully drawn, nor of his mother, who is touched off in a more rapid manner; and yet the former is a very important personage in the dialogue, and is a fine moral influence throughout the tale. He is a very favourable specimen of the moral preachers of the close of last century, and the author has placed him in contrast to the more Scriptural style of which Dinah Morris, the young Methodist, is the representative. He sympathizes strongly with both, but leans most to the side of those moral teachers who have been somewhat harshly judged, he thinks. Comparing Mr. Irwine with the curate of an “evangelical” turn who succeeded him, he makes Mrs. Poyser pronounce this judgment:—“Mr. Irwine was like a good meal o’ victual; you are the better for him without thinking on it; but Mr. Ryde is like a dose o’ physic; he gripes you and worrets you, and after all he leaves you much the same.” Irwine is a noble man, with a fine presence and a kindly catholic nature. He was a silent influence, who did not trouble his parish much with theological “notions,” but gave them the example of a kind heart, and demanded from them the reward of honest lives. “It’s summat like to see such a man as that i’ the desk of a Sunday,” says that rattling Mrs. Poyser. “As I say to Poyser, it’s like looking at a full crop o’ wheat, or a pasture with a fine dairy o’ cows in it; it makes you think the world's comfortable-like.” The tolerance with which an author who is able to conceive the character of Dinah Morris, and to sympathize with her religious views, is thus pleased to regard a very opposite type of the religious character—a type which many worthy people, no doubt, would be disposed to brand as utterly irreligious, is one of the finest things in the novel, and affords a very good illustration of the tendency of the author to beat down all external differences, and bring into the light the grand points of genuine resemblance. …

It will be evident that in order to establish the identity of man with man an author must travel a good deal into the region of latent thoughts, and unconscious or but semi-conscious feelings. There is infinite variety in what we express; there is a wonderful monotony in that great world of life which never comes into the light, but moves within us like the beating of the heart and the breathing of the lungs—a constant, though unobserved influence. It is in this twilight of the human soul that our novelist most delights to make his observations. … Like Mr. Thackeray, he takes a peculiar pleasure in showing the contrariety between thought and speech, the heart within and the mask without, which we call a face. He is always showing that we are better than we seem, greater than we know, nearer to each other than, perhaps, we would wish. It is a fertile theme of immense interest, and through the three volumes the author has handled it with rare skill. His dissection of all the motives at work in Arthur Donnithorne's mind when he is pleased to trifle with the affections of Hetty is very masterly—how he was tempted, how he struggled with the temptation, and what a strange under-current of feeling was carrying him on to his purpose, while he took note only of the feeble ripple on the surface. In the case of poor Hetty we have a similar analysis, but one still more difficult, owing to the utterly thoughtless character of the girl. She, perhaps, might be accepted as a fair example of the truth of Pope's very unjust saying, “Most women have no characters at all.” Not that she is unreal—she is drawn to the life; but she is one of those who are so much less than they seem to be, whose most significant acts mean so little, that it is not easy to fix upon any central principle in their nature, any strong point of thought, or word, or act which belongs to them. “Hetty's face had a language that transcended her feelings,” says the novelist. …

All through the work the same train of thought runs, and at the very opening of the novel we have a curious illustration of it in a remark uttered by Joshua Rann, the parish clerk, … on the occasion of a crowd collecting on the village-green to hear the young Methodist preach. Many were the comments more or less appropriate, of the village worthies on the audacious act which Dinah Morris was about to commit, but, surely, if there was one comment more unmeaning than another, it was that of old Joshway, who in a resounding voice exclaimed, “Sehon, king of the Amorites; for His mercy endureth for ever; and Og, the king of Basan, for His mercy endureth for ever.” Mr. George Eliot points out, with great gusto, the unconscious associations which led to this extraordinary speech—how Mr. Rann felt the necessity of maintaining the dignity of the Church, how, further, he felt that this dignity was bound up with his own sonorous utterances of the responses, and how, in accordance with this theory, he volleyed forth a quotation from the Psalm of the previous Sunday, in order to give a practical illustration of the Church's dignity.

The gem of the novel is Mrs. Poyser, who, for that combination of shrewd remark and homely wit with genuine kindliness and racy style which is so taking in Mr. Samuel Weller, is likely to outvie all the characters of recent fiction, with the single exception of the hero we have named. Mrs. Poyser, in her way, is as amusing as Mrs. Gamp or Mrs. Nickleby, and much more sensible. Wife of a rough and ready farmer, she is a great woman. She is the firstling of the author's mind, which he is not likely to surpass, even as that glorious Sam Weller, the firstling of Mr. Dickens's pen, has not been outshone by any successor. Mrs. Poyser pervades the novel. Her wisdom is always coming out, either spoken by herself, or quoted by somebody else, or mentioned by the author. On one occasion, the author, unable to express himself in his own words, introduces Adam Bede to express the thought in his words, and Adam Bede, finding his own language inadequate, is obliged to fall back upon the expressions used by Mrs. Poyser, whom accordingly he quotes. “You’re mighty fond o’ Craig,” says Mrs. Poyser to her husband, speaking of a certain Scotch gardener; “but for my part, I think he’s welly like a cock as thinks the sun's rose o’ purpose to hear him crow.” This is the Poyser style, a good pungent style, remarkably effective when it is necessary to scold her husband, to subdue her nieces, or to lash the maids. It is a fine thing to hear her out of the goodness of her heart and the fullness of her wisdom abuse her household. … Her style runs into proverbs. “Folks must put up wi’ their own kin, as they put up with their own noses—it’s their own flesh and blood”—she says. “If the chaffcutter had the making of us, we should all be straw, I reckon,” she says again. “I’m not one o’ those as can see the cat i’ the dairy an’ wonder what she’s come after” is another of her sayings. … Of mankind she says, “The men are mostly so slow, their thoughts over-run ’em, an’ they can only catch ’em by the tail. Howiver, I’m not denyin’ the women are foolish; God Almighty made ’em to match the men.” She adds a little further on, “Some folks' tongues are like the clocks as run on strikin’, not to tell you the time o’ the day, but because there’s summat wrong i’ their own inside.” A good homely woman, it will be observed, who knows how to keep her own, and doing her duty well, has a wonderful supply of self-complacency. … In some respects, also, Mrs. Poyser is repeated in another good lady with a querulous twist in her,—old Lisbeth Bede, mother of Adam. When her husband is dead, Adam proposes to go to the village to have the coffin made, fearing that if he worked at it himself it would pain his mother. “Nay, my lad, nay,” Lisbeth cries out in a wailing tone, “thee wotna let nobody make thy feyther's coffin but thysen? Who’d make it so well? An’ him, as know’d what good work war, an's got a son as is th’ head o’ the village, an’ all Treddles’on too, for cleverness.” …

We might go on quoting these speeches until at last we transfer half the novel to our columns. The hero of the work, Adam Bede, is not so remarkable for his speeches as for what he does. He speaks out in a strong, manly way, but not very often with that sharp epigrammatic force which is so characteristic of Mrs. Poyser, Lisbeth Bede, and the schoolmaster, Bartle Massey. … The speeches of Seth Bede and of Dinah Morris, though excellent as illustrations of character, are, like those of Adam, not of the epigrammatic sort. Dinah's sermon is very fine, and she herself is a most beautiful piece of portraiture—a perfect chrysolite. The minor sketches are superabundant; they crowd the canvass. We have not here one great and real character in the midst of a mob of lay figures. The subordinate personages are in their way quite as well pictured as the leading one. The whole work, indeed, leaves upon us the impression of something highly finished and well matured, and we close the volumes wondering whether the author is to do better in his next novel,—curious, also, to know who the author really is. Nobody seems to know who is Mr. George Eliot, and when his previous work appeared it was even surmised that he must be a lady, since none but a woman's hand could have painted those touching scenes of clerical life. Now, the question will be raised, can this be a young author? Is all this mature thought, finished portraiture, and crowd of characters the product of a ’prentice hand and of callow genius? If it is, the hand must have an extraordinary cunning, and the genius must be of the highest order.

The Westminster Review (review date 1876)

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SOURCE: “The Westminster Review, October 1876,” in George Eliot and Her Readers: A Selection of Contemporary Reviews, edited by John Holmstrom and Laurence Lerner, The Bodley Head, 1966, pp. 22-23.

[Originally published in 1876, the following excerpt lauds Eliot's characterization of Hetty Sorrel for its artful power and poignance.]

(This review of Daniel Deronda prefaced its unfavourable notice of the book with a leisurely survey of G. E.'s other novels, and selected Hetty Sorrel as one of her masterpieces.) …

The figure of Hetty is like nothing that art had before developed out of nature, and yet it is profoundly true, with a reality in it which makes the heart ache. The very landscape, hitherto so broad and large and calm, changes and intensifies round this being, so tragical in her levity and shallowness. Never was the hapless simpleton, strange mixture of innocence and that self-love which is the root of ill, deserving of her fate, yet not deserving, in her lightness and reckless ignorance, of any such tremendous encounter with destiny and the powers of evil, so wonderfully set forth. In most cases, when a human soul, either in history or fiction, is brought face to face with the darker passions and calamities, it is of a nature lofty enough to cope with and combat them; but George Eliot was the first to thrill the spectator with the sight of a helpless, frivolous, childish creature, inadequate even to understand, much less to contend with, those gigantic shadows, confronted all at once by despair, crime, remorse, and destruction—things with which her soft childlike foolishness and baby character had nothing to do. The effect produced is much like that which would be roused in us did we see a child set in motion, by some heedless touch, a whole system of grim machinery, such as must crush it into a thousand pieces, and before which we stand trembling and appalled, not only by the horror itself, but by the shock of those tremendous forces employed for such a result. The anguish of pity in such a case is not mingled with any of those nobler sentiments which make the heart swell when we watch a worthy struggle, but is sharp and sore with our inability to assist, and with yearning over the helpless victim. There is nothing finer in modern literature than the power with which this contrast is kept up, and the slightness and frivolity of poor Hetty's being, preserved consistent through all the tempest of woe that comes upon her. A lesser artist would have made this trifling country girl develop into a heroine in face of the terrible emergency; but genius knows better; and the tragedy gains in depth and solemn force from the helpless weakness of the central figure. We have seen a spotless Desdemona, a lovely dream like Juliet perish with a less pang and shiver of feeling than that with which we watch this poor, pretty, self-regarding fool crouch helpless and dumb before the awful fates. …

Joseph Wiesenfarth (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: “Adam Bede and Myth,” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Winter, 1972, pp. 39-52.

[In the following essay, Wiesenfarth looks at the roles Hebrew, Greek, and Christian mythology play in Eliot's presentation of realism in Adam Bede.]

George Eliot told John Blackwood that Adam Bede was filled with “the breath of cows and the scent of hay.”1 She never said a word about its being filled with Adam, Prometheus, and Jesus. Adam Bede, however, is impregnated with allusions to Hebrew, Greek, and Christian mythology. The reviewer of Stahr and Mackay, the translator of Strauss and Spinoza, the disciple of Feuerbach and Müller, the student of Sophocles and Aeschylus is as present in Adam Bede as the house- and dairy-keeper of Griff House, Nuneaton.2 But the fact remains that George Eliot chose to speak of the realism of her work.3 So the question must be: how does myth contribute to realism in the novel?

In Adam Bede George Eliot dramatizes man's physical and moral-emotional condition. She shows life the way it is and suggests the way it should be so that it actually can become better. Her art blends a realism of presentation (breath of cows and scent of hay) with a realism of assessment (the human need for fellow-feeling).4 In a phrase, George Eliot creates a meliorist realism in Adam Bede: one which begins with man and his world the way they actually are and which shows what, through human effort and intelligence, they can become.5 To be significant in Adam Bede, myth must effectively support this meliorist theory of reality.

The theory that myth itself portrayed a reality of human existence was Otfried Müller's, and George Eliot had it constantly before her while she was translating Das Leben Jesu. For Müller, myth was an expression of the true aspirations, sentiments, and ideals of a community and was given poetic form by one of its more capable members who acted as spokesman for all.6 Strauss used this sense of myth and demythologized the four gospels on the basis of it. Human feeling for the divine was the reality that the evangelists articulated into a poetic gospel. Under Strauss's scrutiny, Christ became in the nineteenth century the symbol of man's striving for divinization.7 George Eliot found a similar emphasis on the truth of enduring human feeling in myth when she began translating Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in 1849. Spinoza, writing on the Old Testament, insisted that one had to distinguish between truth and meaning in Scripture. Truth is governed by reason; meaning by textual analysis. Truth and meaning come together in vital ethical imperatives. Therefore “the Word of God which we find in the prophets coincides with the Word of God written in our Hearts.”8 Once again myth pointed to the truth of human feeling. George Eliot's own conception of myth was inseparable from her sense of its connection with the persistence of patterns of human feeling in poetic form. Thus her admiration for the classics: “The Greeks were not taking an artificial, entirely erroneous standpoint in their art—a standpoint which disappeared altogether with their religion and art. They had the same elements of life presented to them as we have, and their art symbolized these in grand schematic forms.”9

“At any given period of literature the conventions of literature are enclosed within a total mythological structure, which may not be explicitly known to anyone, but is nevertheless a shaping principle,” writes Northrop Frye; and accepting his dictum, one must recognize that the first and most important thing to say about Adam Bede is that it articulates a modern myth.10 It is a story that details one woman's deepest feelings about a world without God—or, more specifically, about a world in which Love substitutes for God, work defines man's social and moral condition, suffering due to selfishness his emotional agony, and fellow-feeling his redemption. George Eliot is the gifted spokesman of a community that more or less consciously shares these convictions. As narrator she “is an all-embracing consciousness,” says J. Hillis Miller, and she sees her characters “in terms of their relations to one another and in terms of the universal facts of human nature which they exemplify.”11Adam Bede is the Genesis of a community that read George Eliot through four editions of her first novel the year it was published. That community's heritage was Judaeo-Christian and Greco-Roman in origin. Accordingly, this new Genesis incorporates these ancient traditions in the account of modern man that it renders.

Adam Bede contains many of the same elements that the biblical Genesis does, but it rearranges them. The novel gives us an Adam, but he is a Bede—who “justified his name” (5).12 He shares in the first Adam's curse: he must work. But he is found working before he loses his innocence by seeing Hetty, the woman formed from his imagination, kissing Arthur and violating his trust in her. God is not betrayed in a garden, but Love is betrayed in a wood. The betrayal brings the most intense suffering to Adam, and he is not redeemed until Love again governs his life. His redemption comes through the Christlike Dinah, who marries Adam only after he himself is accommodated to the suffering and risen Jesus—only after the Old Adam becomes the New.

Two basic elements run through these ancient and modern stories. They are love and work. Work is the bond between the gentry and the lower class in the novel. The Poysers are the Donnithorne tenants on the Hall Farm, and Adam is the manager of the Donnithorne timber. The old squire tampers with the bond when he tries to change the working of the farm, but Mrs. Poyser has her “say out” and stops him. Arthur tampers with the bond by making love to Hetty, and Adam gives him a thrashing in the wood. It is Arthur's duty to respect the bond of work between the classes, but he does not. Rather, he attempts love where love is impossible: “No gentleman, out of a ballad, could marry a farmer's niece” (206). Arthur prefers the romance of life to the reality that Adam articulates: “We’re like enough to find life a tough job—hard work inside and out” (182).

To characterize Arthur's passion for Hetty, George Eliot goes to Aeschylus for analogues. From The Libation Bearers she takes the phrase unloving love, [aperotos eros], and then dramatizes the nature of such love by reference to Prometheus Bound. These allusions to Aeschylus do not make Adam Bede a tragedy, but they do give depth and dimension to the characters of Irwine and Adam, Arthur and Hetty.13 They also foreshadow the pathos inherent in the events subsequent to the seduction.

Mr. Irwine, who invokes the shade of Aeschylus, sits in judgment on Arthur and Hetty. His is the voice of a morality that is Greek in origin and characterized by nemesis. With a Ceres as mother, Juno as a dog, Aeschylus as a breakfast companion, and Sophocles and Theocritus as favorite authors, it is altogether suitable that Irwine's learning should allow him to see life and judge conduct in a classical context. When Arthur comes to him and they speak about love and marriage, Irwine refers Arthur to the chorus of Prometheus Bound in which the passion of Zeus for Io is detailed and judged. The chorus's words bear directly on the story of Arthur and Hetty, though they refer explicitly to Zeus and Io.

Wise was the man who declared, “like is fitly coupled
          with like, and let equal pair with equal.”
Not for grimy craftsman the hand of a rich man's
          daughter, nor must
Simple maid plight troth with purse-proud nobleman.
May it be mine to enjoy youth and beauty far from
          the eyes of the gods; may Zeus not name me
Bride nor call me up to his couch on Olympus,
          where malignant
Hera looks down on Io's misery!
For me a match within my own degree,
Not the glance from eyes invisible
Weaving around me inescapably
Magical miseries and miracles of wrong,
Caught in the irresistable
Cunning of Zeus Almighty.(14)

In Adam Bede Arthur is like Zeus and Hetty like Io. She even looks upon him as an “Olympian god” (148). Their love is consummated in a Hermitage set in a semienchanted wood, is clearly unreal, and is certainly headed for disaster: “He may be a shepherd in Arcadia for aught he knows, he may be the first youth kissing the first maiden, he may be Eros himself, sipping the lips of Psyche—it is all one” (204). Like Psyche, Hetty is deserted. Like Io, she is doomed to a journey in despair (bk. 5, chap. 37).

Adam is likened to Prometheus by his action and his suffering. Actively, like Goethe's Prometheus, he works and scorns idleness: “what we can do, we are: our strength is measured by our plastic power. Thus the contempt of Prometheus for the idleness … of the gods is both deep and constant.”15 Passively, like the chained Prometheus, who listens to the sad story of the wandering and despairing Io, Adam must hear of Hetty's fate without being able to rescue her from it.16 Adam is unable to act; he is only able to suffer. Like Prometheus, Adam does not die, but he must suffer for his sympathy with those who do die—Hetty and her child. Prometheus's rage against Zeus is ineffectual, and so is Adam's against Arthur. Were it to be effectual—with individual and societal justice colliding head on—Adam Bede would have been a tragedy, not a tragicomedy.

In revenge there is no chance for amelioration. Revenge breeds death upon death, as George Eliot showed in her analysis of the Oresteia.17 And nothing could have been clearer to her when she was writing Adam Bede because she was simultaneously reading the Aeschylean trilogy in the Greek. From her Autograph Journal and from Cross's biography, one can determine the exact chronology of her reading of Aeschylus and her writing of Adam Bede.18 She began reading the Agamemnon on August 1, 1857, and she started to write Adam Bede on October 22. She finished the play on December 6, 1857, and had begun reading The Libation Bearers (the Choephoroe) by the 17th. She finished reading this play by January 20, 1858, while she was writing chapter 5 of the novel. She immediately began the Eumenides. On February 10, chapter 9 of Adam Bede was completed, and George Eliot began the Prometheus. On March 4, 1858, she gave Blackwood the manuscript of the novel to the end of chapter 13. The overlapping of the reading of Aeschylus with the writing of Adam Bede shows the imaginative resonance that Greek myth gave to a story that first came to George Eliot as a recollection from the life of a Methodist aunt.19

Many elements that she must have noticed in the Aeschylean trilogy appear in Adam Bede.20 Unloving love is transformed into Arthur's passion for Hetty; murder within a bloodline is turned into Hetty's fatal neglect of her child; nemesis shows itself in unpitying consequences: Hetty's trial, transportation, and eventual death; Arthur's ostracism from his home and inheritance; Adam's excruciating suffering. The Furies show themselves in the haunted imagination of Hetty, who sees and hears her dead child: “Dinah, do you think God will take away that crying and the place in the wood, now I’ve told everything?” (2: 252). Arthur is similarly haunted by Hetty: “I feel sometimes as if I should go mad with thinking of her looks and what she said to me …” (2: 275).21 Perhaps taking a hint from Lewes's analysis of Goethe's Iphigenia, George Eliot makes the Furies in Adam Bede “phantasms moving across the stage of an unhappy soul, … visible only to the inward eye.”22

Adam narrowly avoids entering into the pattern of tragedy. He seeks to revenge himself on Arthur, and only the intervention of Irwine—who understands Aeschylus all too well—prevents him. Consequently, the revenge element of the Oresteia works itself out in the novel with a moral wisdom not unlike that which Athena brings to the Eumenides itself. Trial by one's peers replaces a cycle of personal revenge. Hetty is judged guilty by a court, and Arthur becomes an exile from a community that cannot tolerate his presence. In the Greek drama, at the end, the Furies are welcomed into Athens as respected guardians of the city and given a new name. In Adam Bede, ultimately, the hope is that through fellow-feeling the Eumenides (the “workers of grace”) will replace the Furies (the “disturbers of sleep”) in the heart of man, as they have in the heart of the new Adam.23

Had Arthur and Hetty been less callow characters, George Eliot could have created a modern tragedy on an ancient model. Clearly, however, she did not choose to do this. She used Aeschylus to show how, ancient and modern, life demonstrates and demands the same imperative.

The divine yea and nay, the seal of prohibition and of sanction, are effectually impressed on human deeds and aspirations … by that inexorable law of consequences, whose evidence is confirmed instead of weakened as the ages advance; and human duty is comprised in the earnest study of this law and patient obedience to its teaching. … Every past phase of human development is part of that education of the race in which we are sharing; every mistake, every absurdity into which poor human nature has fallen, may be looked on as an experiment of which we may reap the benefit.”24

For Adam to revenge himself on Arthur would be for Adam to have learned nothing and to have called down upon himself that inexorable law which he himself had quoted to Arthur: “... You can never do what’s wrong without breeding sin and trouble more than you can see” (250). Or as Irwine puts it more succinctly, “Consequences are unpitying” (258). The consequences of Arthur and Hetty's sin are visited upon Adam, and his suffering is Promethean; but Adam, the only character capable of tragic actions, does not become the architect of a tragedy. On the contrary, taking the advice of Irwine to heart, he prevents further disaster and prepares himself for redemption.

Northrop Frye has shown that comedy and tragedy use the same basic archetypal characters but reverse their functions. In tragic structures, the hero is self-deceived and unwittingly an impostor. The heroine, excluded from society, becomes a picture of unmitigated hopelessness and destitution. The friend of the hero is a plain-speaker and thus a critic of events. And the nature of the irrefragable law that governs man is explicated by a self-effacing individual. These different characters are part of an action that is so plotted that it paradoxically combines “a fearful sense of rightness (the hero must fall) and a pitying sense of wrongness (it is too bad that he falls).”25 It moves to a moment when what might have been and what will be are seen simultaneously. In Adam Bede Arthur and Hetty are hero and heroine of a tragedy manqué. Adolphus Irwine is a self-effacing wise man who details the operation of nemesis. Adam is Arthur's friend and, as a rival for Hetty's love, his outspoken and hard-hitting critic. The plot moves to Arthur and Hetty's inevitable fall and makes her trial correspond with the day she should have married Adam and the day that Arthur should have taken over the Donnithorne estate.

“The action of comedy moves toward a deliverance from something which … is by no means invariably harmless. We notice too how frequently a comic dramatist tries to bring his action as close to a catastrophic overthrow of the hero as he can get it, and then reverses it as quickly as possible.”26 When Dinah's gospel of love—introduced as early as chapter 2 of the novel—emerges as a major moral force in the action, a second self-effacing character appears and the ground-work for a comedic resolution of the novel is laid.27 With fellow-feeling comes love, and with love amelioration. Thus a new human structure can be built and can reverse a course of action previously governed by the law of nemesis alone. In this comedic strand of action, Adam's friends are his brother and his teacher. Seth, who himself loves Dinah, rejoices in his brother's happiness; Bartle Massey, an incorrigible misogynist, praises Dinah.28 The heroine changes from a helpless outcast to one who possesses the clue to life and happiness, so Hetty gives way to Dinah. Adam changes from the friend of the false hero to the real hero himself; having lost Hetty (certainly a blessing in disguise), he wins Dinah. Adam, undeceived, passes from ignorance to knowledge and from hardness to love, retaining the stewardship of the property Arthur must leave and finding his love for Dinah as well. The Poysers, shamed by Hetty, approve and celebrate this turn of fortune. Around the hero and heroine, in true comedic fashion, a new society grows up. And the novel ends with Adam and Dinah's two children playing with their Uncle Seth.29

This interweaving and developing of a structure akin to tragedy with one of true comedy is accompanied by a gradual emphasis on a new law—the law of love. The consequences of selflessness and fellow-feeling are seen to be as inevitable as the nemesis of selfishness and give hope to the future of a new society. The mythic archetype changes too. George Eliot has shown Bede as an Adam-figure and as a Prometheus-figure. But as his work and suffering move him toward a truly redemptive love, Adam becomes closely associated with Jesus. Adam is purified by suffering in order to learn love.30 The words of Dinah's letter become the drama of his human development: “Surely it is not true blessedness to be free from sorrow, while there is sorrow and sin in the world: sorrow is then a part of love, and love does not seek to throw it off. It is not the spirit only that tells me this—I see it in the whole work and the word of the gospel. Is there not pleading in heaven? Is not the Man of Sorrows there in that crucified body wherewith he ascended? And is He not one with the Infinite Love itself—as our love is one with our sorrow?” (2: 59). In his suffering, the narrator says of Adam, “the power of loving was all the while gaining new force within him” (2: 303). Adam is brought to this change of heart and mind, which leads to his forgiveness of Arthur and Hetty, by a dramatic entry into the sufferings of Jesus from his agony to his resurrection. If, as Barbara Hardy says, “George Eliot's interest lies in modes of suffering which are moral and exemplary,”31 Jesus is the moral exemplar for Adam.

The eve of the trial finds Adam a haggard and worn man, bearing within himself the sorrow of his friend's deceit and his beloved's wickedness: “You would hardly have known it was Adam without being told. His face has got thinner this last week: he has the sunken eyes, the neglected beard of a man just risen from a sick-bed” (2: 200). Adam's face—like the “sad face” of a Christ George Eliot saw in Nuernberg—makes the Man of Sorrows seem “a very close thing—not a faint hearsay.”32 On the morning of the trial, Bartle Massey comes to Adam in an “upper room” to get him to eat some lunch: “I must see to your having a bit of the loaf, and some of that wine Mr. Irwine sent this morning” (2: 210). Only after deciding to go to Hetty and to stand beside her does Adam eat: “Nerved by an active resolution, Adam took a morsel of bread, and drank some wine” (2: 214). Adam next suffers with Hetty the agony of her trial and imprisonment.

Later in the novel Eliot relates Adam to the risen Christ. Reading the Bible one Sunday morning, Adam comes upon a picture—“that of the angel seated on the great stone that has been rolled away from the sepulchre” (2: 319).33 The angel reminds him, with Lisbeth's help, of Dinah. George Eliot here provides the reader with a classically comedic recognition scene: “the person whom the hero is seeking turns out to be the person who sought him.”34 A few moments later his mother intimates to Adam Dinah's love for him, and the narrator returns us to the picture in the Bible: “the blood rushed to Adam's face, and for a few moments he was not quite conscious where he was: his mother and the kitchen had vanished for him, and he saw nothing but Dinah's face turned up towards his. It seemed as if there was a resurrection of his dead joy” (2: 322). This is certainly an accommodation of Adam to the resurrected Christ. Keeping in mind, then, the relation of Adam to Jesus, one might well say that Dinah is, at the mythical level, correct in finally refusing to distinguish between her love for Jesus and her love for Adam.

Dinah presides over the resurrection of Adam's joy as surely as Hetty presided over its death. She rewards Adam's work and love as surely as Hetty disappointed them. This tragic and comedic complexity in Adam's life George Eliot found mirrored in the Old Testament story of Jacob and Rachel. She uses it in Adam Bede as the overarching analogue of the novel's tragicomic structure. Her use of it stands as “an exemplar of the adaptation of an antique symbol to modern meanings, not [as] the idle imitation of a bygone creed.”35

If Adam Bede is to be likened to Jacob, it must be in terms of his own situation. The biblical Jacob is never in doubt about whom he loves. It is Rachel, even though he is tricked into marrying Leah. But Adam first loves Hetty, then Dinah. He must come to find his true Rachel. At one point in the story—an event that seems to have little relevance outside an attempt to suggest Jacob's story—Hetty is equated with Dinah. When walking with Hetty, who has just put a rose in her hair, Adam says, “If a woman's young and pretty, I think you can see her good looks all the better for her being plain dressed. Why, Dinah Morris looks very nice, for all she wears such a plain cap and gown” (336). Shortly after, Hetty appears looking like Dinah: “The little minx had found a black gown of her aunt's, had pinned it close round her neck to look like Dinah's, and made her hair flat as she could, and had tied on one of Dinah's high-crowned borderless net-caps” (342-43).

Jacob's relation to Rachel is defined by love and work. Seth, who himself loves Dinah, delineates that relation nicely: “It’s a deep mystery—the way the heart of man turns to one woman out of all the rest he’s seen i’ the world, and makes it easier for him to work seven year for her, like Jacob did for Rachel, sooner than have any other woman for th’ asking. I often think of them words, ‘And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed to him but a few days for the love he had to her!’” (46-47). From the very first chapter, “The Workshop,” Adam is characterized by his work. Relating it to Hetty, he muses, “I’d make her life a happy ’un, if a strong arm to work for her, and a heart to love her, could do it” (431). The narrator says of Adam that “he had done the extra work cheerfully, for his hopes were buoyant again about Hetty” (2: 5). He tells Martin Poyser, “I’m a poor man as yet, but she shall want nothing as I can work for” (2: 106). And in great indignation, Adam reminds Arthur when he sees him kissing Hetty, “And I never kissed her i’ my life—but I’d ha’ worked hard for years for the right to kiss her” (2: 16).

In addition, one specific piece of extra work that Adam undertook was a screen for Arthur's Aunt Lydia. He was supposed to fasten onto it a piece of “very fine needlework, Jacob and Rachel a-kissing one another among the sheep, like a picture” (365). This passage was carefully amended in the manuscript of the novel: what had read “a lady and gentleman” was made to read “Jacob and Rachel.”36

The relation between work and love is undeniable in Adam's connection with Hetty, but that work finds its fruition in love only when the true Rachel appears in Dinah (a fact emphasized by the scene in which Dinah is played by Hetty in a Methodist dress and netcap). Just as Jacob finds the blessing of his labors in finally winning Rachel, Adam finds his in finally winning 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 pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?” (2: 369).

In Adam Bede the human world is finally embraced fearlessly unto death. The biblical Adam sinned against God and became the archetypal working man. Prometheus defied Zeus to bring man fire and became the archetypal suffering man. Jesus left heaven for earth and became the archetypal loving man. Jacob wrestled with God and became the archetypal blessed man, though no man before him had seen God and lived. Each of these prototypes of Adam Bede in some way achieves distance from God and identity with man. The characteristics of these prototypes become the characteristics of Adam Bede and are dramatized consistently in relation to a wood, suggesting lack of order, rather than a farm, suggesting order. Adam is placed in charge of that wood by Arthur, but resigns after fighting Donnithorne in the very place Arthur had earlier seduced Hetty. When Arthur leaves Loamshire, however, Adam again assumes the management of the wood and undertakes to give it order. The wood relates to Adam's own life, which he undertakes to reorder after Hetty betrays him. Adam in this way is different from the Poysers. They are disgraced by Hetty and do not forgive her. The unalterable condition of the Hall Farm contrasts with the alterable condition of the Donnithorne wood. The Poysers stand by what was; Adam develops what will be. He has come by the path of suffering from the rigid rules of Burge's workshop to creativity in Dinah's love. Working within the ambience of that love, Adam finds a new hope for life.

I suggested at the beginning of this essay that myth was an essential element of realism in Adam Bede. This point should no longer be in doubt. Clearly, George Eliot presents the reader of Adam Bede a new world made out of age-old things carefully arranged and newly interpreted. Whereas the Fall and Redemption once suggested the limits of man's earthly life, work and love now suggest the condition of man's only life. Heaven and hell give way to joy and sorrow, and eternal law to an ethic of consequence and fellow-feeling. Myths, divested of their mystery, are placed in an elemental tragicomic pattern and made to reveal the pain and pleasure of human existence. The ancient and sacred become the ground of the modern and secular, the former impressing on the latter the dignity of ageless wisdom and the preciousness of human life. Adam Bede, consequently, stands forth as a new man in a new world—a new world which work and love make not a paradise but a carefully delineated human possibility.37


  1. The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon S. Haight (New Haven, Conn., 1954), 2:387.

  2. Adolf Stahr's Torso. Kunst, Künstler, and Kunstwerk der Alten was reviewed by George Eliot in the Leader, 17 March 1855, pp. 257f. R. W. Mackay's The Progress of the Intellect, as Exemplified in the Religious Development of the Greeks and the Hebrews she reviewed in Westminster Review 54 (January 1851): 353-68. David Friedrich Strauss's Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet (1835) George Eliot translated and John Chapman published as The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined in 1846. Benedict de Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus she began translating in 1849; the whereabouts of the manuscript, presuming it is extant, is unknown. Ludwig Feuerbach's Das Wesen des Christhentums (1841), which George Eliot translated in 1854, and Karl Otfried Müller's Prolegomena zu einer wissenschaftlichen Mythologie (1825), which Strauss used, both had a profound influence on George Eliot's art, as this essay will subsequently demonstrate.

  3. The cows and hay have suggested to Ian Gregor not a realistic country world, but an Arcadian one: Ian Gregor and Brian Nicholas, The Moral and the Story (London, 1962), chap. 1, pp. 13-32. Gregor argues that George Eliot dramatizes a pastoral world into which the moral tragedy of Hetty Sorrel does not fit: “Hetty feels the impossibility of returning to Hayslope” (27). I do not agree with Gregor's analysis: he recreates Hayslope in his own nostalgic prose, which strings together selected passages in Adam Bede that do not give the total picture of George Eliot's community; moreover, he establishes a false dichotomy, demanding of the novel either the tragic irony of Hardy's Tess or the pastoral convention of Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, a dichotomy that does not allow for George Eliot's doing something quite different from both; finally, he insists on Hetty's story as tragedy, too powerful a genre—in my opinion—for so feeble a character. Gregor's analysis supports his more general thesis that Adam Bede is a watershed novel, as in English fiction community and individual interests were vitally and morally more closely interrelated before the novel's publication and were more separated in other novels after it appeared. In Adam Bede, Gregor produces the pastoral community this theory requires. In addition, he cites previous scholarship that views Adam Bede “as primarily belonging to a pastoral convention” (32). But Foakes, Hussey, Van Ghent, and Creeger recognize that a country setting does not necessarily produce a pastoral ethic. To Gregor's question, “Can the tree of good and evil grow in Arcadia?” they answer that Hayslope is not Arcadia. Contrary to Gregor, I maintain with Gordon S. Haight (George Eliot: A Biography [New York, 1968], pp. 249f) that Adam Bede is a novel of realistic effect.

  4. This terminology is borrowed from Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1959).

  5. In “The Ethical Revolt against Christian Orthodoxy in Early Victorian England,” The American Historical Review 60, no. 4 (1955), Howard Murphy writes that “meliorism refers to the notion … that the life of man on this earth both can and should be progressively improved through a sustained application of human effort and intelligence. Because it served as a substitute for the otherworldly-salvation motif that has so dominated the history of Christianity, it tended to bring Christianity itself into question, and to put all forms of orthodoxy on trial” (p. 701, n. 2).

  6. See C. O. Müller, Introduction to a Scientific System of Mythology, trans. John Leitch (London, 1844), p. 111; The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, trans. George Eliot (London, 1902 [1st ed. 1846]), p. 81; and “Janet's Repentance,” where Bill Powers is made “to issue forth with his companions” at the Bear and Ragged Staff and, “like the enunciator of the ancient myth, make the assemblage distinctly conscious of the common sentiment that had drawn them together (The Works of George Eliot: Scenes of Clerical Life [Edinburgh, n.d.], 2:96). This concept of myth appears again in George Eliot's article “Three Months in Weimar,” Fraser's Magazine 51 (June 1855): 699-706, in which she discusses the classical statue depicting a serpent devouring cakes placed as an offering on top of a column inscribed Genio loci. The citizens of Weimar, ignoring Virgil's Aeneid, gave a meaning all their own to this statue; see Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (New York, 1963), pp. 85f. Curiously enough, G. H. Lewes had discussed the same statue and myth in The Life and Works of Goethe (London, 1959 [1st ed. 1855: The Life of Goethe]), p. 201. Though factually inaccurate, the myth had an emotional truth all its own for the citizens of Weimar. “Et voilà, comme on écrit l’histoire,” remarks Lewes.

  7. The Life of Jesus (1902 ed.), pp. 779f.

  8. The Chief Works of Benedict De Spinoza, trans. and intro. R. H. M. Elwes, 2 vols. (New York, 1955 [1st ed. 1883]), 1:197.

  9. John Walter Cross, George Eliot's Life, 3 vols. (Edinburgh, n.d.), 3:37. Hereafter cited as Life.

  10. A Study of English Romanticism (New York, 1968), p. 5.

  11. The Form of Victorian Fiction (South Bend, Ind., 1968), p. 83.

  12. The Works of George Eliot: Adam Bede (Edinburgh, n.d.), 2:379. Quotations from vol. 1 will be cited in parentheses by page only; from vol. 2 by volume and page.

  13. Barbara Hardy argues that Eliot “makes us see a tragedy which is too big for her characters” (The Novels of George Eliot [1959; reprint ed., New York, 1961], p. 25). But precisely because Arthur and Hetty are not “big enough,” and also because Adam finds love and redemption in Dinah, I think Adam Bede is better seen as tragicomedy than as tragedy.

  14. Aeschylus, The Oresteia Trilogy (Agamemnon, Choephoroe, Eumenides). Prometheus Bound, ed. Robert W. Corrigan, trans. and intro. George Thompson (New York, 1965), p. 143.

  15. Lewes, Goethe, p. 184.

  16. There are many echoes of Faust in Adam Bede. Arthur and Hetty are the rich man and the poor maid that Faust and Gretchen were. Hetty and Gretchen are both shown with earrings before a mirror, pregnant out of wedlock, imprisoned for child-murder, given a chance to live just as the hangman approaches: Gretchen refusing Faust's offer and Hetty being swept melodramatically from the scaffold with Arthur's pardon.

  17. Life, 3:37.

  18. George Eliot's manuscript Autograph Journal, 1854-1861 is in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. See Life, 1:374-87; 2:6-11.

  19. Letters, 2:502-04; see also Gordon S. Haight, “George Eliot's Originals” in Robert C. Rathburn and Martin Steinmann, eds., From Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad (Minneapolis, Minn., 1958), pp. 182-86.

  20. Robert A. Colby has suggested Dinah Mulock's A Woman's Thoughts about Women as a source for the seduction, child-murder, and social attitudes in Adam Bede (“Miss Evans, Miss Mulock, and Hetty Sorrel,” English Language Notes 2 [1964-65]: 206-11). There is, however, no evidence that George Eliot read Dinah Mulock's book, whereas the evidence that she read Aeschylus is unimpeachable. The influence of Aeschylus is also more certain and specific than that of Milton, which U. C. Knoepflmacher argues for in George Eliot's Early Novels (Berkeley and Los Angeles, Calif., 1968), chap. 4.

  21. George Eliot likened the haunted and haunting look of Hetty to “the wondrous Medusa face, with the passionate, passionless lips” (Adam Bede, 2:145), that is, to the Medusa Rondanini, which she saw in the Glyptothek in Munich on April 17, 1858, while she was writing Adam Bede (Letters, 2:451).

  22. Lewes, Goethe, p. 281.

  23. Some of my terminology here is taken from Rollo May's discussion of the Oresteia in Love and Will (New York, 1969), pp. 175-77.

  24. Essays of George Eliot, p. 31.

  25. Anatomy of Criticism (New York, 1967), pp. 214-19.

  26. Ibid., p. 178.

  27. See William M. Jones, “From Abstract to Concrete in Adam Bede,College English 17 (1955): 88f, for a discussion of Dinah's sermon in relation to the structure of the novel.

  28. Seth's role as Dinah's lover has been mistakenly attributed to George Eliot's reading of Otto Ludwig. Lawrence M. Price, “Otto Ludwig's Zwischen Himmel und Erde and George Eliot's Adam Bede,Dichtung und Deutung, ed. Karl S. Guthe (Bern, 1961), pp. 113-16, suggests George Eliot's indebtedness to Ludwig because at the end of Adam Bede there is “a situation reminiscent of Zwischen Himmel und Erde: Two brothers love a woman living near at hand.” The problem with Price's hypothesis is that the composition of Adam Bede shows that George Eliot saw both Seth and Adam as Dinah's lovers before she read Ludwig's novel. Seth is in love with Dinah from the first chapter of the novel. G. H. Lewes suggested Adam's love for Dinah after George Eliot had read the first thirteen chapters of the novel to him (see Letters, 2:435-36, 503). After she had written thirteen chapters of Adam Bede, therefore, George Eliot knew that both Seth and Adam would love Dinah. But she did not read Ludwig's novel until after she had written chapter 20 of her own work; consequently Price's theory is untenable. In terms of the structure of Adam Bede, a more convincing hypothesis emerges: Arthur's conduct in relation to Hetty and Adam is set in contrast with Seth's conduct in relation to Dinah and Adam—Arthur's being selfish, Seth's generous.

  29. “In comedy the erotic and social affinities of the hero are combined and unified in the final scene; tragedy usually makes love and the social structure irreconciliable and contending forces, a conflict which reduces love to passion and social activity to a forbidding and imperative duty” (Frye, Anatomy, p. 218).

  30. “Christ on the cross,” wrote Strauss in paraphrase of De Wette, “is the image of humanity purified by self-sacrifice; we ought all to crucify ourselves with him, that we may rise with him to new life” (The Life of Jesus, p. 775).

  31. The Novels of George Eliot, p. 32.

  32. Life, 2:19.

  33. George Eliot carefully prepared for this recognition scene. In chapter 6 she had written of Dinah's “seraphic gentleness of expression” (p. 107). In chapter 14 Lisbeth tells Adam, “I could be fast sure that pictur was drawed for her i’ thy new Bible—th’ angel a-sittin’ on the big stone by the grave” (p. 208).

  34. Frye, Anatomy, p. 173.

  35. Lewes, Goethe, p. 181.

  36. British Museum Additional Manuscript 34, 021, MS Adam Bede, 2:114.

  37. U. C. Knoepflmacher speaks of Adam Bede as an “analogue of an ideal world” (p. 90). I think that this description is not precise. Only Silas Marner, with its mixture of fairy tale and comedy, ends with an ideal world. Adam Bede ends with a real possibility, not an ideal reality.

Kenny Marotta (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5705

SOURCE: “Adam Bede as a Pastoral,” in Genre, Vol. IX, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 59-72.

[In the following essay, Marotta outlines the characteristics of a pastoral, and discusses the limitations of analyzing the pastoral elements in Adam Bede.]

Many critics have attempted to account for the pastoral element in Adam Bede, with varying success. These discussions of the novel as a pastoral are of two kinds, which correspond to two ways of defining the genre. The first, which I will call the “simple” definition, offers a list of pastoral items (the theme of retreat and return, the depiction of a locus amoenus, etc.). The author of the pastoral either presents the items in order to identify the genre to which they contribute, or employs the genre in order to present the items; in both cases, the genre is its own justification, and the motive for its use can be pursued no farther than the author's nostalgic delight in the pastoral world. What I will call the “allegorical” definition, on the other hand, begins with a meaning, a purpose which the pastoral subserves. Here, pastoral is one particular kind of allegory, a kind that, in Empson's broad definition, puts the complex into the simple. These different definitions can be seen to arise from the problematic nature of the genre: they can be easily translated as the Nature and Art of Renaissance pastoral debate, such as that conducted in Marvell's poetry.1 But in the opposition of things meaningful in themselves to things meaningful by their attributed significances, these different views of pastoral correspond to oppositions that nearly always arise in discussions of Eliot's works: “art” and “ideology,” “realism” and “moralism.” And the views of Adam Bede that arise out of these contrary definitions also correspond to the traditional contraries of Eliot criticism. This suggests that a discussion of the pastoral element in the novel can only be dubiously illuminating. In fact, however, such discussion can illuminate both Eliot's purposes and a characteristically Victorian use of pastoral.

We may begin by noting the common limitation of the two attempts to describe the pastoral element in Adam Bede: their opposition of the novel's use of pastoral to its claims, stated in Chapter xvii, to the “faithful representing of commonplace things.” The “simple” view of pastoral has been put forth most recently and comprehensively by Michael Squires in The Pastoral Novel. By his definition, the pastoral novel, of which he discusses specimens by Hardy and Lawrence as well as Eliot, is characterized by some number of the following “elements and techniques of traditional pastoral”:

the contrast between city and country; the recreation of rural life from both urban and rural viewpoints; the implied withdrawal from complexity to simplicity; the nostalgia for a Golden-Age past of peace and satisfaction; the implied criticism of modern life; and the creation of a circumscribed and remote pastoral world.2

Critics who apply this kind of definition to Adam Bede must either ignore certain of the harsher aspects of its world or see a split between these “realistic” aspects and the pastoral aspects.3 The “allegorical” critics, on the other hand, do not see this opposition, nor do they exclude suffering from their pastoral world. But realism is equally alien to their version of pastoral, which pretends to record no true landscape—which need not even take place in the country.4 Although one kind of critic sees Eliot's pastoralism as decoration and the other sees it as allegory, both find it inconsistent with Eliot's pretensions to realism, and both see it as a form of self-deception (although what the former critics would call evasion the latter would ultimately call the creation of a religion). Neither of the resultant images of Eliot—as sentimental celebrant or as sibyl—seems just to Eliot or to the kind of realism she sought.

For Eliot herself pointed out this apparent divergence between pastoral and a truthful record of country life, most explicitly in her essay “The Natural History of German Life.” A life in the fields, she asserts, is no guarantee of happiness, straight teeth, and high morality.5 The complaint is repeated in Adam Bede: “The bucolic character of Hayslope, you perceive, was not of that entirely genial, merry, broad-grinning sort, apparently observed in most districts visited by artists.”6 Thus, at least in her explicit statements, Eliot objects to the notion of peasants as putti.

Yet in that same essay, Eliot's argument for the interest of the true peasantry attributes to that body qualities pertaining to these artificial pastoral conventions. There was less invidious social distinction among the English peasantry of “half a century ago”: “the master helped to milk his own cows, and the daughters got up at one o’clock in the morning to brew … the family dined in the kitchen with the servants, and sat with them round the kitchen fire in the evening.” There was a lack of individuality, a sameness of interests and characteristics which militated against change and preserved peace; even feuds, preserved through history, became ritualized “under the milder form of an occasional round of cudgelling and the launching of traditional nicknames.” The material and aesthetic luxuries of civilization are lacking: “In those days, the quarried parlour was innocent of a carpet, and its only specimens of art were a framed sampler and the best teaboard … instead of carrying on sentimental correspondence, [the daughters] were spinning their future table-linen.”7

Eliot seems consciously to bring this ambivalence to our attention in Adam Bede. The inhabitants of Hayslope can appear to be artless, adherent to custom, in harmony with Nature. The dancing at Arthur's birthday feast is merry, simple, sprightly, in contrast to the “languid men in lacquered boots smiling with double meaning” of our own day, when dancing has lost both its simplicity and its customary function of reaffirming social bonds and social hierarchy: “It’ll serve you to talk on, Hetty, when you’re an old woman—how you danced wi’ th’ young Squire the day he came o’ age” (xxvi). But this instance of simplicity and custom is charged with a contrary meaning: Hetty has more than danced with the young Squire, whose smiles do carry a double meaning; and just for this reason she will never be an old woman. Nor can the natural comforts of Hayslope hide the different world of Snowfield, an industrial world that will alter Hayslope's future. Even within this pleasant natural world, no benign influence is exerted over Hetty Sorrel. Perhaps the best sign of the deceptiveness of this pastoral appearance is the fact that such conceptions are attributed to characters themselves deceived or deceiving. When Arthur kisses Hetty, “he may be a shepherd in Arcadia for aught he knows” (xiii); and Adam thinks his marriage with Hetty will be “a marriage such as they made in the golden age” (xv).

As these ambiguities suggest, the perception of pastoral attributes depends upon the condition of the viewer. Mrs. Poyser's comments on farm life are perhaps the most characteristic expression of this fact: “Yes; a farmhouse is a fine thing for them as look on, an’ don’t know the liftin’, an’ the stannin’, an’ the worritin’ o’ th’ inside, as belongs to’t” (xx). Only at a distance does life take on these ideal simplicities and congruities: “The jocose talk of haymakers is best at a distance; like those clumsy bells round the cows necks, it has rather a coarse sound when it comes close, and may even grate on your ears painfully; but heard from far off, it mingles very prettily with the other joyous sounds of nature” (xix). And, as Squires has shown in convincing detail, the narrator himself at times keeps this distance, designedly sustaining the pastoral illusion.8

This ambivalence towards the pastoral is very like Wordsworth's. In Book VIII of The Prelude, Wordsworth rejects “literary” pastoral—the classical Arcadia, Shakespeare's pastorals, Spenser's—for “the rural ways / And manners which may childhood looked upon / … the unluxuriant produce of a life / Intent on little but substantial needs, / Yet rich in beauty, beauty that was felt.”9 But his description of rustic life in the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads as simple, artless, unchanging, and more real than other lives, is like Eliot's in its return to the convention.10

Point of view is significant to Wordsworth's pastoral as well: the meaning of his rustics depends on his distance from them. Their eminent reality is an artifice, a willed appearance dependent upon the viewer as much as the mellowness of landscapes was upon the Claude-Lorraines through which eighteenth-century enthusiasts looked. The artificiality is evident in the special style which, Harold Toliver argues, Wordsworth uses to convey the special truth of the rustic life: either an “abstract language” which “allows some sense of place and time to coexist with types of eternity” or a concrete language that points beyond itself to what is lost or hidden.11

These two styles are interestingly similar to the two George Eliot's critics see: one relying on the multifarious capacities of language, the other doomed to the flatness of a gilt-framed mirror. What is yet more interesting is that these two styles are employed in Adam Bede not simply by Eliot trying to infer ideals in the grimmer aspects of life in Hayslope, but by the characters themselves. In the depiction of her characters' efforts, Eliot is regarding critically the transforming act of pastoralizing.

The reality the characters must transform is what appears to them in moments of disillusionment. Barbara Hardy has pointed out the recurrence of such moments in Eliot's works.12 One locus in Adam Bede is Hetty's awakening the morning after reading Arthur's letter:

Every morning to come, as far as her imagination could stretch, she would have to get up and feel that the day would have no joy for her … she should always be doing things she had no pleasure in, getting up to the old tasks of work, seeing people she cared nothing about, going to church, and to Treddleston, and to tea with Mrs. Best, and carrying no happy thought with her. (xxxi)

Such quotidian realities can be transfigured by love or religious feeling. The influence of Arthur's affection made Hetty “tread the ground and go about her work in a sort of dream, unconscious of weight or effort, and [showed] her all things through a soft, liquid veil, as if she were living not in this solid world of brick and stone, but in a beatified world” (ix). In the same way Adam sees in Hetty that beauty “beyond and far above the one woman's soul that it clothes … he called his love frankly a mystery. … He only knew that the sight and memory of her moved him deeply, touching the spring of all love and tenderness, all faith and courage within him” (xxxiii).

Alternatively, reality can be transformed by Mrs. Poyser's combination of memory and prophecy, which can find a tale in everything:

“Spinning, indeed! It isn’t spinning as you’d be at, I’ll be bound, and let you have your own way. … To think of a gell o’ your age wanting to go and sit with half-a-dozen men! … And you, as have been here ever since last Michaelmas, and I hired you at Treddles’on stattits, without a bit of character—as I say, you might be grateful to be hired in that way to a respectable place. … Why, you’d leave the dirt in heaps i’ the corners—anybody ’ud think you’d never been brought up among Christians. … You’re never easy till you’ve got some sweetheart as is as big a fool as yourself: you think you’ll be finely off when you’re married, I daresay, and have got a three-legged stool to sit on, and never a blanket to cover you, and a bit o’ oat-cake for your dinner, as three children are a-snatching at.” (vi)

Even when she is quoted at such length, as she must be, Mrs. Poyser's effect is difficult to convey. Her speeches do not have limitations, beginnings and endings, like those of other speakers; this is in fact part of the point of this character, as I will suggest below.

I would assert that these two modes of transformation correspond to Wordsworth's two modes of using language. The first mode is an invocation of abstract terms, usually coupled with a lament that all words are futile. The schism between the concrete occasion and the abstract language is obvious, being applied to characters who could not use such language themselves. The passage on Adam's response to Hetty's beauty quoted above includes the remark “our good Adam had no fine words into which he could put his feeling for Hetty,” before proceeding, “he could not disguise mystery in this way with the appearance of knowledge.” Precisely in Adam's inarticulateness is his closeness to the truth of feeling. The abstractions he could not use thus emphasize the ineffability of the experience, and so paradoxically seem all the better to suggest it.

The second mode is an associative accumulation of concrete facts of past or future which often militates against meaning itself: Mrs. Poyser has so much difficulty keeping to a subject that her original meaning is almost always lost. The only message that succeeds in emerging from her harangues is the need to stave off the ever-encroaching chaos by constant vigilance—an ironic message, surely, when one considers its chaotic vehicle.

The ultimate tendency of the first sort of transformation is visible in a character such as Dinah, whose habit it is “to forget where I am and everything about me, and lose myself in thoughts that I could give no account of, for I could neither make beginning nor ending of them in words” (viii). The tendency of the second sort of transformation is visible in Mrs. Poyser. While Dinah's abstraction tends to a mystical—or self-deceived—silence, Mrs. Poyser's unceasing lectures tend to the opposite, a tendency finally fulfilled in one of the novel's scenes most clearly in the tradition of the simple pastoral: the harvest supper. In this scene, Eliot repeatedly emphasizes the primitive and ceremonial character of the events by ironic comparisons of the participants to Tityrus and Meliboeus and of their song to the Homeric writings. At the end of the scene we reach the long-awaited confrontation between Bartle Massey and Mrs. Poyser, a confrontation whose staged character seems confessed by Mr. Poyser's attitude throughout. This battle of the sexes is brought to a conclusion (as Mrs. Poyser says, “I say as some folks' tongues are like the clocks as run on strikin’, not to tell you the time o’ the day, but because there’s summat wrong i’ their own inside”) by the sudden uproar of those Homeric ballads being sung all at once at full volume. The various elements of the uproar (at which Dinah is not present, having fled from Adam's avowal of love)—the ceremony, the pastoral echoes, the ritual debate, and Mrs. Poyser's final remark—contribute to a single statement: the language by which we seek to transfigure unordered reality can itself be a further chaos, can be mere noise. The novel's plot conveys the limitations of these different modes of transformation by the failure of both Mrs. Poyser and Dinah to provide proper nurture or comfort for Hetty, and by the insufficiency of Hetty's own version of these attitudes (her dreams of Arthur and the opposing vision of her daily activities).

An equally significant method of criticizing these pastoralizing attitudes is Eliot's own use of them, the limits becoming apparent in the conflict of the two attitudes. We see instances of the simple, descriptive method, apparently rooted in nostalgia, in Eliot's presentation of characters such as the Miss Irwines, “inartistic figures crowding the canvas of life without adequate effect” (v), introduced in the novel apparently for the purpose of asserting the relevance of the irrelevant. The Miss Irwines forestall theoretical objections against Irwine's type of ministry in two ways: by providing an opportunity for Irwine to reveal his charitable principles, they offer evidence against aspersions on his moral character; in addition—and this is what is most important here—by the simple fact of their concreteness and particularity, they offer evidence against all merely theoretical arguments. They are a sort of noise, and this is precisely their value. Mrs. Poyser is herself “noise” like this, the superfluity of the chapter in which she has her “say out” being particularly noticeable (and noticed by critics).

To these instances might be added all that seem irrelevant to the plot of seduction and betrayal: the set-pieces of praise for lost days, the descriptions of Nature, the traditional ceremonies, those intrusions of a first-person narrator conceived not as omnipotent artist but as a man who might have lived in a world like Adam's, whose “we” joins us with him and with the novel's characters. In these instances, too, Eliot is before us in pointing out the irrelevance: denying her shame for “commemorating old Kester” (liii), discussing our participation in Adam's imperfect world in a chapter “in which the story pauses a little,” most obviously, perhaps, insisting upon the indifference to her story of the nature she records. Although its cycles are comfortingly invoked and its imagery is confidently used to explain the development of the characters, Nature is ultimately mysterious. Its indifference, the narrator insists, evades any meaning attached to it: “For if it be true that Nature at certain moments seems charged with a presentiment of one individual lot, must it not also be true that she seems unmindful, unconscious of another?” (xxvii). The strongest expression of the natural world's resistance of meaning is Eliot's use of the “et in Arcadia ego” theme whose history has been traced by Erwin Panofsky.13 “It was a strangely mingled picture—the fresh youth of the summer morning, with its Eden-like peace and loveliness, the stalwart strength of the two brothers in their rusty morning clothes, and the long coffin on their shoulders” (iv). Later the narrator muses again on the landscape of Loamshire:

What a glad world this looks like, as one drives or rides along the valleys and over the hills! I have often thought so when, in foreign countries, where the fields and woods have looked to me like our English Loamshire—the rich land tilled with so much care, the woods rolling down the gentle slopes to the green meadows—I have come on something by the roadside which has reminded me that I am not in Loamshire: an image of great agony—the agony of the Cross … and surely, if there came a traveller to this world who knew nothing of the story of man's life upon it, this image of agony would seem to him strangely out of place in the midst of this joyous nature. (xxxv)

In both instances, Eliot points out the strange inconcinnity between man and his world: Nature has nothing to say to these greatest crises of men's lives. In the second instance, even the symbol on which the rhetoric turns must be imported from the Continent.

The opposite sort of transformation is suggested by the narrator's alternate stance, as one at a distance from what he records—the distance of creator from creation. Those passages that transform reality in an abstract language unavailable to the characters reveal by their imagery the basis of the transformation in the artist's power: “Our caresses, our tender words, our still rapture under the influence of autumn sunsets, or pillared vistas, or calm majestic statues, or Beethoven symphonies all bring with them the consciousness that they are mere waves in an unfathomable ocean of love and beauty” (iii). Such references seem peculiarly incongruous in the context of Hayslope; note, for instance, the different effects of the art-references in Eliot's other novels, where the art-works are part of the characters' environments—Cheverel Manor, fifteenth-century Florence, Rome, London studios. Art is what the narrator knows about and the characters don’t. Furthermore, it is what the narrator uses: by his references to art he gives meaning to his created pastoral world, he embodies in it even those kinds of experience it would seem necessarily to exclude. As in Marvell's pastoral, “though art … accepts itself as a tour de force, becoming deliberately diminished and artificial in its aims, it will not give up a magical ambition to rival or supplant nature.”14 This ambition is a prime source of the appeal of Adam Bede: we take pleasure both in the simplicity of the pastoral world and in the way in which this simplicity is made to imply complexity. The narrator, who refers to Homeric criticism and tells us of his European travels, thereby reminding us of his superiority in experience, in philosophy, and even in social class to his subjects, also points out how the pastoral world contains the fruit of his experience and is in fact a symbolic expression of that experience. The numerous allegorical interpretations of Adam Bede, and of Silas Marner (critically the quickest-dissolving of all of George Eliot's efforts at embodiment), attest to the success with which larger issues, in the most obvious way irrelevant to the novel's remote world, are carried by their pastoral vehicles.

Eliot's primary method of creating her allegory is, like Dinah's, the use of an abstract language provided by Christianity, a language whose limits are, like those of Dinah's vocabulary, confessed: “After our subtlest analysis of the mental process, we must still say, as Dinah did, that our highest thoughts and our best deeds are also given to us” (x). Knoepflmacher has suggested that the allegory is Feuerbachian, offering a natural basis for the supernatural language, as in Eliot's use of bread and water, culminating in Adam's last supper.15 This interpretation can be further borne out by Eliot's use of religious language for secular concepts (e.g. suffering is a “baptism” [xlii]) and by the implicit correspondences she establishes between secular feelings and events and Christianity. One interesting example of the latter is the juxtaposition of Seth's hymn—“Dark and cheerless is the morn / Unaccompanied by thee: / Joyless is the day's return / Till thy mercy's beams I see”—to the description of Adam's happiness in the morning because of his love for Hetty: “His happy love … was to his thoughts what the sweet morning air was to his sensations: it gave him a consciousness of wellbeing that made activity delightful” (xxxviii).

In the allegory of Renaissance pastoral, the artist is a “second God creating a second Nature.”16 The allegorical critic sees Eliot replacing the idea of God with physical and psychological laws, and ultimately with an abstract and unverifiable Law that is really the artist's will. Adam Bede does suggest, in several ways, a God-like artist. One can go further than Knoepflmacher, who has discussed the futility of foresight and the value of hindsight in the novel, by noting that the narrator's exercise of foresight, borne out by events, places a value on the artistic imagination which Knoepflmacher attributes to memory.17 The narrator often suggests the potential contained as a seed in any event. Of Arthur's prospects we are told, “many a ‘good fellow,’ through a disastrous combination of circumstances, has undergone a like betrayal”; of Hetty's, “it is too painful to think that she is a woman, with a woman's destiny before her—a woman spinning in young ignorance a light web of folly and vain hopes which may one day close round her and press upon her, a rancorous poisoned garment” (xii, xxii). The proximity of art and religion, upon which the accuracy of such divination rests, is suggested in those passages which associate the transforming powers of love and of art. In explaining Adam's love for Hetty, Eliot writes, “the beauty of a lovely woman is like music: what can one say more? Beauty has an expression beyond and far above the one woman's soul that it clothes. … The noblest nature sees the most of this impersonal expression in beauty” (xxxiii). Adam's aesthetic appreciation of his beloved enables him to see beyond her material reality to a higher order.

The author's providence is also implied in the end of the first chapter, “The Workshop,” in which an elderly horseman stops to look at “the stalwart workman.”

Adam, unconscious of the admiration he was exciting, presently struck across the fields, and now broke out into the tune which had all day long been running in his head:—

“Let all thy converse be sincere,
Thy conscience as the noonday clear;
For God's all-seeing eye surveys
Thy secret thoughts, thy works and ways.”

The lines are thematically significant, demonstrating at once Adam's self-righteousness—his ignorance of the complexity which makes the imputation of blame so difficult—and the futility of the many deceptions and moral subterfuges which do occur in the novel. But the close proximity of the all-seeing eye of God and the unknown stare of the stranger (and of the reader, also permitted to see Adam's secret thoughts) suggests that the higher order in Adam's life, of which he cannot be aware, is his participation in the literary work.

To discover the limits of this point of view, we have to return to the other model for the narrator and the novel, and to attempt for a moment the feat that Eliot sustained throughout Adam Bede, and that saves her from the errors of her characters: the simultaneous contemplation of the two contradictory pastoralizing attitudes. The suggestions of allegory and of sophisticated artifice we have just explored work to undermine the pretence of irrelevance we first looked at (as do the very metaphors of the passages insisting on their irrelevance—the canvas of life, Eden, the coffin, the cross, all meaningful human artifacts, the last introduced into the landscape only by the memory of the human viewer). And the claims of irrelevance, of an impenetrable Nature, undermine the pretence of a world controlled and made meaningful.

Eliot builds into the plot itself elements which deny the allegorical meaning we have been pressing toward. The fortunate fall which, following the Christian pattern, should be enacted, does not seem to be. Critics who see such a pattern in the novel balk at Eliot's and her characters' insistence that good cannot come out of evil, or at the incommensurate quality of Hetty's plight and Adam's final marriage to Dinah. But these two objections are related, and become answerable once we reject the Christian premise of a fortunate fall. What is lacking to such a premise in this novel is the adumbration of higher order: Hetty's plight and Adam's marriage are intended to be incommensurate.

There is undeniably a sacrifice at the center of the novel. But the pathos of Hetty is integrally related to the final union. Her sacrifice is not quite a Christian sacrifice of self to God; it is rather extorted than not, and it removes obstacles in the way of earthly rather than heavenly fulfillment. Hetty's ruin does incarnate the failure of sheer, egoistic this-worldliness and materialism, and it is of a power almost sufficient to shift the novel's focus. But she is ultimately a fossil, an “unassimilable fragment.”18

What Eliot achieves by using this sacrifice as a pivot in her pastoral novel is to make clear the minimal, essential fact out of which religion grows—the renunciation life forces on us—and to offer us not the eternal consolations of religion, nor the temporary and delusive consolations of nostalgia, but the temporary and acknowledged consolations of art. The replacement of Providence by the author's providence is an avowed replacement, not a sleight of hand. By keeping before us the two opposing models of pastoral, Eliot makes us realize that the novel's nostalgic descriptions only reiterate Nature's opacity, and that the intimations of meaning only reveal the human need to create such fictions.

Whether regarded as surface or as symbol, the pastoral world of Adam Bede insists on its distance from a reality independent of human perception. Thus the novel obviates the question of “realism,” as Eliot herself does by her metaphor of the defective mirror—a mirror the faintness or blurring of whose reflection says as much about itself as about what is reflected. As in Tennyson's gardens, the “surface” and the “meaning” of Adam Bede are inseparable: they are equally projected by the perceiver, equally distant from the world of our own immediate knowledge. Thus, the significance of Adam Bede, and the nature of its realism, can be conveyed in a passage that is simply descriptive: that in which the narrator reminisces about the taste of whey.

Ah! I think I taste that whey now—with a flavour so delicate that one can hardly distinguish it from an odour, and with that soft gliding warmth that fills one's imagination with a still, happy dreaminess. And the light music of the dropping whey is in my ears, mingling with the twittering of a bird outside the wire network window—the window overlooking the garden, and shaded by tall Gueldres roses. (xx)

His actual distance from that whey is an image of our distance from it: what should be our most intimate experience can only be words on a page. For what in the seventeenth century was the appropriate genre for intimations of higher order, in the nineteenth has become a genre for expressing doubts about any order higher than that of the artist's work, and any ordering consciousness more comprehensive than the individual mind. Yet, within the novel's accepted illusion, we also taste the whey, as we adumbrate a loving presence behind the novel's world, and certainty in Eliot's repeated “surely.” It was perhaps this special iridescence of the pastoral genre, its constantly dual possibilities, that led Eliot to use it in her first major novel.


  1. Among the many works on this subject are Frank Kermode's introduction to English Pastoral Poetry (London: G. C. Harrap, 1952), pp. 11-44; Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), especially chapter 2; Edward William Tayler, Nature and Art in Renaissance Literature (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1964); and Donald M. Friedman, Marvell's Pastoral Art (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970).

  2. Michael Squires, The Pastoral Novel: Studies in George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1974), p. 18.

  3. In the former group are R. A. Foakes, “Adam Bede Reconsidered,” English, 12 (1958-59), 173-76; and John Paterson, “Introduction,” Adam Bede, ed. Paterson (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1968), pp. v-xxxiii (an otherwise commendable introduction). In the latter are Ian Gregor, The Moral and the Story (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), pp. 13-32; Jerome Thale, The Novels of George Eliot (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 14-16; Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 173, 178-80, and Squires. Squires's argument is somewhat ambiguous in this regard. Although at one point he contends that Eliot offers a criticism of the pastoral's idea of the sufficiency of innocence, his main argument is that Eliot alternates anguish and pastoral in order to persuade the reader “to accept the novel's pastoralism as meaningful rather than escapist, significant rather than artificially pretty, since the novel's fictional world does not seem unreal” (p. 83). But since it is, according to Squires, the “anti-pastoral” elements of the novel's world that give it reality, this acceptance can only be self-deluding, although the substitution of “meaningful” for “realistic” evades this issue. A sympathetic discussion of the Theocritean model for the simple pastoral is Thomas G. Rosenmeyer's The Green Cabinet (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1969).

  4. The allegorical view of Adam Bede is taken by U. C. Knoepflmacher, George Eliot's Early Novels: The Limits of Realism (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1968), pp. 90-93; John Bayley, “The Pastoral of Intellect,” in Critical Essays on George Eliot, ed. Barbara Hardy (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970), pp. 199-213; and John Goode, “Adam Bede,” in Critical Essays, pp. 19-41. Bayley's definition of the genre is so broad that it demands neither a rural setting nor a significant landscape.

  5. “The Natural History of German Life,” in Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1963), pp. 269-70.

  6. Adam Bede, Cabinet ed. (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1878), II, liii, 349. Further references by chapter to Adam Bede in this edition will be given in the text.

  7. “The Natural History of German Life,” pp. 273, 274-75, 277, 273. Raymond Williams shows how Eliot's very belief in the existence of English peasants at the turn of the nineteenth century is a sign that she shared in the myth of pastoral, which ignored the actual conditions of farm-workers.

  8. Squires, pp. 77-84.

  9. Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, rev. by Ernest De Selincourt (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 734-35.

  10. Squires has also noted this, following David Ferry; see Squires, p. 42; David Ferry, The Limits of Mortality (Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 94-96, 135-43. See also Herbert Lindenberger, On Wordsworth's Prelude (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1963), p. 249.

  11. Harold E. Toliver, Pastoral Forms and Attitudes (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1971), p. 254.

  12. Barbara Hardy, The Novels of George Eliot (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 189-200. Compare, in Adam Bede, Adam's powerless “counting of the long minutes” as he waits for Hetty's trial (xlii), and the “purposeless tenacity” of Old Poyser's attention to trivial details (xiv).

  13. Erwin Panofsky, “Et in Arcadia Ego,” in Pastoral and Romance, ed. Eleanor Terry Lincoln (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969), pp. 25-46; and “Et in Arcadia Ego: On the Conception of Transience in Poussin and Watteau,” in Philosophy and History: Essays Presented to Ernst Cassirer, ed. Raymond Klibansky and H. J. Paton (1936; rpt. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1963), pp. 223-54.

  14. Geoffrey Hartman, “‘The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Faun’: A Brief Allegory,” in Beyond Formalism (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1970), p. 179. Compare Kitty W. Scoular, Natural Magic (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965); and Kathleen Williams, “Courtesy and Pastoral in The Faerie Queene, Book VI,” R.E.S. [Review of English Studies], n.s. 13 (1962), 343.

  15. Knoepflmacher, Religious Humanism and the Victorian Novel (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 55-59.

  16. Norman Robkin, “The Holy Sinner and the Confidence Man: Illusion in Shakespeare's Romances,” in Four Essays on Romance, ed. Herschel Baker (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971), p. 52.

  17. Knoepflmacher, George Eliot's Early Novels, pp. 97-116.

  18. The phrase is John Goode's; see “Adam Bede,” p. 25.

Mason Harris (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9575

SOURCE: “Arthur's Misuse of the Imagination: Sentimental Benevolence and Wordsworthian Realism in Adam Bede,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. IV, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 41-59.

[In the following essay, Harris examines Arthur's class consciousness and the psychology of his seduction of Hetty as they are revealed through Eliot's use of Wordsworthian realism.]

Because Adam Bede is “a country story—full of the breath of cows and the scent of hay,”1 it seems to invite oversimplified interpretations. Critics assume that George Eliot's first novel lacks the complexity of her later work, or at least that any complexity it possesses must be in conflict with its pastoral elements. Part of the problem in getting a clear perspective on this novel arises from a tendency to concentrate critical attention on the rather idealized Adam and Dinah as representatives of the author's values, while passing over Arthur, who does not belong to the pastoral community and whose affair with a tenant farmer's niece almost destroys it, as a rather ordinary seducer treated with conventional Victorian moralism. In a recent book on George Eliot, Neil Roberts expresses a widely-held view of the novel when he says that it presents a “static moral drama” enacted in an “absence of social and historical analysis” because Arthur's sin is only “a matter of private morality” unrelated to his grandfather's acquisitiveness as landlord.2

I shall argue that this seduction is very much a matter of class, and that Eliot's sense of historical process, if somewhat muted by nostalgia, is still active in the novel. A close study of the psychology behind Arthur's crime will show the vital thematic use Eliot makes of his aristocratic status and his participation in the literary taste of the later eighteenth century (Arthur turns twenty-one in 1799). As the well-intentioned heir to his grandfather's estate, Arthur reveals much about the influence of unconscious snobbery in rationalizing the exploitation of social inferiors, while as a reader of fashionable fiction who scorns the first edition of Lyrical Ballads he provides a contrast to the narrator's Wordsworthian realism, revealing what the imagination should not be both in art and life.

This contrast also suggests a turning point in the history of taste and sensibility. The moral vision of Adam, Dinah, and their author has something in common with the Romantic concept of the imagination (in Dinah's case mixed with the best aspects of the religious revival), while Arthur, thoroughly imbued with the aristocratic taste and social attitudes of his period, reflects the limitations of the old order and thus helps to show how the novel's narrative vision looks forward to the needs of Eliot's own time as well as celebrating the virtues of the past.

The timing of the action, with a leisurely account of the rustic community through the summer of 1799, while crime, suffering, and new insight come in the winter and spring of 1800, suggests a sense of transition between past and present. Hetty, the “lost lamb,” is rejected by the rustic community but rescued by Dinah, whose Methodism has been nurtured in a bleak industrial town and who recognizes no distinctions of rank.3 Again, the new insight which enables Adam to bear the pain of Hetty's fall foreshadows Eliot's mid-Victorian religion of humanity.4 On the other hand, Arthur's ideal vision of his future reign as Squire is based on the world-view of a ruling class soon to become obsolete.

In her depiction of the semi-feudal community of Hayslope, Eliot makes much of the dignity of labour as manifested in the Poysers' farm and Adam's workshop, while old Squire Donnithorne, whose income derives from possession of fields which others till, represents the least admirable aspect of this society; as Mrs Poyser angrily remarks to the Squire, “I know there’s them as is born t’own the land, and them as is born to sweat on’t” (353). The limitations of the aristocratic world-view are most clearly revealed not through the stingy Squire, but through his amiable grandson Arthur, who intends to improve everything upon inheriting but remains unaware of the injustice implied in Mrs Poyser's distinction.

Squire Donnithorne, who has no sympathy for his tenants but always spoke “in the same deliberate, well-chiselled, polite way, whether his words were sugary or venomous” (350), seems the product of an earlier and harsher period of the eighteenth century. However, his grandson Arthur has become a “man of feeling”—both in taste and sentiment he emulates the humanitarian ideal of a later day: “he had an agreeable confidence that his faults were all of a generous kind—impetuous, warm-blooded, leonine; never crawling, crafty, reptilian … he couldn’t bear to see anyone uncomfortable … his aunt Lydia herself had the benefit of that softness which he bore towards the whole sex” (124-25). This seems almost a paraphrase of the virtues of Tom Jones, whose moral sensibility arises from his “good nature” and who, unlike the crafty Blifil, has only “the vices of a warm disposition.”5 Of course, one difference would be that Tom is not aware of being so virtuous while this is the way Arthur sees himself—as he analyzes his moral nature, he regards with satisfaction “his well-looking British person reflected in one of the old-fashioned mirrors” (124). Tom unconsciously stands for his author's concept of virtue, while Arthur admires himself as the epitome of a literary ideal, extending his “love of patronage” to social inferiors, especially his future tenants and the opposite sex.

Perhaps Arthur's story implies some criticism of Fielding's hero: Hetty's ruin might be more typical of the fate of lower-class females pursued by the Squire than Tom's happy resolution of his affair with Molly Seagrim. Tom's “violent animal spirits” tend to amorous entanglement but his sympathetic concern for the lady makes all well in the end, “for though he did not always act rightly, yet he never did otherwise without feeling and suffering for it.”6 Arthur claims a similar virtue for himself: “I’m a devil of a fellow for getting myself into hobbles, but I always take care the load shall fall on my own shoulders,” to which Eliot remarks that “unhappily there is no poetic justice in hobbles” (125). Later Arthur refuses to contemplate the possibility that Hetty might become pregnant because he has “a sort of implicit confidence … that he was really such a good fellow at bottom, Providence would not treat him harshly” (322), but the plot of Eliot's novel lends no providential assistance to the young Squire's good intentions. Hetty flees Hayslope to escape the shame of unwed motherhood, abandons her child, and is tried for its murder.

The “gratitude” and “compassion” Tom feels for Molly correspond to Arthur's conscious attitude towards Hetty, but an ironic reduction occurs when Eliot describes him as “a handsome generous young fellow—who … if he should happen to spoil a woman's existence, will make it up to her with expensive bon-bons, packed up and directed by his own hand” (126). After marrying Sophia, Tom continues his generous financial support of Molly and her family; when Arthur decides to end his affair with Hetty he reflects that “she would owe the advantage of his care for her in future years to the sorrow she had incurred now. So good comes out of evil. Such is the beautiful arrangement of things!” (320). Eliot's sarcasm in the last two sentences seems directed at that eighteenth-century notion of cosmic harmony which justifies the social order—and is manifested in the “poetic justice” of the plot of Tom Jones.7

Eliot has not told us exactly what she thought of Fielding, but she probably liked him; at least in Middlemarch she admires the “lusty ease of his fine English” (Book I, Chapter XV). As Thomas A. Noble has demonstrated, Eliot is the direct heir of those eighteenth-century thinkers who founded ethics on “the relationship of sympathy and imagination”8—a tradition which also inspired Tom Jones. Eliot and Fielding both believe that virtue springs from sympathetic identification with others; that, as Fielding puts it, “good nature” consists of a “benevolent and amiable temper of mind which disposes us to feel the misfortunes and enjoy the happiness of others” without assistance from “any abstract contemplation on the beauty of virtue, and without the allurements or terrors of religion.”9

However, Eliot escapes the limitations of upper-class benevolence by endowing this humanistic morality with a psychological dimension that seems absent in Fielding and his more sentimental successors. Walter E. Houghton observes that Eliot is not a sentimentalist because for her sympathetic feeling must be accompanied by a real understanding of the other person: in her fiction effective sympathy “originates in a clear and compassionate perception of human suffering … The sentimental indulgence of pity and love is really self-centered … George Eliot's benevolence presupposes a forgetfulness of self in the recognition of our common humanity.”10 No character in Eliot's fiction illustrates self-centered benevolence as clearly as Arthur, for whom “deeds of kindness were as easy … as a bad habit; they were the common issue … of his egoism and his sympathy. He didn’t like to witness pain, and he liked to have grateful eyes beaming on him as the giver of pleasure” (317-18). Fielding's formula does not in itself enable us to distinguish between true sympathy and gratification derived from the “grateful eyes,” a shortcoming even more evident in the sentimental fiction of Arthur's day. On the other hand, Arthur's complete identification with his social rank obscures awareness of the “common humanity” he shares with Hetty and thus he fails to appreciate the emotional and physical consequences their romance might inflict on her.

Sentimental benevolence is a transaction that can be carried out entirely within the self: it does not require a distinction between experiencing the other as a “thou”—an individual consciousness different from one's own—or merely as an object of warm-hearted charity. As it appears in eighteenth-century fiction (and many Victorian novels), benevolence usually depends on and is protected by a sense of social superiority to the recipient of one's kindness.

Arthur's dream of future patronage reveals his class-oriented view of his relation to Hayslope and humanity in general. He compensates for his present sense of bored aimlessness by imagining himself as a Squire Allworthy-to-be:

He was nothing if not good-natured; and all his pictures of the future, when he should come into the estate, were made up of a prosperous, contented tenantry, adoring their landlord, who would be the model of an English gentleman—mansion in first-rate order, all elegance and high taste—jolly housekeeping, finest stud in Loamshire—purse open to all public objects—in short, everything as different as possible from what was now associated with the name of Donnithorne. (125)

His vision of the future actually represents the way he relates to people in the present; this picture of a perfect Squire surrounded by adoring dependents allows no place for the intrusion of an equal. To maintain his ideal self he cannot acknowledge any motive incompatible with “good nature” and thus must convince himself that his interest in Hetty consists only of generous concern for her welfare.

Arthur's “pictures of the future” also ignore the economic basis of his class. The old Squire's wealth must be at least partly the result of his cold-blooded meanness with his tenants, while Arthur, in his “model” world, intends to maintain an expensive establishment while being worshipped because he has so improved his tenants' farms. (The tenants imagine that when he inherits there is to be “a millenial abundance of new gates, allowances of lime, and returns of ten percent” [85].) When Irwine points out that Arthur's neighbour Gawaine has made himself unpopular with his improvements and that one must choose between “popularity or usefulness,” Arthur objects: “O! Gawaine is harsh in his manners; he doesn’t make himself personally agreeable to his tenants. I don’t believe there’s anything you can’t prevail on people to do with kindness” (173).11 In this definition of “kindness” the emphasis falls entirely on “manners,” on being “personally agreeable,” which rather easy form of benevolence also seems a method for insuring that one's inferiors will do “anything” one wishes.

Arthur is as interested as any other Squire in having his way with his tenants but imagines that because he means well he can get what he wants through charm rather than intimidation. He intends to be “different” yet manages to disguise as benevolence a pursuit of a tenant's pretty niece which is quite typical of young Squires. On the other hand, his sentimental vision really does make him a more sympathetic fellow than his grandfather; while his soft-heartedness can rationalize the seduction, it also prevents him from responding to the result with the usual callousness of his class.

In Arthur's drift towards seducing Hetty, Eliot presents her first extensive study of unconscious motivation. She asks whether his failure to confess to Irwine was not due to a “motive … which had a sort of backstairs influence? Our mental business is carried on in much the same way as the business of State: a great deal of hard work is done by agents who are not acknowledged” (176). Early in the novel we discover the real motive behind Arthur's pursuit of Hetty; he complains that “It’s a desperately dull business being shut up at the Chase in the summer months, when one can neither hunt nor shoot, so as to make oneself pleasantly sleepy in the evening” (63). (Hunting is out of season, and Arthur's physical activity is further curtailed by a broken arm.) If Arthur admitted to himself that frustrated sex was keeping him awake nights, he might also have been more realistic about the consequences of fornicating with the Poysers' niece, but he sublimates this natural need into sentimental musing over Hetty and thus can never acknowledge his real object.

Unable to hunt, Arthur pursues Hetty instead and the horse he rides becomes associated with his runaway feelings. He gallops out to dispel his frustrations: “Nothing like ‘taking’ a few bushes and ditches for exorcising a demon; and it is really astonishing that the Centaurs, with their immense advantages in this way, left so bad a reputation in history” (129). The Centaurs' famous crime was their attempt to ravish the Lapith women, resulting in a battle which the ancient Greeks considered symbolic of the struggle between rational and animal elements in human nature. When Arthur loses a bout in his own struggle by returning prematurely from his ride, his horse suddenly seems to be controlling him. Eliot remarks that “it is the favorite stratagem of the passions to sham a retreat, and to turn sharp round upon us” (129), and in the next chapter he feels that when he gallops back to meet Hetty after resolving not to, “it was as if his horse had wheeled round from a leap and dared to dispute his mastery” (139). This imagery suggests a disjunction in Arthur's being: he is, like the Centaur, both horse and rider, with the horse secretly in control. The sexuality he sublimates into sentiment takes over at crucial moments, prompting actions opposed to his conscious intent.

We have seen that Arthur, a university man, is concerned to maintain not only high living but “high taste” in his future establishment. In the latter point his imagination has been shaped by the taste of his age—Neo-classical esthetic plus exotic fiction. Eliot subtly relates Arthur's false taste to his capacity for rationalization.

We have already noted that dividing the action between 1799 and 1800 suggests transition between two centuries, and that Dinah's evangelicalism presents one form of new sensibility. A casual reference by Arthur early in the novel reveals a literary event of the previous year which, for Eliot especially, would be of great importance in shaping the thought and feeling of the new era:

I’ve got a book I meant to bring you, godmamma. It came down from London the other day. I know you are fond of queer, wizard-like stories. It’s a volume of poems, “Lyrical Ballads:” most of them to be twaddling stuff; but the first is in a different style—“The Ancient Mariner” is the title. I can hardly make head nor tail of it as a story, but it’s a strange, striking thing … and there are some other books that you might like to see, Irwine—pamphlets about Antinomianism and Evangelicalism, whatever they may be. (64)

Wordsworth is always an important influence on Eliot's fiction; this novel in particular, with its rustic setting and lower-class characters, seems to partake of his belief that the depiction of ordinary life could serve the highest purpose of art.12 Eliot marks her affinity with Wordsworth's kind of realism by prefacing her novel with a quotation from The Excursion that promises “Clear images … Of nature's unambitious underwood / And flowers that prosper in the shade.” Both Eliot and Wordsworth refuse to separate art from life: the emphasis both place on the value of everyday experience makes the classical dictum that serious literature must deal with an exalted subject in a heightened style seem not only artistically wrong, but also immoral in its implied contempt for the lives of ordinary people. In her first full-length novel Eliot, already an experienced critic of fiction, is concerned with setting an example of how novels should be written. By emphasizing the importance of the commonplace and pointedly eschewing the exotic, she seeks to exercise the same influence on fiction that Wordsworth had on poetry; her essay on realism in Chapter Seventeen could be taken as the “Preface” to her own career.13

In her first novel Eliot provides a striking example of her fondness for using styles of painting as a metaphor for perception.14 She describes the Wordsworthian esthetic in terms of visual art in that famous passage in Chapter Seventeen where she extols the

rare, precious quality of truthfulness … in many Dutch paintings, which lofty-minded people despise … I turn, without shrinking, from cloud-borne angels, from prophets, sibyls, and heroic warriors, to an old woman bending over her flower-pot, or eating her solitary dinner, while the noonday light, softened perhaps by a screen of leaves, falls on her mob-cap, and just touches the rim of her spinning-wheel, and her stone jug, and all those common things which are the precious necessaries of life to her. (180)

Eliot's affection for the jug, spinning-wheel, and other “common things” recalls Wordsworth's description of the rustic interior, supper, and fireside work in Michael (lines 80-141). The image of clear light illuminating everyday objects recurs many times in Adam Bede; it is associated with clear vision and the “light of heaven” (182) which falls on the ordinary world “in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work” (179).15 The subjects turned away from—“prophets, sibyls, and heroic warriors”—are the stock in trade of that Neo-classical style which dominated Arthur's age but which Eliot, as heir to Wordsworth, would find particularly sterile.16

When Arthur, blindly following the taste of his age, dismisses Lyrical Ballads, he excludes from literature (and from the realm of the serious in general) the whole motivation behind Eliot's novel—before becoming sadder and wiser he would probably have found Adam Bede as “twaddling” as Wordsworth. Furthermore, his separation of the imagination from everyday life is of great assistance in rationalizing the pursuit of Hetty; a close look at his vision of nature and his literary taste will help explain how he could manage a seduction so opposed to his conscious ideals.

After admiring Hetty at the Poysers' butter churn, Arthur describes her in terms of Neo-classical art: “She’s a perfect Hebe; and if I were an artist, I would paint her” (102). Irwine replies, “I have no objection to your contemplating Hetty in an artistic light,” but in fact there may be some danger if this is the deceptive light of unreality, at furthest remove from the “noonday light” of Dutch painting.

Arthur arranges a meeting with Hetty in

the delicious labyrinthine wood … called Fir-tree Grove … It was a wood of beeches and limes, with here and there a light, silver-stemmed birch—just the sort of wood most haunted by the nymphs: you see their white sunlit limbs gleaming athwart the boughs, or peeping behind the smooth-sweeping outline of a tall lime; you hear their soft liquid laughter—but if you look with a too curious sacrilegious eye, they vanish behind the silvery beeches, they make you believe their voice was only a running brooklet, perhaps they metamorphose themselves into a tawny squirrel that scampers away and mocks you from the topmost bough. (130)

Such a depiction of nature represents Arthur's consciousness rather than Eliot's; as Reva Stump points out, this is one of those scenes associated with Arthur and Hetty “where light is used to heighten shadows, point up darkness, and create a haze—where, in short, it distorts rather than assists vision.”17 Further, it should be noted that contrary to Eliot's usual practice, the actual wood is not described but only used as a backdrop for fantasy—“seeing” here is making-believe—and that the literary imagery seems far-removed from real nature. In a review of Ruskin's Modern Painters, Eliot insists that “all truth and beauty are to be attained by a humble and faithful study of nature, and not by substituting vague forms, bred by imagination on the mists of feeling, in place of definite, substantial reality.”18 Arthur's vague nymphs arise from the wrong kind of imagination.

The main force of this description of Fir-tree Grove stems not from what is seen, but from something beneath the surface, an underlying sensuality which the imagery intimates while glossing over. Arthur sees the wood only as a backdrop for his mood, for his real interest lies elsewhere: as he “strolled along carelessly, with a book under his arm … his eyes would fix themselves on the distant bend in the road, round which a little figure must surely appear before long” (131, Eliot's italics). The motion of the eyes suggests an involuntary element in Arthur's search; he is not free to look about in a disinterested manner.

On the other hand, the brooklet and scampering squirrel possess a life and motion lacking in the imaginary nymphs, but these genuine aspects of the scene can be perceived only by the “too curious sacrilegious eye” which would disrupt this Temple of Nature (later Arthur, trying to deceive Adam, calls it the “sacred grove” [303]) and discover a real nature that “mocks” the fantasist. Arthur is embarking on a love-affair which will result in the birth of a child, but no anticipation of this natural process can intrude on his sentimental view of Hetty.

Eliot's strategy here is to entrance the reader for a moment and then awaken him with the rather blunt observation that on such an afternoon “destiny disguises her cold awful face behind a hazy radiant veil … and poisons us with violet-scented breath” (131), a process repeated more subtly at a later meeting with Hetty which Arthur has arranged in order to explain that he does not mean anything serious. He quickly forgets his good intentions: “Ah, he doesn’t know in the least what he is saying. This is not what he meant to say … his lips are meeting those pouting child-lips, and for a long moment time has vanished. He may be a shepherd in Arcadia for aught he knows, he may be the first youth kissing the first maiden, he may be Eros himself kissing the lips of Psyche—it is all one” (138).

This pagan paradise, independent of space, time, and experience, suggests the mood of a certain style of Neo-classical painting. The breathless prose represents Arthur's state of mind, in which we are temporarily caught up only to come down again when we pause to consider the incongruity of the myth of Eros and Psyche in such a context. With the advent of Freud this myth of Love leading the Soul towards perfection has lost its impact, but it played a significant role in the imagination of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and seems to have interested Eliot, who uses it again in Middlemarch.19 Here, however, Psyche is only the mask for an everyday seduction; in Arthur's imagination Hetty seems to have graduated from Hebe the wine-girl to the beloved of the God of Love.

Cupid and Psyche fascinated Neo-classical artists as a symbol of the ideal, but also underwent a rapid deterioration as decorative pornography, Divine Love being a most acceptable excuse for getting voluptuous representations of naked lovers inside the house. In both Arthur's time and Eliot's the pair could frequently be found embracing not only on canvas, but also in bronze on mantelpieces and over the tops of clocks. Arthur is an ordinary fellow and the “artistic light” in which he views Hetty reveals this lower, more popular use of the myth. The most famous and widely-copied example of this genre, the painting of Cupid and Psyche done by Gérard in 1798, with its pretty surface and sensuous undertones, would be a good example of Arthur's consciousness (as different as possible from Dutch realism).20

Two months later, as Adam walks through the woods towards a chance encounter with Arthur and Hetty, his carpenter's vision of the Grove becomes an equivalent to realist painting. He views the Grove under

the magnificent changes of the light … What grand beeches! Adam delighted in a fine tree of all things; as the fisherman's sight is keenest on the sea, so Adam's perceptions were more at home with trees than with other objects. He kept them in his memory as a painter does, with all the flecks and knots in their bark, and all the curves and angles of their boughs. (301-2)

As he pauses to examine a tree more closely, Adam catches sight of the lovers “in the eastern light,” understanding their relation with a clarity with which they have never seen themselves. Arthur, somewhat befuddled with wine, tries to “laugh the thing off’ and throw “dust … in honest Adam's eyes,” but the “strange evening light” shows things too clearly and Adam experiences an inner illumination: “a terrible scorching light showed him the hidden letters that changed the meaning of the past” (303). Here Adam represents the author's vision as well; the contrast between Adam's Grove and Arthur's could be taken as the difference between true and false perception.21

Arthur's taste in literature also has some relevance to the ease with which he yields to temptation. There are signs of interest in the Gothic and exotic: he plans to restore the last remaining “piece of the old abbey” (261) and Hetty succumbs in a summer-house in the Grove dubbed “the Hermitage,” in which monastic retreat Adam is surprised to find a “snug room” equipped with brandy and showing “all the signs of frequent habitation” (310). Arthur remarks that as a child “I used to think that if ever I was a rich Sultan, I would make Adam my grand-visier. And I believe now, he would bear the exaltation as well as any poor man in an Eastern story” (61). (The Sultan's ministers were also his slaves.) Arthur enacts this fantasy when he rather fulsomely bestows the management of the woods on Adam at the Birthday Feast (272).

Eliot insists that her novel will have no “heroes riding fiery horses, themselves ridden by still more fiery passions” (36), “romantic criminals,” or other exotic characters who are not “half so frequent as your common labourer …” (182). However, Arthur, who sometimes rides his grandfather's horses rather hard, seems to enjoy stories of romantic crime and passionate violence.

On the morning of his first secret encounter with Hetty, Arthur decides to spend a week fishing instead, but as he strides towards the stables he sings in his “loudest ringing tenor … his favorite song from the ‘Beggar's Opera,’ ‘When the heart of man is oppressed with care.’ Not an heroic strain; nevertheless Arthur felt himself very heroic …” (124). The second line of this song happens to be “The mist is dispelled when a woman appears.” It is sung by Macheath, the heroic highwayman, who observes in the same soliloquy, “What a fool is a fond wench! … I must have women. There is nothing unbends the mind like them,” and reflects on his prowess in turning virgins into ladies of the town (Act II, Scene iii). Arthur's resolve to ride away from temptation seems half-hearted from the beginning. (After discovering that his favorite horse is lame, Arthur decides to keep away from Hetty by riding to visit his friend Gawaine. This resolution also fails in the “Centaur” episode already discussed.)

A significant reference to Arthur's reading occurs at the crucial moment when he rationalizes spending the afternoon in the Grove where he knows Hetty will pass: “it was just the sort of afternoon for lolling in the Hermitage, and he would go and finish Dr. Moore's Zeluco there before dinner” (130)—this is the book under his arm during his first tryst with Hetty. Moore's tale of criminal adventure was published in 1786 and went through several editions, remaining popular into the nineteenth century—another edition came out in 1810. Its main interest lies in the persistent wickedness of the title character, the degraded heir of a noble Sicilian family. Handsome and eloquent, but driven by the lowest passions, which he always indulges without restraint, Zeluco perpetrates an extraordinary series of seductions and betrayals, finally tricking a pure and beautiful maiden into marriage against her will. He abuses her outrageously and strangles their infant in a fit of rage, after which she goes mad, becoming unable to accuse him of the crime: the intrigues which arise from this situation provide the climax of the novel. Moore pauses occasionally to present some flat moral commentary of the kind Eliot deplored in fiction.

In his circumstances Zeluco has some resemblance to Arthur—both are fatherless, spoiled, rich, idle, and go into the army. Their story also concerns seduction and child-murder followed by madness. However, the point is not that Arthur failed to heed Moore's warning, but that such fantastic tales can have no kind of moral impact. Arthur could never identify with the exotic crimes of such a villain, nor learn anything from him about impulses to self-indulgence that might lurk in good intentions. The allusion to Zeluco contains a double irony: the novel does foreshadow Arthur's fate but also makes it seem impossible in the real world.22Zeluco seems a good example of those “frantic novels,” designed to gratify a “craving for extraordinary incident,” which Wordsworth cites in the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” as evidence of degraded taste in contemporary literature.

U. C. Knoepflmacher has pointed out the many links between Hetty and Martha Ray of “The Thorne,” another tale of seduction, infanticide, and madness—and also one of the homeliest of Wordsworth's narratives in Lyrical Ballads.23 Arthur enjoys Zeluco while refusing to read a book which contains a realistic representation of his own future sin. Later, in a mood for serious meditation on his problem with Hetty, he comments on the moral relevance of exotic fiction by flinging “Zeluco into the most distant corner” (134).

The lovers seem to kiss in a static Arcadia but they are not free from social or biological consequences; as Eliot notes, it is only “for a long moment that time has vanished.” When he returns to the temporal world of cause and effect Arthur ponders the incompatibility of their social rank:

To flirt with Hetty was a very different affair from flirting with a pretty girl of his own station: that was understood to be an amusement on both sides; or, if it became serious, there was no obstacle to marriage. But this little thing would be spoken ill of directly … And even if no one knew anything about it, they might get too fond of each other, and then there would be the misery of parting after all. No gentleman, out of a ballad, could marry a farmer's niece. There must be an end to the whole thing at once. It was too foolish. (139-40)

The thought of “parting” shows that he has descended from the timeless realm of Eros and Psyche. The reality to which he returns is quite prosaic; his undemocratic concept of a “gentleman” takes absolute class-barriers for granted. Romance with a girl of his “station” might become “serious” but his affair with Hetty can only be seen as entertainment, a “little thing” and “too foolish.” His phrase “out of a ballad” makes an ironic contrast to Lyrical Ballads. By “ballad” Arthur means the opposite of Wordsworth—a fantastic tale (like the plot of Zeluco) in an exotic setting (this aspect of “The Ancient Mariner” seems to appeal to him).24 Since he takes his role in the social hierarchy for granted, any romantic breaching of class-barriers could occur only in a fantasy of no account in the real world. For Arthur literature is an amusement, yet he often behaves as though he were in a ballad instead of out of one, maintaining a separation between the two states of mind as distinct as his separation of art from life. It is a peculiar element in Arthur's tragedy that he foresees in lucid moments the disaster he seems powerless to avoid—“he should hate himself if he made a scandal of that sort” (140).

Arthur's unconscious often works through his imagination, which for him is the realm of unreal “fancy”:

The desire to see Hetty rushed back like an ill-stemmed current; he was amazed at the force with which this trivial fancy seemed to grasp him: he was even rather tremulous as he brushed his hair—pooh! it was riding in that break-neck way. It was because he had made a serious affair of an idle matter, by thinking of it as if it were of any consequence. He would amuse himself by seeing Hetty today … (130)

A surprising force drives him towards an impossible breach of his social mores, but once relegated to the imagination, or “trivial fancy,” this impulse becomes only a leisure amusement, an “idle matter” of “no consequence” which can safely be indulged. Arthur could imagine “serious consequences” with a “girl of his own station,” but a pastoral milkmaid can only be the object of artistic appreciation and pleasing sentiment.

When they embrace Arthur is not “sensible just then that Hetty wanted … signs of high breeding” (113). The “just then” indicates that he is in a special state of mind cut off from normal consciousness; he will later think of this deficiency as the most important aspect of their relationship. The thought of a second meeting that evening can be indulged in the imagination precisely because it is not possible, but then becomes possible after being reduced to sentimental fancy: “He made up his mind not to meet Hetty again; and now he might give himself up to thinking how immensely agreeable it would be if circumstances were different … How beautiful her eyes were with the tear on their lashes! He would like to satisfy his soul for a day with looking at them, and he must see her again” (135). He resolves to “set things right with her by a kindness which would have the air of friendly civility” (137), but he shall satisfy more than his soul.

Through Arthur, Eliot distinguishes between sentimentalism and genuine feeling. While hardly an intellectual Arthur does see himself as a cultivated “man of feeling”; with his upper-class education and leisure he has developed something of a literary imagination, along with some excess emotion to be indulged in it when hunting is out of season. His sharp distinction between art and “fancy” on the one hand, and everyday life on the other, cuts off communication with his emotional nature, which can find expression only in trivial second-hand disguises.

His separation of art from life results in a split consciousness in which he can alternate between fantasies disconnected from the real world and a reality where such fantasies are, of course, impossible. Yet his exalted fantasy permits the satisfaction of a sexual need his sentimental ego refuses to admit. Arthur's imagination does not express feeling but rather provides a disguise under which it operates as an “agent not acknowledged,” prompting actions which he does not have to face up to because they are relegated to an imaginary world. What he does with Hetty in the realm of Eros and Psyche remains separate from time and consequence.

In a moment of clarity Arthur decides to make further flirtation impossible by confessing to his friend Parson Irwine: “There was but one resource. He would go and tell Irwine—tell him everything” (140). For Eliot, the Sacrament of Confession had great psychological value because one's feelings revealed their true nature when given objective existence in the consciousness of another person.25 However, as Arthur forms this resolve he makes the fatal assumption that “the mere act of telling it would make it seem trivial” (140).

When face to face with Irwine, Arthur decides not to mention his problem because “the conversation had taken a more serious tone than he had intended—it would quite mislead Irwine—he would imagine there was a deep passion for Hetty, while there was no such thing” (176). Arthur justifies his pursuit of Hetty by convincing himself that their relationship is “trivial,” yet knows that objectively considered it will seem “serious.” By refusing to communicate his feelings he reveals the insincerity of his excuse, while keeping it intact so he can see Hetty again.

Arthur depends on the approbation of others rather than an inner sense of self, and it is only through Adam's rudeness, his refusal to be talked round after seeing Arthur and Hetty together, that Arthur experiences himself as seen disapprovingly through the eyes of another: “The discovery that Adam loved Hetty was a shock that made him for the moment see himself in the light of Adam's indignation … All screening self-excuse … forsook him for an instant …” (315). While Irwine is restrained by good manners from enquiring too far into Arthur's conscience, Adam assumes a moral equality which enables him to disregard class-barriers.26

However, Arthur's “instant” of vision is only “for the moment.” Later he fends off this humiliating encounter with a fantasy that smacks of droit du seigneur. When after his grandfather's death he returns, still unaware of Hetty's disaster, to become master of the estate, he contemplates his intended generosity to the husband of his cast-off mistress: “they were soon to be married: perhaps they were already married. And now it was in his power to do a great deal for them” (450).

In a final encounter in the Grove after Hetty's reprieve, Adam forces Arthur to acknowledge the reality of his victims' feelings. Arthur performs his first genuine service to his former ideal when he pleads with Adam to help him sacrifice himself to keep the community intact: “one of my reasons for going away is, that no one else may leave Hayslope—may leave their home on my account” (477). Adam grimly insists that he has seen through Arthur's benevolence—“When people's feelings have got a deadly wound, they can’t be cured with favours”—and will give in only when Arthur explicitly renounces it: “if you would talk to the Poysers … I know, of course, they would not accept any favour from me: I mean nothing of that kind” (479). Here Arthur belatedly receives that enlightenment through exposure to the vision of an equal which he rejected in his first confrontation with Adam.

For Eliot, the highest purpose of the imagination is to put oneself in another's shoes and foresee the effect of one's actions on his consciousness. An interesting link between Wordsworth and Eliot's kind of agnostic humanism appears in one of G. H. Lewes's last and best books, The Study of Psychology, which she edited after his death. Lewes discusses the evolution of morality, both in the race and the individual, from shame and fear of divine punishment to that highest achievement of civilized man, the sympathetic imagination: “In a mind where the educated tracing of hurtful consequences to others is associated with a sympathetic imagination of their suffering, Remorse has no relation to an external source of punishment for the wrong committed: it is the agonized sense, the contrite contemplation, of the wound inflicted on another.”27 In revising Lewes's manuscript, Eliot adds “Wordsworth has depicted a remorse of this kind,” and quotes the following lines from The Excursion:28

                                                            Feebly they must have felt
Who in old times, attired with snakes and whips
The vengeful Furies. Beautiful regards
Were turned on me—the face of her I loved;
The wife and mother, pitifully fixing
Tender reproaches, insupportable!

(Book III, lines 850-55)

Arthur, preoccupied with the approbation of others, has a moral sense based mainly on shame, and does not get the point when Irwine warns him that for a sensitive man “inward suffering … is the worst form of nemesis” (175). Arthur fails to foresee Hetty's doom and thus shall be “educated” by agony and contrition after the fact.

As we have seen, Zeluco and Wordsworth's “The Thorn” both comment ironically on the seduction of Hetty. Arthur's education through remorse seems foreshadowed in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the only poem in Lyrical Ballads that arouses his interest. The association Eliot establishes between hunting and Arthur's pursuit of Hetty suggests that he downs her in the same sportive spirit in which the Mariner shot the albatross. Arthur is attracted to the Gothic trappings of Coleridge's poem—“it’s a strange, striking thing”—but complains that he “can hardly make head nor tail of it as a story”; he cannot grasp the theme of sin, guilt, and repentance which binds together its apparently illogical events.

The Mariner returns to his “own countree” physically much the worse but spiritually enlightened. After Hetty's trial and reprieve, Arthur joins the army in India instead of assuming his long-anticipated role as Squire. In the “Epilogue” Adam describes him when he returns seven years later: “he’s altered and yet not altered … his colour’s changed, and he looks sadly. However, the doctors say he’ll soon be set right in his own country air. He’s all sound in th’inside; it’s only the fever shattered him so. But he speaks just the same, and smiles at me just as he did when he was a lad” (550). Wordsworthian Nemesis has wrought a change on an “inside” of which Arthur was not aware before his fall. The return of his childhood smile suggests innocence regained, in this case bought dear by becoming sadder and wiser through experience of sin—and its consequences. In “The Ancient Mariner” Coleridge uses the supernatural not merely as a Gothic device, but to create a symbolic vision of the inter-relatedness of an organic universe, a vision in itself emblematic of the Romantic imagination.29 Both the Mariner and Arthur sin carelessly against the complex relationships of their world and both learn the real nature of these relationships through remorse. Unlike the Mariner, Arthur already knows a good deal about the community he violates, but unfortunately his imagination only provides escape from the social structure he otherwise takes for granted.30

Through a subtle web of imagery and allusion, Eliot links Arthur to the main themes of the novel and to her concept of the moral purpose of fiction. She introduces Lyrical Ballads as a precedent for the realism discussed in Chapter Seventeen, and as a standard by which to judge Arthur's false vision; in turn, Arthur illuminates her realism by way of contrast. The complexity of his motives shows the uselessness of melodramatic villains and refutes the reader of “enlightened opinions and refined taste” who in Chapter Seventeen demands of the novelist: “Let your most faulty characters always be on the wrong side, and your virtuous ones on the right” (179). Arthur's escapist fantasy reflects on Eliot's belief that the imagination should be used to explore the real world, while the egoism concealed in his “love of patronage” underlines her insistence on a perception which can transcend social barriers.

Eliot's conservative respect for tradition has caused some critics to overlook her effort to free the sympathetic imagination from the limits of class. In terms very like Neil Roberts's interpretation of Adam Bede, Arnold Hauser states that “George Eliot regards as an essentially psychological and moral problem what is in reality a sociological problem, and looks in psychology for the answer to questions which can only be answered sociologically.”31 Two Marxist-oriented critics, Ian Milner and John Goode, are attracted by the appearance of class-conflict in Arthur's crime, but become frustrated by Eliot's failure to develop this theme consistently.32 We must remember that as heir to Wordsworth Eliot could combine a tendency to conservative (and sometimes rather confused) politics with an insistence on democratic vision in art.33 The social contradictions Eliot shies away from on the political level often receive a subtle development in the psychology of her characters.

It is characteristic of Eliot's technique that she concentrates on the details of Arthur's state of mind during his first meetings with Hetty, and yet never lets us forget that he is a prospective landlord committing an offense against a tenant-farmer. Thus as we explore the psychology of sentimental benevolence we also become aware of its limitations as an attitude of the upper class towards the lower. Arthur dreams of replacing his grandfather's avarice with an ideal generosity to his tenants, but we know that this can only consist of giving back a small portion of the wealth derived from their labor.34 A good part of the income from his estate must go to keep the “mansion in first-rate order, all elegance and high taste—jolly housekeeping, finest stud in Loamshire” (125). This giving which is also a taking appears at its worst in a benevolence towards Hetty which disguises a typical aristocratic use of farm-girls. Through Arthur, Eliot demonstrates to the reader of “enlightened opinions and refined taste” that naive complacency in one's social status is incompatible with genuine sympathy for those who must sweat on fields which others own.

We can conclude that Arthur's story is not a “static moral drama,” and that it seems quite different from the usual treatment of seduction in Victorian novels. His error arises not from sexual desire in itself, but from misrepresenting it as sympathetic concern and esthetic appreciation. Eliot cannot be accused of punishing the lovers for their sexual vitality: Hetty is a self-obsessed social-climber and Arthur pursues her in a pseudo-pastoral dream fabricated out of second-hand imagery.35 His escapist notion of literature and his class-bound belief in “high taste” excuse him from any attempt to understand the subjective consciousness of his victim or the economic reality of her class.

On the other hand, the narrator shows us everything Arthur cannot see and speaks out against the fashionable taste in literature he represents, along with the refined reader of Chapter Seventeen. In her first novel Eliot develops her own version of the difference between fancy and imagination. Convinced that the “ill-stemmed current” of his “desire to see Hetty” is only a “trivial fancy” (130), Arthur sublimates his emotional needs into his vision of himself as ideal Squire, while the narrator combines psychological analysis with social concern by revealing the tragic interaction between Arthur's divided self and the class-divisions of the world he is about to inherit.


  1. The George Eliot Letters, ed Gordon S. Haight (New Haven 1954-56), II, 387. The page references which appear throughout are from Adam Bede, ed Gordon S. Haight (New York 1967).

  2. Neil Roberts, George Eliot: Her Beliefs and Her Art (Pittsburgh 1975), pp 63-67.

  3. Hayslope represents the past, while Dinah's milieu anticipates social problems of the nineteenth century. She complains of a “deadness to the Word” in the country and says that her religion flourishes amid the industrial privation of “great towns like Leeds” (92). She works in a cotton mill in Snowfield, which is also a mining town.

  4. A. O. J. Cockshut notes Adam's mid-Victorian quality and describes him as “a convincing portrait of the serious agnostic in the making” (The Unbelievers [New York 1966], p 47).

  5. Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, Book X, xiii.

  6. Ibid, Book IV, vi.

  7. John Goode also finds an affinity between Tom Jones and Arthur—“Adam Bede,” Critical Essays on George Eliot (New York 1970), pp 24-25. This essay has many insights but I strongly disagree when Goode argues that Eliot was influenced by Herbert Spencer's social Darwinism.

  8. Thomas A. Noble, George Eliot's ‘Scenes of Clerical Life’ (New Haven 1965), p 57.

  9. Henry Fielding, “An Essay on the Knowledge of the Characters of Men,” The Complete Works of Henry Fielding (New York 1967), XVI, 285.

  10. Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind (New Haven 1957), p 278.

  11. There is a contradiction in the concept of improvement. Irwine says, “Gawaine has got the curses of the whole neighbourhood upon him about that enclosure.” Enclosure was an important aspect of that consolidation of land for “improved” farming which was rapidly eliminating the small tenant farmer and thus the whole feudal community which forms the basis of Arthur's “pictures of the future.” Arthur has been influenced by Arthur Young, who strongly supported enclosure but changed his mind dramatically in 1800 when he discovered that it was being applied exclusively in the interests of the landowners.

  12. For Eliot's general interest in Wordsworth, see Thomas Pinney, “George Eliot's Reading of Wordsworth: The Record,” VN [Victorian Newsletter], 24 (1963), 20-22, and “The Authority of the Past in George Eliot's Novels,” NCF [Nineteenth Century Fiction], 21 (1966), 131-47. Jerome Thale, in The Novels of George Eliot (New York 1959) and U. C. Knoepflmacher, in George Eliot's Early Novels (Berkeley 1968), both discuss the peculiarly Wordsworthian quality of Adam Bede. Michael Squires provides a more general discussion of Wordsworth's influence on English fiction in The Pastoral Novel: Studies in George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence (Charlottesville 1974). To my knowledge, the best and fullest discussion of Wordsworth's influence on Eliot's early fiction is Robert Dunham's unpublished dissertation, “Wordsworthian Themes and Attitudes in George Eliot's Novels” (Stanford 1971). I am indebted to Professor Dunham for revealing the importance of Wordsworth for the interpretation of Eliot's fiction.

  13. Eliot's argument in Chapter Seventeen also seems to parallel Book Thirteen of The Prelude, where Wordsworth rejects fashionable elitism and turns to the depiction of humble rustic characters.

  14. See Hugh Witemeyer, “George Eliot, Naumann, and the Nazarenes,” VS [Victorian Studies], 18 (1974-75), 145-58, and “English and Italian Portraiture in Daniel Deronda,” NCF, 30 (March 1976), 477-94.

  15. In an essay entitled “Worldliness and Other-Worldliness: The Poet Young” Eliot attacks Edward Young's grandiose, abstract verse, and presents William Cowper as an example of good poetry (described in terms of clear light): “How Cowper's exquisite mind falls with the warmth of morning sunlight on the commonest objects, at once disclosing every detail and investing every detail with beauty”—Essays of George Eliot, ed Thomas Pinney (New York 1963), p 382. Here Eliot uses Cowper as an eighteenth-century representative for Wordsworth. In his Principles of Success in Literature (Boston 1894) G. H. Lewes quotes extensively from Eliot's criticism of Young but compares him to Wordsworth rather than Cowper (pp 68-72).

    The painting of the old woman closely resembles Interior with Old Woman Peeling Apples by David Teniers the younger, a painter noted for his treatment of light and his detailed depictions of peasant life. Eliot saw and admired the work of some Dutch painters, Teniers among them, when she was writing this part of Adam Bede—see Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot: A Biography (Oxford 1968), p 259.

  16. In a hostile review of the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, Southey said that “The Idiot Boy” “resembles a Flemish picture in the worthlessness of its design and the excellence of its execution. From Flemish artists we are satisfied with such pieces: who would not have lamented if Corregio or Rafaelle had wasted their talents in painting Dutch boors or the humours of a Flemish wake?” (The Critical Review, vol 24, October, 1798). This review may have suggested Eliot's reference to Dutch painting, and Southey is probably included among the “lofty-minded people” who despise it. Eliot considered Southey an example of the bad taste of the period (see note 30). In Chapter Seventeen Eliot pays tribute to “divine beauty of form” but demands recognition for “that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy.” Arthur sees Hetty entirely in terms of “beauty of form.”

  17. Reva Stump, Movement and Vision in George Eliot's Novels (Seattle 1959), p 18. I am indebted to Stump's excellent discussion of this scene.

  18. George Eliot, Westminster Review, 65 (April 1856), 626.

  19. See U. C. Knoepflmacher, “Fusing Fact and Myth: The New Reality of Middlemarch,This Particular Web: Essays onMiddlemarch’, ed Ian Adam (Toronto 1975), pp 56-57.

  20. See Hugh Honour, Neo-classicism (Harmondsworth 1968), p 171.

  21. Hetty, who never distinguishes between fantasy and the real world, cannot see the Grove at all. As she walks through the Grove, Eliot describes the light-effects she fails to see because of her preoccupation with an imaginary future (136-37).

  22. Irving Buchen—“Arthur Donnithorne and Zeluco: Characterization via Literary Allusion in Adam Bede,” VN, 23 (1963), 18-19—and Jerome Thale—“Adam Bede: Arthur Donnithorne and Zeluco,” MLN, 70 (1965), 263-65—both assume that Eliot blames Arthur for not heeding Moore's message about the awful fate of seducers. In fact, the novel's seductions are far more interesting than its moral passages, and Eliot disapproves of Arthur for preferring this tale to Wordsworth. Also most Victorian readers would have known that in the preface to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Byron refers to his sin-wearied hero as “A poetical Zeluco.” Byron, a poet whom Eliot intensely disliked, stands for everything she opposes in Chapter Seventeen.

  23. U. C. Knoepflmacher, George Eliot's Early Novels, p 95.

  24. Arthur's reference to gentlemen making improbable marriages in ballads suggests a romantic story like “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid” in Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (an enlarged edition was published in 1794). Also Gothic tales in ballad form were very popular in this period. Many translations of Gottfried Bürgher's “Lenore” were published, the best known being William Taylor's “Ellenore,” in the Monthly Magazine, 1796.

  25. See Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans George Eliot (New York 1957), pp 78-79 and 122-24. The most impressive confession-scenes in Eliot's fiction are Janet's confession to Mr. Tryan in “Janet's Repentance,” Hetty's to Dinah in Adam Bede (xlv), and Lydgate's to Dorothea in Middlemarch (lxvi).

  26. It is interesting to note that in Chapter Fifteen Dinah, also a member of the working-class, disregards social propriety in a forceful attempt to awaken Hetty's conscience, while in the next chapter Irwine fails through excessive politeness to elicit Arthur's confession.

  27. G. H. Lewes, The Study of Psychology: Its Object, Scope, and Method (Boston 1879), p 150.

  28. See Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot: A Biography (Oxford 1968), p 527. In “George Eliot's Reading of Wordsworth: The Record,” Thomas Pinney states that Lewes and Eliot read The Excursion aloud to each other during the composition of Adam Bede.

  29. See Humphrey House's interpretation of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in Coleridge: The Clark Lectures 1951-52 (London 1953). Eliot was certainly capable of understanding the poem on this level.

  30. A taste for the exotic seems to be associated with snobbery in Eliot's fiction. In Felix Holt, Esther Lyon reads Byron and dreams of genteel romance, while Mrs. Transome in her youth laughed at Lyrical Ballads, admired Southey's Thalaba the Destroyer (an Arabian fantasy of incredible plot), and married for rank and money. (I am indebted to Dunham's “Wordsworthian Themes and Attitudes in George Eliot's Novels” for the reference to Southey.) Rosamond Vincy, the social climber of Middlemarch, copies passages out of Lalla Rookh, a series of Oriental romances by Thomas Moore. Lydgate, unconscious snob and Rosamond's victim, has given up reading literature for science, but takes a sentimental view of women and imagines that life with Rosy will bring “ideal happiness (of the kind known in the Arabian Nights, in which … everything is given to you and nothing claimed) …” (xxxvi). In this case sentimentalism makes the man vulnerable to exploitation.

  31. Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art (New York 1957), IV, 136.

  32. Ian Milner, “The Structure of Values in Adam Bede,Philologica Pragensia, 9 (1966), 281-91, and John Goode, “Adam Bede,Critical Essays on George Eliot. What Eliot has to offer a Marxist-oriented approach can best be appreciated if we first analyze her fiction in terms of her own values and only then attempt to assess the limitations of her vision—the latter problem is beyond the scope of the present essay.

  33. For perceptive discussion of Eliot's ambivalence towards political reform, see Graham Martin, “‘Daniel Deronda’: George Eliot and Political Change,” Critical Essays on George Eliot, and Linda Bamber, “Self-Defeating Politics in George Eliot's Felix Holt,” VS, 18 (1975), 419-35.

  34. Raymond Williams finds a similar problem in the celebration of aristocratic munificence in the English pastoral tradition—The Country and the City (London 1975), pp 38-47. In “The Natural History of German Life,” Eliot attacks the sentimental treatment of “the working classes” by contemporary authors and insists that the artist must obliterate the “vulgarity of exclusiveness” through accurate depiction of lower class characters (Essays of George Eliot, pp 268-71). This aspect of Eliot's realism is emphasized by the contrast between Arthur's idyllic view of Hetty and the narrator's account of her pathetic naiveté and hopeless flight.

  35. Ian Gregor—“The Two Worlds of ‘Adam Bede,’” The Moral and the Story (London 1962)—and Michael Squires—The Pastoral Novel—both view Arthur's affair with Hetty as a genuine pastoral idyll. Many readers have assumed that Eliot was passing a Puritan judgment on sexuality in having the affair end in disaster—most recently Calvin Bedient in Architects of the Self (Berkeley 1972).

Elizabeth Holtze (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5149

SOURCE: “Aristotle and George Eliot: Hamartia in Adam Bede,” in Hamartia: The Concept of Error in the Western Tradition, edited by Donald V. Stump, James A. Arieti, Lloyd Gerson, and Eleonore Stump, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1983, pp. 267-80.

[In the following essay, Holtze examines Aristotelian tragic influences in Adam Bede and the errors or “hamartia” committed by Adam, Arthur, and Hetty.]

In 1855 George Eliot wrote a review entitled “The Morality of Wilhelm Meister” in which she concludes:

... the tragedian may take for his subject the most hideous passions if they serve as the background for some divine deed of tenderness or heroism, and so the novelist may place before us every aspect of human life where there is some trait of love, or endurance, or helplessness to call forth our best sympathies.1

Eliot was defending the morality of Goethe's work at a time before she herself became a novelist. When she began to write fiction two years later, her work reflected some of the ideas suggested in the earlier review: that the proper subject matter for novels is all human life, the common as well as the noble; that the novel can, and should, teach moral lessons; and that there is a kinship between the genres of novel and tragedy.

The last idea is perhaps the most striking. Nevertheless, again and again, in both her letters and her novels, Eliot suggests that she is writing tragedy: “And again, it is my way, (rather too much so perhaps) to urge the human sanctities through tragedy—through pity and terror as well as admiration and delights.”2 No one can read these carefully chosen words without thinking of Aristotle, and how different in form are the novels of Eliot and the plays of the three great Greek dramatists. The subject matter is also different. Eliot's insistence upon the tragedy of common experience does not measure up to the standard of magnitude Aristotle sets by which the protagonist must be a hero or ruler, someone who involves a multitude of others in his fall. Nevertheless, in her first fiction, Amos Barton, Eliot dares to explain the actions of the frivolous, superficial Countess Czerlaski by quoting a Greek couplet from Sophocles (ch. 4), and on the next page speaks of “the tragedy … of a human soul that looks out through dull grey eyes …” (ch. 5). Eliot's biographer, Gordon Haight, lists the classical tragedies she read in Greek between 1855 and 1858: Antigone, Ajax, the Oedipus trilogy, Electra, Philoctetes, and the Oresteia.3 In addition, Eliot was primarily concerned with moral problems; she shows a kind of suffering that is not an end in itself, but pain through which the sufferer gains knowledge about himself and his relationship with others.4

In the year she was reading the three plays of the Oresteia, George Eliot was writing her first full-length novel, Adam Bede. The novel examines the relationships of three characters: Adam of the title, an upright carpenter; Arthur Donnithorne, a young gentleman with expectations; and the pretty, frivolous girl they both love, Hetty Sorrel. Each of these three makes mistakes and suffers unforeseen consequences. At the beginning of Adam Bede, Eliot says Nature is “the great tragic dramatist” (ch. 4). How closely does she allow her three protagonists, each more a child of the rural countryside than a hero of classical times, to conform to the Aristotelian model for tragedy?

In addition to requiring a hero of some stature who acts in a plot with reversal and recognition, Aristotle says that “the change in the hero's fortunes must be … from happiness to misery; and the cause of it must lie not in any depravity, but in some great error on his part …”5 The word translated as “error” is hamartia. I take this word to mean “mistake” rather than “sin” or “culpable offence,” a “mental error” which often (but not necessarily) leads to a “wrong action” (hamartêma), committed in ignorance of its objects, its circumstances, or its consequences.6 All three of Eliot's protagonists make a mental error that later results in wrong actions, which in turn have disastrous and far-reaching effects. Each of the three is predisposed to make the mistake because each in a different way takes too little care for the people close to him. Arthur, the young squire, is self-indulgent, presuming that he can please himself without taking responsibility for his actions; Adam is self-assured, setting an inflexible and too harsh standard by which he judges himself and others; and Hetty is self-absorbed, a girl who spends hours in her bed-chamber in front of her mirror, “bent on her peculiar form of worship” (ch. 15).

Hetty is by far the least Aristotelian of the three. She is lovely, with “a beauty like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks” (ch. 7), and emptyheaded. “A simple farmer's girl, to whom a gentleman with a white hand was dazzling as an Olympian god” (ch. 9), she feels, and reacts, but does not think. She errs when she thinks Arthur will marry her, take her out of the dairy at Hall Farm, and dress her in lace and linen. Her hamartia becomes hamartêma when she and Arthur begin their dalliance. Hetty is a fatal combination of weakness and pride when she leaves her home in an attempt to escape the shame of bearing Arthur's illegitimate child. The child, born during her wandering, dies of neglect and exposure, but only the court, which sentences her to death, blames more than pities Hetty. When she is awaiting execution and eager for forgiveness from Adam and her family, Hetty still is capable of only a limited understanding of responsibility and consequences. Any knowledge Hetty may have gained from her suffering is of a very limited sort, and both her own suffering and the suffering she causes others are out of all proportion to her mistake, the dream of becoming gentry. Her suffering from the time she sets out to find Arthur until her stay of execution is so relentless, so disproportionate that pity alone results. George Eliot foreshadows Hetty's fate in a metaphor that combines the terrible fates of Arachne and Glauce:

it is too painful to think that she is a woman, with a woman's destiny before her—a woman spinning in young ignorance a light web of folly and vain hopes which may one day close round her and press upon her, a rancorous poisoned garment, changing all at once her fluttering, trivial butterfly sensations into a life of deep human anguish. (ch. 22)

Adam Bede is more promising material for a tragic protagonist. Even though he does not have the stature of a king, Adam is idealized, “tall, upright, clever, brave Adam Bede” (ch. 9). He is considerably more substantial than any of the protagonists in the earlier Scenes of Clerical Life. In addition, Eliot was so convinced of the pervasive “tragedy of human life” (ch. 33), and of the inextricable nature of evil and pain that she felt the tragedy affecting the most lowly human beings inevitably affected many others. No tragedy could be limited or contained. Evil, like spilled ink, spread and stained all it touched. Mr. Irwine tells Adam:

There is no sort of wrong deed of which a man can bear the punishment alone; you can’t isolate yourself and say that the evil which is in you shall not spread. Men's lives are as thoroughly blended with each other as the air they breathe: evil spreads as necessarily as disease. (ch. 41)

Adam's tragedy—or even Hetty's—is more than personal.

Adam's hamartia is his self-assured inflexibility: he sets harsh standards by which he judges himself and others, and refuses to change his opinions. He early recognizes this rigidity in himself: “But it isn’t my way to be see-saw about anything: I think my fault lies th’ other way. When I’ve said a thing, if it’s only to myself, it’s hard for me to go back” (ch. 16). Most commentators agree with Adam, and some even use the weighted word “flaw” to describe his failing.7

Another word charged with meaning in Eliot's works is “error.” “Error” is a common translation for hamartia, a closer translation than “flaw,” and George Eliot uses it at significant points to describe Adam's (and Arthur Donnithorne's) mistaken thoughts and deeds. Before the climactic chance meeting of Adam and Arthur in the woods, the narrator pauses to discuss Adam's character:

Perhaps here lay the secret of the hardness he had accused himself of: he had too little fellow-feeling with the weakness that errs in spite of foreseen consequences. Without this fellow-feeling, how are we to get enough patience and charity towards our stumbling, falling companions in the long and changeful journey? And there is but one way in which a strong determined soul can learn it—by getting his heart-strings bound round the weak and erring, so that he must share not only the outward consequence of their error, but their inward suffering. (ch. 19)

Adam begins to learn this lesson through grieving over his father's death, but it is in his relationships with Arthur Donnithorne and Hetty Sorrel that the real testing comes.

At the mid-point of the novel's fifty-six chapters, George Eliot calls Chapter 27 “A Crisis.” Adam, walking home from work, surprises Arthur and Hetty in the woods and sees their parting kiss. Adam's trust in two of the people he cared about most is severely shaken. He refuses to be taken in by the cavalier Arthur's explanation. He knows “what isn’t honest does come t’ harm” and forces Arthur to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his conduct. Nevertheless, he remains deceived by both Arthur and Hetty about the exact nature of their flirtation despite considerable evidence to the contrary. He wants to believe Arthur is more like himself than unlike, capable of honorable actions and incapable of deceitful ones; he wants to believe Hetty really loves him. He continues under both misconceptions until Mr. Irwine stuns him with the news that Hetty has been imprisoned, charged with murdering her newborn child (ch. 39). There is both reversal and recognition in Chapter 39, a coincidence of plot admired by Aristotle when it was also probable and necessary.8 Adam recognizes the truth about the characters and actions of Arthur and Hetty. There is also the actual reversal of his emotional fortune when all hope of marriage to Hetty is given up forever, and the imminent reversal of his professional fortunes, since neither he nor Hetty's family at Hall Farm could continue to work for the man responsible for such disgrace.

Chapters 41 and 42 continue Adam's education in sorrow. He reaches the nadir of his pain when he groans, “… I thought she loved me … and was good …” (ch. 42). At this point he also recognizes that he cannot allow himself the luxury of being an Orestes. His first reaction to the news of Hetty's misdeeds was a wish to make Arthur suffer: “I’ll make him go and look at her misery—he shall look at her till he can’t forget it—it shall follow him night and day—as long as he lives it shall follow him—he shan’t escape wi’ lies this time—I’ll fetch him, I’ll drag him myself” (ch. 39). Adam, however, listens to Mr. Irwine, who says, “It is not for us men to apportion the shares of moral guilt and retribution” (ch. 41). He passes by the opportunity to cause further evil by exacting revenge on Arthur Donnithorne, and somehow reconciles himself to the great waste and unhappiness that cannot be changed or ameliorated. In doing so, Adam changes and grows. George Eliot describes the process as “a regeneration, the initiation into a new state”: “Doubtless a great anguish may do the work of years, and we may come out from that baptism of fire with a soul full of new awe and new pity” (ch. 42).

Awe and pity are not the equivalents of Aristotle's pity and fear, but Adam is not the one of the three protagonists whose intellectual forebearers are most Hellenic. That one is Arthur Donnithorne. Early in the novel he is compared to the planet Jupiter (ch. 5) and an Olympian god (ch. 9); he swears “by Jove” (ch. 5), and feels “very heroic” (ch. 12). Those who meet this very engaging young man think well of him, but like the Athenians with Alcibiades, Mrs. Irwine uses criteria that are too superficial when she says, “You’ll never persuade me that I can’t tell what men are by their outsides” (ch. 5).

Certainly Arthur's “outsides” are exceptionally attractive. The narrator, however, does not fall into the simplistic mistake of Mrs. Irwine:

We use round, general, gentlemanly epithets about a young man of birth and fortune; and ladies, with that fine intuition which is the distinguishing attribute of their sex, see at once that he is “nice.” The chances are that he will go through life without scandalizing anyone; a seaworthy vessel that no one would refuse to insure. Ships, certainly, are liable to casualties, which sometimes make terribly evident some flaw in their construction that would never have been discoverable in smooth water; and many a “good fellow”, through a disastrous combination of circumstances, has undergone a like betrayal.

But we have no fair ground for entertaining unfavorable auguries concerning Arthur Donnithorne. … (ch. 12)

So surrounded by epithets and auguries, George Eliot obliquely suggests that Arthur, like the ship, may hide some “flaw.” That flaw combines with circumstance9 to thrust Arthur into the tragedy that will affect so many in Hayslope and set Arthur himself on the path from koros to hubris, atê, and nemesis.

Arthur has a more than ample share of self-satisfaction (koros) from the beginning. He sees himself as a fine fellow; but he is too self-indulgent, and he presumes to amuse himself without admitting the responsibility for his actions. Arthur's hamartia is his belief that there are no consequences of his flirtation with Hetty beyond his ability to make right. He continues under this misapprehension until almost the end of the novel. Because of Eliot's interest in the psychology of the character of Arthur Donnithorne, the reader sees much of Arthur's struggles against temptation and his persistent, mistaken belief that no serious harm can result (hamartia); the reader sees comparatively little of Arthur and Hetty together (hamartêma).

Arthur does not continue in his error for lack of warnings. He himself is uneasy about his inability to resist seeing Hetty. Arthur seeks to soothe his conscience by visiting the Rector, Mr. Irwine, an easy remedy because, as the narrator explains, “We take a less gloomy view of our errors now our father confessor listens to us over his egg and coffee” (ch. 16). On the way, Arthur chances to meet Adam and the two talk about temptation. Arthur says, “We may determine not to gather cherries and keep our hands sturdily in our pockets, but we can’t prevent our mouths from watering” (ch. 16). Adam the realist replies that it is no use looking upon life as if it were the Treddleston Fair, an array of treats waiting to be chosen. That, however, is exactly how Arthur has been acting, and he repeatedly overestimates his ability to keep his hands sturdily in his pockets.

Arthur's second, stronger warning follows immediately. He finds the Rector at breakfast with the first volume of the Foulis Aeschylus at his elbow (ch. 16). Mr. Irwine tells Arthur that he always likes to have a “favorite book” available at the breakfast hour. The conversation between the two men is heavy with irony. Mr. Irwine thinks that mornings are conducive to seeing things more clearly, but he does not see Arthur's guilty secret. Arthur, on his part, tells his mentor that, “It was a tempting morning for a ride before breakfast,” but he cannot bring himself to confess what his real temptation is. Arthur says, “But I don’t think a knowledge of the classics is a pressing want to a country gentleman.” He will soon feel the lack of the knowledge he might have gotten from Mr. Irwine, whom the narrator describes as “little better than a pagan!” (ch. 17). Even Arthur winces when the Rector tells him that his godmother, Mrs. Irwine, has been talking about the kind of woman he might marry; the whole conversation has had the “disagreeable effect of a sinister omen” (ch. 16). Mr. Irwine himself reminds Arthur that the chorus in the Prometheus warns against imprudent marriages. When Arthur tries to turn the conversation to generalized comments about good intentions somehow gone astray, Mr. Irwine refuses to excuse the hypothetical wrongdoer with an argument reminiscent of Eliot's comments on the ship at harbor with an undetected flaw: “A man can never do anything at variance with his own nature. He carries within him the germ of his most exceptional action.” When Arthur asks if Mr. Irwine thinks the man who struggles against temptation is as bad as the man who never tries to resist, Mr. Irwine answers:

No, certainly; I pity him in proportion to his struggles, for they foreshadow the inward suffering which is the worst form of Nemesis. Consequences are unpitying. Our deeds carry their terrible consequences, quite apart from any fluctuations that went before—consequences that are hardly ever confined to ourselves. (ch. 16)

Arthur passes up the chance to confess his temptation. The next time the two men talk, Mr. Irwine again refers to Greek tragedy: “Ah, my boy, it is not only woman's love that is [aperotos eros,] as old Aeschylus calls it. There’s plenty of ‘unloving love’ in the world of a masculine kind” (ch. 22). By this time Eliot does not need to show us Arthur wince: the reader knows that when Hetty dressed that same day for the birthday feast, she concealed under her clothes the enamel and gold locket Arthur had given her.

Discovery of the liaison occurs when Adam happens upon the lovers kissing in the wood. Hetty hurries away, but Arthur is left to confront Adam. Arthur, unaware that Adam loves Hetty, is sure that he can pass off the incident. He is full of careless self-confidence, but when Adam demands an explanation, Arthur passes from koros to hubris in his actions toward his loyal friend and retainer: “A patronizing disposition always has its meaner side, and in the confusion of his irritation and alarm there entered the feeling that a man to whom he had shown so much favor as to Adam was not in a position to criticize his conduct” (ch. 27). In quick succession Arthur realizes Adam has silently loved Hetty, recognizes his own conduct as ignoble, and comes to “regard Adam's suffering as not merely a consequence, but an element of his error.” Neither Adam nor Arthur can contain such overwhelming emotions for long, and the two men fight until Arthur is knocked unconscious.

The physical confrontation discharges some of the tension between the two men but removes none of the problems. Arthur finds himself “in the wretched position of an open, generous man who has committed an error which makes deception seem a necessity” (ch. 28). He deliberately deludes Adam about the extent to which he and Hetty are involved; he adopts a self-serving attitude that goes so far as to presume to forgive Adam for Adam's injustice to him. Later, in the farewell letter Adam forces him to write to Hetty, he talks of his wrong and his fault, but only in the most complacent language (ch. 31). The reader feels that, in his heart, Arthur is sure that he suffers the most, gives up the most, and in doing so is acting with noblesse oblige. It is true that his own conscience and Adam's refusal to shake hands bother him, but not enough: “Nemesis can seldom forge a sword for herself out of our consciences—out of the suffering we feel in the suffering we may have caused: There is rarely metal enough there to make an effective weapon” (ch. 29).

Arthur moves from hubris to atê when he still refuses to recognize the irrevocable nature of his wrongdoing. He balms his conscience by dreaming of the favors he can bestow upon Hetty in future years and concludes, “So good comes out of evil.” Adam has already denied the validity of this specious doctrine, and will do so again later.10 Even the simple Mr. Poyser, as much as his fingers ached to hurry the harvest, would never work on a Sunday because “work on sacred days was a wicked thing” and “money got by such means would never prosper” (ch. 18). But Arthur moves and acts under the delusion that good can and will come from his mistakes, and continues under the influence of that delusion for a long time.

There is a terrible coercion in our deeds, which may first turn the honest man into a deceiver and then reconcile him to the change, for this reason—that the second wrong presents itself to him in the guise of the only practicable right. The action which before commission has been seen with that blended common sense and fresh untarnished feeling which is the healthy eye of the soul, is looked at afterwards with the lens of apologetic ingenuity, through which all things that men call beautiful and ugly are seen to be made up of textures very much alike. Europe adjusts itself to a fait accompli, and so does an individual character—until the placid adjustment is disturbed by a convulsive retribution. (ch. 29)

The “convulsive retribution” overtakes Arthur last of the three protagonists. Hetty is already in prison and Adam sees what he had previously refused to see while Arthur is still lulled by Mr. Irwine's letter telling of Hetty's betrothal to Adam. In ignorance and dreaming of his future as beneficent squire, Arthur travels home to his grandfather's funeral. When he does think of “that affair last summer,” he dismisses it: “That was an ugly fault... but the future will make amends” (ch. 44).

When Arthur arrives at his estate and he reads Mr. Irwine's brief note, he, like Adam, experiences a simultaneous reversal and recognition. His ignorance of the consequences of his actions changes to knowledge, and at the same time all his dreams of playing the role of magnanimous squire on the estate he finally inherited are ruined. Adam is not Arthur's Nemesis, although more than once he threatened to take on that role. The magnitude of the suffering caused to Adam, Hetty, and all their relatives and friends at Hayslope is such that Nemesis now can forge a sword out of Arthur's own conscience. His subsequent actions—obtaining Hetty's pardon, going away for years—are actions finally motivated by what will most ease the insupportable situations of those he has hurt. He is no longer trying to appear good; he is no longer concerned with himself. Arthur the squire is the king of Hayslope. Only by going far away and leaving Mr. Irwine to manage the estate does he prevent the further sorrow that would have been caused if the Poysers and the Bedes had felt compelled by honor to leave his lands.

Arthur stays away for seven long years. He returns tired and ill. He is still troubled by his Nemesis. The novel closes with Adam telling Dinah, his wife, what Arthur has said about Hetty:

“The first thing he said to me, when we’d got hold o’ one another's hands was, ‘I could never do anything for her, Adam—she lived long enough for all the suffering—and I’d thought so of the time when I might do something for her. But you told me the truth when you said to me once, “There’s a sort of wrong that can never be made up for.”’” (Epilogue)

Arthur has learned through suffering, just as the chorus in the Agamemnon says man must.11 But the lesson that “There’s a sort of wrong that can never be made up for” is not the only thing Arthur learns. The reader comes away with the impression that this older Arthur will care less about looking good and more about being good. Arthur, and Adam, and even perhaps Hetty learn to look outside themselves. If evil is to be avoided as much as possible, man must learn sympathy for his fellow human beings. Man must have sympathy and seek to do right, not because he will be rewarded, but because it is right. George Eliot wished her novels to teach moral lessons. In the same year she published Adam Bede, she wrote to a friend:

If Art does not enlarge men's sympathies, it does nothing morally. I have had heart-cutting experience that opinions are a poor cement between human souls; and the only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.12

The genre in which Eliot worked is, like Homeric epic, more expansive than tragedy. The novel Adam Bede, for example, contains material for more than one dramatic tragedy. Eliot also had more than one literary antecedent in mind, as parallels to Miltonic epic and the pastoral tradition demonstrate.13 Nevertheless, the classical allusions, the vocabulary of the Poetics, and the pattern of Adam's and Arthur's actions make comparisons to tragedy compelling. Adam Bede is tragedy if a noble carpenter or a frivolous country squire who experiences a reversal of fortune because of a hamartia is sufficiently noble to be a tragic protagonist. It is tragedy without actors or a stage, without the unities of time, place, and action, without a chorus. It is tragedy in so far as Eliot sought, like the Greeks, to exalt the nobility of man and show that suffering may bring wisdom. And for Eliot, at this early point in her development as a novelist, the wisdom taught by suffering is a moral truth outside the limits of conventional religion, a sympathy and love for all “struggling erring human creatures.”


  1. “The Morality of Wilhelm Meister,” reprinted from the Leader, VI (21 July, 1855), 703 in Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (New York, 1963), p. 146.

  2. In the manuscript, the word “urge” replaced “teach,” which was crossed out. “Letter to Frederic Harrison,” London, 15 August [1866], in The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon Haight (New Haven, Conn., 1954-55), IV, 301.

  3. Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot: A Biography (Oxford, 1968), p. 195. For an extensive review of George Eliot's use of Greek and Latin literature, see Vernon Rendall, “George Eliot and the Classics,” Notes and Queries, 192 (13 and 27 December, 1947), 544-46, 564-65; and Notes and Queries, 193 (3 April, 26 June 1948), 148-49, 272-74, reprinted in A Century of George Eliot Criticism, ed. Gordon S. Haight (Boston, 1965), pp. 215ff.

  4. See “The Unheroic Tragedy” and following chapters in Barbara Hardy, The Novels of George Eliot (New York, 1959; rpt. 1963); Felicia Bonaparte, Will and Destiny: Morality and Tragedy in George Eliot's Novels (New York, 1975); and William E. Buckler, “Memory, Morality and the Tragic Vision in the Early Novels of George Eliot,” in The English Novel in the Nineteenth Century: Essays on the Literary Mediation of Human Values, ed. George Gordin (Urbana, Ill., 1972), pp. 145-63.

  5. Aristotle, Poetics, ed. and tr. Richard McKeon (New York, 1941; rpt. 1966), 1453a13-16.

  6. See Donald Stump, “Sidney's Concept of Tragedy and the Function of Hamartia in the Arcadia,” Ph.D. Diss. (Cornell University, 1978), pp. 146-56.

  7. See R. T. Jones, A Critical Commentary on George Eliot's ‘Adam Bede’ (New York, 1968), p. 9: “This is the flaw (not a fatal one) in Adam's innocence: his confidence that he is righteous and that it is not too hard for anyone to be so. …” See also Hardy, p. 38: “In Adam, as later in Dorothea, egoism is no less a flaw which tragedy has to mend because it happens to take the form of a vision of duty. …”

  8. See Poetics, 1452a22-b13. Reversal is translated “Peripety” and recognition “Discovery” by McKeon. Adam Bede's recognition is more psychological than the examples mentioned by Aristotle, which usually involve disguised identities, tokens, plain facts, and the like.

  9. See The Mill on the Floss, Bk. 6, ch. 6: “For the tragedy of our lives is not created entirely from within. ‘Character,’ says Novalis in one of his questionable aphorisms ‘—character is destiny.’ But not the whole of our destiny. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was speculative and irresolute, and we have a great tragedy in consequence. But if his father had lived to a good old age and his uncle had died an early death, we can conceive Hamlet's having married Ophelia and got through life with a reputation of sanity, notwithstanding many soliloquies and some moody sarcasms towards the fair daughter of Polonius, to say nothing of the frankest incivility to his father-in-law.”

  10. Adam to Arthur: “It takes the taste out o’ my mouth for things, when I know I should have a heavy conscience after ’em. I’ve seen pretty clear, ever since I could cast up a sum as you can never do what’s wrong without breeding sin and trouble more than you can ever see. It’s like a bit o’ bad workmanship—you never see th’ end o’ the mischief it’ll do” (ch. 16).

    Adam to Arthur: “I don’t know what you mean by flirting, … but if you mean behaving to a woman as if you loved her, and yet not loving her all the while, I say that’s not th’ action of an honest man, and what isn’t honest does come t’ harm” (ch. 27).

    Adam to Bartle Massey: “Good come out of it! … That doesn’t alter th’ evil: her ruin can’t be undone. I hate that talk o’ people, as if there was a way o’ making amends for everything. They’d more need be brought to see as the wrong they do can never be altered. When a man's spoiled his fellow-creatur's life, he’s no right to comfort himself with thinking good may come out of it. Somebody else's good doesn’t alter her shame and misery” (ch. 46).

    Adam to Arthur: “A man should make sacrifices to keep clear of doing a wrong; sacrifices won’t undo it when it’s done. When people's feelings have got a deadly wound, they can’t be cured with favours” (ch. 48).

  11. See Aeschylus, Agamemnon, ed. and tr. Richmond Lattimore in Greek Tragedies, Vol. I (Chicago, 1960), 11. 176-83:

    Zeus, who guided men to think,
    who has laid it down that wisdom
    comes alone through suffering.
    Still there drips in sleep against the heart
    grief of memory; against
    our pleasure we are temperate.
    From the gods who sit in grandeur
    grace comes somehow violent.
  12. “Letter to Charles Bray,” Wandsworth, 5 July 1859, in The George Eliot Letters, III, 110-11.

  13. See “Pastoralism and the Justification of Suffering: Adam Bede,” in U. C. Knoepflmacher, George Eliot's Early Novels: The Limits of Realism (Berkeley, 1968), pp. 89-127.

Mason Harris (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10261

SOURCE: “Infanticide and Respectability: Hetty Sorrel as Abandoned Child in Adam Bede,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. IX, No. 2, June, 1983, pp. 177-96.

[In the following essay, Harris examines the character of Hetty Sorrel and her place in the larger narrative of Adam Bede, and discusses the realism of her despair and flight.]

Adam Bede has usually been enjoyed and interpreted as a celebration of pastoral community, a loving backward look at a long-vanished rural world. Yet much of this novel's interest, especially for the modern reader, lies in its combination of nostalgic retrospect with “modern” problems not usually found in a pastoral. In particular, Hetty Sorrel's unwed pregnancy, desperate flight, abandonment of her child, and trial for its murder, seems to many readers the most striking episode in the novel. Eliot's vivid depiction of Hetty's flight has attracted some excellent criticism: both Barbara Hardy and Ian Adam analyze the remarkable way in which the narrator merges with Hetty's consciousness to bring us the immediate experience of a confused and inarticulate character.1

Our admiration for Eliot's achievement here, however, has tended to raise questions about Hetty's relation to the novel as a whole. The modern reader is likely to be put off by an apparent harshness in Eliot's commentary on Hetty throughout much of the novel—a harshness which seems oddly in contrast to her sympathy during the flight episode; some have seen Hetty's fate as a severe punishment for sexual love. Most serious, because most threatening to the novel's integrity, is the influential view that the realism of Hetty's “Journey in Despair” simply does not belong to the rest of the novel. In his well-known essay, “The Two Worlds of Adam Bede,” Ian Gregor argues that most of the novel is old-fashioned pastoral, while Hetty's flight represents the intrusion of a modern “fiction of moral and philosophical inquiry” incompatible with the pastoral tradition.2 If we accept this conclusion then we must consider the character at the centre of the plot and the modern reader's interest an inspired accident, and relegate the rest of the novel to a charming but obsolete literary genre. The vital issues raised by Hetty's disaster become irrelevant to Eliot's depiction of the world of Hayslope, and her fall seems a matter of private sin played off against a background of “immemorial” rustic virtue.3

The real question lies not in the rather abstract matter of genre but in the novel's sense of community, especially in the opposition between Hetty and her aunt and uncle Poyser, who represent the best aspects of the respectable tenant farmers of Hayslope. Despite the fine studies of Hetty's flight, surprisingly little criticism has been directed to her relation to the Poysers, and this is the area we must explore if we are to get beyond the inhibiting view of her as a separate case. Only if she belongs to the Poysers can she be shown to belong to the novel as a whole.

In his convincing interpretation—published a quarter of a century ago and still one of the most important essays on Adam Bede—J. R. Creeger takes the novel out of the realm of “pastoral” (in the simple sense intended by Ian Gregor) when he demonstrates that Eliot's admiration for the Poysers is not unqualified, and that Dinah's Methodism provides a critical perspective on the world of Hayslope.4 Hetty is usually seen as quite different from the apparently warm-hearted Poysers, but in emphasizing the difference between their values and Dinah's Creeger suggests that Hetty does indeed belong to Hayslope: she is “a perfect representative of the Loamshire-Hayslope world: she has its fertility, and she has its beauty, which nevertheless conceals an essential hardness.”5 He argues that the effect of her “ordeal is to externalize the hardness which has hitherto been concealed.” Although the inhabitants of Hayslope refuse to forgive her crime and thus cannot help her, “they are implicated in her condition.”6

Perhaps Creeger's insights have not been followed up in any clear way because of the confusing effect of Eliot's ambivalence both towards the Poysers, who are presented so warmly early in the novel but who later repudiate their erring niece, and Hetty, whom the narrator frequently disparages and yet depicts as sympathetic despite her undeniable crime. Finally, Eliot's affection for the Poysers triumphs in a happy ending which gets rid of Hetty and seems designed to make us forget the shortcomings of Hayslope.

Despite these difficulties, Hetty's role deserves further consideration. She is one of the most convincing depictions of a fallen woman in Victorian literature; as we shall see, she is also a crucial instance of the problems of the relation between individual and community in Eliot's fiction. Criticism has had difficulty in recognizing her full significance because of the mistaken assumption that Eliot intends a complete moral polarity between the novel's community and its main character. If the Poysers are seen to represent an ideal familial togetherness which stands for their whole community, then in her lack of family feeling and her most unfamilial crime Hetty can only be seen as an alien threat which tests the coherence of the community. Since Hetty accomplishes this through sexual indiscretion she can also be seen as the heroine of an erotic idyll set in total contrast to the Puritan virtues of the Poysers, and cruelly punished by an equally Puritan author.7

The view of Hetty as a sinful intruder on pastoral innocence involves a misunderstanding of her nature as a character—a misunderstanding which in turn obscures her most obvious link with the Poysers. If we look beneath Eliot's sometimes annoying commentary we will discover that she presents Hetty not as an adult sinner but as a confused child, and that it is through her role as child that her relation to her community can best be understood.

Hetty devastates the traditional family life of the Poysers by killing her child; because of this crime we tend to forget that she is herself an orphaned child for whom they have a parental responsibility. Their unthinking adherence to tradition may have something to do with her failure to grow up, and certainly provides the values which motivate her disastrous flight. In her blind respectability she rejects all possibility of rescue, hiding her child in a forest in a compulsive attempt to recover her position as the Poysers' child. As we shall see, the state of mind in which she commits the “murder” reveals a young child's inability to handle inner conflict. Childishly dependent on the values of her community, she remains trapped in a world which cannot recognize the isolated individual; yet her anguished confusion provides the novel's most intense portrayal of individual experience. As lost child, Hetty also acquires a central, if difficult, role in Eliot's preoccupation with moral education through experience, a concern which itself arises out of the breakdown of community.

In attempting a comprehensive study of Hetty's role, we encounter an interesting problem which may help to explain why such a fragmented picture of her is to be found in criticism. There may be some difficulties in perspective in approaching a character who is thematically at the centre of the novel, but psychologically isolated by her narcissism from all the other characters: to understand her as a character we must study her in relation to her own very narrow world, but to understand the full significance of her role in the novel we must see her in relation to a much larger world of which she has no comprehension—a problem made more difficult by her abrupt disappearance from the story after her confession to Dinah.

To accommodate this dual aspect of Hetty, my essay will move through two stages. I will first concentrate on her relation to the Poysers and her psychological motivation, viewing her abandonment of her child and subsequent mental collapse as a comment on the limitations of the communal world she shares with her foster parents. Then, taking a larger perspective, I will consider her in relation to other characters and the main themes of the novel, finally asking why the author herself abandons the pathetic child for whom she has won so much sympathy. A fuller understanding of the psychological and social aspects of Hetty's role will reveal that Eliot's shift from “pastoral” to “realism” is not a break in the novel's continuity but a result of its natural development. Only in the happy ending do we find a pastoral incompatible with Eliot's realism.


We first encounter Hetty as a very self-centred and naive girl competently performing her tasks at the Poysers' farm, but without affection for her foster parents or their way of life. It is the editorial commentary here which offends the modern reader; many have assumed that Hetty is being presented as a monster of egotism, especially in Chapter Fifteen, where she is seen in contrast to her Methodist cousin Dinah, who works in a factory and ministers to the poor in industrial Stonyshire, and occasionally visits the Hall Farm, but refuses to live there because she cannot accept the Poysers' complacent prosperity.

In terms of the novel's Wordsworthian values, Hetty does seem rather unwholesome. The narrator tells us that she hates young animals and children, especially those belonging to the Poysers. We should note, however, that the way the narrator describes Hetty suggests that her problem lies in extreme immaturity rather than in wickedness. Despite her distaste for babies and the natural world she is frequently compared to small and young animals: she has a “beauty like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks … or babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief—a beauty with which you can never be angry, but that you feel ready to crush for inability to comprehend the state of mind into which it throws you”; here Hetty seems just at the infantile beginning of consciousness.8 “She was like a kitten, and had the same distractingly pretty looks, that meant nothing, for everybody that came near her” (xix, 213). Hetty's “look” can mean nothing because it has no recognition of the subjective reality of others. Both her admirers seem attracted by her resemblance to small animals: Adam observes her bad temper with “a sort of amused pity, as if he had seen a kitten setting up its back, or a little bird with its feathers ruffled … the prettiest thing in the world” (xxiii, 269), and, when she weeps, Arthur finds her irresistibly like “a bright-eyed spaniel with a thorn in its foot” (xiii, 138).

Before condemning Eliot for moral intolerance towards Hetty, we must remember the problem Eliot faced in retaining the sympathy of a Victorian audience for this character. By criticizing Hetty early in the novel Eliot expresses beforehand the disapproval her audience might be expected to feel later, and also, by the very nature of her criticism, implies that Hetty's problem is really psychological, more deserving of sympathy than harsh judgement. Mentally she is a child, a case of arrested development, not responsible for her actions, and thus a victim no matter what she may finally do. Dinah foreshadows the “Journey in Despair” when she compares Hetty facing a woman's destiny to a “child hugging its toys in the beginning of a long toilsome journey, in which it will have to bear hunger and cold and unsheltered darkness” (xv, 160). Later, Adam repeatedly excuses Hetty on the grounds that “‘She’s all but a child’” (xxviii, 308). Clearly we are invited to do the same; the more Eliot emphasizes Hetty's childishness the better case she has for sympathy later on.

In considering the Poysers' role as Hetty's foster parents, we should remember that despite Eliot's nostalgia for Hayslope she had a sharp critical understanding of the class to which they belong. As prosperous English yeomen, the Poysers represent the very best of the peasant class Eliot describes in her sociological essay, “The Natural History of German Life,” but their world-view reveals that predominance of tradition over individual consciousness which she finds characteristic of the peasantry: with the peasant, “Custom holds the place of sentiment. … The peasant never questions the obligation of family ties—he questions no custom [but] with him general custom holds the place of individual feeling.”9 Mr. Poyser habitually displays a “predominant after-supper expression of hearty good-nature” (xxv, 285), but towards a man of whose farming methods he does not approve he is “as hard and implacable as the north-east wind” (xiv, 145). Mrs. Poyser constantly criticizes the housekeeping of neighbouring wives, and her frequent tirades against Hetty and the servants are associated with that compulsive cleanliness which Eliot finds less of a virtue when inflicted on Maggie by the Dodson aunts in The Mill on the Floss. Mrs. Poyser berates Molly, the all-purpose maid, for having been hired “without a bit o’ character” and kept despite her filthy ways (vi, 73-74 and xx, 231-32). It would seem that in her first novel Eliot made humour out of certain characteristics of the respectable peasantry (the origins of her own family) towards which she actually felt ambivalent—if we are to judge by her next novel.

Some bitter remarks by “old Martin,” Mr. Poyser's father and Hetty's grandfather, reveal that before Hetty's parents died they disgraced themselves through improvident farming. The senior Poyser has never forgiven his daughter, Hetty's mother, for marrying a poor man against his will; he retains “a long unextinguished resentment, which always made [him] more indifferent to Hetty than to his son's children. Her mother's fortune had been spent by that good-for-nought Sorrel, and Hetty had Sorrel's blood in her veins” (xxxi, 344). The Poysers scrupulously acknowledge their obligation to take care of their niece, but their rigid values might well have a stunting effect on a girl dispossessed at the age of ten when her parents died in poverty. Mrs. Poyser means well towards Hetty, but often berates her along with the servants; it would not occur to her to treat the orphan niece as an equal to her own children. Though they wish the best for Hetty in marriage, the Poysers do not see her as “a daughter of their own,” but as a “penniless niece. For what could Hetty have been but a servant elsewhere, if her uncle had not taken her in and brought her up as a domestic help to her aunt?” (ix, 98). Hetty occupies an ambiguous position below the Poysers' children, yet partaking of the Poyser respectability, and thus above the more easygoing world of the servants and farmhands.10 Despite the contrast between the Poysers' good intentions and Hetty's narcissism, she can be seen as a product of their world—a possible outcome of the narrowness and complacency of their values along with their somewhat impersonal attitude towards her as a “domestic help.”

Hetty's state of mind can be consistently interpreted as a case of childhood narcissism accompanied by intense sibling rivalry: having lost her own position as daughter she hates the Poysers' children as rivals and does not care much for the parents who produced them. Chapter Fifteen provides a comprehensive account of Hetty's attitude towards the Poysers' family life. She has no “loving thought of her second parents—of the children she had helped to tend—of any youthful companion, any pet animal, any relic of her own childhood even” and “did not understand how anybody could be very fond of middle-aged people. And as for those tiresome children … Hetty would have been glad to hear that she should never see a child again.” She also hates “the nasty little lambs” brought in for special care, but at least the lambs, unlike the Poysers' children, “were gotten rid of sooner or later.” This seems a death-wish; Mrs. Poyser complains that she showed no feeling when the infant Totty was missing and assumed drowned. Hetty's attitude towards young animals suggests repulsion towards anything suggestive of birth or the maternal: “Hetty would have hated the very word ‘hatching’ if her aunt had not bribed her to attend the young poultry” (xv, 156-58). She resembles the four-year-old Totty in preoccupation with clothing, in her interest in getting presents, and in being compared to young animals by the narrator. We shall see that, despite her lack of affection, Hetty is actually very dependent on her family.

While Mrs. Poyser rails at Hetty and the servants she constantly coddles Totty: she admits, Totty is “spoiled shameful … being the youngest, and th’ only gell” (vii, 87, italics mine). Hetty particularly dislikes this child, who was born after she came to the Poysers. The absence of any attachment to the present or fondness for the past suggests a disturbance associated with that past; Hetty's fantasies deny the existence of time. As we have seen, she hates the thought of birth and babies of any species. When Eliot compares her to young animals she implies that babies do not like other babies, and that a woman who has remained a child is not likely to be a sympathetic mother. Hetty's gentlemen admirers are quite mistaken when they imagine, “How she will dote on her children! She is almost a child herself, and the little pink round things will hang about her like florets round the central flower” (xv, 154).11

In her obsession with costume, Hetty is not a temptress but a little girl. She projects her childhood interest in clothes and rivalry into adult relationships, thinking of marriage as an occasion “when she would have a silk gown and a great many clothes all at once” (xxxi, 342). She is preoccupied with dressing better than Mary Burge, daughter of the owner of the local timber yard. Her main interest in both Mary and Adam seems to derive from the fact that Mary likes Adam, while Adam has eyes only for herself: “she felt nothing when his eyes rested on her, but the cold triumph of knowing that he loved her, and would not look at Mary Burge” (ix, 99). At the height of her affair with Arthur she still pauses to give Adam one of her “brightest smiles” because “she knew Mary Burge was looking at them” (xxii, 256).

Hetty's feeling for Arthur is just a Cinderella-fantasy in which he plays a god-like handsome prince who will magically elevate her above all rivals, especially Mary Burge. The extent to which her fantasies about Arthur involve infantile dressing up should dispel any belief that sensual love or romantic passion is involved here. As she parades “with a pigeon-like stateliness” before her bedroom mirror, she dreams of Captain Donnithorne, who thought her “prettier than anybody about Hayslope … and prettier than Miss Bacon, the miller's daughter, who was called the beauty of Treddleston … he would like to see her in nice clothes, and thin shoes and white stockings, perhaps with silk clocks to them … of every picture she is the central figure in fine clothes … and everybody else is admiring and envying her” (xv, 152-56). Critics are mistaken who assume that Eliot attacks sensual love in having this affair end in disaster; Hetty is infantile from the beginning, and Arthur likes her that way. Hetty's problem is not sin but a regressive narcissism which, with its concomitant naiveté, sets her up as Arthur's victim and then, given the bad luck of his transfer to Ireland, becomes, along with her intense respectability, the driving force behind her crime. In her case criminal justice seems both cruel and irrelevant.

As we have seen, Hetty projects her feeling of dispossession into very naive fairy-tale aspirations; despite her hostility to her family and longing to rise above it she cannot perceive any reality outside her family life. Thus, when she runs away to hide her shame, her dark journey does not represent an advance in experience of the outside world, but a blind, regressive drive to reassert the respectability she possessed when she lived with the Poysers. In this state of mind she acts out a grim parody of their values.

An important comment on Hetty's motivation links her narcissism with the Poysers' sense of respectability. After reading Arthur's letter putting an end to the affair, she resolves that “nobody should find out how miserable she was. … They would think her conduct shameful; and shame was torture. That was poor little Hetty's conscience” (xxxi, 343). The full force of her narcissism is focussed on being seen by others in terms of the respectable standards of her community: “Hetty had a certain strength in her vain little nature: she would have borne anything rather than be laughed at, or pointed to with any other feeling than admiration” (xviii, 202).

The emphasis on being “laughed at” or “pointed to” reveals shame-culture at its most basic. Hetty's obsession with maintaining her respectability is related to the distinction, important to both Eliot and G. H. Lewes, between shame and the sympathetic imagination as the basis of morality—also a distinction between primitive and civilized world-views.12 The Poysers and their community are still mainly at the level of shame-culture, manifested in extreme form in Hetty's case, while Dinah, the self-denying Methodist from industrial Stoniton, combines the sympathetic imagination with an Evangelical disregard for social status, and thus is able to “save” Hetty when the community condemns her. The parallel Eliot suggests between Mr. Poyser's rejection of his niece and Hetty's child-murder indicates the need for a more conscious morality than that of tradition-bound Hayslope.

Early in her flight Hetty displays a social attitude characteristic of the Poysers' world: “she was most of all afraid of … becoming so destitute that she would have to ask for people's charity; for Hetty had the pride not only of a proud nature but of a proud class—the class that pays the most poor-rates, and most shudders at the idea of profiting by a poor rate” (xxxvi, 379). Later she is quick to assure the innkeeper that “I belong to respectable folks” (xxxvii, 389). At the beginning of the “Journey in Despair,” Eliot describes Hetty's dread of shame as a class-attitude in a passage which brings some central themes together:

She thought of a young woman who had been found against the church wall at Hayslope one Sunday, nearly dead with cold and hunger—a tiny infant in her arms; the woman was rescued and taken to the parish. “The parish!” You can perhaps hardly understand the effect of that word on a mind like Hetty's, brought up among people who were somewhat hard in their feelings even towards poverty, who lived among the fields and had little pity for want and rags as a cruel inevitable fate such as they sometimes seem in cities, but held them a mark of idleness and vice—and it was idleness and vice that brought burthens on the parish. To Hetty the “parish” was next to the prison in obloquy; and to ask anything of strangers—to beg—lay in the same far-off hideous region of intolerable shame that Hetty had all her life thought it impossible she could ever come near. (xxxvii, 386)

Here Hetty partakes of the conviction, already enuciated by Mrs. Poyser in her criticism of Methodists (viii, 94), that if you’re poor it’s your own fault—“idleness and vice” are the leading qualities of those who choose to live at the ratepayers' expense. With the Poysers this attitude is natural because they “live among the fields” where Dinah finds “a strange deadness to the Word” (viii, 92). As Dinah admits, her religion flourishes only in cities; it is through contact with the industrial poor that she has been able to develop her democratic vision of poverty as a “cruel inevitable fate” rather than a comment on one's moral character (viii, 92). For Hetty and her class, people who are not respectable, and thus have no place in the social order, cease to exist morally. “Charity” denotes not Christian love but something so degrading that those who receive it have lost all claim to be considered human. No significant distinction can be made between being on the “parish” and imprisonment for a crime.

When worried about possible eviction by the old Squire, the Poysers think of moving twenty miles away to the next parish as a kind of death: “we shall … die o’ broken hearts among strange folks” (xxxviii, 359). After Hetty's disaster this move seems necessitated by a loss of status felt quite literally as worse than death. Repeatedly insisting on the Old Testament view that their children and grandchildren must suffer for Hetty's disgrace, the Poyser father and son play the role of Pharisee, while the lost sinner can only be saved by Dinah, whose religion emphasizes forgiveness and universal suffering represented by Christ as the “Man of Sorrows”:

the Hall Farm was a house of mourning for a misfortune felt to be worse than death. The sense of family dishonour was too keen even in the kind-hearted Martin Poyser the younger, to leave any room for compassion towards Hetty. … Hetty had brought disgrace on them all—disgrace that could never be wiped out. That was the all-conquering feeling in the mind of both father and son—the scorching sense of disgrace, which neutralized all other sensibility; Mr. Irwine was struck with surprise to observe that Mrs. Poyser was less severe than her husband. We are often startled with the severity of mild people on exceptional occasions; the reason is, that mild people are most liable to be under the yoke of traditional impressions. (xl, 423)

The intensity of feeling which Mrs. Poyser manifests in her role as sharp-tongued defender of Hayslope morality can also grant her a certain independence from that morality: though she thinks on conventional lines she can sometimes experience as an individual. If Martin is more tradition-bound because he has less feeling, then we can conclude that Hetty, who has no feeling for others, is the most likely to be “under the yoke of traditional impressions.” With his sensibility “neutralized,” Mr. Poyser temporarily enters a state of mind which is permanent with Hetty. Weeping “hard tears” he says that he will pay for her defence at the trial, but “I’ll not go nigh her, nor ever see her again, by my own will. She’s made our bread bitter to us for all our lives to come, an’ we shall ne’er hold up our heads i’ this parish nor i’ any other” (xl, 423). Mr. Poyser's attitude here is more excusable than Hetty's crime, but both repudiate a child because they equate disgrace with death.

Dinah's implied criticism of Hayslope is dramatized by Hetty's flight. Hetty enjoys fantasies of rising above the Poysers, but her behaviour in the flight reveals that she is childishly dependent on her environment and thus blindly follows its values; she possesses no inner consciousness to oppose the compulsion of respectability. Alienated from family life and isolated by her narcissism, she reproduces the Poysers' values without their feeling for kin and community. Of course, this is a distortion of their world-view, but the analogy between her abandonment of her child and her uncle's attitude towards her implies a repudiation of the human on both sides.

Despite Hetty's “resolute air of self-reliance,” her actions during the “Flight in Despair” are completely irrational; like a young child, she can only express conflicting drives in contradictory behaviour. She flees from Hayslope to escape “discovery and scorn” before “familiar eyes,” but refuses all offers of help on the journey because she takes the outside world as an extension of her community. She seeks a pool in which to drown herself—a pool deep enough so that her body will not be discovered until summer, by which time no one will be able to recognize her. Yet as she searches for such a pool she maintains a respectable appearance, takes care with her money, and travels back towards home.

When she finds a pool she postpones suicide to eat “eagerly” and fall asleep, awakening terrified in “cold, and darkness, and solitude—out of all human reach” (xxxvii, 395). By contrast she thinks of the Hall Farm: “The bright hearth and the voices of home,—the secure uprising and lying down,—the familiar fields, the familiar people” (xxxvii, 395). This antithesis between lethal solitude, the outcome of her flight from human vision, and home perceived in terms of light, heat, the sound of voices—the impersonality of unvarying routine and “familiar people”—presents an extreme form of communal identification. She seeks to return to no particular relationship, but to merge into a total pattern which will be static and therefore absolute.

After recovering from her panic, she feels “exultation” at still being alive and, in an uncharacteristic display of emotion, kisses “her arms with passionate love of life” (xxxvii, 395). Yet this inherent vitality, evoked by her rejection of suicide, cannot extend to a sense of the value of life in general, not even that of the child to which she will soon give birth. The next morning her “passionate joy in life” (xxxvii, 397) succumbs to a moralistic peasant who calls her a “wild woman,” renewing her sense of disgrace so that “she felt that she was like a beggar already” (xxxvii, 395-97).

Hetty passionately loves her own flesh, yet passes sentence of death on her pregnant body. She can resolve this dilemma once the child is born by killing it in order to return to the only life she can imagine—unquestioned acceptance in the community. Hetty resists with her whole being the disruption of her infantile dependence on her kin by the child to which she has given birth; there is only room for one infant in her world and that is herself. Later she tells Dinah of her plan to drown the baby so that she could be once more “safe at home”: “I thought I’d find a pool, if I could, like that other. … I thought I should get rid of all my misery, and go back home, and never let ’em know why I ran away. … I longed so to be safe at home. … I seemed to hate the baby—it was like a heavy weight hanging round my neck” (xlv, 462-63). Yet as Hetty resolutely takes the baby into the woods she experiences for the first time a counter-movement of feeling for it. This can only find expression in tactile terms: “the baby was warm against me … its crying went through me, and I daredn’t look at its little face and hands” (xlv, 463). Instead of experiencing the baby only as a “heavy weight” she recognizes the existence of a face by refusing to look at it.

The child is not saved by this feeling, but Hetty's longing to express it will prompt the confession which returns her to humanity.13 At present the impulse to kill the child still dominates; rather than weighing alternatives Hetty commits the act, but does it in a way that expresses her ambivalence (xlv, 463-64). By covering up the baby in a hole under a bush in the woods Hetty leaves it to almost certain death by exposure, and signifies her lethal intentions by describing the hole as a “grave”; the child is so well hidden that, as we learn at the trial, a man who searched the spot after hearing it cry couldn’t find it (xliii, 444-45). Yet by also leaving an opening for it to breathe she expresses the wish that it “wouldn’t die.” She thinks only now of abandoning the child so that it might live; yet she had a good opportunity to do this earlier after giving birth in the house of a sympathetic woman. At that time, however, when she was actually in contact with another person, her flight from shame demanded a lonely murder in the woods. By burying the child, but not completely, Hetty tries both to kill it and to let it live, and of course the result is death.

Only after she abandons the child does her feeling for it begin to get the upper hand. At this point most Victorian novelists would have presented a scene of melodramatic remorse, but Eliot is too good a psychologist to let Hetty depart from character. Since her consciousness cannot accommodate conflict, her maternal feeling finds expression in auditory hallucination and a compulsive return to the scene of the crime. Miles away she hears the baby crying, a literal expression of the wish that it might still be alive. The “crying” finally overcomes her flight from shame, forcing her to return to the place where she hid the baby: “I’d left off thinking about going home—it had gone out o’ my mind” (xlv, 464). Hetty could never have made this confession had she not finally been able to forget her drive to return home.

Since she has no inner consciousness, this feeling appears only after the fulfilment of her drive towards isolation and murder, and then only as hallucination, paralysis of the will, and psychic fragmentation—she never rejects her original goal but only notes later that it had “gone out” of her mind. It seems that she can experience feelings that conflict with her narcissism only as external forces compelling action against her will. Ironically, her belated feeling for the child brings about her arrest and a disgrace worse than unwed motherhood. Unable to face real suicide, she responds with psychotic withdrawal from humanity. During the “Journey in Despair” her features have already become petrified and petrifying “like that wondrous Medusa face, with the passionate, passionless lips” (xxxvii, 393);14 now her whole being follows suit: “My heart went like a stone: I couldn’t wish or try for anything; it seemed like as if I should stay there for ever, and nothing ’ud ever change. But they came and took me away” (xlv, 465). Here “heart” and time freeze in a repudiation of life-processes.

Her psychic suicide seems another parallel to her uncle's attitude towards her. He casts her out of the family, while she “will not confess her name or where she comes from” (xxxix, 418)—in Hetty's kinship-oriented world to have neither place nor name is to be dead. Mr. Poyser will act as though he never had a niece while Hetty “denies that she has had a child” (xl, 427). Killing one's own child, whether in metaphor or fact, is an extreme way of denying the narrator's assertion that we should “help each other the more” because “we are children of a large family” (xxvii, 298).

We have seen that the experience of abandoning the child opens, for the first time, a breach in Hetty's narcissistic world; confession of this experience to Dinah is a step outside herself which earlier would have been impossible. Dinah attributes this change to divine grace but it really arises from the therapeutic value of confession itself.15 Hetty cannot conceptualize her experience, but in the course of the confession the persistent “crying” and her return to the child change from hallucination and compulsion to an image of guilt linking the present to the past. In tribute to the honesty of Eliot's characterization, however, we must note that Hetty's account of her new feelings is limited to very concrete terms: “that crying and the place in the wood,” which she hopes God will “take away” as though it were a physical pain (xlv, 564). Her confession can only be seen as the beginning of consciousness.


Hetty's confession is the emotional climax of the novel; nowhere else do we approach such intense involvement with any of the characters. Yet the confession is also the focal point of our problems with the novel, for we are never to see Hetty again, and thus all the questions raised by this climactic scene remain unanswered. Eliot first turns away from Hetty to concentrate on the sympathetic concern felt for her by other characters, and then, having rescued her from the gallows and shipped her off as a transported convict, forgets her altogether—except for a few cold references in the final Book of the novel, where the sole purpose of the narrative is to celebrate the Poysers' harvest supper and lead towards the happy marriage of Adam and Dinah.

The difficulty presented by Hetty's exile can be seen more clearly by comparison to the easier time Eliot has with her fellow sinner, Arthur. Since both Arthur and Hetty have fallen from the rustic community, any sense of reconciliation on their part must come from self-understanding and a sense of reconciliation with humanity in general. Arthur achieves this in Chapter Forty-Eight, where he reestablishes his friendship with Adam, declares his intent to sacrifice himself by leaving for India so that no one else need leave town, and makes Adam promise to persuade the Poysers to stay. His exile is a healing of his relation with the community: he accepts his guilt, does the best thing for others, and thus prepares for his happier return seven years later.

Arthur's capacity for self-understanding, and his resources as officer, gentleman, and landlord, provide the basis for a conventional expiation. Hetty's exile, however, is not a matter of choice; while we trust she has made a beginning we have yet to see how she will deal with guilt and shame, especially as a transported convict.16 In this context, Eliot's refusal to say anything at all about Hetty's further development seems unforgivable. When, after Arthur has been welcomed back in “The Epilogue,” Dinah rather glibly remarks that “the death of the poor wanderer, when she was coming back to us, has been sorrow upon sorrow” (549), we can only take this as a rather cheap way for the author to fudge unfinished business; it would seem that death is after all the only permissible fate for the fallen woman.

Fortunately, this failure occurs too late to inflict fatal damage on the novel. Despite the incompleteness of her story, Hetty stands out, in the very difficulties she creates, as one of Eliot's great heroines. Her flight from Hayslope brings together the problems of community and individual development, and pushes them to the limits of Eliot's realism. The crime led up to by her journey, coldly investigated at her trial, and finally explained in her confession, is the true centre of the novel because its social and psychological causes include so much of the novel's reality. I will show how the main themes of the novel move towards a climax in her flight and confession, and then are defused by her exile.

The nostalgic affection with which Eliot regards the Poysers, especially on our first tour of the Hall Farm, has blinded many readers to the fact that this novel deals with two problems characteristic of her fiction: the difficulties of growing from confused adolescence to moral maturity, and the virtues and limitations of a tradition-bound community. These concerns are closely related because it is a breach in the community which necessitates individual development, and to learn to think for oneself one must transcend the limitations of one's community.

Although Eliot lovingly depicts the tranquil life of the older generation, represented by the Poysers and their Anglican shepherd Mr. Irwine, the novel is really about the problems of three confused children: Arthur and Hetty, both orphans living with relatives, and Adam, a virtual orphan who assumes responsibility for a drunken father and a foolish, querulous mother. In each case, the moral deficiencies of the child are related to an absence of parental guidance and to feelings of resentment towards inadequate parent-figures: Adam responds to his father's disgrace by incorporating Hayslope's “hardness” into his moral independence, while Arthur compensates for his grandfather's hostility and greed by dreaming how, upon inheriting the estate, he will become an ideal Squire, paternally bestowing largesse on his tenants and beloved by them in return. Both must achieve maturity by learning to see beyond the limitations of their class, Arthur much more painfully than Adam. (Dinah is also an orphan, but we are never shown the experience through which she achieves her sympathetic vision. If she seems too good to be true, this may be because Eliot has not confronted the psychological problems inherent in her ascetic religion—as she does later with Maggie Tulliver and Dorothea Brooke.)

Hetty becomes the most interesting of the orphaned children because she presents the most serious threat to the respectable community and the most extreme case of the difficulties of growing up. Eliot's failure to complete Hetty's story indicates that these problems have not been resolved in the novel. With Maggie Tulliver, the heroine of her next novel, [The Mill on the Floss,] Eliot presents a more explicit version of conflict with family and community, but Maggie's sympathy and intelligence also make it easier for Eliot to develop and analyze this conflict within the moral context of the novel.17 Never again does Eliot give such a central role to so intractable a character as Hetty.

On the psychological level, Hetty is an effective portrayal of a dark aspect of childhood experience; she seems both attractive and alarming because we recognize in her a stage through which we all have passed. Her tragedy reveals the consequences of failure to grow out of childhood, thus incidentally commenting on masculine idealization of childishness in women. The fact that Hetty represents childhood experience is relevant both to the defensive criticism of her early in the novel, and to Eliot's ability to identify with her in the flight. As we leave Hetty on the road at the end of Chapter Thirty-Seven we abruptly return to the sympathetic distance of mature adult vision—“My heart bleeds for her as I see her toiling along on weary feet” (xxxvii, 397)—but parental concern on the part of the narrator, Dinah, and Adam is not in itself an adequate way to deal with the character who emerges from the “journey” and the confession.

Adam provides the moral of the story when he overcomes his own version of Hayslopian hardness and agrees to accompany Bartle Massey to Hetty's trial: “I’ll stand by her—I’ll own her. … They oughtn’t to cast her off—their own flesh and blood. We hand folks over to God's mercy and show none ourselves. … I’ll never be hard again” (xlii, 439). Since Hetty's anguish is, however, more interesting than Adam's, most readers are unwilling to view her fall primarily as payment for his education; whatever the quality of his insights, we really want to know the outcome of her experience. Adam's moral improvement can be taken for granted; the most interesting problem at the end of the novel is how a character as regressive as Hetty can develop at all—a problem made all the more interesting by the fact that her confession does suggest the possibility of change. Eliot's religion of humanity depends on the replacement of Christian revelation with moral education through experience, and it is the confused Hetty, not the clear-headed Adam, who provides the real test case for this. Despite Hetty's lack of sympathy and intelligence, we respond more to the nightmare confusion of her aimless journey than to the morally lucid experience of Adam and Dinah.

While Hetty presents an unanswered challenge to Eliot's moral psychology, she also leads us to the most complex aspects of the novel's social vision. Both the classes which dominate the novel, landowning aristocracy and respectable tenant farmers, are implicated in her crime. The first of these is easier for Eliot to deal with than the second; the indolent young Squire and his miserly grandfather threaten the rustic community from the outside, reinforcing its values by way of contrast, while Hetty, the embarrassing product of this community, threatens it from within. We need not invoke the pastoral tradition to explain Eliot's fondness for Hayslope, for she was here describing the origins of her own family.18 As the daughter of a man who, like Adam, rose from carpenter to estate-agent, she might well admire hardworking artisans and farmers while feeling a certain hostility towards lazy landlords (of whom we see more in Silas Marner). Yet Dinah's rejection of Hayslope implies a reservation about the Poysers, and this expands as the novel develops; as we have seen, the shortcomings of Hayslope become a major theme after Hetty takes over from Arthur as leading character.

Mrs. Poyser complains that the tenant farmers must sweat on fields which others own (xxxii, 353), but we discover that they in turn are “hard” towards the dispossessed proletariat to which Dinah ministers and into which Hetty falls, sinking all the deeper through her compulsive respectability. Her flight puts her community in a colder perspective; the Poysers are now seen as members of a “proud class,” which despises those who “profit” by the poor-rates. Though still sympathetic characters, they are no longer protected by their virtuous role in the enclosing world of Hayslope; after Hetty's flight we see them in ambiguous relation to a larger reality. If Hetty is a case of arrested psychological development, it is also true that the class to which she belongs displays a primitive social vision, in contrast to Dinah, whose moral maturity includes a sympathetic understanding of the industrial poor, and social outcasts in general.

We have seen that a conflict between self and community is implicit in Eliot's portrayal of Hetty (a conflict more clearly developed in her later fiction, but always rendered difficult by her nostalgia for community). In Adam Bede, one manifestation of this conflict appears in the difference in realism between the early chapters and Hetty's flight—a problem fatally oversimplified by Gregor and others. Ian Adam has demonstrated that this novel contains a variety of “realisms” (see note 1). I would add that there is a logical transition between the very different “realisms” of our first visit to the Hall Farm and of Hetty's anguish and flight, and that the contrast between these is an important aspect of the thematic structure of the novel.

The pleasant pastoral of our first visit to the Hall Farm in Chapters Six and Seven is mainly the result of narrative distance; both narrator and reader are assumed to be tourists from the city enjoying a visit to a rural world remote in time and space: “The dairy was certainly worth looking at: it was a scene to sicken for with a sort of calenture in hot and dusty streets” (vii, 82). At this point we can appreciate the cozy sense of community because we are not threatened with personal involvement.

Eliot encourages us to enjoy the “pastoral” as an entrance to the novel, but does not allow us to remain permanently in a mood which depends on not identifying too closely with the feelings of any one character. As we settle down in the world of the novel, we become aware of something slightly oppressive about the Poysers' way of judging everyone by kin, cleanliness, and farming methods. Adam seems more independent than they, but then he moralizes excessively at his fellow workmen, feels little sympathy for his father, and consoles himself for the latter's death by meditating on the accuracy of arithmetic: “the nature o’ things doesn’t change. … The square o’ four is sixteen” (xi, 116). The impersonal, collective quality of the novel gradually becomes less our way of enjoying the characters and more a potentially confining manifestation of the Hayslope world-view.19 In this clearly illuminated, orderly landscape there is no place for the subjective self. The external quality of this world becomes not only the narrator's way of looking at it, but the confines of the world itself, out of which the narrative now seeks to emerge.

In the imagery of dream, vision, and moonlit darkness associated with Dinah in Chapter Fifteen, Eliot suggests an imagination founded on Wordsworthian feeling, but the subjective self becomes located inside Hayslope only through Dinah's moral opposite, Hetty, who, as the literal-minded product of her community, has no imagination at all (in the Wordsworthian sense). Hetty is no longer seen as an alien in the rural world, but, by the beginning of her flight, as a human reality concealed beneath it: “a human heart beating heavily with anguish … hidden behind the apple-blossoms, or among the golden corn” (xxiv, 371).

By undergoing inner conflict with no sense of an inner self, Hetty reveals the deficiencies of the Poysers' world, while the literalness with which she takes everything on her journey parodies their unquestioning common sense. Her flight is not a break in the novel's reality but a meaningful shift in perspective; the community we once saw from the outside as an organic whole is now experienced subjectively from the inside by a character with whom the narrator temporarily merges in unqualified identification. In Hetty's confession the objective world which seemed so solid dissolves into conflicting fragments and hallucination—a borderline madness which is also her truest way of seeing. Since Hetty acts out in extreme form problems we have all experienced, she becomes the novel's most impressive representative of the subjective self—a fact to which the narrator's intense identification with her has already attested.

The communal world, which has so far provided the novel's objective reality, now becomes a prison in which the self is condemned to death, and we feel the need for an inner transformation which will free Hetty from her past and reveal, to her as well as to the reader, a larger world of human possibility.20 Eliot gives this experience instead to Adam, who has always had an unquestioned place in the community. Paradoxically, Hetty disappears into the outside world, while Eliot, through Adam's happy marriage, invites us to take as the repository of human values a community which has never acknowledged anything outside itself.

We have seen what an important role Dinah's independence of Hayslope plays in the thematic structure of the novel. Now our consolation for Hetty's exile is to see her virtuous cousin inherit her position as Adam's fiancée and the Poysers' niece, along with that trousseau of linen Mrs. Poyser has been laying up for Hetty's marriage. When Dinah gives up preaching to merge with Adam's prospering career and the Poysers' respectability, the values of Hayslope become, for the first time, the unchallenged standard of the novel. Yet the gradual but persistent development of the novel has been away from warm pastoral towards a vision of the limitations of Hayslope and of the need for a more comprehensive sense of humanity. Thus the reconstructed, Hetty-less pastoral of the ending seems to refute the whole process of the novel.21

When Adam finally becomes the main character, his enlightened patriarchal authority encourages us to forget the problems of fallen women and the class divisions of Hayslope. In his rather idealized nobility, the mature Adam seems entirely removed from Hetty in character and situation. Eliot's emphasis on his regenerative suffering is not an effective way to incorporate the burden of her experience into the novel, especially when we consider that her fall saves him from the worse suffering of marriage to her and clears the way for an ideal “second love.”22 Adam, unlike both Hetty and George Eliot, can grow up without leaving home, while the girl who has to leave is never heard from again—except for a brief obituary. Yet we know that despite the title, our main character is not the hero but the heroine. In the dark wood of Hetty's ambivalence we find the living centre of the novel, and the problems which point beyond the false pastoral of the ending. Eliot's first novel has many virtues, but owes both its unity and its enduring interest to the mystery of Hetty Sorrel.


  1. Barbara Hardy, The Novels of George Eliot (London: Athlone Press, 1963), pp. 25-27, and Ian Adam, “The Structure of Realisms in Adam Bede,NCF [Nineteenth Century Fiction], 30 (September 1975), 141-48. Since Hardy and Adam have discussed Eliot's technique in depicting Hetty's flight, I will concentrate on Hetty's psychological motivation.

  2. Ian Gregor and Brian Nicholas, The Moral and the Story (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), p. 29. Jerome Thale sees Hetty's flight as “the most compelling thing in Adam Bede and one of the high points of nineteenth-century fiction,” but argues that it is a twentieth-century addition to a Wordsworthian pastoral (The Novels of George Eliot [New York: Columbia University Press, 1959], pp. 30-33).

  3. Neil Roberts argues that “In Adam Bede George Eliot creates the illusion of a stable and immemorial rural world” where Hetty's fall becomes a “static moral drama” (George Eliot: Her Beliefs and Her Art [Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975], pp. 63-67). I have disputed this view in an article previously published—“Arthur's Misuse of the Imagination: Sentimental Benevolence and Wordsworthian Realism in Adam Bede,English Studies in Canada, 4 (Spring 1978), 41-59.

  4. George R. Creeger, “An Interpretation of Adam Bede,ELH, 23 (1956), 218-38.

  5. Creeger, p. 266.

  6. Creeger, p. 230.

  7. Critics who assume that Eliot is making a Puritan attack on sensual love—David Cecil, Victorian Novelists (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958)—or that this affair is a genuine pastoral idyll—Ian Gregor (see note 2) or Michael Squires, The Pastoral Novel: Studies in George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence (Charlotsville: University Press of Virginia, 1974)—make the mistake of taking Arthur's high-flown view of Hetty at face value. I have discussed this problem in an article previously published (see note 3). The most recent view of Eliot as Puritan moralist is Nina Auerbach's “The Rise of the Fallen Woman,” NCF, 35 (1980), 29-52. Auerbach says that “George Eliot seems to condemn Hetty Sorrel's ambitious sexuality with unyielding austerity” (p. 40). Auerbach sees Hetty as “lush and sensuous” (p. 40), but also remarks that “for all her sexuality … Hetty is oddly devoid of erotic life. George Eliot reminds us constantly that she is ambitious, not passionate” (p. 49). Much difficulty about Hetty's “sexuality,” and the author's attitude towards her, arises from the assumption that she has both the feelings and the moral responsibility of an adult. In my view Hetty becomes “subversive” to her community not by achieving the status of a rebel, but by acting out a naive version of its values. I will argue that her pathetic social aspirations are akin to childhood rivalry, and that her “sensuality” is self-directed narcissism.

  8. George Eliot, Adam Bede, ed. Gordon S. Haight (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1948), Chapter vii, p. 83. All subsequent references will be from this edition. Hetty's dream-world is described in water-imagery combining a womblike absence of weight with self-reflection and plantlike passivity, which also suggests a regressive narcissism.

  9. George Eliot, Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), pp. 279-80.

  10. Eliot compares Hetty to two girls of lower social status: Molly the housemaid, whom the children always “called on for her ready sympathy” (xviii, 195), and the “unsoaped” Bessy Cranage, the blacksmith's daughter, who is Hetty's equal in trivial vanity but has the advantage of her “in the matter of feeling” (xxv, 281). Neither has to maintain the Poysers' pretensions to respectability.

  11. In this rather bitter editorial aside Eliot accuses both Arthur and Adam of idealizing Hetty's childishness, and implies that Adam wants his wife to be his intellectual inferior (xv, 154). Eliot does not pursue this theme, insisting instead on the nobility of Adam's misplaced love. Hetty's seduction could be seen as a fortunate fall which saves him from the much worse fate of marriage to her. In Middlemarch Lydgate takes a view of Rosamond very similar to that suggested in the above-mentioned paragraph, and discovers his error through marriage.

  12. See G. H. Lewes, The Study of Psychology: Its Object, Scope, and Method (Boston, 1879), p. 150. I discuss this concept in “Arthur's Misuse of the Imagination: Sentimental Benevolence and Wordsworthian Realism in Adam Bede,English Studies in Canada, 4 (Spring 1978), 54.

  13. Ian Adam is the only critic to note how the events of the journey prepare Hetty for confession to Dinah—in addition to the essay cited in note 1, see Adam's “Restoration Through Feeling in George Eliot's Fiction: A New Look at Hetty Sorrel,” Victorian Newsletter, 22 (Fall 1962), 9-12. I agree with Adam that Hetty is intended to fit into Eliot's concept of moral regeneration, but differ in my view of her actual impact on the novel.

  14. In Greek art Medusa was traditionally portrayed as a hideous demon, but Hellenistic artists gave her a pathetic beauty. Eliot shows that she is aware of the dual nature of the Medusa when she remarks, in her review of Adolf Stahr's Torso. Kunst, Künstler und Kunstwerk der Alten (Brunswick, 1854), that in an early sculpture “the Medusa is a hideous caricature; how far from the terrible beauty of the Medusa Rondanini!” (Saturday Analyst and Leader, 6 [17 March 1855], 257). The Medusa Rondanini is a sculpture fragment representing Medusa's head, in a museum in Munich.

    During the composition of Adam Bede Eliot transcribed in her notebook a paragraph from Stahr's book giving two accounts of Medusa's transformation into a Gorgon: “Medusa … dared to compare herself in beauty to Athena, and the goddess, thereby enraged, changed the girl into a horrible monster. According to another version of the story … Medusa's fate was yet more undeserved. … Poseidon raped the incomparably beautiful princess in Athena's temple. … Athena's punishment … fell on the innocent victim, because she was powerless to punish the guilty god.” See Joseph Wiesenfarth, “George Eliot's Notes for Adam Bede,NCF, 32 (September 1977), 148-49 (Wiesenfarth's translation). Both the punishment for rivalry, and the unjust punishment which should have fallen on the male, seem relevant to Hetty's case. Hetty turns herself to stone, but her uncle also reveals the “hardness” of Hayslope in his response to her crime.

  15. In his analysis of the secular meaning of religious experience, Ludwig Feuerbach gives special importance to the psychological benefits of Confession (The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot [New York: Harper, 1957], pp. 78-79 and 122-24).

  16. Hetty would certainly be exposed to temptation in a situation where prostitution was taken for granted and also offered escape from heavy labour in appalling conditions. When the female convicts arrived, the officers, soldiers, and farmers (the latter released male convicts) chose the prettiest women as “servants”; also the peculiarly unpleasant life of those not chosen was hardly conductive to virtue—see Margaret Weidenhofer, The Convict Years: Transportation and the Penal System, 1788-1868 (Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1973), pp. 74-77 and 93-96. Despite Eliot's emphasis on realism, her imagination does not follow Hetty to Australia.

  17. The heroine of The Mill on the Floss combines the hostility towards family life, the Evangelical religion, and the struggle for moral maturity which are here divided between Hetty, Dinah, and Adam; she also winds up in the painful position of having a moral sensibility like Dinah's while being in disgrace like Hetty. Though Maggie is less of a threat to Eliot's values than Hetty, the flood does seem an abrupt end to her moral education. Perhaps Eliot also had difficulty in imagining Maggie's maturity.

  18. See Eliot's account of the novel's origins in “History of ‘Adam Bede,’” The George Eliot Letters, ed Gordon S. Haight (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954-55), iii, 502-04. Margharita Laski discusses the relation of the novel, in locale and characters, to Eliot's family in George Eliot and Her World (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973), pp. 64-66.

  19. Raymond Williams complains that in Adam Bede Eliot presents the rustic characters collectively “as a landscape … a kind of chorus” which “can emerge into personal consciousness only through externally formulated attitudes and ideas” (The Country and the City [London: Chatto and Windus, 1973], p. 206). I argue here that this collective quality is not a defect in Eliot's vision, but an attempt to recreate the world-view of Hayslope and enable us to experience both the pleasant and confining aspects of living there.

  20. My discussion of Eliot's realism is indebted to Peter Rees's suggestive argument, in an essay constituting part of an unpublished thesis, that the novel's conclusion requires, but fails to provide, a transformation in Eliot's social vision. Peter Rees, in “The Defective Mirror of Adam Bede: The Hall Farm and George Eliot's Unnatural History of English Life” (Simon Fraser University, 1980), agrees with Williams that Eliot's pastoral springs from a defective vision of the Poysers' class.

  21. Only at this point does Eliot's ambivalence towards community produce a break in the novel's reality. In an essay relevant to all of Eliot's fiction, Carole L. Robinson has noted that in Romola “There is no recognition, much less reconciliation, of the disparity between the idealization of ‘community’ and the more realistic appraisal of the community itself. (At the heart of the failure of The Mill on the Floss is a not dissimilar contradiction)” (“Romola: A Reading of the Novel,” VS, 6 [1962-63], 35). The ending of Adam Bede is an example of the same problem, though I would add that the failure of an ending is by no means to be considered the failure of the novel as a whole; otherwise there would be few successes in Victorian fiction.

  22. For a more favourable view of the capacity of Adam's crisis and the novel's conclusion to assimilate Hetty's suffering, see Jay Clayton's suggestive essay, “Visionary Power and Narrative Form: Wordsworth and Adam Bede,ELH, 46 (1979), 645-72. Clayton sees a transformation, beginning with Hetty's confession, from a narrative driven by grim consequences to a Wordsworthian visionary mode governed by sympathy rather than cause and effect. This essay provides important insights into Eliot's relation to Wordsworth but does not resolve the question as to whether such a conclusion would be appropriate to the novel; a sudden shift in reality could be taken as evasion in a novel so committed to psychological realism. In my view the grimness of Hetty's story arises not from the narrator's values, but from Hetty's consciousness and the values of her community, and can only be dealt with in terms of its source.

Lori Lefkovitz (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6581

SOURCE: “Delicate Beauty Goes Out: Adam Bede's Transgressive Heroines,” in The Kenyon Review, n.s. Vol. IX, No. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 84-96.

[In the following essay, Lefkovitz examines the differing qualities of beauty and health that Eliot applies to Hetty and Dinah, and discusses the code of delicacy that these images represent.]

The language in which George Eliot describes her heroines' beauty in Adam Bede records a transition in nineteenth-century values. Here, Eliot's physical descriptions facilitate the delicate heroine's going out in two senses of the phrase: going safely out into the market place and going out of fashion. Through her descriptions, Eliot not only frees the delicate heroine to go out without subjecting her to risks that the delicate heroine typically faces, risks of rape or death, but Eliot also attempts to reconcile competing and mutually exclusive styles of beauty by creating healthy delicacy, a beauty that is both spiritual and sexual. She does so by appealing to and undermining literature's codes of delicacy.

Eliot revises the connotations of delicate beauty by doubling and exchanging the Poysers' beautiful nieces for one another, as Hetty Sorrel and Dinah Morris displace one another, not only in the novel's economy and structure of desire but also as meaningful figures of beauty. Eliot changes the tradition of the delicate heroine by recovering a sense of delicacy hidden in the word's linguistic history. In Dinah's and Hetty's names, in the adjectives applied to each, and in the objects with which each is associated, Eliot alludes to a code of delicacy. Among the images in that code are the pet, the bird, the flower, the Medusa, and the corpse.

Insofar as the reader recognizes the connotations of these emblems, we apply the appropriate characteristics to the person described. In this reading of the novel's characterization through its descriptions, I will occasionally trace such an allusion, or pause to add something about the historical background against which references to such things as pets, flowers, and corpses emerge in Adam Bede as ambiguous figures for the delicate heroine's beauty. My point is that neglect of language's power to negate woman through ambiguous idealizations of her image has resulted in critical failures to understand the meaning of woman's delicate health in the nineteenth century.

Apparently in evidence in Adam Bede is the positive value of delicate health: Dinah is as morally strong as she is physically frail, Hetty as weak willed as she is robust. Illness seems to be redemptive: the guilty lovers, Hetty and Arthur, are each recovered in the eyes of the reader as they grow morally stronger in illness. One reader accordingly observes that “in Eliot's novels those unacquainted with infirmity … tend to have short memories and little imagination.”1 Eliot will, however, exchange these religious values for naturalistic ones by challenging the time-honored dichotomies between sexuality and spirituality, health and delicacy.2

Shortly before Adam Bede begins, Dinah Morris, a Methodist preacher who lives among the poor in Snowfield, comes to visit her aunt and uncle Poyser in the relatively comfortable village of Hayslope. She had come to recover her health, which is naturally frail. Within the novel's first pages, her delicate beauty is the talk of the carpentry shop, where Seth Bede is teased for his affections, and soon the indelicacy of a young woman preaching is the buzz of the village. We see Dinah first through the eyes of a stranger, who is struck by “the absence of self-consciousness in her demeanour” as she preaches. The passage evokes an icon of the spirit; three times the adjective “delicate” is used; she is described as having a face of “uniform transparent whiteness with an egg-like line of cheek and chin”; a “lily” in Quaker dress, she has “one of those faces that make one think of white flowers with light touches of colour on their pure petals.”3 The flower's purity and the egg's fragility define Dinah's characteristic qualities, both superficial and essential: the reader regards Dinah as characteristically pure and fragile.

In the novel's descriptions of Dinah, the references to the lily connect her to the beautiful heroines for whom Richardson is famous. Pamela and Clarissa and their lily-white descendants are, however, impossible contradictions. As one classic formula has it: “If the villain pursues her, she must not show either speed or endurance in her flight. Delicacy holds her helpless; chastity must be defended. It is an unfailing dilemma.”4 Apocryphal literature provides another source for the connotations of floral delicacy. Susannah is a flower (her name means both lily and rose), the innocent beauty upon whom the elders spy, and a favorite subject of visual representation. Although this flower is accused of harlotry, her chastity is proven in a court of law. By the nineteenth century, flowers were literally associated with chastity and in the 1860s, flowers were “seriously suggested as a means of reducing the high rate of illegitimacy in Cumbria.”5 While the lily connotes the delicacy of frail pallor, the rose wears the blush and bloom of health. In Adam Bede's descriptive system, Hetty and Dinah are rose and lily respectively.

As Dinah Morris speaks, vain little Bessy Cranage takes to “studying Dinah's nose, eyes, mouth and hair, and wondering whether it was better to have such a sort of pale face as that, or fat red cheeks and round black eyes like her own.” Even small-minded Bessy has a vague notion that types of beauty are legible and that the difference between the look of frailty and the look of health is a difference in meaning.

The Poysers are concerned both for their niece's frail health and her public displays, and when the Reverend Irwine and the young Captain Arthur Donnithorne pay an unexpected visit, Mrs. Poyser fears that Dinah will be duly chastised. Instead the Reverend is so impressed that he concludes to himself, “He must be a miserable prig who would act the pedagogue here,” by discouraging her public preaching. When he asks aloud, “And you never feel any embarrassment from the sense of your youth—that you are a lovely young woman on whom men's eyes are fixed?” Dinah replies, “... I’ve preached to as rough ignorant people as can be in the villages about Snowfield—men that looked very hard and wild—but they never said an uncivil word to me.”

By convincing the learned Reverend that only “a miserable prig” would disapprove of Dinah Morris and by emphasizing (several times in the novel) that she goes among “rough, hard and wild men” without provoking disrespect, Eliot undermines a tradition within literature that had long associated the beauty of female delicacy with domestic confinement. The reader, after all, would not wish to be characterized as a “miserable prig.” Betrayed in the question that the Reverend asks Dinah is the concern that exposing her beauty may lead to some harm. Eliot has another Dinah in mind, and Irwine's question may be motivated by his own recollection of the Dinah he would have read about in Genesis 34.

Dinah, only daughter born to the matriarchs and patriarchs, is not much of a heroine. We are told merely that she “went out to visit the women of the land; and when Shechem … the prince of the land saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humbled her.”6 Shechem is so taken with his victim, however, that he determines to marry her and asks leave of Jacob to do so. The biblical narrator offers only one moralizing sentence: “The sons of Jacob came in from the field when they heard of it; and the men were indignant and very angry, because he had wrought folly in Israel by lying with Jacob's daughter, for such a thing ought not to be done.”

Leah's sons, therefore, devise a plot. They agree to the marriage and to dwell as neighbors among Shechem's people on the condition that the Hivites agree to circumcise all of their males. On the third day following the operation, when the men would have been most sore, Simeon and Levi slaughter them and take “Dinah out of Shechem's house.” When Jacob declares that his sons' deviousness has jeopardized his own position in the community, they protest: “Should he treat our sister as a harlot?”

In some contemporary biblical criticism, the story is understood as a political and historical parable. It accounts for, among other things, the decline of the tribes of Simeon and Levi. Although Dinah seems to function as the innocent victim of a rape for whose sake her brothers take excessive revenge, classical commentary derives lessons from the story that imply a more aggressive female actress.

In midrash, the literature of late antiquity that interpreted the Bible and much influenced artists who gave the Western tradition its images of biblical types, we find an origin for the blame-the-victim paradox. Commenting on the creation myth of Adam and Eve, one midrashist—remembering Dinah—understands why man must subdue woman: “Man must master his wife, that she go not into the market place, for every woman who goes out into the market place will eventually come to grief. Whence do we know it? From Dinah, as it is written, And Dinah … went out, etc.”7 “To go out,” in an age when women acted within the boundaries of the tent, was not an innocent activity.

If Dinah's brothers are loathe to have her treated as a harlot, the rabbis have no such qualms. Because Job says that his wife speaks as a “vile woman,” the rabbis conclude that Job must be married to Dinah. Moreover, the rabbis imagine that Dinah is violated to punish Jacob for refusing to wed her to Esau and for his other acts of pride.

In the rabbinic imagination, not only is Dinah a harlot, but by extension, so is her mother, Leah: “A woman is not immoral until her daughter is immoral.” To the rabbi who expresses reluctance to call the matriarch a whore, Rav Kahana replies, “Even so … because it says Leah went out to meet him [Jacob], which means that she went out to meet him adorned like a harlot.” Dinah, therefore, simply follows in her mother's footsteps. Each and every consequent disaster is blamed upon Dinah's “going out,” which proves that in spite of God's best efforts to make women modest, women are “frivolous,” “coquettish,” “gossiping,” and “wanton.” Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman explains that when Dinah went out, “her arm became exposed,” and that this display of her beauty was a conscious provocation. Given Dinah's seductive designs, the rabbis do not interpret Simeon and Levi's recapturing of Dinah as the welcome rescue that it seems to be in the biblical story; her brothers must drag her by force from Shechem's house because “when a woman is intimate with an uncircumcised person, she finds it hard to tear herself away.” For Jacob's sake, the rabbis wish that this only daughter had never been born, and while the Bible makes the point that the rapist did “what ought not to have been done,” the rabbis conclude that the moral of the story is that a woman should never “go out.” It is a moral with which we are very familiar.

While Dinah Morris's friends have full confidence in her virtue, it is not surprising that they fear for her reputation. Working against a literary tradition in which delicate heroines come to evil, Eliot takes special pains to demonstrate that her Dinah invites no sexual harassment. The forbearance of a Reverend in a competing church is a strong indication to the reader that accusations of indelicacy are inappropriate. Though Eliot allows her model of frail beauty to take uncharacteristic liberties, Dinah's friends wish her to stay comfortably at home.

As matters turn out, real reason for concern lies elsewhere, with the Poysers' other niece, Hetty. Both concern and desire are misplaced in the early chapters of the novel, and Eliot will effect several reversals in order to set matters right.

While Dinah talks with remarkable unself-consciousness to the Reverend, Hetty tosses and pats her butter in the dairy, “slyly conscious that no turn of her head was lost,” on Captain Donnithorne. Here Eliot describes Hetty at great length, principally as a “kittenish” beauty who leads her beholder into a bog (pp. 89-91). John Berger reasons that zoos and pets became popular in the middle of the nineteenth century because man felt ambivalent about losing the wild. Thus, the look of a domesticated animal deeply disturbs.8 Hetty Sorrel's wily beauty is repeatedly likened to that of a delicate pet kitten.

By this point in the novel, Dinah and Hetty are both fully described: both women are distractingly pretty, but Dinah distracts attention from the body and Hetty distracts attention from the soul. Dinah elevates; Hetty debases. As frail preacher and rosy farm girl, Dinah and Hetty are exaggerated antithetical types. Dinah may go out among rough men without incurring any disapproval from the narrator, and Hetty cannot go out even among the most refined gentry. It is only after Eliot fixes in our minds the virtue of the one and the wickedness of the other that she will temper her own commentary on each and humanize them both.

The suffering of Hawthorne's Hester Prynne exemplifies, for Eliot, the problem of portraying feminine delicacy. If Dinah takes her name from the Bible, Hetty and Arthur get their names from The Scarlet Letter.9 Hawthorne expresses a guarded admiration for Hester's tender beauty as he raises her to the status of an angel while condemning her to years of misery for the crime of going out in the “midrashic” sense. Eliot responds to the implication that unprotected women provoke lust in the best of men. Because Hawthorne explicitly uses a dated model of healthy beauty, he succeeds in creating a heroine who is both spiritual and sensual. To a description of Hester's beauty Hawthorne adds: “She was lady-like too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days; characterized by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace, which is now recognized as its indication.”10 Eliot, like Hawthorne, ultimately recovers the beauty of health, but she spares her heroine pain by again distinguishing between sexual and spiritual beauty (Hetty and Dinah, respectively), a distinction that Hawthorne blurs.

That which Van Ghent has called the “leisurely pace” of Adam Bede affords Eliot the opportunity to describe both women at length.11 Dinah is often called a lily, a bird—the favorite Christian icon of the spirit—an angel, a sublime corpse. The beautiful corpse develops out of the paradox of delicate beauty. Like Clarissa and Little Nell Trent, Dinah seems to belong on that familiar list of Victorian types who are most beautiful in death. But Eliot qualifies the image. When Dinah first comes to visit Lisbeth Bede, Lisbeth mistakes Dinah for her sister's spirit come back from the dead. Her second guess is that this must be an angel, until Lisbeth is brought down to earth when she notices that Dinah's hands bear “traces of labour.” She cannot be an angel if she is a “workin woman.”

Recently, several feminist critics have argued that the delicate heroine or somnambulist is a model of strength, with power over the men who seem to control her.12 What these readings miss is that hers is the paradoxical power of the slave. The idealization of frail woman as an angel of the spirit keeps women domesticated, out of the markets. Indoors, the spirituality that is embodied in the asexual angel will come to no harm, and the sexuality embodied in the Medusa will do no harm. In either case, she must stay home.

When Adam hears a female voice in his home, he operates under the illusion that Dinah is Hetty until he is impressed “with all the force that belongs to a reality contrasted with a preoccupying fancy.” The paradox that Adam will come to appreciate is that Hetty, a palpably robust beauty, is a fancy of her beholder's imagination, while Dinah, whose beauty seems vaporous, carries the force of reality.

Book One ends with a series of thematically paired chapters that structurally reinforce Eliot's twinning of heroine and villainess. The first two of these chapters belong to Dinah. Readers who are surprised by Adam's marriage to Dinah at novel's end miss the impact of the sentences that follow Adam's rude surprise (that Dinah is not Hetty) as Eliot describes Dinah's sexual awakening:

For the first moment he made no answer, but looked at her with the concentrated examining glance which a man gives to an object in which he has suddenly begun to be interested. Dinah, for the first time in her life, felt a painful self-consciousness; there was something in the dark penetrating glance of the strong man so different from the mildness and timidity of his brother Seth. A faint blush came, which deepened as she wondered at it.

Dinah is explicitly, but only symbolically, penetrated by Adam, while Hetty's literal penetration—which would have taken place at the same moment—passes unremarked.

The next two chapters describe Hetty's sexual awakening, her first kiss and the beginning of her clandestine affair. Two chapters follow which belong to Hetty and Dinah together. As the women return home, they meet one another en route. Dinah selflessly speaks to Hetty on behalf of Adam, but Hetty is preoccupied with fantasies of a future life with Arthur. The narrator comments: “it made a strange contrast to see the sparkling self-engrossed loveliness looked at by Dinah's calm pitying face.”

Dinah and Hetty, both motherless girls, the latter a niece to Mr. Poyser, the former a niece to Mrs. Poyser, occupy symmetrical positions in the social structure of the novel's world, though Hetty desires to live above their station and Dinah desires to live below it. Each is adamant, and each is wrong. They return home to occupy adjoining bedchambers.

This chapter begins by presenting Hetty worshiping her image in the mirror, adorning herself in lace and ear-rings, and finally prancing about the room. Dinah is startled out of her spiritual reverie by the noise in Hetty's room. She goes to talk, and the narrator marvels:

What a strange contrast the two figures made, visible enough in that mingled twilight and moonlight! Hetty, her cheeks flushed and her eyes glistening from her imaginary drama, her hair hanging in a curly tangle down her back, and the baubles in her ears. Dinah, covered with her long white dress, her pale face full of subdued emotion, almost like a lovely corpse into which the soul has returned with sublimer secrets and a sublimer love. They were nearly of the same height.

Eliot might be describing the body and the soul doing battle, as in a metaphysical psychomachia. The juxtaposition exploits the paradox of the psychomachia as the two figures are mutually dependent. One sustains the other. The scene ends with Hetty pale and crying while Dinah “departs like a ghost.” Next day Dinah leaves Hayslope. Soon after Hetty will leave as well.

In one of the many conversations on the subject of beauty in Adam Bede, the wealthy notables sit on high and chat lightly about the relative beauty of Hayslope's farm girls. Their discussion concerns delicacy as Mrs. Irwine remarks of Hetty: “What a pity such beauty as that should be thrown away among the farmers, when it’s wanted so terribly among the good families without fortune.” Reverend Irwine disagrees, but changes the case in point; of “that pretty Methodist preacher,” he says: “Such a woman as that brings with her ‘airs from heaven’ that the coarsest fellow is not insensible to it.” Mr. Gawaine interrupts Irwine, as he laughingly notices Bessy Cranage, a “delicate bit of womanhood.” Gawaine undoubtedly uses the word delicate in its more rarified sense: plump, rosy Bessy, in her country finery, clearly loves delights.

Delicate has meant both dainty and sumptuous. A delicate aristocrat was once likely to have been a robust glutton, a lover of delights. When Shakespeare's Petruchio finds in the shrewish Katherina, a “Kate,” because “dainties are all cates,” he teases with a double pun. Once an emblem of sensuality, the delicate became an emblem of spirituality. Eliot, writing at a time when the delicacy that had just recently been a clear sign of feminine beauty and virtue had become increasingly “lamentable,” reminds us of the word's older and antithetical connotations of physical strength. (Naturalist fiction creates another ambiguity: the “delicate” woman is either dainty and lovely or she is weak of mind and body, nervous and unfit.) Images of beauty, like descriptive language, can sustain inherent contradiction. Here Eliot gives the reader to understand that when it comes to bits of womanhood, there is more than one way to be delicate. Irwine emerges as Eliot's touchstone of moral rectitude because when his mother speaks of Hetty's beauty, he reminds the reader of Dinah.

Irwine is not the only one to compare Hetty and Dinah on the basis of appearance. In the very terms that Bessy compared herself to Dinah, Mrs. Poyser compares her two nieces. “If Dinah had a bit o’ colour in her cheeks and didn’t stick that Methodist cap on her head … folk ’ud think her as pretty as Hetty.” But Mr. Poyser knows better: “The men ’ud never run after Dinah as they would after Hetty.” He does not explain why. Mrs. Poyser quotes no less an authority than Scriptures to back up her view that Dinah should eat and fill herself out: “You should love your neighbor as yourself.” Eliot agrees but will correct Dinah's figure only after we are sure of her spirituality.

Adam, sensitive to the symptoms of Hetty's vanity, also compares Hetty to Dinah, the woman who has “got the face of a lily”: when Hetty puts a flower in her hair, Adam tells her “why Dinah Morris looks very nice, for all she wears such a plain cap and gown. It seems to me as a woman's face doesna want flowers; it’s almost a flower itself. I’m sure yours is.” Through the image of the flower, Adam associates the women, and his remark provokes the most broadly comic scene in the novel. Hetty puts on Dinah's clothes and frightens Mrs. Poyser who thinks she sees a ghost. The jug breaks, and the children roar with laughter.

As the novel moves from the light trials of farm romance to genuine tragedy, Hetty's appearance begins to change, and her masquerade in Dinah's clothes begins to resonate. Adam sees in Hetty's eyes: “something harder, older, less child-like.” When Hetty faints among strangers in her troubles, losing the rosy bloom that typified the farm girl, the narrator uses the same phrase that she had earlier applied to Dinah. Hetty is said to look “like a beautiful corpse.”

On the following day, we see a “face sadly different from that which had smiled at itself in the old speckled glass. … A hard and even fierce look had come into her eyes, though their lashes were as long as ever, and they had all their dark brightness. And the cheek was never dimpled with smiles now. It had the same rounded, pouting, childish prettiness, but with all love and belief in love departed from it—the sadder for its beauty, like the wondrous Medusa-face, with the passionate passionless lips.”

This description alludes not only to the Medusa, the icon of terrifying beauty,13 but also to The Scarlet Letter. The beauty of Hester and Hetty both depends upon love. Just as Hetty's appearance is hardened by absence of love, Hawthorne's Hester is alternately transfigured; she is a radiant beauty in her lover's presence and acquires an austere look in his absence. In this unnatural aspect, Hetty Sorrel commits the most unnatural crime imaginable in the world of Adam Bede: she is guilty of infanticide.

After her baby's death, Hetty increasingly acquires the air of the delicate Romantic heroine. The narrator, who had spared no sarcasm in her earlier descriptions, is now moved to pity, as she emotionally declares “My heart bleeds for her as I see her.” The identification of Dinah and Hetty is made explicit during the process of trying to identify the criminal. Irwine tells Adam that,

the description of her person corresponds but that she is said to look very pale and ill. She had a small red-leather pocketbook … with two names written on it—one at the beginning, ‘Hetty Sorrel, Hayslope,’ and the other near the end, ‘Dinah Morris, Snowfield.’ She will not see which is her own name.

Eliot devotes most of the novel to contrasting Hetty and Dinah, only to bring them into an embrace. Dinah only acquires power in the presence of the lost soul, and Hetty, who will not confess, needs Dinah for spiritual survival. At the heart of Adam Bede is the quickening of Hetty's weak spirit and the fortification of Dinah's weak body, as each beauty imparts to the other her characteristic strengths. The two women cling to one another in the scene for the sake of which Adam Bede was written. Eliot wrote in a letter that Hetty's confession to Dinah in prison provided the starting point for the novel. It was a moment that had been described to Eliot twenty-five years earlier by her aunt.14

In prison, Dinah and Hetty face one another and reflect one another's faces: “The two faces were looking at each other; the one with a wild despair in it, the other full of sad yearning love. Dinah unconsciously opened her arms and stretched them out. … Hetty rose, took a step forward and was clasped in Dinah's arms.” And so they remain, inseparable as body and soul, with overwhelming need for one another.

The crowd of onlookers who line the streets as the criminal is to be brought to justice have a double motivation in this case: “All of Stoniton had heard of Dinah Morris … who had brought the obstinate criminal to confess, and there was as much eagerness to see her as to see the wretched Hetty.” The voyeuristic crowd sees two pale beautiful women clutching one another.

Adam sees the criminal Hetty as a “statue” of her former self, and Eliot thereby justifies transforming the virtuous heroine Dinah. If Hetty pales to the point of resembling her own corpse, Dinah, in Adam's presence, bears only a family resemblance to herself: she blushed a “deep rose colour. She looked as if she were only a sister to Dinah.” Persuaded that God does not mean for her to remain self-denying, Dinah does leave the poor to marry Adam and live more comfortably herself. When we see her in the novel's epilogue, she has acquired the only attribute of beauty that Mrs. Poyser found her lacking, a little extra fleshiness: “We can see the sweet pale face quite well now: it is scarcely altered—only a little fuller, to correspond to her more matronly figure.” Hetty dies in exile, and Dinah marries the man who loved them both.

Hetty and Dinah are the two faces of the nineteenth century's Janus-faced woman, until Eliot produces beauty out of the synthesis of the healthy (but fatal, murderous) Medusa and the virtuous (but sickly, vulnerable) angel. Adam Bede, who loves first one woman and then the other, stands in for the reader. The narrator takes every opportunity to ask us to identify with Adam's feelings, motivations, and actions, however misguided they may be. Admirable as he is, we are often told that he behaves typically of men in general when he misreads beauty. Through Adam, therefore, Eliot educates the reader.

Dinah is Eliot's response to the Victorian angel. Like Hawthorne, Eliot persuades us that a healthy heroine can be more virtuous than a frail one because she has a body strong enough for purposeful labor (an ideology for the middle class). Dinah is no angel because she works; Hetty's flawed character is expressed by fantasies of idleness when her strength is needed on the farm. Her end is fitting: Hetty cannot stand on her own feet.

Even as the fashions and ideals of the Victorian Age promoted feminine frailty, even as debility was a sign of beauty, absence of spirit or bloom was unlovely. Women were caught in the ambivalence contained in the idealized images of femininity, such as the images of the caged pet and the flower: beauty had to be fragile as the flower even as it required the bloom of health. Much as they admired frail women, Victorians legislated to ensure health. They associated “sanitary” and “sanity.”15

The ideology of rugged individualism and survival of the fittest gave the body an edge over the spirit in the latter half of the nineteenth century. One consequence was a new image of man: the desire for, in Herbert Spenser's words, “a nation of healthy animals.” Coleridge intimates the change in values that prepared England for the Byronic ideal and Darwinism alike when he observed that to call human vices “bestial” was to libel the animals. While this libel was current, one might suppose that in the realm of metaphor woman was flower to man's beast, but true to the contradiction that is woman, in this religious code, woman is represented as more beast than man. Infants are closest to animals, and women, as “breeders,” come second only to the poor, “brutes in understanding.”16

Victorian medical literature highlights another important contradiction in the age's perception of women. Women were defined by constitutional weakness and were accordingly exempt from the Darwinian Revolution. Michelet characterized the nineteenth century as the age of the womb; one doctor put it that the Almighty took a uterus and “built woman around it.”17 The fashions of the early part of the century were so flimsy that beautiful ladies often had “charming colds,” and the corset created the condition of weak backs that it was designed to cure. More importantly, just as the metaphors of the pet and flower were taken literally in their applications, so too “a well-dressed woman whose stays were loose … was probably a loose woman.”18

Eliot, unlike Hawthorne, is guilty of some purposeful anachronisms. In 1799, the year in which Adam Bede is set, mild Seth would have seemed more handsome than rugged Adam, and a noblewoman like Mrs. Irwine would not have been at all likely to select Hetty as “the perfect beauty.” Hetty sports too much peasant “rude health.” In 1859, however, the year in which both Adam Bede and Darwin's Origin of Species were published, urbanization made frailty a characteristic quality less of the upper-class beauty than of the sickly factory worker. The nostalgic memory of simple healthy peasant life provided a model for middle-class beauty sixty years later. Adam and Hetty are viable ideals in the time of the novel's publication, while Dinah (before her transfiguration) is an ideal of the time about which Eliot writes. Eliot's novel contrasts then and now.

By playing modern and discarded values off against one another, Eliot may depend upon her readers' discomfort with some of the choices that modernization made on their behalf. Were people ready to give up the spirituality that the delicate ideal embodied? Eliot transfigures the healthy rustic and the frail beauty before our eyes, giving us a healthy angel, a benign Medusa. By story's end, Adam and Dinah satisfy an 1859 readership as the industrious couple that was strong enough to meet the needs of changing times. But Eliot is not entirely satisfied with the compromises that the conventions of realism forced upon her novel. Having to choose between healthy sexuality and the freedom of asexuality as criteria for beauty, Eliot—not without some hesitation—chooses health. The narrator interrupts to qualify her conclusions.

Because Dinah becomes what Hetty had been, a sexual woman, Eliot is forced to impose a conventional morality on her. Having come to possess the health and comfort embodied in her fuller figure, Dinah is prevented from going out to the market as she used to. Mrs. Poyser is thus proven right on another score when Eliot puts a stop to Dinah's objectionable preaching. It is significant that the novel closes with a discussion of women preaching. Adam is given the last word on the subject when he responds to Seth's wish that Dinah had quit the Wesleyans to “join a body that ’ud put no bonds on Christian liberty.” Adam approves his wife's decision to be bound, catching the author's resignation when he says, “There’s no rule so wise but it’s a pity for somebody or other. Most o’ the women do more harm nor good with their preaching and she [Dinah] thought it right to set the example o’ submitting.”

Eliot had been deliberate in her effort to lead the reader to believe that Dinah should be free to preach. By novel's end, Adam and Dinah agree that women should attend to matters of the spirit indoors. While Eliot tried to create a delicate woman who could both go out and not die to prove her virtue, she ends by concluding that some unspecified harm does indeed come of a woman's going out to preach. Irwine had intimated as much at the novel's onset.

In the physical description of heroes and heroines, novelists promote those cultural values that the idealized figure embodies. But because readers of narrative from Aristotle to Ian Watt have been trained to regard description as part of the effect of the real, important for its literal rather than its figurative meaning, little attention has been paid to physical description as a strategy of characterization.19

In Word and Image, Norman Bryson calls “optical truth” into question, explaining, “[I]t is clear that the term ‘realism’ cannot draw its validity from any absolute conception of ‘the real,’ because that conception cannot account for the historical and changing character of ‘the real’ within differing cultures and periods.”20 Bryson demonstrates that when we study realistic images in visual art, what we can discover is how a culture imagines its own reality, what it recognizes as the real.

So too with ideals of personal beauty, which so obviously change to accommodate the values particular to a time and place. On the other hand, portraits of beauty, as distinct from “realistic” images of the ordinary or the ugly, are conservative because beauty is conveyed by appeal to the authority of the tradition: “as beautiful as Adonis, or Venus, or the Madonna or Clarissa.” Beauty, to use Roland Barthes's words, “cannot assert itself save in the form of a citation.”21 Barthes does not, however, tell the whole story. He neglects the story itself, the fact that Adonis, or Venus, or the Madonna each displays a beauty that derives its meaning from narrative contexts; each is as beautiful as his or her characteristic qualities. Thus does beauty bear truth. Reading the inside by using the evidence of the outside is rhetorically enforced by the adjective's penetrating power, as, for example, clear eyes (whatever that means) signify clarity of vision. And, ironically, Barthes neglects the power of coding, to which he habitually directs our attention: dark hair and eyes, for example, suggest the exotic or the demonic, depths of wisdom or of sorrow. When we read beauty, we trace allusions to the tradition.

Novelists do subject their models to revision. Those characters who are more complex than Theophrastan types are developed by appeal to competing codes and traditions, as fiction attempts to reconcile competing claims to value, competing definitions of humanity. In the invention and description of fictional characters, novelists record the tension between the pulls of the tradition and the urge towards innovation.

Because the values embodied in a character of beauty may be self-contradictory, the beauty of literature's characters is often unvisualizable (which may explain our inevitable disappointment with cinema's casting choices for our favorite fictional characters). Art historians have remarked that even in visual portraiture, the interest of a figure often lies in its subtle incoherence.22 In linguistic figures incoherence masquerades as complexity or development of character; codes compete, and the outcome of the competitions affects how the body is imagined and treated in the world.

Description transgresses the most fundamental boundary in the discourse of literary criticism, the opposition between the literal and the figurative. A figure is a face, a body, a personage, a metaphor. The fictional body is a playground for multiple shifting significances. Transfiguration is a symbolic operation that occurs on the body. Scarry, in The Body in Pain, relates the body's situation with respect to language to its situation in torture and war.23 Cinderella teaches the desirability of a delicate foot. Freud teaches that the foot, an object of fetishism, displaces the site of female sexuality. Such displacements are endless and often scandalous. In Adam Bede Eliot succeeds in transposing the value of delicate health and that of healthy delicacy, but in doing so she must bring in the heroine who went out.


  1. Bruce Haley, The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 196.

  2. Cf. Peter Cominos, “Innocent Femina Sensualis in Unconscious Conflict,” rpt. in Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age edited by Martha Vicinus (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972).

  3. George Eliot, Adam Bede, with foreword by F. R. Leavis (New York: New American Library, 1961), p. 34. Subsequent references will be given in the text.

  4. Robert Palfrey Utter and Gwendolyn Bridges Needham, Pamela's Daughters (New York: Macmillan Co., 1936), p. 41.

  5. Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility (New York: Pantheon, 1983), p. 234.

  6. Translation from The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, revised standard edition, edited by Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).

  7. Midrash Rabbah, vol. I, edited by H. Freedman and Maurice Simon (New York: Soncino Press, 1983), commentary to Genesis 34.

  8. John Berger, “Why Look at Animals,” in About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980).

  9. Cf. F. R. Leavis's foreword to Adam Bede (New York: New American Library, 1961).

  10. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (New York: Bantam, 1965), pp. 50-51.

  11. Dorothy Van Ghent, The English Novel: Form and Function (New York: Harper & Row, 1953).

  12. See for examples, Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), and Elizabeth MacAndrew and Susan Gorsky, “Why Do They Faint and Die—The Birth of the Delicate Heroine,” Journal of Popular Culture 8 (1974-75), pp. 735-745.

  13. Cf. Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, trans. Angus Davidson, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

  14. Philip Fisher, Making Up Society: The Novels of George Eliot (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981), p. 58.

  15. Cf. Haley, p. 19.

  16. Thomas, p. 259.

  17. See Sarah Stage, Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women's Medicine (New York: Norton, 1979), pp. 67-72.

  18. Alison Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York: Random House, 1981), pp. 216-220.

  19. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (London: Chatto and Windus, 1957).

  20. Norman Bryson, Word and Image: French Painting of the Ancien Régime (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 8.

  21. Roland Barthes, S/Z: An Essay, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), p. 33.

  22. See for examples, John Berger, Ways of Seeing (New York: Penguin, 1977), p. 60, and E. H. Gombrich, “The Mask and the Face: The Perception of Physiognomic Likeness in Life and in Art,” in Art, Perception, and Reality (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), p. 21.

  23. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Peggy Fitzhugh Johnstone (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6415

SOURCE: “Self-Disorder and Aggression in Adam Bede: A Kohutian Analysis,” in Mosaic, Vol. 22, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 59-70.

[In the following essay, Johnstone uses Heinz Kohut's psychoanalytic notion of “self-psychology” to discuss the failure of Adam Bede, and demonstrates Eliot's failure to recognize her characters' aggressive behavior as reflective of her own unresolved conflicts.]

Although George Eliot's novels seem to be designed to portray her protagonists' growth from egoism and self-delusion toward self-knowledge and a capacity for empathy, critics have long noted tendencies that undermine this concern. F. R. Leavis, for example, draws attention to a “distinctive moral preoccupation” (28) which, as Barbara Hardy suggests, leads Eliot to idealize certain “charmless” characters in order to provide her readers with a “moral example” (39). Eliot has also been criticized for lack of distance, or as Leavis expresses it, “the direct (and sometimes embarrassing) presence of the author's own personal need” (32). Eliot's moralism and want of objectivity are factors in the ongoing debates concerning the endings of some of her novels, with critics of various schools attempting explanations for the dissatisfaction that so many readers feel.

Especially problematic in this respect is Adam Bede, Eliot's nineteenth-century reinterpretation of the story of the fallen and redeemed Adam of Milton's epic (Knoepflmacher 91-126). Although the title character is the primary focus of the author's theme of “tragic growth” (Hardy 39), Eliot attempts to show “an enlargement of moral sympathy” (Gregor 24) on the part of all four major characters—Adam, Arthur, Hetty and Dinah. Readers often have difficulty accepting Eliot's message, however, because of her attitude toward Hetty, the character who is convicted of infanticide and banished from the community of Hayslope. Critics who have puzzled over Eliot's harshness toward Hetty include U. C. Knoepflmacher, who calls Hetty's early disappearance from the novel her “execution by her moralistic creator” (124), and George Creeger, who suggests that Hetty is “the victim” of her creator's own “hardness” (231). Mason Harris, who refers to Eliot's “unforgivable” refusal to portray Hetty's further development after her exile, objects to the novel's ending on the grounds that “the reconstructed, Hetty-less pastoral of the ending seems to refute the whole process of the novel” (“Infanticide” 189, 194). Other critics who have objected to the ending of the novel include Michael Edwards, who feels that its power “is diminished by Adam's lack of guilt as regards Hetty” (218), and Murray Krieger, who suggests that our discomfort with the conclusion is our sense that the “transformed pain is not evident enough” (219).

My purpose in this essay is to suggest that Heinz Kohut's “self-psychology” best illuminates the problems that critics have noted in Adam Bede. After exploring the way Kohut's theories about the relationship between incomplete self-development and rage help to explain the aggressive behavior of Eliot's characters, I will then attempt to show how Eliot's apparent failure to see the extent of the aggression that she portrays in her characters may reflect her own unresolved conflicts.


Kohut's psychology of the self defines psychoanalytic cure as a process of self-structuralization that results in a productive life, rather than simply as the resolution of oedipal conflict (Cure 7). His version of the well-known definition of mental health (the ability to work and to love) is “the capacity of a firm self to avail itself of the talents and skills at [its] disposal, enabling [the individual] to love and work successfully” (Restoration 284). To Kohut, the role of parents is central in the development of a firm self structure, which he believes depends more upon the effect of the child's total environment than upon “gross events,” such as the deaths of parents (Restoration 187-91). One step in the formation of the “bipolar self” occurs as a result of the infant's early “mirroring,” or interaction with a supportive parent figure; this stage is necessary for the development of a healthy self-esteem. Another step occurs as a result of the child's “idealization” of a parent figure—a stage which precedes the successful internalization of values (Analysis 40-49, 106-09). When the process of self-structuralization is left incomplete, the result is a “self-disorder,” defined by the persistence of archaic self and parent images that have not become integrated into the mature structures of the personality (Russell 140).

Instead of emphasizing the growth from dependence to autonomy, as does traditional psychoanalysis, Kohut emphasizes the changed nature of the relationship between self and “self-objects” (Cure 52). He believes that throughout life human beings need healthy attachments to empathic self-objects which replace their infantile self-objects, their parents. Kohut's view of aggression is also different from the traditional view of it as the manifestation of an innate drive. He sees rage as a reaction to the feeling of loss of connection between self and empathic parental object, or, to put it another way, as a reaction to the sense that the integrity of the self has been violated. Rage results from “the breakup of the primary self-experience in which, in the child's perception, the child and the empathic self-object are one” (Restoration 91).


In Adam Bede, Eliot portrays characters who suffer from varying degrees of disorders of the self, resulting from their lack of the parental and community support that is necessary for the development of a firm sense of identity. Eliot's characters have lost their parent(s), yet at the same time, because of their unresolved need for them, have failed to separate themselves from their infantile parental image(s). In their need to attach themselves to an infantile object, Arthur, Adam and Dinah choose Hetty, who functions in the community both as a fertility/mother figure and as a child figure. As the characters struggle to grow beyond their childhood attachments and find replacements for them, however, they must kill off their old parental images as symbolized by Hetty—hence their banishment of her.

Although Eliot seems to blame Hetty for her flaws, her presentation of the harsh family and social conditions that lie underneath the surface of the Eden-like county of Loamshire shows that Hetty has been victimized by its inhabitants. She has been effectively excluded from the community of Hayslope from the time of her arrival. Orphaned at age ten, she has come to live with her aunt and uncle, the Poysers, who are conscientious about the formalities of caring for her, but who treat her differently from their own children. Hetty's grandfather, who is part of the household, also treats her differently from his son's children, because he still resents her mother's marriage to a man beneath the Poysers' status.

Building on Creeger's view of Hetty's “hardness” as “childish … egocentricity” (228), Harris sees Hetty not as an “adult sinner” but as a “confused child” essentially “abandoned” by her relatives; her relatives' rigid incapacity to accept her as part of their “respectable” world has resulted in her “arrested development” (“Infanticide” 179, 180). She has not been able to find an appropriate role in her family or community; her status is somewhere between that of the servants and the Poysers' own children. To Harris, Hetty's lack of parental support has prevented her development of the “sense of an inner self” that she needs to be able to assess the values imposed on her by the Hayslope “shame-culture” (“Infanticide” 193, 184). Extending Harris's analysis, one may note that, as Eliot portrays her, Hetty has not completed the steps in the creation of the constituents of Kohut's bipolar self. Her intense need for mirroring is shown in her Narcissus-like tendency to gaze at length at her reflection, either in a polished surface or a mirror (117, 194, 199, 294-96, 378). Her failure to internalize values is reflected in the way that “shame … was poor little Hetty's conscience” and “religious doctrines had taken no hold on [her] mind” (382, 430).

Contrasting the usual view of Hetty as “a temptress” with his own interpretation of her as “a little girl,” Harris demonstrates that her feeling for Arthur is not “sensual love,” but a “Cinderella-fantasy” (“Infanticide” 183). Hetty's propensity for looking at herself in the mirror, along with her self-defeating involvement with Arthur, who she dreams will provide her with wealth and importance, suggest her need for self-completion. In the scene in her bed-chamber, she gazes at her image while imagining that Arthur is with her: “his arm was around her, and the delicate rose-scent of his hair was with her still” (195). Hetty is searching for her identity by attaching herself to Arthur, who has the established place in Hayslope that she longs for.

Hetty's treatment of babies and children reenacts her own sense of abandonment. She hates children as much as she hates the lambs and the baby chickens on the farm. When Hetty gives birth to her own child after she runs away from home, she is not able to behave as a mother normally would. “I seemed to hate it,” she confesses to Dinah, having explained: “And then the little baby was born, when I didn’t expect it; and the thought came into my mind that I might get rid of it, and go home again. … I longed so to go back again.” Hetty's already weak sense of self deteriorates further when she leaves Hayslope, the only source of her identity and values. Her primary thought, when she thinks of murdering her child, is to “go home again” (498). In her confusion, however, “by burying the child, but not completely, Hetty tries both to kill it and to let it live” (Harris “Infanticide” 187). Hetty is ambivalent, and rather than actively killing the baby, she abandons it in the woods. Thus the murder takes the form of passive aggression.


The characterization of Arthur, whom Harris calls Eliot's “first extensive study of unconscious motivation” (“Misuse” 45), reveals that his inadequate self-development, although less severe than Hetty's, sets him up for his destructive interaction with her. Although Arthur feels that his future position in Hayslope is secure, his background has some parallels with Hetty's. For one thing, he has no parents. His mother died only three months after his christening, and his father is missing. All we know about his father is that the Irwines have a low opinion of him, just as Hetty's relatives have a low opinion of her father. Like Hetty, Arthur's lack of adequate parental substitutes creates his ongoing need for the firm support that would enable him to complete the process of his self-structuralization.

Just as Hetty is treated with indifference by her grandfather, so Arthur feels at times “positively hate[d]” by his (302). He also feels controlled by him. As he says to Mr. Irwine, “My grandfather will never let me have any power while he lives” (215). In the same conversation Irwine tells him that his mother (Mrs. Irwine) has prophesied that Arthur's “lady-love will rule [him] as the moon rules the tides.” Arthur replies after a narrative interlude, “A man may be very firm in other matters and yet be under a sort of witchery from a woman.” Arthur's sense of being controlled is easily transferable to other relationships; he is susceptible to “woman's witchery.” Furthermore, like Hetty, his lack of family support has resulted in his failure to internalize firm values. Eliot comments that Arthur “lived a great deal in other people's opinions and feelings concerning himself” (216). As Harris says, Arthur “depends on the approbation of others rather than an inner sense of self [and has] a moral sense based mainly on shame” (“Misuse” 53, 54). He shares to a lesser degree Hetty's need for self-completion, yet also like Hetty, chooses a self-defeating relationship.

Arthur is described as having a “loving nature,” but Eliot's irony becomes clear in the subsequent description of his treatment of the “old gardener.” When Arthur was seven, he impulsively kicked over the old man's pitcher of broth. Finally realizing that it was the man's dinner, he “took his favorite pencil-case and a silver-hafted knife out of his pocket and offered them as compensation. He had been the same Arthur ever since, trying to make all offences forgotten in benefits” (356).

Although Arthur is too concerned about other people's opinions to be openly aggressive, he evidences a pattern of behaving aggressively and then seeking atonement by giving up something he possesses. In the incident with the old gardener Arthur takes out his aggression on someone whose social status is beneath his own. His relationship with Hetty follows the same pattern: it is an assertion of his power over the lower classes. The sequence of events that occurs at the time just before Arthur becomes involved with Hetty suggests that although his actions with Hetty appear to be impulsive, they are actually a reaction to his sense of being controlled by his grandfather. Arthur is disgruntled because “There was no having his own way in the stables; everything was managed in the stingiest fashion” (172). Then he learns that his horse is lame and feels “thoroughly disappointed and annoyed” (173). He goes out for a ride on the other horse that is available to him, and by the time he returns is unable to resist breaking his resolution not to see Hetty. In his dressing room after lunch, he feels that “The desire to see [her] had rushed back like an ill-stemmed current.” He rationalizes that he will “amuse himself” by seeing Hetty that day “and get rid of the whole thing from his mind.” Then he goes to see Hetty in the wood (174-75).

The affair is not simply a matter of Arthur's failure to recognize his own frustrated sex drive, which has been “sublimated” into “sentimental musing over Hetty” (Harris, “Misuse” 45). Sexual fantasy and behavior can also serve as a defense, against “hostile aggression” (Coen 895). Arthur, feeling controlled and therefore angry at his grandfather, expresses his frustration and need for power in the involvement with Hetty. Yet he also feels under her power, or “witchery.” As often as he determines to do so, he is not able to end the affair and separate himself from Hetty, who is as much an extension of his fantasies as he is of hers. Just as Hetty's fantasies are about the luxuries of the social position that would be hers as Arthur's wife (144, 181, 199, 296), so Arthur's are about his life as squire after his grandfather's death (170, 483). Arthur's inadequate sense of his own identity, which depends to such an extent on his future inheritance from his grandfather, makes him susceptible to the need for completing himself in the relationship with Hetty, in which he can act out his fantasy of being loved by the lower classes for his philanthropic works after he takes over his grandfather's position in the community.

Arthur does finally suffer from the pain he has caused Hetty. His atonement, however, follows the pattern of his atonement with the old gardener: an attempt to rectify aggressive action by giving up possessions. He gives up his position as squire and goes away. Yet his exile is only temporary. He is eventually able to return and find a place in Hayslope. Hetty, by virtue of her position in the community, is the one who must bear the full weight of the consequences of their behavior.


Eliot attempts to show her title character Adam undergoing a transformation from an inner “hardness” to a capacity for sympathy for others (Creeger 234-35). The description of Adam's family life points to the source of his hardness as his lost “sense of distinction” as “Thias Bede's lad” since the onset of his father's alcoholism during his late teenage years. Adam's “shame and anguish” (92) had caused him to run away from home, but he had returned because he did not want to leave his mother and brother Seth with the burden of enduring the situation without him. To Kohut, shame frequently results in rage and in the shamed individual's ongoing readiness to seek revenge (“Thoughts” 380-81)—a reaction that Eliot similarly depicts. By the time Adam's story opens, his shame has turned to rage, which shows itself in his propensity for fighting (211) and in his severity toward his father (86). Adam focuses all his anger about his family situation on his father, although it is clear that his mother Lisbeth has her own problem of “idolatrous love” for Adam and her obvious preference for him over Seth (87).

Adam's anger toward his father culminates in his actions on the night of his father's death. He is furious because his father is out drinking when he should have been working on the job of making a coffin for a man in a neighboring village. While Adam stays up to finish the job himself, he thinks of his father's continuously “worsening” behavior (92), but feels determined not to run away from the situation again, although he feels that his father will be a “sore cross” to him for years to come. At that moment he hears a rap “as if with a willow wand” on the house door, goes to the door to look out, sees that no one seems to be there, and thinks of the superstition that the sound of a willow wand rapping on the door means that someone is dying (93). After he hears the sound again and still sees no sign of his father, he reasons that Thias is probably “sleeping off his drunkenness at the [tavern].” Not wanting to succumb to superstitious thinking, he determines not to open the door again, and for the rest of the night hears no more knocking. The next morning, however, Seth discovers that Thias has drowned during the night, “not far from his own door,” as Mr. Irwine says later (137).

Carol Christ notes that Thias's death “occurs as a magical fulfillment of Adam's anger” (131); Krieger suggests that “the resentfulness Adam feels … brings him close to wishing his father dead” (211). It is possible to interpret Adam's hearing the sound of the willow wand not only as a manifestation of his sense of foreboding, but as his wish for his father's death. It is also possible to interpret Adam's decision not to open the door again despite his father's expected arrival as a form of passive aggression and as an indirect contribution to his father's death. In any case, Thias's death causes Adam to repent his “severity” toward him (97). And this repentance, in Eliot's view, turns out to be the first step of the process “in which Adam learns to overcome his angry severity toward others” (Christ 131).

Adam's attitude toward Arthur and Hetty repeats the pattern of his attitude toward his parents. Even before he realizes that they are actually having an affair, he is openly outraged at Arthur's involvement with Hetty and provokes him into a fight. Yet he has trouble seeing any wrong in Hetty even after it becomes clear that she has abandoned her baby. Adam's reluctance to feel hostile to Hetty is related to his reluctance to be angry with his mother. His dream, which recounts the events in the Bede household shortly after Thias's death, shows Adam's close identification of Hetty with his mother. When his mother approaches, accidentally waking him, he is not startled to see her because she had been present “with her fretful grief” throughout his feverish reliving of the day's events. Yet Hetty, too, had “continually” appeared in the dream, “mingling ... in scenes with which she had nothing to do”; and “wherever Hetty came, his mother was sure to follow soon...” (152). Adam's dream suggests that he has transferred his attachment to his mother, who has always loved him with “idolatrous love,” to his “preoccupying fancy” with Hetty (161-62).

When Adam learns of Hetty's interest in Arthur, he does not express anger toward her openly. Instead his aggressiveness takes the form of an intrusion on her relationship with Arthur. By insisting that Arthur not see Hetty again and that he write her a letter breaking off the relationship, he is cutting off all possibility that Arthur will be able to help her. At the time of the intrusion, Adam is not aware that Hetty is pregnant, nor is he aware that Arthur really does care for her more than he has let Adam know. His intrusiveness, however, is inappropriate and ends up making the situation worse. It is perhaps Adam's bitter jealousy (370), more than an interest in Hetty's welfare, that makes him insist on the letter, which he gives to Hetty himself after he tells her that Arthur “care[s] nothing about [her] as a man ought to care” (367). As Bruce K. Martin argues, “Adam thus indirectly contributes to the child-killing” by “remov[ing] from Hetty's mind the possibility of consulting Arthur until it is too late” (759).

Adam's inner struggles center on his inability to see Hetty realistically. Even before he sees her with Arthur in the woods, her locket (a gift from Arthur) drops to the floor in front of Adam; he fears that she has a lover, but then rationalizes that she “might have bought the thing herself” (333). After he delivers Arthur's letter to her, he still hopes that she will become interested in him: “she may turn round the other way, when she finds he’s made light of her all the while” (370). He continues to hope for her love by “creat[ing] the mind he believed in out of his own” (400). When he learns that Hetty has been accused of infanticide, he finds it impossible to believe: “‘It’s his doing,’ he said; ‘if there’s been any crime, it’s at his door, not at hers. … I can’t bear it. … it’s too hard to think she’s wicked’” (455). At the trial, when it becomes clear that Hetty is guilty, “It was the supreme moment of his suffering: Hetty was guilty, and he was silently calling to God for help” (481). Later, in the “upper room” scene with Bartle Massey, Adam is still having trouble accepting the truth about her: “I thought she was loving and tender-hearted, and wouldn’t tell a lie, or act deceitful. … And if he’d never come near her, and I’d married her, and been loving to her, and took care of her, she might never ha’ done anything bad” (504). Adam is struggling to separate himself from his fantasy of Hetty, who symbolizes his lingering parental image of the loving young woman who belongs only to him.

When Adam is forced to face the truth about Hetty's affair and infanticide, and when he finally forgives her and Arthur, he becomes free of her (and his mother's) hold on his mind. The sign of his transformation is his participation in “a kind of Lord's Supper” (Creeger 234) with Bartle Massey in the “upper room” before Hetty's trial. Just before he takes the bread and wine, Adam agrees to go see Hetty in the prison and says, “I’ll never be hard again” (475). Finally, in the chapter entitled “Another Meeting in the Wood,” he even repents of his “hardness” toward Arthur: “I’ve no right to be hard towards them as have done wrong and repent” (514).

His own suffering after his father's death, and his vicarious participation in Hetty's suffering after the infanticide, have extended his capacity for “sympathy,” which in Eliot's novels must be preceded by “the recognition of difference: between oneself and another …” (Ermarth 25), as in the case of Adam's changed view of Hetty. Adam's participation in Hetty's guilt causes him to “look upon every sufferer, regardless of guilt, as worthy of sympathy” (Martin 750). From a psychoanalytic point of view, Adam's identification with Hetty and her suffering is therapeutic because at the same time that he separates himself from his childhood image of his mother, he also transfers his wish for his father's death onto Hetty's murderous act. Through Hetty's suffering, he is cleansed of his own guilt; Hetty is the sacrificial lamb whose suffering makes Adam's redemption possible. Eliot calls his “deep, unspeakable suffering” a “baptism, a regeneration, the initiation into a new state” (471). She tries to suggest that he has become a more complete human being, ready for a mature love for Dinah. Yet Adam's growth occurs at the expense of Hetty, whose murderous act and subsequent punishment are in part a consequence of his aggressive intrusion on her relationship with Arthur; thus Eliot's attempt to portray Adam's transformation in terms of the nineteenth-century “religion of humanity” (Knoepflmacher 112) becomes a perversion, rather than a reinterpretation, of the idea of baptism.

In a scene in his mother's cottage shortly after his father's death, Adam hears a foot on the stairs and imagines that it is Hetty; but instead, Dinah, the “reality contrasted with a preoccupying fancy,” enters (161-62). This is the first hint that Dinah will be able to replace Hetty in Adam's affections. His love for her becomes “the outgrowth of that fuller life which had come to him from his acquaintance with deep sorrow” (574). He and Dinah marry and find their place in Hayslope. Painful memories remain, but in Eliot's view Adam has regained his Paradise.


Although Eliot attempts to idealize Dinah, to a Kohutian reader she emerges as a character with unresolved needs which are expressed in destructive interactions with Hetty. Like Hetty and Arthur, Dinah has lost both her parents. She has been raised by her Aunt Judith, Mrs. Poyser's sister. When Dinah visits the Bedes's home early in the novel, she tells Lisbeth about her orphaned background and “how she had been brought up to work hard, and what sort of place Snowfield was, and how many people had a hard life there” (157). Yet Dinah does not appear to suffer any ill-effects from her hard life. Lisbeth tells her, “[Y]e look as if ye’d ne’er been angered i’ your life” (156). She is referring to Dinah's apparently compliant nature, which Lisbeth thinks must at least have made the aunt's task of bringing up a child a little easier.

The possibility that Dinah's calm exterior is in part a cover for anger is borne out in her preaching and other aspects of her ministry. During her sermon her voice is all calm and compassion until “she had thoroughly arrested her hearers” (71). Then “her utterance” becomes more “rapid and agitated,” as she emphasizes the listeners' “guilt … wilful darkness, [and] state of disobedience to God” (72). She begins to single out individuals, focusing in particular on Bessy Cranage, who “had always been considered a naughty girl … [and] was conscious of it” (73). She accuses Bessy of paying more attention to her earrings and clothes than to her “Saviour” and warns her that when she is old, she will “begin to feel that [her] soul is not saved” and “will have to stand before God dressed in [her] sins.” Toward the end of Dinah's pointed message, which, as Christopher Herbert suggests, amounts to “an attack” on her (415), Bessy bursts into tears; finally, “a great terror [came] upon her,” and she throws her earrings “down before her, sobbing aloud” (75).

Dinah repeats the pattern of her attack on Bessy when she “intrude[s]” (Krieger 205) on Hetty in “The Two Bedchambers,” a chapter intended to show the striking contrasts between Hetty, who is “strutting about decked in her scarf and earrings” in front of her mirror (201), and Dinah, who is looking out the window of her room at a “wide view over the fields” (202). Dinah closes her eyes in prayer, is interrupted by a sound from Hetty's room, and begins to think about her. Feeling “pity” for Hetty's lack of “warm, self-devoting love” and “a deep longing to go now and pour into Hetty's ear all the words of tender warning and appeal that rushed into her mind” (203), Dinah goes to her room and with very little introduction says, “it has been borne in upon my mind tonight that you may some day be in trouble” (205). She offers to help in any future time of need, and in her homiletic style reminds Hetty to seek strength from God, who will support her “in the evil day.” When Dinah sees that Hetty is reacting “with a chill fear” to her prophecy, her “tender anxious pleading” becomes “the more earnest” until Hetty, “full of a vague fear that something evil was sometime to befall her, began to cry.” Interpreting Hetty's reaction as “the stirring of a divine impulse,” Dinah begins to “cry with her for grateful joy,” but Hetty becomes “irritated under Dinah's caress,” and pushing her away impatiently, sobs, “Don’t talk to me so, Dinah. Why do you come to frighten me? I’ve never done anything to you. Why can’t you let me be?” (206).

Dinah's style of ministry is in sharp contrast to Mr. Irwine's, who has more a “live and let live” (103) attitude toward his flock. When Arthur comes to see him about Hetty, Irwine refrains from giving him advice because he has already warned Arthur not to get involved with Hetty. Moreover, Irwine has no idea how close he is to an involvement, and is trying to let Arthur take the initiative in any confession or request for advice. Conversely, he very firmly takes the initiative in advising Adam, who he knows has a propensity for violence, not to get into another fight with Arthur. Irwine speaks to him in a rational tone about the consequences of acting out of blind fury and then leaves him to his own thoughts. His behavior indicates that he believes that Arthur and Adam have the capacity to make the right decision. Dinah's behavior toward Bessy and Hetty indicates that she thinks they are lost souls incapable of any right behavior without her help.

Dinah does not actually see Hetty again until the prison scene, where Hetty's “hardness” is melted (497) as she finally makes her confession to Dinah. Although Eliot tries to show Dinah as facilitating Hetty's breakthrough in this scene, her earlier departure from Hayslope is another indication of Dinah's (in this case, passive) aggressiveness toward Hetty. Dinah repeatedly expresses interest in helping Hetty, but she goes away without leaving an address, and by the time she reappears, it is too late to help, except by listening to her final confession in the prison cell.

Dinah tells Seth that she feels “called” to return to Snowfield, although “[her] heart yearns” over her aunt's family and “that poor wandering lamb, Hetty Sorrel” (78). When she is almost ready to leave, Dinah again expresses interest in Hetty, who she says will be in her intercessions (187), and in “The Two Bed-Chambers” scene, Dinah expresses her fear that Hetty “may someday be in trouble” (205). While Dinah is away, Seth receives a letter from her, which refers to her sense of foreboding about her aunt's household (375). When Adam goes to look for Hetty, however, although he believes she is visiting Dinah in Snowfield, he finds that Dinah is out of town and learns that she has not left any address. After Hetty is accused of infanticide, Dinah is still missing and no one knows for certain where she is. The family tries to send her a letter, but they have no idea whether she receives it. Dinah does not reappear until Hetty has already been sentenced, when she visits her in the prison. Dinah's departure and failure to leave an address at a time when she senses that something might be wrong belie the expressions of concern for her aunt's household. Eliot's seemingly idealized Dinah thus expresses aggression indirectly both in the form of intrusiveness and passivity.

Dinah's anger is not acknowledged, but it is evident in her words and actions. Hetty, like Bessy, is a likely target for Dinah's aggressions because the community already looks down on her, her self-esteem is low, and she is the least capable of fighting back. Yet perhaps more importantly, Hetty represents the side of herself that Dinah is unwilling to acknowledge: the sexual (the affair with Arthur) and the aggressive (the murder of the baby). In attacking Hetty, Dinah is attacking the threatening forces in her own nature. Several times Mrs. Poyser refers angrily to Dinah's asceticism (121, 236, 518), as though she is aware that there is something wrong with Dinah's failure to acknowledge any normal physical needs. Dinah's denial of natural needs suggests that she is “lacking in self,” or in a “sense of human identity”; her “fear of accepting full maturity” (Creeger 236, 237) is reflected, in psychoanalytic terminology, in her persistent archaic idealized self-image, and is a sign of defective self-development (Russell 139, 144). Dinah identifies only with her “ideal self” as she splits off and projects her unacceptable traits onto others. Hetty answers Dinah's need to get rid of her “bad self.”

After Adam's proposal, Dinah goes away again to think it over. A few weeks later, when Adam goes to see her, Dinah, apparently having undergone a transformation that enables her to accept her feelings for Adam, finally declares her love: “it is the Divine Will. My soul is so knit with yours that it is but a divided life I live without you” (576). Like Adam, who has gone away and returned, she comes back to Hayslope and finds her place in the community. Like Adam's, however, her new life comes at Hetty's expense. It is only after Hetty's guilt is made clear to the community and she is exiled that Dinah finally replaces her in Adam's affections.

Kohut's view that rage is the reaction to the sense of loss of connection to parental figures is thus well illustrated in the story of Arthur's, Adam's and Dinah's treatment of Hetty. Their scapegoating of her is a transference of anger felt toward missing or disappointing parent(figure)s. Hetty as fallen mother and child-murderer becomes the symbol of failed parenthood who must be banished to make way for her replacements as the characters grow beyond their infantile self and parental images. At the same time, Hetty is the symbol of the abandoned and murdered child, whose suffering enacts the characters' sense of abandonment, along with their unacknowledged murderous wishes toward missing or inadequate parents. Reliving and working through unresolved childhood feelings, as in psychoanalytic therapy, is a way of integrating parental images in the mind. In Kohut's terms, the characters have completed their self-structuralization through a transference, in which they have completed the process of “transmuting internalization” that should normally have occurred in childhood (Analysis 49).


Critics have wondered why Eliot seems unable to see her favored characters in Adam Bede and other novels as they come across to the reader. Dinah, Dorothea, Romola and Daniel Deronda are examples in her fiction of idealized hero(ine)s portrayed in sharp contrast to an extremely self-centered and/or immature character: Hetty, Rosamund, Tito and Tessa, and Gwendolen Harleth. Such contrasting of idealized and villainous characters is in part Victorian literary convention, and in part Eliot's deliberate attempt “to illustrate the moral truths of her religion of humanity” (Fulmer 28). Eliot's blind spots, however, can perhaps best be explained by the psychoanalytic concept of splitting. According to Otto Kernberg, the object relations theorist, splitting is a “central defensive operation of the ego at regressed levels” which occurs when the neutralization of aggression in the mind “does not take place sufficiently”; he explains that “Probably the best known manifestation of splitting is the division of external objects into ‘all good’ ones and ‘all bad’ ones” (6, 29). Splitting is manifest in Eliot's art not only in her contrasting characters, but also in their development: although her story is abruptly cut off, Hetty is portrayed in more convincing detail than Dinah, a shadowy ideal who is more often than not offstage. Eliot's failure to see the aggression in her idealized character—in this case, Dinah, and to a lesser degree, Adam (whose aggression is in part acknowledged, in part denied)—perhaps constitutes a denial of aggressive impulses in herself. Hetty, the split off, bad side of herself, is banished from Hayslope, and banished from the novel. The failure of the ending of Adam Bede (Hetty's disappearance and the marriage of Adam and Dinah) may thus reflect Eliot's failure to detach herself from her own conflicts.

Carol Christ has shown how Eliot's concern with the repression of anger is evident in her repeated use of providential death in her fiction both “to avoid... and prohibit aggression... in her characters” (132). My purpose has been to extend such insights by showing how Kohut's self-psychology illuminates the patterns of indirect expression of aggression in Adam Bede, explains some of the problems noted by critics, and suggests their connection to the author's own unresolved conflicts. The application of Kohut's theories to a study of Adam Bede also shows how narcissistic rage, a “dangerous feature of individual psychopathology” is transformed into an “equally malignant social phenomenon” (“Thoughts” 382), whereby family and social groups turn innocent victims into scapegoats in order to compensate for their own sense of inadequacy.

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Martin, Bruce K. “Rescue and Marriage in Adam Bede.Studies in English Literature 12 (1972): 745-63.

Russell, Gillian A. “Narcissism and the narcissistic personality disorder: A comparison of the theories of Kernberg and Kohut.” British Journal of Medical Psychology 58 (1985): 137-49.

James Eli Adams (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6794

SOURCE: “Gyp's Tale: On Sympathy, Silence, and Realism in Adam Bede,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 20, 1991, pp. 227-42.

[In the following essay, Adams examines the limits of the human ability to express emotion through language in Adam Bede.]

In Chapter 21 of Adam Bede, the narrator remarks upon the quiet “drama” of three laborers learning to read: “It was almost as if three rough animals were making humble efforts to learn how they might become human” (281). Commentators on Eliot's novel frequently single out this evocation of an obscure struggle against mystery and dispossession: it has “unmistakably the quality of an allegorical panel,” as one critic remarks.1 But a tribute to the humanizing power of literacy is curiously discordant in a work which so strenuously insists on the inadequacies of formal education. Adam, after all, is not made any more human by his literacy: that hopeful view is gently parodied in Bartle Massey's lament that the catastrophe “might never have happened,” if Adam, “poor fellow,” had “gone into the higher branches” of mathematics (463). Moral education—that which makes one truly human—rests instead on the “lesson” of sympathy, which is transacted in a very different language, under the silent, often inchoate tutelage of suffering. “That is a long and hard lesson,” the narrator remarks after Thias Bede's funeral, “and Adam had at present only learned the alphabet of it in his father's sudden death” (255). Formal literacy is thus subordinated to a language whose “alphabet” has no phonic counterpart, nor any established script.

In an earlier epoch, such language was the province of religious doctrine and ceremony. But for Eliot, it is the novelist who must take up the burden of representing the ineffable—of rendering in words the experience of suffering and moral redemption. Eliot's moral design in Adam Bede thus offers peculiar challenges to the novelist. If, as the novel eloquently insists, what is most precious in human experience is that which cannot be articulated—“something unspeakably great and beautiful”—then the largest significance of formal education and eloquence, whether spoken or written, will be ironic. Eloquence, like literacy, calls attention to the complexity and significance of that which it cannot adequately articulate. Although it represents a uniquely human power, literacy thus confirms in addition a pronounced bond between man and “rough animals.” Indeed, what might seem one of the novel's more hackneyed motifs, the uncannily precocious dog population of Hayslope, is but one facet of Eliot's sustained mediation upon the powers and limits of human expression. In the dogs, Eliot portrays creatures who seem to possess a rudimentary inner life, but who, since they lack speech, must struggle to find an outlet for that life in other forms of expression. Whatever their sentimental value, “the dumb creatures,” as Mrs. Poyser calls them, thus assume the role of mute choric figures offering oblique commentary on the eminently human struggle to find an adequate language for feeling. That human predicament is most obviously embodied in the form of Adam's dog Gyp, the devoted companion who lacks a tail, and is thus “destitute of that vehicle for his emotions.”

In stressing the limits of human expression, however, Eliot also engages in a Carlylean celebration of the ineffable that tends to render eloquence inherently suspect. If what is most truly and richly “human” are those states of mind that resist articulation, then those who trust to eloquence or “notions” to represent their experience are not only doomed to frustration; they are destined to seem emotionally impoverished, insufficiently responsive to the integrity of human feeling, which ultimately can be respected only by silence. Conversely, utterance which is inarticulate and incoherent may confirm the authority of the feeling it cannot directly express. Gyp's missing tail, after all, makes its own eloquence felt in the consequent pathos of Gyp's struggle to express his emotions, a struggle whose intensity humanizes him beyond any other dog in the novel. With a tail, Gyp would be less emphatically the object of “fellow-feeling.” The inability to articulate one's most profound feelings and thoughts may be an obstacle to heightened consciousness—as Eliot would obviously have it in the case of Hetty Sorrel; yet the same failure may also be evidence of the depth of one's feelings, and thus of one's capacity for sympathy.

Such a stance obviously places peculiar and strenuous burdens on the novelist. More precisely, the mistrust of eloquence lends extraordinary pressure to the problematics of realistic representation. Eliot's rejection of religious doctrine, which impels her appeal to the authority of experience, also renders morally (not merely ontologically) suspect the reliance on language to conjure up “experience” as a realm of immediate, external presence. This tension informs a feature of Adam Bede often explained away as an awkward device of the inexperienced novelist: the reliance on historical present, which is frequently conjoined with exhortations that the reader “see” the scenes being described. Eliot's predicament as a narrator, along with the moral problematic informing it, is thus projected with particular complexity in the figure of Dinah Morris. Celebrated as the vehicle of a profound sympathetic understanding, Dinah is effectively silenced after her marriage to Adam, when she must renounce her preaching. The ending is frequently criticized as a failure of nerve, a capitulation to the pressures of novelistic convention and male sentiment.2 But however one accounts for the outcome, Dinah's silencing articulates the novel's equivocal view of eloquence. As an evangelical preacher, Dinah is of all the characters the most vulnerable to the suspicion of eloquence; she is also the most obvious surrogate of a novelist notorious for her moral commentary on the action she narrates. The logic which silences Dinah is central to a novel which, in its effort to faithfully represent the complexities of moral experience, is in effect constantly trying to write itself into silence.

Jane Welsh Carlyle, writing to the as-yet-unknown author of Adam Bede in 1859, praised the novel in these words:

In truth, it is a beautiful most human Book! Every Dog in it, not to say every man woman and child in it, is brought home to one's “business and bosom,” an individual fellow-creature! (Eliot Letters III: 18)

The canine population of Hayslope may recall the devoted hounds that are a sentimental fixture of Victorian genre painting. But Mrs. Carlyle—no mere sentimentalist—here seizes upon a central concern of the novel. The peculiar emotional sensibility of Hayslope dogs (notable even by mid-Victorian standards) places them within Eliot's sustained exploration of what it means to be a “fellow-creature.” Their choric role is established in the novel's opening chapter, where Adam's dog Gyp alerts us to the distinctive features of his master's voice. Lest we miss the connection, Seth Bede is there to call it to our attention. “Thee’st like thy dog Gyp,” he tells Adam, “thee bark’st at me sometimes, but … thee allays lic’st my hand after.” Gyp's subsequent entrance offers the narrator occasion to elaborate the analogy:

... no sooner did Adam put his ruler in his pocket, and begin to twist his apron round his waist, then Gyp ran forward and looked up in his master's face with patient expectation. If Gyp had had a tail he would doubtless have wagged it, but being destitute of that vehicle for his emotions, he was like many other wordly personages, destined to appear more phlegmatic than nature had made him.

“What! Art ready for the basket, eh, Gyp?” said Adam, with the same gentle modulation of voice as when he spoke to Seth.

Gyp jumped and made a short bark, as much as to say, “Of course.” Poor fellow, he had not a great range of expression. (54)

The narrator's commiseration offers a coy but nonetheless suggestive gloss on the distinct limits to Adam's own “range of expression.” Adam conveys his rigid sense of duty with a ready eloquence, both in his impatient attack on wiry Ben's mockery, and in his lengthy, impromptu credo—“sarmunt,” Ben calls it—extolling a religion of hard work. The forthright vehemence of Adam's speech is faithful to his Carlylean creed, but, as Gyp's presence emphasizes, it allows little outlet for an awkward tenderness in his character that is suggested by his words to Seth and Gyp. Adam's subsequent ordeal softens his “iron will” and nurtures his tenderness into a richer and more comprehensive sympathy. That moral development is charted in a struggle to find a more adequate vehicle for his more complex emotions. Ultimately, he arrives at a new form of eloquence that can acknowledge the claims not only of personal duty but of human frailty.

Adam's growth is paradigmatic of the novel's moral action, in which the central characters undergo a kind of Feuerbachian baptism: through suffering, they are led to “a regeneration, the initiation into a new state,” which Eliot summarizes as the experience of sympathy, “the one poor word that contains all our best insight and our best love” (531).3 This “lesson,” as the narrator describes it, involves the mastery of a new form of language, and in each of the central characters the new understanding is confirmed by a shift in patterns of speech. This transformation is most starkly presented in the figure of Hetty, whose persistent silence through most of the novel reflects her utter incapacity for sympathetic participation in the world around her. Adam's range of expression may be limited, but Hetty's mute egoism is a powerful emblem of her isolation from other human beings. During her bewildered flight from the exposure of her pregnancy, the narrator's imagery reduces her being almost to the level of a frightened animal; after her arrest, she can only reconfirm her humanity by being brought to speak, to confess her responsibility in a human moral order.

Hetty's ordeal confirms the narrator's tribute to Bartle Massey's students: the mastery of language signifies a new level of humanity. Elsewhere, however, enlarged moral awareness is confirmed by the faltering of a former eloquence. Arthur Donnithorne is Hetty's partner in egoism and vanity, but by virtue of his sex and social position he embodies in more complex fashion the relation between insight and eloquence. Arthur is rarely at a loss for words, but his speech, even in his patronizing tenderness towards Hetty, is a tissue of superficial and evasive pleasantries, the language of a gentleman eager to maintain the regard of himself and others. Of his private thoughts, his vague moral qualms and self-mistrust, he cannot bring himself to speak, even with Mr. Irwine. Arthur's eventual acknowledgment of responsibility obviously parallels Hetty's confession, but since his disgrace has destroyed the foundations of his public rhetoric, he can only convey his new insight through a faltering of his former eloquence, as he struggles to master a vocabulary of sincerity he has never before called upon.

Adam's forthright speech—“I speak plain, sir, but I can’t speak any other way” (207)—jars the decorum sustained in Arthur's urbane evasions. But Adam's frankness is the expression of an unyielding sense of duty that similarly limits the capacity to acknowledge the complexities of moral experience. His eloquence, after all, draws its conception of human experience from arithmetic: “Life's a reckoning we can’t make twice over; there’s no real making amends in this world, any more nor you can mend a wrong subtraction by doing your addition right” (247). This trope chimes with Eliot's insistence on the irrevocability of action, but it also represents a stance that cannot easily adapt to unexpected complexity in human experience.4 As suffering calls into question the adequacy of Adam's moral arithmetic, his eloquence, like Arthur's, begins to falter. With the discovery that Hetty has murdered her infant, his rigid, “hard” speech finally gives way to broken sobs, and he vows to Bartle Massey, ”I’ll never be hard again.” Finally, “with hesitating gentleness,” he even manages to forgive Arthur (455, 475, 516).

Dinah at first glance stands outside this pattern: her immense fund of ready sympathy seems to require no correction or expansion. Yet she, too, ultimately enacts the pattern of faltering eloquence. Throughout most of the novel the conviction and support she derives from her sense of vocation are registered in the unwavering calm of her voice. Her appearance at Stoniton jail is typical: “There was no agitation visible in her, but a deep concentrated calmness, as if, even when she was speaking, her soul was in prayer reposing on an unseen support” (492). Even in response to Seth's declaration of love Dinah retains her composure, as the narrator quietly emphasizes: she replies “in her tender but calm treble notes” (79). Adam's presence alone disturbs this self-possession. Initially she greets him as she does Seth, “in her calm treble,” but under the scrutiny of Adam's “dark, penetrating glance” she abruptly experiences “for the first time in her life … a painful self-consciousness” (163). As the novel approaches its close, this self-consciousness infuses her voice. When Dinah visits Adam after her night in the prison with Hetty, she recalls their first meeting, and speaks with “a trembling in her clear voice” (501). Later at the farm, when the conversation turns to her future, she speaks, “trying to be quite calm”; with Adam in the cottage, she is “trembling, but trying to be calm;” when he finally proposes, even her tears are “trembling” in response (501, 523, 536).

Dinah's peculiar susceptibility to Adam may seem the stuff of those “silly novels by lady novelists” that Eliot attacked. Still, the motif answers to a more strenuous moral design: Eliot clearly wants to enrich Dinah's character by complicating the forces that govern her single-minded existence. Yet this complication is prepared from the very outset as a resistance to Dinah's vocation, which is made to seem—like Adam's very different sense of vocation—“hard” and peremptory in its demands. So receptive to the divine Word that she strives to convey to her listeners, Dinah is less responsive to the claims of more mundane human needs. Mrs. Poyser seizes upon this theme in exasperation at her inability to persuade Dinah to remain with her relatives in Loamshire: “I might as well talk to the running brook and tell it to stand still” (123). Shortly afterwards, Irwine's conversation with Dinah prompts a similar analogy: “he must be a miserable prig who would act the pedagogue here,” Irwine thinks, “one might as well go and lecture the trees for growing in their own shape” (136). While they pay tribute to the integrity of Dinah's vocation, both judgments also align that vocation with the profoundly equivocal character of nature itself. The bounties of Dinah's sympathy, they suggest, are bound up with a spiritual allegiance that, like natural forces, may be utterly indifferent to human needs.5

The faltering of Dinah's eloquence thus comes to mark a resistance to the specific character of Dinah's vocation. Such resistance is hardly surprising, inasmuch as she is, after all, a Methodist preacher in a novel permeated by Eliot's own rejection of doctrinal religion. That rejection is most obviously embodied in Irwine, who is largely the mouthpiece of a remarkably secular sympathy. “If he had been in the habit of speaking plainly,” the narrator informs us,

he would perhaps have said that the only healthy form religion could take in such minds was that of certain dim but strong emotions, suffusing themselves as a hallowing influence over the family affections and neighbourly duties. He thought the custom of baptism more important than its doctrine, and that the religious benefits the peasant drew from the church where his fathers worshipped and the sacred piece of ground where they lay buried were but slightly dependent on a clear understanding of the Liturgy or the sermon. Clearly, the rector was not what is called in these days an “earnest” man. (112)

No, but he sounds remarkably like the novel's narrator—even to the gently patronizing note in “such minds.”6 Not surprisingly, Irwine's assessment is borne out by Lisbeth Bede's comic quibbles over interpretation of “the tex”—“thee allays makes a peck o’ thy own words out o’ a pint o’ the Bible's,” she tells Seth, Dinah's fellow Methodist (90). The same “healthy” independence of theology is exemplified in the community's church services, at which elderly worshippers who cannot read nonetheless sit contented, “following the service without any very clear comprehension indeed, but with a simple faith in its efficacy to ward off harm and bring blessing” (242).

Most importantly, however, this aversion to religious doctrine is seconded by Adam. His endorsement was evidently of some importance to Eliot: in the famous Chapter 17, the narrator offers it through the fiction of an encounter with Adam in old age—a cumbersome device, but one which exempts Adam's judgment from qualification by the novel's subsequent action:

I’ve seen pretty clear, ever since I was a young un’, as religion's something else beside notions. It isn’t notions sets people doing the right thing—it’s feelings. … There’s things go on in the soul, and times when feelings come into you like a rushing mighty wind, as the scripture says, and part your life in two almost, so as you look back on yourself as if you was somebody else. Those are things as you can’t bottle up in a “do this” and “do that;” and I’ll go so far with the strongest Methodist ever you’ll find. That shows me there’s deep, speritial things in religion. You can’t make much out wi’ talking about it, but you feel it. (226-27)

Adam thus identifies Dinah's predicament: “talking about it” is precisely her vocation. In presenting her Eliot must confront the problem of separating Dinah's sympathetic power from her doctrinal language, and, more generally, of rendering her an authoritative moral presence in spite of the vocation by which she defines her very identity.

Throughout the novel Eliot strives to soften the force of Dinah's Methodism by obscuring its particulars—much in the way Irwine blurs Anglican theology. In every instance, moreover, the resistance to theology entails a check upon her preaching. Thus the narrator dwells on, for example, Dinah's respect for the “mystery” of feeling, which informs her instinctive understanding of when to remain silent, and the sympathetic power she conveys even in that silence. But the most subtle means to this avoidance of doctrine is the description of Dinah's speech as a form of music—most arrestingly, in the account of her sermon on the Hayslope common:

Hitherto the traveller had been chained to the spot against his will by the charm of Dinah's mellow treble tones, which had a variety of modulation like that of a fine instrument touched with the unconscious skill of musical instinct. The simple things she said seemed like novelties, as a melody strikes us when we hear it sung by the pure voice of a boyish chorister, the quiet depth of conviction; with which she spoke seemed in itself evidence for the truth of her message. (71)

This passage tellingly interrupts—and displaces—that portion of Dinah's sermon exhorting her audience to fear damnation. The musical analogy, along with the subsequent shift into oblique oration, directs the reader's attention away from Dinah's sermon to its effect on her listeners, and refers that effect not to the specific content of her words but to the very sound of her voice. Indeed, “the traveller”—“chained to the spot, against his will”—seems to be introduced here, as elsewhere in the novel, to further register the visceral, sensory impact of the scene before him.7

Music in this passage has a particular tactical value rarely noted in all the attention given to music in Eliot's novels.8 In the account of Dinah's preaching, music incarnates a critical norm much like that ratified in Pater's dictum that all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music (The Renaissance 106). Of course Eliot does not share Pater's formalism, but here she clearly does wish to minimize, in Pater's terms, “the mere matter” of Dinah's sermon. Dinah's preaching, the figure urges, resembles music in its expression of exquisite feeling unalloyed by discursive content. The force of Dinah's sympathetic “music” is subsequently borne out when she visits Lisbeth Bede in Chapter 10. Lisbeth's response to Dinah's “nice way o’ talkin’”—“it puts me i’ mind o’ the swallows” (157)—is exemplary in being scrupulously divorced from any clear comprehension of Dinah's “earnest prayer”:

Lisbeth, without grasping any distinct idea, without going through any course of religious emotions, felt a vague sense of goodness and love, and of something right lying underneath and beyond all this sorrowing life. She couldn’t understand the sorrow; but, for these moments, under the subduing influence of Dinah's spirit, she felt she must be patient and still. (159)

Dinah's presence thus comes to nourish a “simple faith” of rustic parishioners like Lisbeth, a faith that Eliot celebrates as a vital, enduring emotional sustenance abstracted from any distinctly religious conception. That celebration is a consummately Victorian tribute to continuity in the face of social and spiritual upheaval. It also exemplifies the submergence of theology in psychology that Eliot's critics typically refer to the influence of Feuerbach. On this point, however, Adam Bede seems equally responsive to Carlyle, whose example T. H. Huxley memorably summed up: “Sartor Resartus led me to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology.”9 The congruence is suggestive, because Eliot's tributes to such a “deep sense of religion” in Adam Bede articulate a dynamic strikingly akin to Carlyle's mistrust of self-consciousness. In the novel, a Carlylean aversion to “notions,” as Adam puts it, readily passes into an exaltation of precisely those states of mind that cannot be articulated, or even comprehended. Sympathy, that is, can only be understood as one of those intricate complexes of thought and emotion that must remain, in Eliot's resonant adjective, “unspeakable.” We’re once again recalled to Gyp's predicament, which embodies a similar gap between feeling and language. But rather than standing as a mark of human inadequacy, Gyp's missing tail begins to seem a sign of moral depth. Hence the unexpected complexity of a passage, for example, that describes Adam “waiting for [Hetty's] kind looks as a patient trembling dog waits for his master's eye to be turned upon him” (399). What purports merely to give words to the reader's disdain for Adam's blind devotion manages at the same time to pay tribute to the depth of his emotional being and to the pathos of a seemingly universal inability to find adequate language for one's feelings. As Kenny Marotta has remarked, “Precisely in Adam's inarticulateness is his closeness to the truth of feeling” (59). The opening chapter's juxtaposition of man and “the dumb creatures” in this sense establishes a kinship that is confirmed, rather than transcended, through moral education.

Early in the novel, Mrs. Poyser broaches this topic comically: “Oh, sir,” she tells Arthur, “the men are so tongue-tied—you’re forced partly to guess what they mean, as you do wi’ the dumb creaturs” (315). A few pages later her barb takes on a more somber resonance when Irwine defends the villagers from his mother's genteel contempt:

The common people are not quite so stupid as you imagine. The commonest man, who has his ounce of sense and feeling, is conscious of the difference between a lovely, delicate woman and a coarse one. Even a dog feels a difference in their presence. The man may be no better able than a beast to explain the influence the more refined beauty has on him, but he feels it. (320)

Dinah, however, most eloquently seizes upon the affinity; characteristically, she describes it not in condescension but as the recognition of a common bond. When Adam points out Gyp's friendly response to her presence—“he’s very slow to welcome strangers”—Dinah's own response confirms the emblematic moral resemblance between Adam and Gyp established in the opening chapter. “Poor dog,” she says, patting Gyp,

I’ve a strange feeling about the dumb things as if they wanted to speak, and it was a trouble to ’em because they couldn’t. I can’t help being sorry for the dogs always, though perhaps there’s no need. But they may well have more in them than they know how to make us understand, for we can’t say half what we feel, with all our words. (163)

Illuminated by Dinah's sympathy, “the dumb things” become emblems of a fundamental human predicament. In acknowledging the inadequacy of human speech, Dinah calls attention to the richness and complexity of the feelings it cannot articulate—to those experiences which, as she tells Irwine, “I could give no account of, for I could neither make a beginning nor ending of them in words” (135).

Yet this same insistence on the richness of the ineffable also redounds upon the authority of Dinah's vocation. Even more than the specific doctrinal content of her preaching, a suspicion of eloquence per se ultimately compromises Dinah's authority as an agent of moral redemption. If, as the novel continually suggests, the most profound moments of human experience are those that elude speech, then any verbal eloquence claiming moral authority becomes vaguely suspect. Adam's musings in Chapter 17 make this transition more explicitly. Initially Adam questions only the adequacy of “notions” as a source of motivation; after repeating his objection, however, he goes on to suggest that notions reflect a fundamental poverty of experience:

I’ve seen pretty clear, ever since I was a young un, as religion's something else besides doctrines and notions. I look at it as if the doctrines was like finding names for your feelings, so as you can talk of ’em when you’ve never known ’em, just as a man may talk ’o tools when he knows their names, though he’s never so much as seen ’em, still less handled ’em. (226-27)

Dinah's preaching may aspire to the condition of music, but her words stubbornly continue to denote, to operate as the “names” Adam mistrusts. Under the pressure of Adam's sentiment, Dinah's preaching not only reinforces her status as an alien in Hayslope; it subtly undermines her claim to moral authority within the novel. The novel's epilogue, in which Dinah marries Adam and gives up her preaching, may ratify popular convention, but it also confirms the logic inherent in the novel's celebration of sympathy.

In her essay, “The Natural History of German Life,” Eliot emphasizes the significance of a rural community's dialect as a vehicle of continuity with the past. “This provincial style of the peasant is again, like his physique, a remnant of the history to which he clings with the utmost tenacity” (Essays 275). This essay is often cited as a rehearsal of the concerns that govern Adam Bede, and certainly the novel bears witness to Eliot's care in depicting this “historical language.” (Mr. Casson, for example, seems almost wholly designed to underscore Hayslope's linguistic integrity: “I’m not this countryman, you may tell by my tongue sir” [59].) In the novel, however, the history embodied in particular lives and a particular language is ultimately subordinated to the universal language of sympathy, “binding together your whole being past and present in one unspeakable vibration … blending your present joy with past sorrow and your present sorrow with all your past joy” (399). It is the inchoate, “unspeakable” experience of sympathy that links the unity of an individual life with the fundamental continuity of human existence itself. When Adam responds to the “language” of Hetty's face, or Dinah acknowledges the claims of Adam's love, a character submits to a knowledge beyond what words, or “notions,” can convey.10 And the novel seems to aim at a precisely congruent transformation in the reader, who would submit to the authority of a sympathy derived from participation in the experience of suffering represented in the novel. In this sense, the entire novel aspires constantly towards the condition of music—music, that is, conceived as the emblematic language of sympathy. If Eliot turned to the life and language of a rural community to affirm moral and spiritual continuity in the face of change, the novel discovers that assurance in a language beyond words.

In its celebration of the ineffable, Adam Bede complicates received views of Eliot's intellectual allegiance, and does so by locating in Dinah's vocation an image of the novelist's. “He who cannot express himself is a slave,” writes Feuerbach, in a comment that, Robert Kiely argues, characterizes Eliot's attitude to the significance of language (103-123). Certainly the claim elucidates the narrator's comment on Bartle Massey's students, as well as the emblematic significance of Hetty's silence. But the rhetoric of silence in Adam Bede responds to a very different view of language, a view modeled less on Feuerbach than on the Logos of St. John. To be sure, Eliot's later novels increasingly abandon this divided allegiance, subordinating the theological paradigm to a view of language as, in Kiely's words, “the regulated product of civilization” (Kiely's essay, significantly, deals almost entirely with Middlemarch.) But Adam Bede helps to explain this trajectory by suggesting at once the attraction and the costs of the older view. Most obviously, to exalt a language beyond words imposes an enormous burden on the novelist: like Gyp, she lacks an adequate vehicle of expression. Indeed, in the effort to convey moral authority in writing, Eliot is exposed to the very suspicion that implicates Dinah's eloquence. Moreover, the novelist must likewise reconcile her evocation of sympathy with a peculiarly “hard,” unsympathetic doctrine of her own—Eliot's central tenet that “consequences are unpitying.”11

But the affiliation of preacher and novelist, along with the peculiar challenges both confront, is most suggestively conveyed in the various passages where the narrator pauses to call attention to the challenges of representation. Much as Dinah in her preaching attempts, through words, to bring an unseen reality before her listeners' eyes—exhorting her audience to “see” an image of the Lord shining through the visible landscape—so the narrator of Adam Bede exhorts readers to “see” a world beyond the printed page: “Let me take you into that dining-room. …” “See there in the bright sunshine... what do you see?” “See, he has something in his hand” (98,507). The novelist's technique thus mimes the Methodist style so closely reproduced in Dinah's sermon.12 Much as this device has exasperated some of Eliot's critics, it is not a mere gesture of sympathetic participation in local color. Rather such exhortation crystallizes a central impulse of the novel's moral design, and indeed of Eliot's aesthetic: it appeals to readers to respond to the words on the page as to experience itself, that language whose “alphabet” is human feeling, and whose “lesson” is the experience of sympathy.13

Of course, this appeal is at odds with the strenuous distancing of the subject matter that Eliot cultivates through historical setting and pastoral tradition.14 So formulated, moreover, the appeal to the reader may seem crudely naive. Indeed, in the novel's opening sentences Eliot wryly acknowledges the leap of faith it embodies. “With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance-comers far-reaching visions of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, reader” (49). In a sense, Eliot thus preempts all grammatological critics by conceding that the moral authority of her text is a “sorcery” founded on absence, that the “alphabet” of experience has no existence apart from writing. But what the narrator thus demystifies is more than the awkward yearning of the first novelist, or even the particular moral project undertaken in Adam Bede. The appeal to experience so plangently made in Eliot's use of the authorial present is, after all, an appeal made with varying degrees of urgency and explicitness in all realistic novels. Gyp's missing tail might thus stand for the problematics of representation that attend the project of “realism” in the broadest sense. The novelist always lacks an adequate vehicle for representing a realm located outside of language.

But Gyp's tail—like the tale it so curiously animates—has a more precise historical significance. In “the first major exercise in programmatic literary realism in English literature,” as John Goode has called Adam Bede, a familiar Victorian crisis of moral and religious authority assumes a form more far-reaching in its significance than conventional literary history has recognized.15 The urgency of the moral dilemma informing Adam Bede, and the explicitness with which Eliot dwells upon it, allows the novel to encapsulate in unusually suggestive form a historically momentous logic, which leads from a mistrust of specifically religious “notions” to a far more comprehensive and radical skepticism concerning the authority of language. Through a skeptical dynamic central to the realistic novel at large, the authority of the general claim or maxim is subordinated to the more particularized forms of an extra-linguistic “experience,” which—as Adam Bede so powerfully illustrates—in turn urges the novelist towards a still greater restriction of linguistic authority. The particular, immediate apprehension of particular, concrete fact becomes the only truth to which the novelist can appeal. Of course the specifically religious concern recedes in Eliot's subsequent novels, along with the bald appeals to the reader's sympathetic participation. But the raw urgency of the moral burden in Adam Bede issues in a rhetoric that marks a powerful bridge between Eliot's writings and the work of novelists we are accustomed to consider far more “modern” in outlook and technique. The yearning of Eliot's narrator to make us “see” the reality of the novel's action will be echoed, for example, in James's elaborate insistence on presentation and “solidity of specification,” and in Conrad, in his more emphatic claim in the Preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see” (XIV). The fictional worlds of Conrad and James may seem remote from that of Adam Bede. But the novelist's struggle to convey a reality beyond words testifies to the persistent eloquence of Gyp's missing tail.


  1. Herbert 422. The panel, Herbert adds, “makes a powerful comment on the large question of man's relation to Nature.” Other critics who comment on Massey's students include: John Goode, “Adam Bede,” in Barbara Hardy (ed.) Critical Essays on George Eliot (London: RKP, 1970), p. 22; Dorothy Van Ghent, The English Novel: Form and Function (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1953), 177; Daniel Cottom, Social Figures: George Eliot, Social History, and Literary Representation (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, P, 1987), 12.

  2. The ending was G. H. Lewes's suggestion, and has been roundly condemned as inconsistent with what precedes it; an exception is Barnard Paris, Experiments in Life: George Eliot's Quest for Values (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1965).

  3. U. C. Knoepflmacher analyzes the Feuerbachian structures of the novel in Religious Humanism and the Victorian Novel (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1965), 52-59.

  4. On Adam's arithmetic, see Barbara Hardy, The Novels of George Eliot: A Study in Form (London: Athlone, 1985), 41-45, and Sally Shuttleworth, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science: The Make-Believe of a Beginning (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984), 37-38.

  5. This seeming intractability links Dinah to Adam, who is similarly characterized by Seth: “You may's well try to turn a wagon in a narrow lane” (51). On the crucial significance of “nature” in the novel, see Knoepflmacher, George Eliot's Early Novels, 117-18; Herbert, “Preachers and the Schemes of Nature,” 419-427, and Philip Fisher, Making Up Society: The Novels of George Eliot (Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1981), 43-45.

  6. “The very slackness of Irwine's doctrine is the sign in him of an almost saintly moral excellence,” remarks Herbert, “Preachers and the Schemes of Nature,” 417—an overstatement, but salutary in stressing the inverse relation between doctrine and moral authority.

  7. Eliot's crucial appeal to the reader on this point is overlooked by critics who see Dinah's sermon as a departure from her normal patterns of speech. See, for example, Herbert, “Preachers and the Schemes of Nature,” 415-16, and Goode, “Adam Bede,” 38-39.

  8. A recent book on the subject by Beryl Gray, George Eliot and Music (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989), makes no reference to this tactic.

  9. Cited in William Irvine, Apes, Angels, and Victorians: Darwin, Huxley, and Evolution (New York: McGraw Hill, 1972), 131. Eliot sent a copy of Adam Bede to Jane Welsh Carlyle, expressing her hope that “the philosopher” would receive from it a pleasure like that which she had received from Sartor Resartus (The George Eliot Letters, III, 23); Mrs. Carlyle responded in the letter quoted above.

  10. Of course, the “natural” language embodied in beauty is not always readily legible, and can be deceptive; see Dianne Sadoff, “Nature's Language: Metaphor in the Text of Adam Bede,Genre 11 (1978), 411-426.

  11. As Jay Clayton has suggestively argued, in “Visionary Power and Narrative Form: Wordsworth and Adam Bede,ELH 46 (1979), 645-72, the ending of the novel seems an effort to soften and humanise this doctrine, by in effect breaking the rigorous chain of “unpitying” consequences, passing from narrative to the evocation of sympathetic vision. Clayton's fine reading identifies what might be seen as a narratological counterpart of the repeated faltering of eloquence I have been discussing. But the formalistic bent of Clayton's argument impoverishes the significance of Dinah, who becomes “the representation of an absence … an attempt to place within the hard bonds of the narrative the author's choice to disrupt that narrative” (660). Dinah seems more richly viewed as Eliot's representation of the equivocality of moral (as well as narrative) authority in mid-Victorian discourse.

  12. Valentine Cunningham, Everywhere Spoken Against: Dissent in the Victorian Novel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 151-61, studies Eliot's reliance on the Methodist idiom. Knoepflmacher, George Eliot's Early Novels, 105, notes in this appeal Dinah's resemblance to the novelist, but sees it as an appeal to an audience's “relation to universals” outside of sensuous perception—an explanation which obscures the link between Dinah's appeals and those of the novelist attempting to conjure up an emphatically visible image.

  13. W. J. Harvey, who finds the technique “all the more infuriating because it is unnecessary,” nonetheless gestures towards this rationale in noting that Eliot “generally juggles her tenses in this way to introduce us to a new aspect of her subject” (more precisely, to impress upon us a new scene) “or to give greater force to a moment of crisis or climax” (The Art of George Eliot, 78). The gentleman spectator—which may seem a similarly extraneous device—is likewise designed to register the palpable sensuousness of a particular moment.

  14. On such distancing, see Steven Marcus, “Literature and Social Theory: Starting In With George Eliot,” in Representations: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: Random House, 1975), 183-213.

  15. John Goode, “Adam Bede,” 37. “The final interest of Adam Bede is that it casts its shadow before it,” Ian Gregor has urged, although he locates that historical significance (as do most commentators) in the image of the narrating consciousness conveyed in the famous “pier-glass” passage in Chapter 17. (The Moral and the Story [London: Faber, 1962], 30-32.

Works Cited

Clayton, Jay. “Visionary Power and Narrative Form: Wordsworth and Adam Bede.ELH 46 (1979) 645-72.

Conrad, Joseph. The Nigger of the Narcissus in Complete Works vol. 23. Garden City: Doubleday, 1925.

Cottom, Daniel. Social Figures: George Eliot, Social History and Literary Representation. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Cunningham, Valentine. Everywhere Spoken Against: Dissent in the Victorian Novel. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975.

Eliot, George. Adam Bede. Ed. Stephen Gill. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.

———. The George Eliot Letters. Ed. Gordon S. Haight, New Haven: Yale UP.

———. The Essays of George Eliot. Ed. Thomas Pinney. New York: Columbia UP, 1963.

Fisher, Philip. Making Up Society: The Novels of George Eliot. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1981.

Goode, John. “Adam Bede” in Hardy (ed.) Critical Essays.

Gray, Beryl. George Eliot and Music. New York: St. Martins, 1989.

Hardy, Barbara. Ed. Critical Essays on George Eliot. London: RKP, 1970.

———. The Novels of George Eliot: A Study in Form. London: Athlone, 1985.

Herbert, Christopher. “Preachers and the Schemes of Nature in Adam Bede.Nineteenth-Century Fiction 29 (1975): 412-27.

Irvine, William. Apes, Angels and Victorians: Darwin, Huxley and Evolution. New York: McGraw, 1972.

Kiely, Robert. “The Limits of Dialogue in Middlemarch.” In J. H. Buckley Ed. The Worlds of Victorian Fiction. Harvard English Studies 6. Cambridge: Harvard, 1975, 103-123.

Knoepflmacher, U. C. George Eliot's Early Novels: The Limits of Realism. Berkely: U of Calif. Press, 1968.

———. Religious Humanism and the Victorian Novel. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1965.

Marcus, Steven. “Literature and Social Theory: Starting in with George Eliot.” In Representations: Essays on Literature and Society. New York: Random House, 1975.

Marotta, Kenny. “Adam Bede as a Pastoral.” Genre 9 (1976): 59-72.

Paris, Bernard. Experiments in Life: George Eliot's Quest for Values. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1965.

Pater, Walter. “The School of Giorgione,” The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry Ed. Donald L. Hill Berkeley: U of California P, 1980.

Sadoff, Dianne. “Nature's Language: Metaphor in the Text of Adam Bede.Genre 11 (1978): 411-26.

Shuttleworth, Sally. George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science: The Make-Believe of a Beginning. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Van Ghent, Dorothy. The English Novel: Form and Function. New York: Holt, 1953.

Daniel P. Gunn (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Dutch Painting and the Simple Truth in Adam Bede,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, Winter, 1992, pp. 366-80.

[In the following essay, Gunn examines Eliot's discussion of Dutch genre painting and its relationship to realism in Adam Bede.]

When George Eliot compared her fiction to the work of Dutch genre painters in chapter 17 of Adam Bede, admiring the “rare, precious quality of truthfulness” in these “Dutch paintings, which lofty-minded people despise” (1:268), she did more than simply announce her intentions as a realist writer.1 She also marked off a conventional space for “common coarse people” (1:270) in her novel, using a conspicuous visual precedent to define and imagine the rural artisans and tenant farmers she had chosen to represent. The Dutch painting analogy begins as a gloss on the Reverend Irwine's moral weakness, but it quickly opens into an apology for the presence of characters whose class would traditionally have excluded them from serious treatment in art—“old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands,” for example, or “your common labourer, who gets his own bread and eats it vulgarly but creditably with his own pocket-knife” (1:270, 271). In this essay, I want to examine Eliot's references to Dutch art from the perspective of these figures, concentrating on the relation between aesthetic and ideological meanings in the famous metacritical aside. By placing her working-class characters inside the frame of a Dutch genre painting, I will argue, Eliot paradoxically both dignifies and degrades them, admitting them into the universe of representation but simultaneously keeping them at a distance and cleansing them of threatening social meanings.


Eliot was right, certainly, to assume that many “lofty-minded people” did not share her affection for Dutch art in 1859. From the eighteenth century on, neoclassical standards of taste had placed the work of Dutch and other genre painters near the bottom of the scale headed by history painting and “the grand style.” Painting was supposed to purify and elevate the spectator, drawing him gently away from what was base and vulgar in nature by concentrating his attention on the ideal and the sublime. The Dutch genre artists of the seventeenth century, who had painted tavern brawls and kitchen scenes with scrupulous accuracy, seemed almost perverse in their refusal to elevate the soul, and their work was considered inferior as a result. As Peter Demetz puts it, “only by painting shells or still-life compositions could one sink even lower.”2 For Sir Joshua Reynolds, the complaint against the Dutch was two-fold: they confined themselves to copying nature, merely “deceiving the eye” instead of “animating and dignifying the figures with intellectual grandeur” and thus appealing to the mind; and they chose to represent low and ignoble subjects, thereby placing themselves at a great distance from the exalted and generalized beauty which is the object of art. Reynolds acknowledges that “the painters who have applied themselves more particularly to low and vulgar characters, and who express with precision the various shades of passion, as they are exhibited by vulgar minds … deserve great praise.” “But,” he adds, “as their genius has been employed on low and confined subjects, the praise which we give must be as limited as its object.”3

Although Dutch art had its defenders throughout the nineteenth century, a position descended from Reynolds still exerted considerable influence at the time Eliot was writing Adam Bede. For example, a critic reviewing a large art exhibition for the Manchester Guardian in 1857 wrote that, in the work of the Flemish and Dutch painters of the seventeenth century, “art was confined to the most grovelling employment of its rare gifts”: “A power of painting seldom equalled, and never surpassed, was lavished on pots and pans, on hedge alehouses and fish-markets, on the quarrels of boors, or the amours of troopers and burghers, almost as coarse and sensual. Nature is never vulgar. But Dutch nature comes as near vulgarity as nature can come.”4 Even John Ruskin, the aesthetic theorist whom Eliot admired most, and from whose work she gleaned the doctrine of “realism,” that “truth of infinite value,”5 had little use himself for a style of painting which limited itself to representation of the sensible world and which wandered so far from the beautiful. In Modern Painters (1843-1860), he admitted that he had “never been a zealous partisan of the Dutch School.”6 The imitation of detail for its own sake in Dutch painting was “the lowest and most contemptible art” (1:xxxii), and the “collectors of Gerard Dows and Hobbimas may be passed by with a smile” (3:18). After disparaging “the professed landscapists of the Dutch school,” Ruskin proposed that “the best patronage that any monarch could possibly bestow upon the arts, would be to collect the whole body of [Dutch landscapes] into a grand gallery and burn it to the ground” (1:92).

By confessing that she “delight[s] in many Dutch paintings” (1:268) in chapter 17 of Adam Bede, then, Eliot contradicts a well-established tradition of aesthetic opinion. Certainly she does so in part because she anticipates conventional aesthetic objections to the social and moral inferiority of her characters; she adopts a position in the discourse of art criticism in order to defend, by analogy, what she knows will be perceived as unfashionable in her own practice as a novelist. In fact, one complaint about Adam Bede, cast in the language of art criticism, had already come by the time Eliot wrote this passage. In a letter commenting on the first fourteen chapters of the novel, which he had read in manuscript, John Blackwood, Eliot's publisher, wrote nervously about her depiction of the Reverend Irwine. “The Vicar is a capital fellow,” he says, “and the visit to the sick room is very touching, but I wish for the sake of my Church of England friends he had more of ‘the root of the matter in him.’ However I hope he is to sublime as the story goes on.”7 By using the word “sublime,” Blackwood allies himself with the painterly aesthetics of grandeur and nobility outlined by Reynolds and Burke. He seems to hope that the Reverend Irwine, who is rather indolent, will somehow turn into a more thoroughly exemplary and admirable figure, who will produce in the reader appropriate feelings of awe and exaltation. Writing her first novel, Eliot was unusually sensitive to criticism, and Blackwood's complaint emerges in a cartoonish form at the beginning of chapter 17: “‘This Rector of Broxton is little better than a pagan!’ I hear one of my readers exclaim. ‘How much more edifying it would have been if you had made him give Arthur some truly spiritual advice! You might have put into his mouth the most beautiful things—quite as good as reading a sermon’” (1:265). The reference to “beautiful things” is telling here; the spiritual is seen as an aesthetic category, and the imagined critic faults Eliot for failing to meet the standards of ideal beauty. By invoking and defending Dutch painting, which has been repeatedly criticized on similar grounds, Eliot means to challenge the claim that only what is aesthetically pleasing as object, what is somehow inherently sublime, picturesque, or beautiful, physically or spiritually, deserves the dignity of representation.

Eliot's defense through the language of painting is thus primarily an argument about the subject matter of art—about the second of Reynolds's two strictures against the Dutch. When she praises the “truthfulness” of the Dutch painters, she means to indicate not their scrupulous depiction of detail and surface, but their decision to depict that “monotonous homely existence” which is the “fate of so many more among my fellow-mortals than a life of pomp or of absolute indigence” (1:268). Dutch art, for Eliot, tells the representative truth about human existence—something other paintings have failed to do because they have concentrated on “pomp” or “indigence,” on “a world of extremes” (1:270). In between these extremes, Eliot claims, are “common coarse people” (1:270), “the majority of the human race” (1:269), excluded from representation because they have no conventional aesthetic appeal. As Eliot describes these potentially excluded figures, it is clear that she has their class and their association with labor very much in mind:

[D]o not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the region of Art those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands, those heavy clowns taking holiday in a dingy pot-house, those rounded backs and stupid weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done the rough work of the world—those homes with their tin pans, their brown pitchers, their rough curs, and their clusters of onions. (1:270)

These genre images stand, in Eliot's argument, for the “common coarse people” who are represented in Adam Bede: carpenters, factory workers, tenant farmers, laborers.8 Like the morally weak clergyman, socially inferior characters without picturesque appeal would be “banish[ed] from the region of Art” by conventional aesthetic theory.


As we have seen, Eliot uses the example of Dutch painting to argue against this exclusion. For her, Dutch painting seems to represent a kind of art whose subject matter is intrinsically neither beautiful nor sublime—in other words, an art which is not, by ordinary cultural standards, recognizably art-like. Since Eliot wants to define her own subject matter in Adam Bede as that which has been confined to the margins of culture, in a world far from London and middle-class experience, the marginal status of Dutch art in traditional aesthetics is paradoxically helpful to her. Eliot wants to defend the aesthetic dignity of her common rural characters, to show that they are worthy of representation and sympathy, in spite of the prevailing cultural standards. However, talking directly about the situation of marginalized and rural figures is difficult for her in this chapter, despite her intense sympathy, since the easy narrative discourse shared by author and reader in Adam Bede is situated at the very center of metropolitan culture, in a community acquainted with Sartor Resartus and the Foulis Aeschylus, crinolines, silk boots, shepherds in Arcadia, learned men arguing about Hebrew, pictured Madonnas, frustrated actors with monosyllabic parts, Centaurs, statues of Ceres, boyish choristers and musical instruments.9 The reference to Dutch painting, an art which is not an art, a cultural artifact which is very nearly excluded from culture, enables her to insert rural laborers and artisans uneasily into this discourse. This is an argument made to museum-goers; pointing to a Dutch genre piece is a way to gesture toward the unfashionable rural world while still remaining inside of the museum.

The presence of Dutch pictorial images in chapter 17 is also helpful in that it gives Eliot a relatively simple way to define and embody her marginal subject matter. Throughout the passage, she collapses social, moral, and intellectual marginality into a single aesthetic category—ugliness—which she then represents (and defends) by describing pictures. The problem is that ugliness, like realism, is a kind of negation. It is the deformation of some previously imagined ideal figure—the human figure as painted by Michelangelo and admired by Reynolds, say—and it emerges only through the repeated and violent deformation of that figure, as if it were being defaced. And so we read in chapter 17 of “squat figures, ill-shapen nostrils, and dingy complexions,” “irregular noses and lips,” “a high-shouldered, broad-faced bride,” “clumsy, ugly people,” “a wife who waddles” (1:268-69). This is description as a physical beating. The problem is acute: because Eliot can only define her characters by reference to figures with which she and her readers are familiar from other representations, and because she genuinely wants to mark the difference between her figures and those which are aesthetically sanctioned, she can only imagine and describe her characters by doing a kind of violence to the conventional figures, distorting them and rendering them grotesque. But when the ugly man is then identified with the laboring man or the village tradesman, when he becomes our principal image for the common men and women George Eliot wants to represent, we are left still with the effects of the abusive description: a broad gap between narrator and character, a rough and disturbing physical presence, a strong sense of the imagined degradation and otherness of these figures. Against all of this, sympathy must labor. Thus the twin projects of first admitting into the sphere of representation what is insistently seen as vulgar, coarse, and stupid, and then engendering sympathy through this same representation necessarily cause Eliot some difficulty. Partly by making use of the analogy to Dutch painting, she has found a way to admit the figures of common men and women into her narrative—as Raymond Williams says, she “restores the real inhabitants of rural England to their places,” filling in some of the gaps left by Austen's loose mesh of “neighboring” families—but she has no narrative or social language which will enable her to make sense of them by any means other than negation.10


I think the presence of the Dutch paintings in this passage helps to mitigate this problem as well as create it, but in order to see how, we will have to place the paintings in another context. By her own account, George Eliot wrote chapter 17 of Adam Bede in Munich. She and George Henry Lewes left England for Germany on April 7, 1858, after having handed over two more chapters (making sixteen in all) to Blackwood, and they arrived in Munich four days later, on April 11. Eliot later recalled that she had started the second volume, which begins with chapter 17, “in the second week of [her] stay at Munich, about the middle of April”—more precisely, some time after April 18—and that work was “slow and interrupted.”11 It is thus likely that Eliot had only recently completed the passage we have been considering when she wrote about paintings at the Neue Pinakothek in a May 13 letter to Sara Hennell:

But alas! I cannot admire much of the modern German art. It is for the most part elaborate lifelessness. Kaulbach's great compositions are huge charades, and I have seen nothing of his equal to his own Reineke Fuchs. It is an unspeakable relief, after staring at one of his huge pictures, the Destruction of Jerusalem, for example, which is a regular child's puzzle of symbolism, to sweep it all out of one's mind—which is very easily done, for nothing grasps you in it—and call up in your imagination a little Gerard Dow that you have seen hanging in a corner of one of the cabinets. (Letters, 2:454-55)

Eliot's juxtaposition of Kaulbach and Dou in this letter provides an instructive gloss on her reference to Dutch painting in Adam Bede. It shows us that at a time very near the composition of the famous passage, Dutch painting meant for Eliot simplicity and “unspeakable relief,” a respite from the interpretive labor demanded by iconographic signification. For she complains not just about the falseness of Kaulbach's “Destruction of Jerusalem,” but about its heavily encoded status: it is a “huge charade,” “a child's puzzle of symbolism.”

Kaulbach's enormous painting12 is certainly crowded with meanings: sacred texts held aloft by prophets in the sky, angels blowing trumpets and wielding swords, winged demons, a shining chalice, broken columns, praying groups and huddled masses, soldiers leading women into bondage, the city burning in the background. And like the gestures in a game of charades, the images here are arbitrary and conventional symbols, which must be referred at once to their iconographical meanings to be read properly. We read through the images—we decipher them, as if they were elements in a puzzle—hence they do not “grasp” us, as Eliot thinks they should. As is usually the case in such paintings, we read the images only with the conspicuous aid of verbal texts—here the title and inscriptions from Daniel and Luke (once present in the upper corners of the painting but now lost), which refer us to the huge cultural artifact of Christian tradition, which then in turn enables us to collate several different historical enactments of the destruction of Jerusalem (Babylonian, Roman, Apocalyptic) and see them as types of God's awful and righteous indignation and his enduring promise to the chosen.13 The “Destruction of Jerusalem” thus opens into a narrative, whose temporality includes not only the separate events which make up a single destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD by Titus—incursion, fear, flight, madness, desolation—but also the story of God's repeated anger at men and women, stretching from the time of the prophets to the final trumpet of the Apocalypse.

Like Lessing, Eliot finds this opening-up into temporality objectionable. In the same letter to Sara Hennell, she complains that since the success of his “Battle of the Huns,” “Kaulbach has been concocting these pictures, in which, instead of taking a single moment of reality, and trusting to the infinite symbolism that belongs to all nature, he attempts to give you at one view a succession of events, each represented by some group which may mean ‘whichever you please, my little dear’” (Letters, 2:455). In the sardonic mimicry of this last phrase, there is a real impatience with the indeterminacy and caprice of iconographic art, which seems to authorize multiple and layered meanings, this and that and “whichever you please,” especially when “a single moment of reality” is transcended.14

After this surfeit of convention and arbitrary signification, Eliot finds it an “unspeakable relief” to “sweep it all out of one's mind” and “call up in your imagination a little Gerard Dow you have seen hanging in a corner of one of the cabinets.” As Hugh Witemeyer has pointed out, Eliot may be thinking here of “The Spinner's Grace,” one of several Dous she might have seen in Munich in 1858, and a painting which she seems to describe in chapter 17.15 As Eliot turns to this canvas, or one like it, the phrase, “sweep it all out of one's mind,” refers us to a gesture of impatience and radical simplification. Eliot wants to wipe out the elaborate symbolic system suggested by Kaulbach's painting and begin anew, in some fresh and purified realm presumably outside of convention, where there is no puzzling iconography, no surfeit of arbitrary meanings, only a simple Dutch interior: woman, table, chair, bowl and jug, spinning wheel, curved and polished surfaces made to catch the light. In the context of such a gesture, Eliot's preference for Dou over Kaulbach seems to entail a rejection of all signification beyond what occurs at what Erwin Panofsky calls the level of “pre-iconographical” description, in which objects are identified as objects and seen in spatial relation to one another.16 The Dou is a relief because it does not, Eliot thinks, have to be read, it is just there, content and sufficient unto itself.

In the light of this letter, it seems clear that Eliot's extended description of Dou-like paintings in chapter 17 of Adam Bede carries with it suggestions which go far beyond her sympathy for their vulgar subjects. Dutch painting implies for her an aesthetic of simplicity, in which representation is seen as unmediated by the artificial conventions of art and thus untroubled by superimposed meanings.17 Eliot recognizes, like Ruskin, that any representation is mediated by the consciousness of the artist; in fact, she thinks such mediation is all to the good, since the consciousness of the artist infuses the material with dignity and shows us what is beautiful in it.18 However, she insists in “The Natural History of German Life” that mediation by artistic convention or tradition constitutes a serious flaw. An artist should not rely on types and symbols from earlier representations, Eliot claims; instead, she should represent what she has actually seen, presumably without reference to the artificial history of literary and pictorial depictions. Consider, for example, these complaints about conventional depictions of English peasants:

But even those among our painters who aim at giving the rustic type of features … treat their subjects under the influence of traditions and pre-possessions rather than of direct observation. The notion that peasants are joyous, that the typical moment to represent a man in a smock-frock is when he is cracking a joke and showing a row of sound teeth, that cottage matrons are usually buxom, and village children necessarily rosy and merry, are prejudices difficult to dislodge from the artistic mind, which looks for its subjects into literature instead of life. The painter is still under the influence of idyllic literature, which has always expressed the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred, rather than the truth of rustic life. Idyllic ploughmen are jocund when they drive their team afield; idyllic shepherds make bashful love under hawthorn bushes; idyllic villagers dance in the checquered shade and refresh themselves, not immoderately, with spicy nut-brown ale. But no one who has seen much of actual ploughmen thinks them jocund; no one who is well-acquainted with the English peasantry can pronounce them merry.19

It is worth pointing out, I think, that even in her own essay Eliot can only approach “actual ploughmen” by inverting the idyllic images she finds inadequate—ploughmen are not jocund, not merry, they have not always “a row of sound teeth”—or by resorting, as she does a few lines later, to the metaphor of “that melancholy animal the camel,” whose form gives her a way to imagine the “slow gaze,” “slow utterance,” and “heavy slouching walk” of the peasant. But whether her project is realizable or not—and I think it is not—Eliot means to articulate an aesthetic in which the representational or mimetic image—the figure of a rural laborer in a novel, say, or of an old woman saying grace in a painting—can function on its own, by means of a direct relation to nature, without having to derive its force from a created system of artificial correspondences bound to a particular time and place. She holds up “direct observation” and the personally seen “truth of rustic life” as her models, in direct contrast to “idyllic literature” and “the influence of traditions and prepossessions.” What I want to stress is that this position tacitly releases the artist from the burden of creating meanings in the process of representation. If the image is just there, a faithful report of what the artist sees (however fuzzily) in nature, then no additional meanings are necessary. In fact, they will only produce falseness and distortion: the opposite of the natural sign, for Eliot, is the sign bent, like Kaulbach's, on pursuing some arcane symbolism of its own, instead of “trusting to the infinite symbolism that belongs to all nature.”


George Eliot's invocation of Dutch painting in chapter 17 is thus consistent with what might be called the cult of simplicity in Adam Bede. Distant from the readers of the novel in time and space, the artisans and tenant farmers in Adam Bede seem to exist in a pared down and purified world, surrounded by unusually clean and polished surfaces. The windows at Jonathan Burge's house are “bright and speckless,” and the door-stone is “clean as a white boulder at ebb-tide.” On the door-stone stands “a clean old woman, in a dark-striped linen gown” (1:14). Lisbeth Bede is “an anxious, spare, yet vigorous old woman, clean as a snow-drop,” with her hair “turned neatly back under a pure linen cap” (1:54). After the saddler tracks dirt, Mrs. Poyser has her kitchen floor “perfectly clean again” in a matter of hours—

as clean as everything else in that wonderful house-place … Surely nowhere else could an oak clock-case and an oak table have got to such a polish by the hand: genuine “elbow polish,” Mrs. Poyser called it, for she thanked God she never had any of your varnished rubbish in her house. Hetty Sorrell often took the opportunity, when her aunt's back was turned, of looking at the pleasing reflection of herself in those polished surfaces, for the oak table was usually turned up like a screen, and was more for ornament than for use; and she could see herself sometimes in the great round pewter dishes that were ranged on the shelves above the long deal dinner table, or in the hobs of the grate, which always shone like jasper. (1:105-06)

This emphasis on the clean and well-scrubbed marks the presence of what Eliot wants to imagine as a simple and uncomplicated way of life, a clean and sharply defined world, one which, unlike our own, need not be fussed over and interpreted, as if it were some kind of allegory. At Arthur Donnithorne's birthday dance, the narrator nostalgically recalls the “simple dancing of well-covered matrons” and the “holiday sprightliness of portly husbands,” which she sees as opposed to “low dresses and large skirts, and scanning glances exploring costumes, and languid men in lackered boots smiling with double meaning” (1:429).20 Earlier, in a conversation with the narrator, Adam describes his dawning conviction, as a young man, that the complexities of religious doctrine might be swept out of one's mind:

“I thought I could pick a hole or two in their notions, and I got disputing wi’ one o’ the class leaders down at Treddles'on, and harassed him so, first o’ this side and then o’ that, till at last he said, ‘Young man, it’s the devil making use o’ your pride and conceit as a weapon to war against the simplicity o’ the truth.’ I couldn’t help laughing then, but as I was going home, I thought the man wasn’t far wrong. I began to see as all this weighing and sifting what this text means and that text means, and whether folks are saved all by God's grace, or whether there goes an ounce o’ their own will to’t, was no part o’ real religion at all. You may talk o’ these things for hours on end, and you’ll only be the more coxy and conceited for’t. So I took to going nowhere but to church, and hearing nobody but Mr. Irwine, for he said nothing but what was good, and what you’d be the wiser for remembering.” (1:276)

When it is opposed, as it is in these passages, to “double meaning” and “weighing and sifting what this text means and that text means,” simplicity takes on an epistemological value. It represents the position that knowledge and truth come not from created human meanings, from argument and human discourse, but from some intuited natural source, with which Irwine, the nondoctrinal preacher, is somehow in touch.21 As we have seen, Eliot associated this position with Dutch paintings like the one she describes in chapter 17. Her gesture toward the pictorial is thus part of a general tendency throughout most of the novel to repress overt signification in favor of the “simple truth.”

It may seem ironic that Eliot should use a collection of works of art—Dutch paintings—to argue for the importance of fidelity to simple nature rather than to the complicated conventions of art. Even as she is decrying the influence of conventional precedents, she is herself invoking a graphic precedent to justify and explain her own practice. Here again, though, the marginal status of Dutch art helps to disguise the contradiction, just as Irwine's marginal status as a clergyman helps to disguise the fact that he is creating particular kinds of human meanings himself. Because Dutch art has been excluded from the culturally privileged canons of representation precisely on account of its excessive regard to nature, Eliot can use it as an emblem of “truthfulness.” But because it is still art, after all, however marginal, because there is still the presence of the frame and a tradition of viewing, it both authorizes her practice and gives her readers a conventional context within which to place the artisans and laborers in Adam Bede. In this second capacity, too, the reference to Dutch painting works to suppress the ascription of cultural meanings to figures, because, as a pictorial context invoked in the course of narrative, it has a necessarily stilling and harmonizing effect, even as the narrative tries to destabilize it. Cultural meanings are at home in narrative, in language, where they are created and understood. We supply them to paintings by telling stories about them, by reading images in the light of texts, as we read Kaulbach's “Destruction of Jerusalem.” When painting and narrative are brought together, as they are in chapter 17 of Adam Bede, they have diametrically opposing effects on one another: the narrative tries to discover the cultural significance of the painting, to unpack it by telling a story; but the painting tries to still and defuse the cultural significance of the narrative, by repressing the impulse toward story, holding it in check.22

If we return to Eliot's difficulty in representing figures for whom she has no adequate narrative language, the function of this kind of repression in Adam Bede can be seen quite clearly. By establishing a pictorial context for her figures in the crucial passage in chapter 17, with meaning and narrative suppressed, and then associating that context with nature and simplicity, Eliot is able to depict her artisans and laborers, and even comment on them directly, without fully responding to their disruptive social presence. The sublimating effect of an invoked pictorial context on verbal representation can be seen in microcosm in Eliot's description of the old woman in Dou's “The Spinner's Grace,” who is “eating her solitary dinner, while noonday light, softened perhaps by a screen of leaves, falls on her mob-cap, and just touches the rim of her spinning wheel, her stone jug, and all those cheap common things which are the precious necessaries of life to her” (1:268). The implied presence of a frame here changes our response to what is described in words, just as it does in a poem about a photograph, or in Homer's description of the pictures on Achilleus's shield. It is almost as if the ontological status of the represented world changes; the ordinary temporal impulse of narrative is stilled, for a moment at least, and the old woman exists in a timeless pictorial world, where we do not ask the kinds of questions we might otherwise ask: why is this dinner solitary? why should the woman be limited to “cheap common things,” the “necessaries of life”? where does she sell what she spins, and at what price? By moving explicitly into the realm of picture, the description represses and deflects these questions, and with them the cultural and ideological significance of the woman. We are invited to concentrate on the quality of the “noonday light,” which makes no distinction between the woman's mob-cap and a stone jug, and which gives the scene a static, impersonal repose, something pure and clean, beyond the ordinary concerns of narrative.

This kind of sublimation is important in Adam Bede because the narrative as a whole insistently returns to the questions which must be suppressed here. When Arthur says casually to one of his grandfather's tenants, “Do you know, Mrs. Poyser, if I were going to marry and settle, I should be tempted to turn you out, and do up this fine old house, and turn farmer myself” (1:117), it is impossible not to feel the injustice of the social division which makes such a remark possible. The implied threat is eventually put into practice by Arthur's grandfather, who tries to change the condition of the Poysers' rental against their interest in order to attract a desirable new tenant. But the remark points more ominously to the central action of the novel, Arthur's seduction of Hetty Sorrel, in the course of which he uses his position for gain with the same unconsciousness he demonstrates in his remark to Mrs. Poyser. With its tragic consequences—child murder, transportation, the blighting of Adam's love—Arthur's action might be read allegorically, in a narrative repeatedly marked by enclosure plans, poaching incidents, talk of labor and rent, and uneasy glances across the harvest table, as a critique of class division and its effects. In fact, Adam tries to read it that way, in the days following Hetty's arrest, when he is full of vengeance. “Ah, and it’s right people should know how she was tempted into the wrong way,” he says. “It’s right they should know it was a fine gentleman made love to her, and turned her head wi’ notions” (2:18). But Eliot's whole tendency, as we have seen, is to sweep out of her mind meanings which seem so bound up with culture in favor of what she would see as the simple, natural truth, which is significantly personal rather than social. Her real message, articulated by Irwine after Adam is soundly rebuked, is that there are many “evil consequences … folded in a single act of selfish indulgence”—anyone's, presumably, mine, yours, the King of England's—and “evil spreads as necessarily as disease” (2:204-5). That this moral is drawn from Aeschylus and not nature should come as no surprise; in Eliot's novels, as elsewhere, the appeal to what is natural masks a submerged cultural and ideological project of its own, which must have its textual roots someplace.23

Overtly artificial signification has its moment, toward the end of Adam Bede, but only in a scene which masks Adam's class affiliations almost completely, thereby suppressing the social and political tensions which are present elsewhere in the novel and which make the cult of simplicity necessary. Eighteen months after the trial, Adam has turned the room built for Hetty in the Bede cottage into a kind of study, a place with a table and papers and rulers and an open desk, where he writes and draws plans. When he disturbs Dinah dusting there, he might be a Victorian gentleman, standing in the doorway of his gloomy private room. For a moment, the man whose ordinary language in the novel has been a rough country dialect becomes capable of “What! You think I’m a cross fellow at home, Dinah?” and “You don’t know the value I set on the very thought of you” (2:308-09). In this comfortable and familiar scene, sophisticated reading is possible: “Those slight words and looks and touches are part of the soul's language; and the finest language, I believe, is chiefly made up of unimposing words, such as “light,” “sound,” “star,” “music,”—words really not worth looking at, or hearing, in themselves, any more than “chips” or “sawdust:” it is only that they happen to be the signs of something unspeakably great and beautiful” (2:310-11). By emphasizing the arbitrary character of the “soul's language,” which affixes “unspeakably great and beautiful” meanings to words as unimposing as “chips” and “sawdust,” Eliot suggest that the business of signification may not always be simple or natural after all.24 But this acknowledgement of conventional meanings and interpretive play takes place only when the class tensions at work throughout Adam Bede have been surreptitiously removed to allow for a conventional love scene. Under the ordinary conditions of the narrative, the values of simplicity and naturalness prevail.

Indeed, as I have tried to argue, these values are a necessary consequence of Eliot's ideological position in Adam Bede. In order to create the illusion of natural and universally applicable meaning, she must keep in check the narrative's impulse to emphasize social division and its effects on individuals. But her representational intent, announced in chapter 17, is to include figures who highlight social division by their very presence and their resistance to a narrative discourse situated at the center of culture. This is where the famous gesture towards Dutch painting has a crucial function in the novel. By placing the artisans and laborers inside of a frame which suppresses cultural significance at the moment when their presence is most explicitly in question, and by further defining the subject matter of their world as simple and untroubled by meaning, the Dutch painting analogy allows Eliot to clear a small place in Adam Bede for the working inhabitants of Loamshire, without acknowledging them, as she might have, as a threat.


  1. References to Adam Bede follow the Cabinet Edition of George Eliot's works (Edinburgh: Blackwood's, n.d.), with volume and page numbers cited parenthetically in the text. Largely on account of this passage, Dutch painting has served frequently since the publication of Adam Bede as a convenient way of imagining George Eliot's “realism,” particularly in the early novels. The tendency has been to highlight the exactness and fidelity of Eliot's descriptions and their concern with minute details, as if her work aspired to duplicate the phenomenal world. However, Darrel Mansell, Jr., and Hugh Witemeyer have argued convincingly that Eliot's attitudes toward representation and Dutch paintings are far more complicated than this standard account would suggest. See Mansell, “Ruskin and George Eliot's ‘Realism,’” Criticism 7 (1965): 203-16, and Witemeyer, George Eliot and the Visual Arts (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 106-07.

  2. “Defenses of Dutch Painting and the Theory of Realism,” Comparative Literature 15 (1963): 99.

  3. Discourses on Art, ed. Robert R. Wark (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 50-51.

  4. A Handbook to the Gallery of British Paintings in the Art Treasures Exhibition (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1857), p. 16. Witemeyer (p. 216n) identifies the author of this pamphlet as George Scharf.

  5. Rev. of Modern Painters, 3, Westminster Review 65 (1856): 626. Quoted in Mansell, “Ruskin and George Eliot's ‘Realism,’” p. 203.

  6. John Ruskin, Modern Painters (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1887), 3:5. The quotations below follow this edition, with references to volume and page number cited parenthetically. Demetz (p. 105n) also concludes that the Dutch are “definitely disparaged” in Modern Painters, citing the last of the quotations listed here. In The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), George Levine points out the paradoxical character of Ruskin's aesthetic judgments in this area: “Ruskin, of course, was not a great admirer of the Dutch school, and he was correspondingly unsympathetic to the best fiction written in his lifetime—even when it was written in what the authors might well have felt was a Ruskinian spirit” (p. 208). Levine's entire discussion of “the landscape of reality” (pp. 204-26) is helpful in illuminating the aesthetic context for Eliot's comments in Adam Bede.

  7. John Blackwood to George Eliot, March 31, 1858, in The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon S. Haight (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1954), 2:445. Further quotations from this edition will be cited as Letters in the text, with references to volume and page.

  8. In George Eliot (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1986), a book written primarily for students which nonetheless contains important and original commentary, Simon Dentith observes with some justice that the figures described in chapter 17 do not very closely resemble the characters with whom we are meant to sympathize in Adam Bede (pp. 35-36). (See also Gillian Beer, George Eliot [Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986], p. 65). However, it is not accurate to conclude, as Dentith does, that Eliot's interest in Adam Bede is in “classes decidedly more respectable” (p. 36; my italics) or that the passage is “little more than a rhetorical flourish in the novel as a whole” (p. 35). Regardless of their good looks or attractive personal qualities, Adam, Seth, Hetty, and Dinah are all, by virtue of their family situations and the work they do, members of the same social and economic class as the figures described in chapter 17, and their presence at the center of Adam Bede is thus very much in question when those figures are invoked. (Only the Poysers aspire to anything approaching a “middle-class” condition, and they are, in spite of their ability to hire a few laborers, still finally tenants who are threatened with arbitrary eviction during the course of the novel.) The gap between noble, hard-working Adam and coarser figures like Wiry Ben or the Poysers' laborers suggests not a refusal to extend sympathy to members of a certain class but rather a difficulty in representing them adequately, as I suggest below.

  9. Kenny Marotta notices this same tendency toward sophisticated narrative reference in “Adam Bede as a Pastoral,” Genre 9 (1976): 67-68. “Art,” he says, “is what the narrator knows and the characters don’t”; the narrator reminds us of “his superiority in experience, in philosophy, and even in social class to his subjects” (p. 68).

  10. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), p. 168. For further discussion of Eliot's presentation of common people and the ambiguous political substance of Adam Bede, see William J. Hyde, “George Eliot and the Climate of Realism,” PMLA 72 (1957): 147-64; Ian Gregor, “The Two Worlds of Adam Bede,” in The Moral and the Story (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), pp. 13-32; John Goode, “Adam Bede,” in Critical Essays on George Eliot, ed. Barbara Hardy (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970), pp. 19-41; Marotta, “Adam Bede as a Pastoral”; Dentith, George Eliot, pp. 30-55; Daniel Cottom, Social Figures: George Eliot, Social History, and Literary Representation (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1987), pp. 83-88; and Mary Jean Corbett, “Representing the Rural: The Critique of Loamshire in Adam Bede,Studies in the Novel 20 (1988): 288-301.

  11. George Eliot's Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals, ed. J. W. Cross (New York: Harper and Bros., 1885), 2:50-51. See also Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot: A Biography (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 255-60.

  12. See Horst Ludwig, ed., Münchner Maler im 19. Jahrhundert (Munich: Brückmann, 1982), 2:286.

  13. The inscriptions were in Latin. I cite them here (from the reproduction in Ludwig, Münchner Maler) along with English translations from the King James Bible: at the upper left, “et civitatem et sanctuarium dissipabit populus cum duce venturo, et finis eius vastitas, et post finem belli statuta desolatio, dan ix xxvi” (And the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined—Daniel 9:26); at the upper right, “et cadent in ore gladii et captivi ducentur in omnes gentes, et jerusalem calcabitur a gentibus donec impleantur tempora nationum, luc xxi xxiv” (And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled—Luke 21:24).

  14. Eliot may be mocking a response made by Kaulbach himself; she had visited his studio on April 27 (Cross, George Eliot's Life, 2:23).

  15. George Eliot and the Visual Arts, p. 108. Witemeyer credits Norma Jean Davis and Bernard Williams with identifying the painting in unpublished dissertations (p. 217n).

  16. Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (1939; repr. New York: Harper and Row, 1962), p. 5.

  17. I don’t mean to suggest that Dutch paintings actually are unmediated by artistic convention; what is in question here is the view of Eliot and her contemporaries. In a development which would doubtless greatly have surprised them, art critics have begun to argue that Dutch genre paintings are in fact heavily laden with symbolic and allegorical meanings. See, for example, Otto Naumann's reading of Dou's “Girl Chopping Onions” in Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting, ed. Peter Sutton (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1984), in which “the hanging dead bird symbolized the sexual act … the empty bird cage is associated with the loss of virtue … even the vegetables being prepared [in this painting and another] can be interpreted sexually” (p. 184). Svetlana Alpers argues for a simpler reading of Dutch art in The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983).

  18. Mansell, “Ruskin and George Eliot's ‘Realism,’” pp. 205-07. See also Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, Realism and Consensus in the English Novel (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 77-78, 225-30, for comments on the relation between consciousness and the objective world in realist fiction.

  19. “The Natural History of German Life” (1856), in Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1963), p. 270.

  20. Of course, as Marotta points out (“Adam Bede as a Pastoral,” p. 62), there are smiles with double meanings in the pastoral scene Eliot is describing here—and it is worth noting that in the passage quoted above Hetty uses Mrs. Poyser's “polished surfaces” as mirrors. In both cases, the corrupting and complicating presence of sexuality shows itself to be in tension with Eliot's idealizing vision of the “simple” rural world.

  21. In “Silence in the Courtroom: George Eliot and the Language of Morality in Adam Bede,Essays in Literature 13 (1986): 43-55, Timothy Pace notes that “one imaginative impulse [in Adam Bede] depicts the deep truths of man's spiritual and moral experience—truths that define how a society can be united in a shared vision of right moral conduct—as essentially beyond the reach of language” (p. 43).

  22. Although I do not think he would put the matter in precisely these terms, Martin Meisel often suggests a tension between narrative and pictorial elements in representational art in Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1983). About a meeting between Arthur and Hetty in Adam Bede, for example, he writes: “In George Eliot's scene, a developing relationship is crystallized in a situation, an eloquent tableau, isolated from the flow of time, or rather concentrating that flow into a charged stasis” (p. 60). See also his interesting discussion of the political implications of narrative and pictorial elements in David Wilkie's paintings and the melodramas based on them (pp. 142-65).

  23. For comments on the Aeschylean theme in Adam Bede, see F. R. Leavis, Introduction to the Signet Adam Bede (New York: New American Library, 1961), pp. x-xi. On Eliot's preference for individual rather than social morality, see Williams, The Country and the City, p. 180, and Goode, “Adam Bede,” p. 29. Dentith points out suggestively that “in the act of recognition, in the act of seeing ‘someone like me’ beneath those ‘superficial’ class differences, their fundamental, material importance can be cancelled” (George Eliot, pp. 53-54).

  24. Dianne Sadoff treats this passage from a different perspective in “Nature's Language: Metaphor in the Text of Adam Bede,Genre 11 (1978): 411-12. See also Pace, “Silence in the Courtroom,” p. 45.

Mark Warren McLaughlin (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9415

SOURCE: “Adam Bede: History, Narrative, Culture,” in Victorians Institute Journal, Vol. 22, 1994, pp. 55-83.

[In the following essay, McLaughlin examines the historical and ideological foundations of the English middle class, and identifies Eliot's Adam Bede as a narrative attempt to normalize and legitimize this growing segment of the population.]

Late in October 1857, Engels wrote to Marx about the economic crisis then developing in England. Engels, who had predicted “a dies irae like no other,” now thought the times propitious: “Nous avons maintenant de la chance,” he wrote (Marx and Engels 197). Marx agreed that luck was on their side and he wrote that he could do little else besides work on what would become the Grundrisse and keep records of the present crisis. Over the next several months the crisis steadily developed into “one of the worst depressions of the nineteenth century” (Hughes, Fluctuations 30) and seemed to portend a worldwide economic collapse. Though Marx and Engels looked on expectantly, other middle-class intellectuals were less concerned with revolution—England's survival of 1848 had largely allayed that fear—than they were with a society paralyzed by working-class discontent with middle-class leadership. Out of the famines, depressions, labor unrest, and threat of revolution in the earlier decades, mid-Victorian England was emerging as a cohesive culture organized by middle-class beliefs and practices that appeared genuinely consensual (Briggs; Davidoff and Hall; Hobsbawm; H. Perkin; Stone; Tholfsen). As Engels noted at this time, “the ultimate aim of this most bourgeois of all nations would appear to be the possession, alongside the bourgeoisie, of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat”(344). The economic crisis, however, renewed the threat to the middle class's project of a consensual culture. The moral and economic values it had promulgated as constitutive of that culture—the values of improvement, of class cooperation and class mobility, and of the gendered division of labor—seemed unmasked by the material facts of falling wages, unemployment, and spreading poverty (Hughes, “Commercial”). By early October 1858, however, the depression had abated. A disappointed and mystified Engels reported to Marx that business had suddenly turned “tremendously good”; all signs of the crisis had disappeared.

George Eliot's Adam Bede, begun late in October 1857 and completed mid-November 1858, took shape against this background of consensus and crisis, and I will argue that, as a professional member of the middle class, Eliot attempted to mediate the threat of cultural disruption by providing in Adam Bede a normative moral and political narrative that celebrates the historical origins and ideological foundations of a middle class which would transform class-structured society into its own image. The narrative of Adam's rise from worker to owner articulates the fundamental beliefs and practices of mid-Victorian consensus and stakes Eliot's claim for her narrative as “a real instrument of culture” (L 3: 44). But even as that narrative celebrates middle-class values and circulates images of their culturally constructive powers, inherent ideological contradictions finally disrupt the narrative and mock the celebration. This formal fracture originates in Eliot's emerging critical understanding of the normalizing and regulatory cultural forces that empowered middle-class men and marginalized women. While Eliot's apparent faith in middle-class values led her to resist critical conclusions, her “faithful account” of the cultural contradictions circumscribing women's lives suggests possibilities for transforming—for reconstructing—that culture.

As modern anthropologists and social theorists have argued, narratives are central to the construction of culture.1 Narratives circulate public images of the way “people in a given social environment organize and give meaning to their lives” (Bellah 39); narratives define and communicate certain norms, values, and behaviors and thus help to organize culture. Recent explorations of narrative's participation in what John Bender calls “the ongoing process of cultural construction” (xv) have focused on the realist novel. The foundational premise of that literary form to offer “a full and authentic report of human experience” (Watt 32) together with its historic entanglement with and replacement of prescriptive conduct books (Gilmour 9; Armstrong 96-160) make the realistic novel a potentially powerful system for structuring social understanding and thereby organizing social behavior. As Bender argues, “Novelistic discourse becomes part of the culture's means of understanding” (3). And this is almost precisely George Eliot's understanding of the powers and purposes of narrative. For Eliot, narratives derive their cultural instrumentality from the representational powers of language. Writing in 1856, in a review essay that works up the aesthetic and political theories that govern her narrative practice, Eliot asserted that language exerts its representational powers by virtue of the “images that are habitually associated with... collective terms” (E 267). The images that most concerned Eliot here were those represented by the collective terms “‘the people,’ ‘the masses,’ ‘the proletariat,’ ‘the peasantry’” (E 268). If the images evoked by those terms were widely informed by experience, she confidently asserts, they could represent “all the essential facts” of the named object (E 267). But Eliot was equally certain that those who “theorize” and “legislate” on behalf of “‘the people’” had been misinformed and misled by narrative “misrepresentations”—by the “opera peasants,” “idyllic ploughmen,” and sentimental hirelings (E 270-71) of narratives that are, for Eliot, ethically and ideologically complicit in the construction of culture. Narratives that circulate artistic conventions in place of an authentic image of “human life” (270), Eliot argues, constitute “a grave evil” in their perverse misdirection of social sympathy. Narratives that truthfully record “the life of the People,” on the other hand, possess the power to construct a cohesive culture: such faithful representation, she claims, “will guide our sympathies rightly, … check our theories and direct their application” to the linking of “the higher classes with the lower” and thus obliterate “exclusiveness” (270-72). In her affiliative conversion of W. H. Riehl's argument, Eliot suggests that what is needed to counteract misinformed political representation, and so to develop a culture based on a true understanding of difference and on class-transcending sympathy, is a narrative of “the natural history of our social classes” (272). Such a narrative will represent the culture's “vital connexion with the past” by recording the “process of development” in which inherited “social conditions” have intertwined with the “roots” of human nature and so produced the “perfect ripeness of the seed.” Truthful narrative will, in Eliot's intricate metaphor, record and assist in the generation of culture.2

In Adam Bede, the procedure by which Eliot will mobilize her images of human life to enact their culturally constitutive functions is signalled by the novel's epigraph:

                                                                                So that ye may have
Clear images before your gladdened eyes
Of nature's unambitious underwood
And flowers that prosper in the shade. And 
I speak of such among the flock as swerved
Or fell, those only shall be singled out
Upon whose lapse, or error, something more
Than brotherly love may attend.

(The Excursion, 6: 651-58)

Mindful of Bakhtin's claims that such “clear images” are “always ideologically demarcated”—that the action and discourse of characters construct or incarnate a specific ideological order (“Discourse” 335)—we can see that Adam Bede's “clear images … of nature's unambitious underwood” were designed to augment her readers' associative understanding and so to produce social sympathy—an energy urgently needed, during an epoch of contested consensus, to forestall cultural disruption. “We are children of a large family,” the narrator avers, and we must learn to “help each other the more” (4, xxvii, 298).

Looked at in this way, Adam Bede appears as a much more historically engaged narrative than is traditionally recognized. In contrast to an interpretive tradition that construes Adam Bede as a “relatively static picture of life” which either presents “less a process of development than a restoration of a static order” (Shuttleworth 22, 24) or reaffirms a pastoral image of “traditional community” (Graver 95), I want to show, by developing ideas advanced by feminist critics like Sedgwick, that the narrative is hypermobile: it engages the contested triumph of the middle class even as it circulates images subversive of that consolidation of power. And in contrast to another strong line in Adam Bede's literary history best epitomized in John Goode's claims that the narrative is a dehistoricized version of historical reality (21), I want to demonstrate that Adam Bede is thoroughly historicized both in the images it deploys and in the complex of values and beliefs that inform and motivate those images.3


People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France.

With a drop of ink Eliot begins her narrative and conjures an Egyptian sorcerer. The single drop of ink holds whole worlds, and the sorcerer will disclose before the reader's earnest gaze “far-reaching visions of the past.” But as the instability of that phrase suggests, the past is not inert. Mesmerized vision may reach far into the past, but the gaze will reverse itself, and the disclosed vision will reach through implication to the Victorian present. The past reappears with Eliot's necromantic trope, and this re-vision will enable readers to construe its lessons.4

Initially the customary community of Hayslope in 1799 appears to be contained and supervised by an “ancient family” and the church: the Donnithorne Arms stand at one entrance to the village and the churchyard at the other (1, ii, 10). But those emblems of power betoken profound cultural changes: this ancient landed family now needs the supplemental income of the inn, and the parsonage lies vacant. Power and cultural vitality are now located elsewhere—in grim Stoneyshire, with its cotton mill, and at the Poysers' Hall Farm, rising, as the narrator's extended commercial simile makes clear, in middle-class prosperity on the estate of a defunct and displaced country squire:

The history of the house is plain now. … Like the life in some coast-town that was once a watering-place, and is now a port, where the genteel streets are silent and grass-grown, and the docks and warehouses busy and resonant, the life at the Hall has changed its focus, and no longer radiates from the parlour, but from the kitchen and the farmyard. Plenty of life there! (1, vi, 70-71)

Mrs. Poyser's “handsome eight-day clock” is a sure sign to Eliot's mid-Victorian readers of the middle-class status of these substantial tenant farmers.5 So formidable is the Poysers' middle-class vitality that they will not only face down Squire Donnithorne's threat (4, xxxii, 352-57), they will also come to supplant their landlord as the center of communal rituals. The Poysers' Harvest Supper, having replaced by book's end the cultural function of Donnithorne feasting, provides an apt emblem of the new cultural order. It is, the narrator claims, a goodly sight—that table with Martin Poyser at its head and his workers arrayed around him (6, liii, 527).6

This displacement signals Eliot's understanding of the dynamics of mid-Victorian culture formation, less a “restoration of a static order” than a record of cultural disruption (initiated by Arthur's “irrevocable wrong”) and cultural transformation (signaled by the Harvest Supper and, as we shall see, Adam's admission of Arthur back into the community), the narrative apparently registers a crucial moment in the suturing of a declining but still powerful gentry with a rising middle class.7 But, against that, I would point to the ultimately contestatory values, practices, and beliefs which structure and sanction the progress of the narrative and which disclose the historical seed and roots of mid-Victorian culture.

At one level, of course, Adam Bede valorizes class cooperation and endorses the suture of gentry and middle class. Mid-Victorian social discourse authorized the naturalness of the hierarchical social order. As Mrs. Poyser remarks, “there’s them as is born t’ own the land, and them as is born to sweat on ’t” (4, xxxii, 353). This naturalized order was typically invested with sacralized injunctions. Mrs. Poyser continues, “and I know it’s christened folks's duty to submit to their betters as fur as flesh and blood ’ull bear it.” But Mrs. Poyser registers a middle-class resistance to such ordination of rank, a resistance that becomes visible when we note its total absence in another late 1850s text on the social order, William Sewell's sermon on “Gentlemanly Manners.”

We have, I think, in England, owing to the freedom of our constitution, and the happy providential blessings which God has heaped upon us, followed the division of mankind which God himself has made. … Some men He has made to rule and govern; some to be ruled and governed. (Gilmour 89)

Adam initially ratifies this static, cooperative order: he wishes “for no better lot than to work under” Arthur because he believes Arthur fulfills his social role. “He’s one o’ those gentlemen as wishes to do the right thing, and to leave the world a bit better than he found it, something that every man may do” according to class function: “whether he’s gentle or simple, whether he sets a good bit o’ work going and finds the money, or whether he does the work with his own hands” (3, xxiv, 275). But the formal dynamics of Eliot's narrative, as they propel Adam's rise from the working to the owning class, ratify instead the middle-class's emerging (and ambivalent) resistance to the gentry.

In this community with “no rigid demarcation of ranks” (1, ix, 97), Adam's image most fully incarnates Eliot's cultural project. Though Eliot is careful to mark him with “the blood of the peasant” (1, iv, 48), his discourse is profoundly inflected by his veneration of “the great works and inventions” of the industrializing culture, and he markedly embodies and enacts middle-class values and beliefs (1, i, 6). While Eliot claimed to have drawn Adam from certain particulars of her father Robert Evans (L 2: 503), Joseph Wiesenfarth has shown that she also drew Adam from Samuel Smiles's biography of George Stephenson, the pioneering railway magnate (163); I would add that Eliot's emplotment of Adam's story matches Smiles's emplotment of Stephenson's life as a bourgeois success story. Both Evans and Stephenson exemplified the entrepreneurial hopes and beliefs of the Victorian middle class. As Smiles proclaimed in Self-Help, “What some men are, all without difficulty might be.” Smiles's 1859 tract for the middle class (also produced in the face of the mid-century economic crisis) articulates the regulatory ideal of social mobility through hard work and “improvement” that Adam's narrative trajectory exemplifies. When Adam thinks of a future life with Hetty, for example, he pulls back at the prospect of a “growing poverty with a growing family” (2, xix, 214). And he plans to establish a small business to manufacture household furniture, build up his savings, and “get beforehand with the world” (215). The very terms of Adam's “calculations” evoke his association with the entrepreneurial ideal. In the anachronistic language of consumerism, Adam imagines housewives in “raptures” with his products and filled with “melancholy longing” for their possession (215). This investment of Adam's working-class image with middle-class aspirations indicates Eliot's principal historicizing strategy. The “mirror” of history, held in “a single drop of ink,” reflexively reveals the present lodged in the past (1, i, 1).

Adam's hopes are pinned to his devotion to work, and he is a Carlylean avatar some thirty years before the fact. “His work, as you know, had always been a part of his religion,” the narrator explains, “and from very early days he saw clearly that good carpentry was God's will” (6, li, 498). Throughout, Eliot invests ordinary labor with ennobling and therapeutic powers. As Carlyle had written in Past and Present (1843), “even in the meanest sorts of Labour, the whole soul of man is composed into a kind of real harmony” (196). By the lights of the professional middle class, common labor possessed an innate dignity capable of converting even menial tasks to vocation and noble duty. The middle class's idealization of work was a driving force in its discursive struggles to define the emergent culture. By glorifying work it legitimated its own acquisitive entrepreneurial impulses, sanctified “improvement,” and attempted to regulate working-class impatience with the filtering process of a putatively open but class-structured society (Briggs; Tholfsen, Working Class 140-49).

The success of the middle class's ideological project required as well the wresting of cultural—if not political—power from the upper classes. Eliot participates in this discursive struggle by disclosing the class-bound aspirations and assumptions motivating Arthur's transgression. From Arthur's childhood exchange of a pencil box for a poor man's broth (4, xxix, 318) to his seduction of Hetty, Eliot discloses the failure of this “would be” “model of an English gentleman” (1, xii, 125) to perform his class-defined custodial function. It is not just a Carlylean “abdication on the part of the governors” that Eliot represents, however. Through implicit and explicit comparisons of Adam and Arthur, Eliot proposes the middle class's greater ability to sustain civil community. As Adam commands Arthur to do his proper duty toward Hetty, “in this thing we’re man and man” (5, xxviii, 315). Eliot leaves no doubt about which of these two exemplary characters better performs his cultural functions. By book's end Arthur will have been exiled from the community; and as final testament to the triumph of middle-class entrepreneurial values over the gentry's landed values, Eliot offers the image of Adam, the new owner of Jonathan Burge's timberyard, admitting the “shattered” Arthur back into the community. Significantly, Arthur now adopts Adam's language, indicating, as a Bakhtinian analysis would demonstrate, that he has come to accept Adam's cultural values: “But you told me the truth,” Arthur tells Adam, “when you said to me once, ‘There’s a sort of wrong that can never be made up for’” (Epilogue, 551; Bakhtin, “Speech Genres” 95-98).

That triumph, as Sedgwick argues, is accomplished “over the dead, discredited, or disempowered body of a woman” (137). In the final section of this paper, I will explore the initiation of Eliot's critical consciousness of just this feature of the middle class's rise to and consolidation of hegemony. But first I want to focus on the strategies Eliot used to insert her narrative into the cultural contest for authority. Although Eliot's deployment of these narrative devices is motivated by her desire to secure readers' commitment to the triumphal history she narrates, they nonetheless work to expose the cultural truths that ultimately disrupt the narrative.


But not a polype for a long, long while could even G. detect after all his reading; so necessary is it for the eye to be educated by objects as well as ideas.

“Recollections of Ilfracombe, 1856”

Eliot's narrative celebration of middle-class values powerfully intervened in mid-Victorian social discourse. Readers recorded the profound sense of reality that the narrative produced: Dickens claimed that Adam Bede had “taken its place among the actual experiences and endurances” of his life (L 3: 114), and Sir Theodore Martin wrote to John Blackwood that “one almost forgets it is a book and loses himself in the reality of the incidents” (L 2: 42). The reviewer for the Westminster suggests the cultural functions performed by Eliot's narrative: “[Eliot's] work reads like an authentic history; the actors impress us as real men and women, who, being what they were, could not have spoken or acted other than they did” (269). The “general influence” of this history, wrote E. S. Dallas, is “to draw us nearer to each other by showing how completely we are one”; Adam Bede reveals, he had written earlier, “that there is not the mighty difference … usually assumed between high and low, rich and poor” (Carroll 131-33; 79). Adam Bede's participation in the construction of just such a middle-class culture as Dallas evokes was achieved through the agency of certain narrative devices—which could be called figurations of reading—that promoted specific interpretive strategies for reading the narrative. We will see that these strategies direct reading outward, into the circumambient cultural context and thus educate readers' eyes to the “objects”—the “real breathing men and women” (2, xvii, 180)—standing behind the “ideas”—the representative “clear images”—circulating in narrative.

Perhaps Eliot's most obvious strategy is her deployment of characterized readers. The most famous of these is the “idealistic friend” who appears in Chapter 17: “‘This Rector of Broxton is little better than a pagan!’ I hear one of my readers exclaim” (178). Drawing on a familiar literary convention, Eliot here constructs an impugned reader—characterized as deficient in the sympathy or understanding necessary to appreciate the story and thus in need of reading instruction. However, where Thackeray and Sterne admonish their characterized readers to be more attentive, Eliot draws out the political implications of her educative project. The impugned reader here serves not only as a foil directing readers' comprehension of character and action but more importantly as an object lesson in class tolerance. For here the characterized reader is presented not only as objecting to Eliot's realism but as rejecting the “low phase of life” brought before ungladdened eyes. The narrator in direct converse with a resistent reader then must argue for the “faithful representing of common-place things.” This phase of life is in itself beautiful and needs representing, as witness Vermeer, Teniers, and de Hooch, but more needful still is the extension of sympathy to all phases of life that this art of the commonplace promotes:

These fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are. … and it is these people—amongst whom your life is passed—that it is needful you should tolerate, pity, and love: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people, whose movements of goodness you should be able to admire—for whom you should cherish all possible hopes, all possible patience. (2, xvii, 179)

By marking this reader with ethically negative signs of a want of sympathy and by impugning this reader's interpretive strategies and class bias, Eliot promotes a specific strategy for reading that will school readers in the moral exigencies and cultural imperatives of class tolerance.

Eliot also deploys a second kind of characterized reader who, though perceptive and sharing the narrator's moral economy, must nonetheless be carefully directed to the correct interpretation of character and action and, from that point, be coaxed to turn outward an enlarged understanding. This reader is not as fully characterized as the impugned reader. In Adam Bede and elsewhere, the directed reader is evoked by the narrator's simple reference to “you.”8 Though at times directed readers appear on the verge of a mistake, usually they have come only to a limited perception of a character or action. The narrator, so close to this reader as to be able to read the reader's mind, either quickly dispels the misperception or takes up the reader's thought and then points to the wider human applicability of the represented action.

Adam Bede is freighted with such engagements, but for my purposes the richest appears with the narrator's tour of Adam's working day:

Adam, you perceive, was by no means a marvellous man, nor, properly speaking, a genius, yet I will not pretend that his was an ordinary character among workmen; and it would not be at all a safe conclusion that the next best man you may happen to see with a basket of tools over his shoulder and a paper cap on his head had the strong conscience and the strong sense, the blended susceptibility and self-command, of our friend Adam. (2, xix, 217)

The political implications of the interpretation fostered by this interaction between narrator and characterized reader are obvious. Although the incalculably diffuse effect of workers like Adam may have produced “no discernible echo” beyond their neighborhood, “you” are sure to find traces of it in “some good piece of road, some building, some application of mineral produce, some improvement in farming practice” by which their “masters” were made “the richer” by their work (217). Working-class heroes like Adam, unless they move upward as does he, are like the dependable “main screw” in the machine of production; and their middle-class masters know their heroic—but ultimately replaceable—worth (218).9

By presenting these characterized readers, the narrator elaborates a specific strategy of interpretation that directs readers' attentions beyond the text to the world of class-organized society. Readers are able to read outward, in part, because of the particular narrative contract Eliot has struck with them. Organized by shared “paradigms for understanding reality,” Adam Bede purports to register truthful data of “‘the people.’”10 Eliot's readers learn that by accepting Adam as a veritable representative they will participate in the pleasures of reading a story about life-like characters and they will learn “all the essential facts” about the working class he represents. This way of reading, as I have been arguing, was designed to affirm the emerging middle-class culture. But for this approach to work at all, Eliot needed both to secure the narrator's position as the central means for controlling interpretation and to demonstrate the narrative's power to constitute community.

Eliot secures the narrator's controlling position by raising what we might call the problematics of reading. Eliot represents her characters' attempts to understand each other as attempts to read each other. The interpretive operations of this “natural” reading are not always trustworthy, since most often in this novel characters misread each other. As the narrator pointedly reminds readers, “Nature has her language, and she is not unveracious; but we don’t know all the intricacies of her syntax just yet, and in a hasty reading we may happen to extract the very opposite of her real meaning” (1, xv, 155). To learn “comprehension,” characters must “learn the art of vision,” and this through the “hard experience” of life (163). In a narrative of largely tragic effect, comprehension comes through suffering. Adam misreads Hetty's character; Irwine draws incorrect inferences from Arthur's hypothetical narrative of infatuation; and Adam must then learn the language of fellow feeling from the “terrible scorching light” that illuminates at last the “hidden letters” of a suffering caused by multiple misreadings (4, xxvii, 303; 2, xix, 214). Even when characters are engaged in textual reading, that activity too is seriously questioned.11 Had Arthur comprehended the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth's “The Thorn” might have instructed him on the likely outcome of his infatuation with Hetty.12 And when Dinah turns to the Bible for directions, her interpretations invariably prove ineffectual—as when she tries to guide Hetty in “The Two Bedrooms”—or tragically wrong—as when she leaves Hayslope and the troubled Hetty for Snowfield. With reading so insistently questioned, the narrator stands as the central means for controlling interpretive operations.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the narrator, like the characters, is “ideologically demarcated,” and this signals, too, Eliot's affirmation of middle-class leadership. Even the most casual pieces of discourse—for example, the description of Mr. Casson, a mere bystander, by reference to astronomy and Milton (1, ii, 10)—reveal the markings of the professed intellectual whose vast learning is a resource for cultural and political guidance. As Harold Perkin and others have demonstrated, this thoroughly middle-class “learned class” functioned, in Carlyle's words, as “the modern guides of Nations” (250-72; Past and Present 32). Indeed, the difficulty that we feel in referring to the narrator's gender bespeaks Eliot's own attempt to cover any traces of interestedness. Above the accidents of class, history, and gender, the professional intellectual gives access to “the people” and frames their “natural” social relations.13

Demonstrating how such narratives intervene in organizing society, Eliot constructed potent images of narrative's capacity to constitute community. These figurations of narrative power are especially purposeful in a text depicting the threat of communal dissolution and composed in a time of pervasive economic crisis. In the first and most obvious image, Dinah preaching on the unenclosed green, narrative visibly constitutes community. For it is Dinah's simple narration that brings together the diverse inhabitants of Hayslope. Dinah's lesson assembles the community and sustains it by assurance—no communally-generated critique of social oppression here. What Dinah narrates is of course not a message for “the poor workmen,” but reassurance that economy is irrelevant, that of the one thing needful there is “‘Enough for all, enough for each, / Enough for evermore’” (1, ii, 29).14

More powerfully still for the anxious times during which Adam Bede was composed, narrative is represented as redemptive—as providing the necessary power to reestablish disrupted community. Such a redeeming image appears at a crucial juncture in the novel. Adam, “this brave active man,” has been made “powerless” in the face of “irremediable evil and suffering.” He awaits news of Hetty's trial when Bartle Massey returns from the court of justice. It is at this point that the novel's famous secular communion takes place. It is crucial to note, however, that Adam will not partake until he has received Bartle's narration of the trial. Adam is insistent. Four times he urges Bartle to “Tell me” (5, xlii, 437-39); and he will hear the story out before he receives the bread and wine. That secularized communion signals Adam's completed rehabilitation from hardness. But what motivates his transformation, at least its final stages, is Bartle's narration of suffering and communal dissolution. For it is the story of the Poysers' failure to “stand by” Hetty that provokes Adam's affiliative claim—“I’ll stand by her—I’ll own her”—and leads to his vow against hardness.

Images of narrative's power to constitute or to restore community further educate readers' eyes to objects figured by ideas. In apprehending those images, Eliot's Victorian readers would learn that the narratives they share are themselves part of the bindings of community. The political community organized by Adam Bede would discover the sources of its own community. Gazing at that “far-reaching vision of the past,” Eliot's narratively educated readers would see the historical development of the moral and economic determinants of the world they now live in. That “authentic history,” by its engagement of readers' emotional and cognitive capacities, reproduced a powerful structure of understanding that gave moral sanction as well as consensual intelligibility to the middle class's hegemonic actions.


But even as Eliot celebrates the triumph of middle-class values, cultural contradictions disrupt the narrative and mock the celebration. As readers have long recognized, the marriage of Adam and Dinah in Book 6 vitiates the narrative's ethical dynamics.15 Narrative progress—the central organizing plot—is driven by a Feuerbachian growth-through-suffering to Adam's enlarged sympathy and understanding. His affiliative claim to “own” Hetty even in his deepest heartbreak and his “feeling his own pain merged in sympathy for Arthur” at the conclusion of Book 5 mark the completion of Adam's transformation and thus signal the narrative's formal completion.16 The power of the narrative to instill sympathy and admiration for Adam, as the plot brings him to this point, gives rhetorical force to the values he incarnates and advances. Because Adam's middle-class beliefs have sustained him and ennobled his suffering, readers have been led to entertain those ideologically demarcated values as genuinely virtuous; they have organized, in Alasdair MacIntyre's terms, the internal end of Adam's moral and psychological transformation (190-91). Moreover, because these values are mutually intelligible to all classes, their public circulation works to consolidate consensual culture. As we have seen, Eliot has taken great pains to insert her representative images into the discursive practices shaping mid-Victorian culture.

But the addition of Book 6 haunts the narrative, to appropriate Eliot's protesting words, with the “base and selfish, even … blasphemous spirit” of compensation (6, liv, 541). As Adam reflects on his growing love for Dinah:

I should never ha’ come to know that her love ’ud be the greatest o’ blessings to me, if what I counted a blessing hadn’t been wrenched and torn away from me, and left me with a greater need, so as I could crave and hunger for a greater and better comfort. (liii, 526; my emphasis)

Adam now discovers that his suffering was based on a miscalculation of love, and that discovery attenuates his pain and provides him with ample compensation in the “greater and better comfort” of Dinah. Those internally defined and directed values are shown now to be merely instrumental to the external ends of entrepreneurial success and sexual compensation.17 Instead of an “irrevocable evil” with radically proliferating consequences, evil is now contained and effaced by Adam's greater happiness and Arthur's return. Instead of living out an authentic and narratively sanctioned vocation, Dinah is reduced to “a convenient household slave” (6, l, 499). Instead of a narrative endorsement of suffering as an agent of personal and cultural transformation, there is now an undeniable sense that Hetty has suffered solely to promote Adam's deeper happiness. These irrepressible reversals countermand both the ethical dynamics of the narrative and Eliot's defense of middle-class values.

Eliot's fracturing of narrative form and disabling of its cultural project derive from her subversive understanding of the cultural contradictions that empowered middle-class men and marginalized women. Whether we argue that Eliot's understanding arose out of the self-divided contest of “the conscious conservative moralist” with “the subconscious subversive” within, as Dorothea Barrett does (32-33), or was part of her incipient critical consciousness, as I do, it is clear that Eliot's “faithful account” of this cultural feature renders it as a cultural problem.18 Eliot backs away from either resolving or fully critiquing the problem, but we can see in the development of Dinah's and Hetty's plots disturbances that register the emergence of Eliot's more critical assessment of middle-class hegemony.

I want to return now to Sedgwick's argument about the historical transference of power enacted in Adam Bede. She argues that Adam Bede records in Dinah's plot the “genealogy of the English middle-class family” (145) as that structure was reorganized by cultural changes produced in England's industrialization. While Sedgwick sees the narrative as exemplifying Eliot's “gentle defense of the status quo” (145), I want to say again that this line of the narrative works to disrupt the defense and begins to lay out the possibility of cultural transformation. Where Eliot records Mrs. Poyser's powerful participation in the “household economy” of the farm (Tilly and Scott 227-28)—she makes “one quarter o’ the rent” and saves “another quarter” (4, xxxii, 355)—Eliot also exposes the middle class's disempowering regulation of women's roles and opportunities in Dinah's exchange of her vocation for marriage to Adam. As Sedgwick argues, this “direct translation” from power to powerlessness is coincident with the transference of the gentry's “moral authority” (an authority, I would add, exemplified only in Arthur's narratively ironized aspirations to it) to the “newly bourgeois” Adam (157-58).

This narrative intertwining of reconfigured gender roles and class status signals the historicized weave of Eliot's text with its cultural context. As Marion Shaw asserts, “In this George Eliot accurately indicates the importance of an ideal marriage as a factor, perhaps the major factor, in the establishment of middle-class hegemony” (36).19 And it also marks out a site for the possibility of cultural change. That is to say, while Barrett and Nancy Paxton, among others, are right, I believe, to see that Dinah's choice dramatizes Eliot's analysis of the incompatibility, for women in the emerging culture, of vocation and sexual fulfillment (Barrett 43; Paxton 68), I would want to add that the standing unease of the Epilogue was designed to foreground, and perhaps to promote, dissatisfaction with these culturally constrained options. While Adam congratulates himself for approving Dinah's submission to the Methodist Conference's prohibition against female preaching, Seth—a figure whom Eliot has used from the first to highlight truths that Adam neglects (see 1, i, 6, where Seth turns Adam's middle-class sermon on its head)—protests this bondage of “Christian liberty,” and Dinah attempts to shift attention from this “standing subject of difference.” Further, Dinah's translation from power to powerlessness is figured in her translation from the angel of the resurrection (Lisbeth and Adam remark on Dinah's likeness to a picture in the old family Bible [6, li, 509]) to the “angel in the house” of the Epilogue, a translation that at least some of Eliot's mid-Victorian readers noted.20 Finally, this line of the plot, as I have been arguing, produces a parodic image of the central values of emerging middle-class culture. By disclosing the sacrifice of autonomy involved in Dinah's translation from itinerant preacher to housebound wife, Eliot reveals Adam's own illusion of self-sufficiency and the hollowness of the culture's individualist ethos that he exemplifies.21

Hetty's story, of course, enacts Eliot's middle-class critique of aristocratic morality. Arthur's seduction of Hetty provides an irrevocable image of the gentry's violation of their custodial obligations as trusted stewards of the community (Thompson 6; H. Perkin 277-90). But Hetty's story also registers Eliot's critique of middle-class patriarchal assumptions. It is after all the Poysers' treatment of their penniless niece as little more than a domestic servant that provokes Hetty's adolescent fantasies of luxurious rescue (1, ix, 98-99). Uneducated and offered no opportunity to become productive in the household economy, Hetty, as the narrator makes clear, both foolishly and understandably fashions her dreams around Arthur. And though severely limited by her moralistic judgments, Eliot's sympathy for Hetty, her understanding of Hetty's “woman's destiny” (3, xxii, 256), leads to a trenchant critique of the Poysers' refusal to “stand by her.” “‘They oughtn’t to cast her off—her own flesh and blood,’” Adam proclaims, and his recently realized moral transformation doubly indicts the Poysers' culpability and the hypocrisy of middle-class respectability (5, xlii. 439).

Adam (whom Dinah likens to a “patriarch” [l, viii, 92]) is also shown as participating in the cultural discourse determining Hetty's fate; as Goode and others have argued, Adam reifies Hetty as the “prettiest thing God made” and marginalizes her in a realm of “dreams” outside his workday reality (32-35). But within the complex critique that Eliot initiates lie suggestions of potential cultural change. Modern critical theory has taught us to attend to a narrative's instances of “the male gaze” as an exemplification of gendered arrangements of power.22 We find in Adam Bede's figures of reading Eliot's critical analysis of such appropriating perception. “Every man under such circumstances is conscious of being a great physiognomist,” the narrator remarks on Adam's subjectifying (mis)reading of Hetty:

The dear, young, round, soft, flexible thing! Her heart must be just as soft, her temper just as free from angles, her character just as pliant. If anything ever goes wrong, it must be the husband's fault there: he can make her what he likes—that is plain. … he wouldn't consent to her being a bit wiser. (1, xv, 154)

The obvious ironies of the free indirect discourse expose the inability of a patriarchal semiotics to underwrite a reading of the female body long before the narrator suggests “that there is no direct correlation between eyelashes and morals” (155). But when Adam visits Hetty in prison he has apparently learned to see (“he began to see through the dimness”) with far different mediating assumptions, and this signals the possibility of cultural change. Instead of appropriating, Adam's eyes now return Hetty to herself: “When the sad eyes met—when Hetty and Adam looked at each other. … It was the first time she had seen any being whose face seemed to reflect the change in herself” (5, xlvi, 470). Marking, we could say, this “double change of self and beholder,” Adam now feels “as if his brain would burst with the anguish of meeting Hetty's eyes” (471). And this extension of sympathy is the main emotional effect that the narrative has been designed to produce.

It is perhaps a just measure of Adam's transformation (and of the hopefulness of Eliot's analysis?) that his way of looking at Dinah too has been changed by his experience. As Kristen Brady points out, early on in the novel, “Adam is the only man whose ‘dark penetrating glance’ can create in Dinah Hetty-like blushes and ‘self-consciousness’” (92). But, I would add, by book's end Adam can say to himself, “I shall look t’[Dinah] to help me see things right” (6, lvi, 542); and when Dinah returns to Adam, her “mild grey eyes turned on the strong dark-eyed man,” they meet in mutual and unself-conscious desire (544).

The possibilities for change, of course, are severely circumscribed by the troublesome “happy ending.” Although Eliot could faithfully record the contradictions of the emergent middle-class culture, she hesitates at a developed critique or an alternative vision. Unable to resolve, integrate, or critique those culturally informative contradictions, and pressed by the threat of cultural crisis, Eliot resorts at last to an unwarranted leap of faith in middle-class values. That leap, however, insofar as it can be seen as unwarranted, disruptive, or as contravening the narrative's ethics, manifests the very contradictions it was meant to conceal and thus mocks the celebratory functions of the narrative. There is no denying that Eliot's contemporary readers chose to concelebrate the narrative image of a consensually organized culture. To recall Dallas' comments, the narrative demonstrates “that there is not the mighty difference … usually assumed between high and low, rich and poor.” But the narrative fracture originates in the “mighty difference” of the culture's gendered duties, opportunities, and liberties; and, disrupting the narrative's complicit messages of reassurance, that fracture of form and value will ultimately serve as a site of cultural transformation: it will lead Eliot to more critically active images, in The Mill on the Floss, especially, of the oppressions and disfranchisements operating in mid-Victorian England. As Eliot later remarked, “To my feeling there is more thought and profounder veracity in ‘The Mill’ than in ‘Adam’” (L 3: 374). For all their conservative liberalism, Eliot's narratives from here on—even Felix Holt—circulate a trenchant critique of the ethic of aspiration that Adam exemplifies.23 In struggling against the ethical and political limits of the middle-class culture that her narrative records and celebrates, Eliot would come to realize in the interactions of text and context a consciousness that would make her narrative practice a much more critical “instrument of culture.”


  1. See, for examples, Geertz, Turner, MacIntyre, and Bellah.

  2. Eliot once told Frederic Harrison that she “regarded the word ‘culture’ as a verbal equivalent for the highest mental result of past and present influences” (L 4: 395). Eliot would thus seem to share Matthew Arnold's definition of culture as a “pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know … the best which has been thought and said in the world.” But, as Raymond Williams remarks, “Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (87), and Eliot's understanding of the term, as her mixing of “social conditions” and “moral tendencies” in the cultural metaphors of “roots” and “seed” suggests, was not limited to the Arnoldian sense. If, as Eliot claimed, language, minds, and societies “grow” (E 288), then “culture” for Eliot (as for us) signals a field of material, symbolic, and subjected relations, each element individually exhibiting a “process of development” which intervenes in or is intertwined with other developmental histories. In my use of the term I have tried to keep fairly close to the sense of “culture” as indicative of mid-Victorian “social environment.” In that way I intend to emphasize the instrumentality of literature, a semiotic system expressive of and determined by communally shared understandings of human action, in bringing about certain social orders. While my working definition of culture lies squarely within the definition utilized by many social theorists and anthropologists (see n.1), I recognize my choice as arbitrary and, at best, pragmatic. Anyone acquainted with Williams's and Christopher Herbert's recent works will understand the difficulties of applying a term with rather dubious empiricist pretensions to an immaterial set of relations, ways of thought, or semiotic systems.

  3. For all that I have learned from Goode's seminal essay, I still find his claim that Eliot presents a dehistoricized narrative to be logically incoherent. A narrative can be historicized by virtue of its historically accurate or resonant images—Arthur's return from Scotland fired with Young's plans for “drainage and enclosure,” say, or the Poysers' “family economy”; by virtue of its references to “world historical” events—Adam's litany of the “great inventions” of the industrial revolution or the frequent imprecations on Bonaparte; by reference to cultural shifts—the narrator's prosopopoeia of “Old Leisure” (6, lii, 525) or what Sedgwick calls the “genealogy of the middle-class family” (145) represented by the differences between the Poysers' family structure and Dinah and Adam's; or by virtue of language, costume, recorded rituals, customs, habits, and so on, all of which Adam Bede provides in abundance. Goode mentions most of these features, and therein lies the incoherence, an incoherence that is not resolved by a further claim that these features are “merely decorative” (19). As we shall see, for Eliot's contemporary readers Adam Bede was an “authentic history”; that of course does not settle the matter, but its reminder that “history” is a contested term should prompt us to examine the narrative strategies that led Eliot's readers to read it as resolutely historicized. Finally, Goode's claim (which I obviously accept) that Adam Bede's narrative process transforms “historical realities into an ideological fable” (36) suggests that just the sort of narrative process we have come to understand since Macaulay organizes all historical narratives. The universalizing humanism that invests Eliot's narrative was an active agent in the middle class's historic struggle for control of mid-Victorian England. See also Gregor; Palliser; and Widdowson, Stigant, and Brooker.

  4. Victorian readers were well schooled in this kind of reading, and would have seen explicit adumbrations of the present in the pictured past. See Culler; and Anderson. Near the end of her career Eliot was to reflect on the narrative practice she had tried to institute. “The exercise of a veracious imagination in historical picturing,” she wrote, “might help the judgment greatly with regard to present and future events. By veracious imagination, I mean the working out in detail of the various steps by which a political or social change was reached, using all extant evidence and supplying deficiencies by careful analogical creation” (E 446-47).

  5. For another reading of the class-inflected habits of that handsome eight-day clock, see Dorothy Van Ghent (217-18).

  6. Sarah Gilead, developing Victor Turner's concept of “ritual,” focuses on Arthur's “failed” birthday feast as initiating “a risky liminoid period” culminating in Hetty's seduction and abandonment, a communal breach necessitating redress (240). For Gilead, redress comes through the “ritual dynamic of sacrifice-transformation-redemption” literally acted out in Hetty's trial, imprisonment, and transportation (243). I agree, and in a future article I plan to demonstrate the historically contingent dimensions of the “social drama” that Adam Bede represents par excellence.

  7. Antonio Gramsci argues that in the early part of the nineteenth century a “suture” of the landowning and capitalist classes enabled the upper classes to retain political and economic control until the end of the century (18). See Tobin for an exploration of Emma as a narrative mirroring this “ideological fusion” (254).

  8. Robyn Warhol explores Eliot's use of direct address from a somewhat different approach from the one I take here. Warhol convincingly analyzes the gendered differences between Eliot's engaging narratives and the distancing strategies employed by Thackeray and Trollope.

  9. Compare Marx: “Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine...” (Manifesto 16).

  10. Drawing on Wayne Booth's notion of the “tacit contract” between readers and writers, Barbara Foley develops a theory of a “mimetic contract”: in order for readers to comprehend stories at all, narratives must be constructed according to shared “paradigms for understanding reality” (43), that is, according to the culturally conditioned knowledge about the structures of everyday life.

  11. Unlike instances in others of her novels, most notably The Mill, the textual reading performed by characters in Adam Bede is not, with one or two exceptions, significant. In addition to Adam's fondness for Franklin and Dinah's for the Bible, Eliot's depiction of Bartle Massey's students provides a potent metaphor for the transformative powers of reading. The workers struggling to apprehend print appear “as if three rough animals were making humble efforts to learn how they might become humans” (2, xxi, 240). This (de)humanizing trope is, not surprisingly, fortified by middle-class ideology; to become human here is to realize, among other things, one's competitive desires to be “prospering in the world” (238).

  12. Knoepflmacher appears to have first noticed the connection (95).

  13. Daniel Cottom presents a rigorously totalizing argument casting Eliot as an exemplary “liberal intellectual” whose social role is to interpret and disseminate systems of knowledge. For Cottom's Foucauldian analysis, this dissemination was a “technique of power” designed not so much to consolidate middle-class hegemony (although it did that), or even to enter into the culture-shaping debates of the period, as, rather, to produce an all powerful figure of the liberal intellectual. As much as I have learned from Cottom's argument, I find it too uncritical of its governing assumption that to reproduce an idea in discourse is necessarily an act of violence (see esp. 213). Such totalizing arguments neglect the contested, unstable, and incomplete debates that construct even such apparently consensual cultures as mid-Victorian England.

  14. Widdowson, Stigant, and Brooker argue that the narrative progressively tames the historical radicalism of Methodism by moving Dinah from her status as Methodism's sole representative to become Adam's wife. But Dinah's Methodism, as we see here, is never portrayed as radical, except for its potential to subvert patriarchal assumptions about gender, seen as such by other characters.

  15. The formal fracture of Adam Bede at Book 6 has long been recognized. Notable earlier accounts include Henry James (1866); and John S. Dieckhoff (1936). Among the many attempts to find unity in the disunity, one of the most interesting is Clayton's argument for Romantic vision requiring the cleaving addition.

  16. Eliot records in her journal that her original plan was to bring the novel to a “climax” with the prison scene; this was the germ of the story she had heard from her aunt Elizabeth Samuel. It was Lewes's suggestion to bring Dinah and Adam together (L 2: 503).

  17. Robin Gilmour reports a similar result in Smiles's Self-Help. While Smiles protested that his message emphasized the character-building virtues of improvement, the language of his narrative was shot through “with the vocabulary of investment,” and this always pointed to the external rewards of ostensibly intrinsic virtuous behavior (100).

  18. Sedgwick makes a crucial distinction. Eliot's narrative, she argues, is “not a feminist one in its valuations” of characters and their choices, but it is thoroughly feminist in its “analysis” of them (emphasis in original; 140). I take that as an accurate description, but, as I will argue, Eliot's analysis in Adam leads to more intensely critical valuations in her subsequent narratives.

  19. Shaw bases her assessment on Jeffrey Weeks's history of sexuality in nineteenth-century England.

  20. The reviewer for the Literary Gazette (26 Feb. 1859): 282. Cited in J. Russell Perkin (56).

  21. Davidoff and Hall comment on the culturally occluded network supporting such independent men as Adam: “The apparently autonomous individual man, celebrated in both political economy and evangelical religion, was almost always surrounded by family and kin who made possible his individual actions” (33). Adam's language articulates what Davidoff and Hall call the middle-class “ideological divide”: men's public labor is “work” and women's private, domestic labor is not: “A working man ’ud be badly off without a wife to see to th’ house and the victual, and make things clean and comfortable.” As Bartle Massey's misogynistic response reveals, there’s a world of difference between working and making things comfortable (2, xxi, 245).

  22. For applications of this powerful explanatory theory to Eliot's narratives see Lefkowitz and Brady.

  23. See Bodenheimer for an analysis of Felix Holt as Eliot's sustained attack on the entrepreneurial ideal and the conflation of gentry and middle-class power that it sanctioned.

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Caroline Levine (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Women or Boys? Gender, Realism, and the Gaze in Adam Bede,” in Women's Writing, Vol. 3, No. 2, June, 1996, pp. 113-27.

[In the following essay, Levine analyzes the importance of the gaze as it questions the relationship between looking and loving in Adam Bede..]

In the past two decades, critics from Laura Mulvey to Mary Louise Pratt have concerned themselves with the politics of looking.1 They have compelled us to recognize that vision is not passive, but active—even constitutive. The world is not simply given to sight: it is shaped through the interested eyes of the tourist, the artist, the colonizer, the ordinary man—and yes, it may well be a man—on the street. Suddenly we find that it is crucial to consider who is looking, and how; who is seen, and for what reasons.

Looking, in Adam Bede, is an activity which reappears with startling persistence. From the anonymous stranger in the opening pages of the novel, whose only role is to gaze, to the famous treatise on realism, with its focus on visual art, we are repeatedly confronted with the surprisingly conspicuous act of seeing. And this is no accident: vision, Eliot tells us, is an integral element of an ethical education. She illustrates this point with her memorable example of Dutch painting, which offers us visual images of the homely and the ordinary, and thus invites us to focus sympathetically on the life around us, on “real breathing men and woman.”2 Images of the ideal are less beneficial: pictures of the lofty and sublime actually teach us to feel intolerant of the real, indifferent toward our “every day fellow-men” (p. 164). We learn to love our neighbours, then, by looking at certain pictures and disregarding others. Eliot's narrator urges us to dismiss the ideal and to pass—via representational realism—from looking to loving.

But the passage from one to the other is no simple matter when it comes to the narrative proper, where the vision of the beloved is problematic, if not downright dangerous: Hetty is much looked at, and meets only with catastrophe; Adam looks at Hetty and is perilously misled by her loveliness; Dinah stares at apparitions and absent faces, but becomes suddenly responsive to romantic love when she knows herself to be keenly observed by Adam Bede. All of this suggests that this text—“undoubtedly the most scopophilic of George Eliot's novels”3—is busily posing the same question in a number of ways: namely, what is the proper link between looking at the world and feeling love?

It will be my contention, here, that George Eliot's theory of ethical realism, with its paradigm of Dutch painting, is intertwined with a theory of gender. Both are concerned with the connection between aesthetics and ethics, between looking and loving. While critics have often considered the problem of female beauty in Adam Bede, they have failed to frame the problem as a question of visual aesthetics. Taken as a problem of aesthetics, it becomes clear that femininity occupies the same theoretical ground as the novel's explicit concerns about ideal beauty and sympathetic realism in chapter XVII. Beauty and sympathy are at odds for the women characters just as they are in the famous essay on aesthetics: Hetty's constant knowledge of her own visual beauty is a dangerous extreme of femininity, allowing her no room for an ethical recognition of the other, while Dinah's unconsciousness concerning her own appearance allows her to be sympathetic but, as we will see, perilously unfeminine. Judith Mitchell has written that George Eliot, in Adam Bede, identifies with a masculine narrator, and “basically endorses the idealization of beautiful women”4; while Nancy L. Paxton points out that “Eliot's treatment of Hetty's narcissistic sexuality … has often been read as an expression of her neurotic envy of the female beauty she did not personally possess.”5 These diametrically opposed readings—one based on an interpretation of a masculine narrator, the other on biographical speculation—have neglected to take account of the potentially polemical force of Eliot's two antithetical examples of femininity in Adam Bede: neither the unselfconscious Dinah nor the excessively self-conscious Hetty, taken alone, can stand for Eliot's normative view of femininity. Critical of both examples, Eliot suggests that women, on display, must learn to negotiate their femininity through their roles as both subjects and objects of vision. In this context, ethics and the aesthetics of feminine beauty emerge as significantly related concerns: how can women, so much the beautiful objects of vision, become active, seeing, ethical subjects, capable of the kind of moral vision taught by Dutch painting?

Weaving together the strands of gender and aesthetics, I will argue, here, that Eliot's particular theorization of the link between ethics and vision allows her to launch a sophisticated critique of formalist aesthetics and the detached, impersonal eye—known to us as the “gaze.” I am referring not to the explicitly gendered “male gaze,” but rather to the term as it is employed by Norman Bryson, who argues that the gaze is predicated on a denial of the “locus of utterance”: “the disavowal of deictic reference … the disappearance of the body as the site of the image.”6 This definition is concerned with an impersonal, generalized eye, and this model of vision, I will argue, is the object of Eliot's critique in Adam Bede. She urges, throughout the narrative, that we pay close attention to the particular embodiment of the spectator, located in time and space.

The refusal to accept the impersonal vision of the gaze is, as we will see, integral to Eliot's double critique: it is as essential to her rejection of an aestheticized feminine beauty as it is to her dismissal of an idealist aesthetics. And perhaps most importantly, it is fundamental to her unconventional theory of ethical realism, articulated through the model of Dutch painting. Realism and the gaze alike have been attacked for their pretensions to objectivity: as Bryson argues, the subject of the gaze always intends to be disembodied, aiming at a pure, universal perception, untroubled by the situated identities of bodies in all of their varied particularity; realism, too, has come under attack for its supposed goal of a universal, culturally uncontingent perspective. But Eliot's particularized realism repeatedly refuses the model of disinterested objectivity, and favours instead a careful self-consciousness about who is looking, and from what limited, embodied perspective each pair of eyes sees.


Critics have rarely noticed that Dinah Morris is a spectacle. She is not only heard, after all, but looked at, and with real interest—a kind of visual curiosity. Everyone, from Arthur Donnithorne to Wiry Ben, has something to say about Dinah's appearance.7 For all the talk, though, Dinah remains unruffled by the crowd of gazes that surrounds her. Her unselfconsciousness is one of her most marked characteristics, and one that surprises the many who gaze at her. Surely she knows how much attention she attracts? As Reverend Irwine asks: “‘And you never feel any embarrassment from the sense … that you are a lovely young woman on whom men's eyes are fixed?’” (p. 83). Dinah responds firmly in the negative: “‘No, I’ve no room for such feelings, and I don’t believe the people ever take notice about that’” (p. 83).

But of course they do. Dinah is innocently wrong about how much notice is being taken of her, and it is worth bearing in mind that she is entirely mistaken about the extent to which the world is interested in her appearance. Importantly, too, it is not only her beauty, but also her unselfconsciousness that is apparent to all, perceptible even to those who have never seen her before. “The stranger was struck with surprise as he saw [Dinah] approach and mount the cart—surprise, not so much at the feminine delicacy of her appearance, as at the total absence of self-consciousness in her demeanor” (p. 17). Dinah's principal visual impact on a stranger is not her femininity: it is that she seems not to know that she is being looked at.

To see Dinah is to see a woman unaware of being seen—and this, it would seem, is strange in a woman. Adam Bede is likewise unaware of his appearance8, but this is not marked for us as surprising: the text implies that unselfconsciousness is perfectly in keeping with a healthy masculinity. Most intriguing, perhaps, is that at two moments, Dinah's unselfconsciousness actually renders her boyish. “Dinah walked as simply as if she were going to market, and seemed as unconscious of her outward appearance as a little boy” (p. 17). As unconscious of her appearance as a little boy: in the realm of looks, unselfconsciousness belongs to boyishness. The second instance registers in Dinah's voice, which rings with “unconscious skill”: “The simple things she said seemed like novelties, as a melody strikes us with a new feeling when we hear it sung by the pure voice of a boyish chorister” (p. 22).

Eliot's references to boys here are as perplexing as they are suggestive. It is not clear, in 1859, that little children are considered gendered subjects, and boys are certainly not the budding archetypes of hardy, intrepid, and vigorous masculinity that they will become by the end of the century. In fact, it is precisely in this period that the gendering of children seems to have been taking place, manifested in a growing institutional emphasis on the distinction between boys and girls. “After the passage of the 1870 Education Act, a child's experience of school was increasingly likely to be shaped by gender … The Board School curriculum was increasingly organized along sexist lines, with girls being taught domestic subjects such as home economics, sewing, cooking and child care, while boys were offered new options such as animal physiology, algebra, chemistry, and physics.”9 Similarly, children's books and stories generally specify an exclusively male or female readership only after 1870, with the publication of periodicals like the Boy's Own Paper.10 It is not until the 1880s, according to some scholars, that a “tradition of … male-oriented juvenile fiction” is really in place.11

On the other hand, there is no question that Eliot, in 1859, is deliberate about her use of the figure of the boy for Dinah; she does not, as she well might have done, liken her character to a child or a girl. And we can draw from clear evidence in The Mill on the Floss, published just a year after Adam Bede, that Eliot was interested in the gendering of children. Tom Tulliver seems uncannily patterned on the enormously popular Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857), widely cited as the first example of the boys' fiction that would become standard by the end of the century.12 Indeed, Eliot's picture of Tom Tulliver might be read as an exploration of the model of boyhood espoused in Tom Brown's Schooldays. Tom, aptly named, comes home from school in good Tom Brown fashion, filled with ideals of fair play (“I hate a cheat”), physical prowess (“I gave Spouncer a black eye, I know—that’s what he got for wanting to leather me”), and honour (“Tom Tulliver was a lad of honour”), and entirely confident about the distinction between boys and girls. “Tom … was of the opinion that Maggie was a silly little thing; all girls were silly—they couldn’t throw a stone so as to hit anything, couldn’t do anything with a pocket knife, and were frightened at frogs.”13 These boyhood traits are of course in tune with Tom's rigid and exacting punishments of Maggie, which will last into adulthood, and The Mill on the Floss might be even read as a critique of the principled, manly boyhood represented in Tom Brown's Schooldays.

To return to Adam Bede, we can begin to contextualize Eliot's curious choice of a boyish model for Dinah. It is between the publication of Tom Brown's Schooldays in 1857 and the passage of the 1870 Education Act that boys become strictly associated with a masculine ideal, and thus Adam Bede is published at a transitional moment, a moment in which boys are being increasingly understood as those “who will be men.”14 In 1859, boys may not be strictly or prototypically masculine—with the connotations of physical strength, honour, and mastery that this term will come to imply—but they are a focus of gendered interest, and we know that Eliot will be concerned with this very question by the time she writes The Mill on the Floss in 1860. And, most importantly for our purposes, Dinah, in her unselfconsciousness, is likened neither to women nor to girls. At the very least, then, we can conclude that Eliot is dissociating Dinah from conventional femininity, and, in comparing her to boys rather than to children or girls, implies that Dinah crosses gender boundaries. Moreover, it is only in the context of her unselfconsciousness that Dinah seems so like a boy. It would seem that femininity and unselfconsciousness do not belong together.

Mentions of Dinah's unselfconsciousness reappear with almost alarming frequency in the first chapters of the novel. And it is telling, for our purposes, that her obliviousness informs Seth Bede that she is not in love. He looks for signs of reciprocated affection, only to find Dinah entirely unconscious of herself and of his presence: hers “was an expression of unconscious placid gravity—of absorption in thoughts that had no connexion with the present moment or with her own personality: an expression that is most of all discouraging to a lover” (p. 27). As we have seen, unselfconsciousness is typically masculine, but it would appear that it is also at odds with love: thus, lovers and women are self-conscious, while boys—and Dinah—are not.

At this point, we might come to a couple of eccentric conclusions. Firstly, we might say that Dinah, here, is too much like a boy to accept Seth Bede's love. Read thus, Eliot's text can be seen to reinforce a heterosexist norm in which love exists only between a man and a woman, and the woman must become sufficiently feminine for this love to emerge. Secondly, if Dinah is boyish because she is unselfconscious, then in order to shift from boyishness to mature womanhood she will have to become aware of her own appearance. And since such self-consciousness is also the stuff of love, she will then become a perfect candidate for romance—which is, of course, precisely what happens.


Our conclusions about gender and self-consciousness have led us directly to the end of the narrative, where Dinah reaches adequate self-consciousness and falls in love with an equally self-conscious Adam Bede. Blushing furiously, each is transformed when beheld by the loving gaze of the other.

Blushing, as Margaret Homans has pointed out, is not just any signifier: in Adam Bede, it is the telling marker of sexuality.15 It works as a revealing contrast between Hetty and Dinah: blushing is precisely what Hetty does with perfect complacency16, and what she fails to do when she thinks of Adam, “Her cheeks never grew a shade deeper when his name was mentioned” (p. 90); but it is Dinah's only sign of sexuality, appearing only when she feels herself to be seen by Adam.17 Indeed, the blush functions as the very first signal to the reader of a possibility of romantic love between these two, coming as a total surprise to Dinah when Adam first looks at her:

Dinah, for the first time in her life, felt a painful self-consciousness; there was something in the dark penetrating glance of this strong man so different from the mildness and timidity of his brother Seth. A faint blush came, which deepened as she wondered at it. (p. 107)

The erotic suggestion of this passage would be hard to overlook, but it is important to recognize the place of the eye in the gendering of this scene: Adam's way of looking, marked as strong and penetrating, is clearly more masculine than that of his brother, and literally transforms Dinah from her boyish unselfconsciousness into a blushing femininity. The male gaze, we might conclude, is crucial to the construction of a feminine sexuality.

But then, Adam too blushes with self-consciousness. When he is first introduced to the idea that Dinah may be in love with him, “The blood rushed to Adam's face, and for a few moments he was not quite conscious where he was; his mother and the kitchen had vanished for him, and he saw nothing but Dinah's face turned up towards his” (p. 461). Reddening, he sees nothing but the image of Dinah, and it is a memory of her looking at him. Whether masculine or feminine, it would seem, consciousness and self-consciousness are bound up in the mutual look of romantic love. For Eliot, a reciprocal gaze is apparently fundamental to a mature sexuality in men and women alike.

Adam's love for Hetty remains remarkably unselfconscious and entirely unreciprocated, in both ways unlike his blushing love for Dinah. And it has nothing to do with consciousness, whether of self or other: it is an explicitly impersonal love of the beautiful. The narrator explains:

For my own part … I think the deep love [Adam] had for that sweet, rounded, blossom-like, dark-eyed Hetty, of whose inward self he was really very ignorant, came out of the very strength of his nature and not out of any inconsistent weakness. Is it any weakness, pray, to be wrought on by exquisite music?—to feel its wondrous harmonies searching the subtlest windings of your soul, the delicate fibres of life where no memory can penetrate … The noblest nature sees the most of this impersonal expression in beauty... and for this reason, the noblest nature is the most often blinded to the character of the one woman's soul that the beauty clothes. (pp. 326-327, emphasis in text)

“Blinded” by the impersonal nature of the aesthetic experience, Adam's noble nature fails to “see” and love anything in Hetty but beauty itself, a beauty as contentless and disinterested as a love of music. The separation of Hetty's impersonal beauty from her consciousness is clearly a serious obstacle to reciprocation. And Adam's love, it would seem, is entirely the affair of the spectator, gazing at the impersonal object of his vision. Adam's sentiment may be noble, perhaps, but it is not the stuff of true love and fruitful marriage. Or so the end of the narrative, with its rather different love, would have us believe.

It is tempting to argue that Adam's love for Hetty is Kantian, his love for Dinah Hegelian. Kant's theorization of the experience of the beautiful is that it is always impersonal, requiring no particular self-interest, no particular embodiment. It is a disinterested experience, occurring spontaneously within every human subject, and focused on the beauty of form. Kant writes: “The beautiful is that which pleases universally. …”18 For Hegel, by contrast, the self is absolutely incapable of ethical judgment, community, or knowledge without a recognition of and by the other. This mutual acknowledgment is an absolute precondition of culture, political community, and ethical action. “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.”19 From Kantian aesthetics to Hegelian self-consciousness: this movement could be said to describe the trajectory of Adam's Bildung, as he shifts from the love of Hetty's impersonal beauty to the reciprocal acknowledgment that comes with Dinah's love. Both are framed in terms of the visual: Kantian aesthetics “blinds” Adam, rendering him incapable of seeing Hetty's character and meeting Dinah's gaze.

If the end of the story is anything to go by, Eliot falls firmly on the side of a Hegelian self-consciousness; for her, proper love is distinguished by the reciprocal acknowledgment of self and other. And, in keeping with the novel's insistence on the visual, this self-consciousness is represented by a shared gaze, in which each party is both subject and object of vision, conscious of the other and conscious of the self through the eyes of the other. By stark contrast, the admiring sight of Hetty's “impersonal” beauty causes ethical blindness, blocking a real consciousness of the other and, consequently, of the self.


With Adam and Dinah as our paragons of love, we begin to see that Eliot favours a love governed by a reciprocal self-consciousness, in which masculine and feminine, self and other, come to recognition through the gaze of the other. Thus, love is impossible between Dinah and Seth, since she is oblivious to his presence, and between Hetty and Adam, since he recognizes only her impersonal beauty, and without reciprocation.

But then, what is wrong with the love between Arthur and Hetty? By contrast to Dinah, Hetty is self-conscious indeed. There is no question that she is aware of her own appearance, and aware that others are conscious of her beauty. And she and Arthur are even given to reciprocal blushing when face to face: “If Arthur had had time to think at all, he would have thought it strange that he should feel fluttered too, be conscious of blushing too” (p. 119). Moreover, Hetty is clearly made more self-conscious by Arthur's attention, just as Dinah is by Adam's: “The vainest woman is never thoroughly conscious of her own beauty till she is loved by the man who sets her own passion vibrating in return” (p. 138).

The obvious obstacle to true love between Hetty and Arthur is class. But it would be naive to assume that there is no more to it than that. It is clear that theirs is not a love story destined to tragedy only by the differences in their social standing: such a tale would make Adam Bede a more radical text than it is.20 Rather, the narrator insistently implies, Hetty is so self-conscious that she is incapable of love, and certainly of simple compassion.21 She is explicitly resistant to sympathy (“as unsympathetic as butterflies sipping nectar” [p. 92]), and her heart is certainly far from warm: “Hetty would have been glad to hear that she should never see a child again; they were worse than the nasty little lambs that the shepherd was always bringing in … for the lambs were got rid of sooner or later” (p. 142). She rejects tenderness, compassion, and affection—all the emotions focused on the other. Indeed, her imagination is filled almost exclusively with visual images of herself. The narrator says: “of every [imaginary] picture she is the central figure, in fine clothes” (p. 141). Even when she thinks of Arthur, she sees herself through his eyes: “Captain Donnithorne couldn’t like her to go on doing work; he would like to see her in nice clothes …” (p. 138). Concerned entirely with the reflected image of her own image, Hetty sees herself in precisely the same way that Adam and Arthur see her—as an object of visual beauty. She and her admirers alike are intent on looking in a single direction: at the “impersonal” beauty of Hetty herself.

Importantly, too, Eliot is careful to point out that Hetty's beauty appeals not only to the masculine eye, but to everyone: “there is one order of beauty which seems to turn the heads not only of men, but of all intelligent mammals, even of women … Hetty Sorrel's was that sort of beauty” (p. 75). Even Mrs Poyser is transfixed: “continually gaz[ing] at Hetty's charms by the sly, fascinated in spite of her self” (p. 75). Hetty's beauty, in good Kantian fashion, is universally pleasing, appealing regardless of the particular interests and character of the spectator. Her image appeals not to particular eyes, but to the eye in general—including even her own gaze, directed at herself. Consequently, she is incapable of seeing outward—toward the other—and equally incapable of recognizing herself as a seeing subject, able to look out on the world. It is clear that the gaze, internalized by Hetty and ignored by Dinah, has significant consequences for feminine subjectivity.

In this context, it will not be surprising that the mirror appears as Hetty's closest companion, mentioned even the first time we encounter her, part of the description of Mrs Poyser's immaculate house:

Hetty Sorrel often took the opportunity, when her aunt's back was turned, of looking at the pleasing reflection of herself in those polished surfaces, for the oak table was usually turned up like a screen, and was more for ornament than for use; and she could see herself sometimes in the great round pewter dishes that were ranged on the shelves above the long deal dinner-table, or in the hobs of the grate, which always shone like jasper. (p. 65)

In polemical contrast to Dinah's boyish unselfconsciousness, Hetty's love of mirrors puts her at an opposite extreme. The mirror is Hetty's opportunity to gaze admiringly at her own beauty, but it also reveals her total identification with her own visual image. When we first encounter her before her bedroom mirror, she is admiring her own prettiness, consumed with the joy of self-regard. But later, when Arthur Donnithorne writes to tell her that their affair is over, the image is transformed: “when she looked up … there was the reflection of a blanched face in the old dim glass … Hetty did not see the face—she saw nothing—she only felt that she was cold and sick and trembling” (p. 307). A moment later, “she caught sight of her face in the glass: it was reddened now, and wet with tears; it was almost like a companion that she might complain to—that would pity her” (p. 307). Thus, Hetty's mirror image is, first, a delightful picture; second, total blankness, reflecting her virtual annihilation by Arthur; and third, a second self, a sympathetic other. It would seem that the mirror offers us our best access to Hetty's self-consciousness: her own reflected image is not only her greatest source of pleasure, but reflective of her whole vision of herself. It is suggestive that while Hetty loves her mirror, Dinah loves her window. At the very same moment that Hetty is dressing up before her bedroom mirror, Dinah is looking outside: “Dinah delighted in her bedroom window … the first thing she did, on entering her room, was to seat herself … and look out on the peaceful fields …” (p. 144).

An excess of self-consciousness, clearly, turns out to be no better than a deficit. We are faced with two striking extremes: Dinah, filled with ethical love from the outset, is not capable of romantic, sexual love until she sees herself through the eyes of Adam Bede; Hetty, self-conscious and demonstrative of a coquettish sexuality from the beginning, fails to feel love for any of those who surround her. It is a revealing contrast: Dinah must become self-conscious in order to fall in love, marry, and multiply, while Hetty's self-consciousness seems to make her incapable of loving anyone—Adam, Arthur, even her own child. Dinah is too boyishly unselfconscious for romantic love; she is so consumed with visions of the other that she fails to recognize herself; Hetty is so focused on the image of her own appearance that her only concern with others is her reflection through their eyes. If Dinah is too boyish then Hetty, perhaps, is too feminine.

The trajectory of the narrative brings us to a normative middle ground, where Dinah manages to reach the perfect combination of ungendered sympathy and feminine self-consciousness. But how, precisely, do these two reach their happy fusion? It is my contention that the crucial difference between Hetty's awareness of herself and Dinah's blush under Adam's keen stare is that Hetty responds to a generalized gaze, while Dinah answers to a specific pair of eyes. Adam, remember, is the only one who can make Dinah self-conscious. The same is not the case for Hetty. It is true that she blushes when beheld by Arthur Donnithorne, but he is not the only one whose eyes matter: “those other people didn’t know how he loved her, and she was not satisfied to appear shabby and insignificant in their eyes even for a short space” (p. 231). Hetty is so dependent on a universal gaze of admiration that she sees the world only as that gaze, reflecting her back to herself. If this self-consciousness gestures to a proper, mature femininity in Dinah, it is only, it seems, because Dinah's responds in this way to a single gaze; Hetty, by contrast, is given to a kind of promiscuous self-consciousness, an internalization of the impersonal gaze of all others. Hetty's sense of herself, all too feminine, is constructed through the indiscriminate gathering of looks that come her way, and this is perilous indeed; Dinah, by contrast, becomes feminine through the gaze of the single beloved.

In this context, Eliot's ideal turns out to be a bourgeois model par excellence, embracing the notion that a proper feminine sexuality appears only in the context of a single heterosexual couple: the woman is only feminized when faced with the dark, penetrating gaze of a particular man. Her foil, the woman who internalizes the generalized gaze of admiration, seeing herself as she is reflected in the eyes of all who look at her, meets only with catastrophe.


The impersonal beauty of the Kantian aesthetic begins to look dangerous indeed, whether for spectator or for spectacle. This conclusion conveys us back to chapter XVII: after all, Hetty's beauty distracts Adam's attention from the reality of her character, much as idealist painting, in Eliot's disquisition on realism, deflects the viewer's attention away from the worthy but prosaic realities of everyday life. Perhaps impersonal beauty itself represents a dangerous distraction from the ethical life. In the famous treatise on painting, the reader, like Adam, is urged to put aside an admiration for formal beauty. In place of this idealist aesthetic, we are presented with the paradigm of Dutch painting:

All honor and reverence to the divine beauty of form! Let us cultivate it to the utmost in men, women, and children—in our gardens and in our houses. But let us love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy. (p. 164)

Here, we are invited to favour that “other beauty”—human sympathy, which has nothing to do with perfect forms, and focuses instead on the virtuous but irregular realities of the world. Thus, “monotonous homely existence” (p. 163), “commonplace things” (p. 164), and “the common labourer” (p. 164) take the aesthetic place of the divine beauty of perfect proportions. Prompting us to “remember [the] existence” of “common, coarse people” (p. 164), Dutch pictures are best because they offer us the opportunity to see and therefore to know and contemplate the reality of the other, as vision and ethics are fused into a single experience. Significantly, too, this “other beauty” is not gendered: it is explicitly called human sympathy, and is directed, in chapter XVII, at images of both men and women alike.

In such a way, the narrative affirms a possible female gaze—a way for women to look out at the world. Dinah, always looking lovingly on her fellow beings, is sensitive to the “other beauty”: in this context, the ethical gaze is clearly a look which women themselves can perform, no longer impersonal objects of vision but rather sympathetic, seeing subjects. Dinah's eyes themselves register this facet of her person: “they looked so simple, so candid, so gravely loving …” (p. 18). And this gaze is ultimately presented as if it transcended the gender barrier: readers and characters, masculine and feminine—all are urged to learn to look with love at the realities of the world, and thus to embrace an alternative model of the beautiful.

It is worth pausing to note that the phrase “other beauty” can be read in two ways. Sympathy is the “other” aesthetic: it is both an alternative to the beauty of form—another kind of beauty—and an aesthetic of the other, an attention to the beauty of the other. No wonder, then, that Dutch painting becomes a paradigm for the ethical realism of the text: “other beauty” has connotations at once both aesthetic and ethical. And Adam's shift from Hetty to Dinah can be seen in this context as a neat transformation from sensuous beauty to that “other beauty,” from the ideal form of Hetty's appearance—a conventional aesthetic—to the intertwined consciousness of self and other—an aesthetic of the other.

In this context, the shift from a Kantian aesthetics to a Hegelian ethics is entirely framed under the larger rubric of aesthetics, the question of beauty. And it is formulated as a specifically visual problematic, Hetty's beautiful appearance and the “other beauty” of Dutch painting. Of course, vision is clearly a metaphor for a more general problem of consciousness, particularly ethical consciousness: seeing means illuminating, clarifying, comprehending the real. But it is not just any metaphor: it is the organizing problematic of this text. Under the aegis of the visual we find vanity, gender, love, ethics, realism—in short the many prominent thematic strands of this narrative.


Our look at looking brings us to a series of conclusions, all having to do with the serious consequences of the visual in Adam Bede. Firstly, the generalizing gaze is responsible for Hetty's downfall, while the particular look of a specific man is the key to Dinah's sexual maturity. Feminine fortunes are thus contingent on the ways that women respond to their roles as seeing subjects and visual spectacles. Secondly, as we learned from Dutch painting, the universal admiration of perfect beauty is detrimental to an ethical appreciation of the imperfect reality of the other. And thirdly, both aesthetics and ethics are framed in terms of visual beauty—the one formal, ideal, and universally pleasing, and the other, well, simply other.

Taken together, these conclusions suggest a profound suspicion of the impersonal, universal eye—the disembodied gaze. When it is the basis of feminine sexuality, the gaze constructs a limited, self-absorbed, catastrophic consciousness; when it is the basis of art, it directs attention away from the world in which we live. This aesthetic diversion of our sympathies has tangible consequences: “you,” the reader, will learn from idealist representations to “turn a harder, colder eye” on “real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice” (p. 162). Representations not only refer to the world, they also operate in that world: “you” are implicated by them, trained by them, prompted by them to act with coldness or with sympathy and fellow-feeling. The aesthetic thus emerges as an ethical agent in the world.

We have seen that realism is identified with “human sympathy” and called an “other beauty.” It is an alternative to the impersonal beauty of form, and an ethical one at that. We should recall, too, that realism claims a peculiar, ambivalent position in the history of aesthetics: it is a theory of art which repudiates artfulness, a deliberately unaesthetic aesthetic. It might seem odd, therefore, that Eliot frames it very deliberately as a species of the beautiful, to be understood as an alternative aesthetic, set against the formalist beauties of harmony and proportion. But read polemically, Eliot's visual model suggests a calculated critique of Kantian aesthetics: as we have seen, the impersonal beauty of form prompts the spectator to be blind to the reality of character, while ethical realism, focused on the reality of the other, is all about persons, about “human sympathy.” Thus, a Kantian aesthetic allows women to be perceived not as persons but as forms—indeed, it blinds the spectator to their personhood—while a Hegelian ethics transcends the gender divide and invites men and women alike to look and be looked at in full recognition of self and other. Eliot displaces formalism as an unethical aesthetic, and pointedly supplants it with a radically unaesthetic aesthetic, the “rough,” “stupid,” “squat,” and “ill-shapen” beauty of the other (pp. 163-164).

The consequences of this polemic against impersonal formalism are striking indeed when it comes to the novel's own realist practice. Most importantly, Eliot is absolutely scrupulous about locating vision—that crucial metaphor for consciousness—in persons. No visual impression is presented as an impersonal gaze: the seeing subject of realism in Adam Bede is always embodied, located in time and space. Thus, Eliot constantly affirms that it matters who is looking, and from what standpoint. What is striking about this choice is that it is not only an anti-conventional aesthetics, but it is also a surprising realism, suggesting that the real is not grasped by a detached, objective consciousness; it is in the domain of seeing persons, of embodied subjects whose vision is both partial and limited.

This point is best demonstrated by the voice of the narrator, who draws attention even to the specificity of “his” own perspective22, frequently referring to “himself” as a particular, delimited consciousness. “I confess I have often meanly shrunk from confessing to these accomplished and acute gentlemen what my own experience has been,” “he” claims (p. 168). And “he” presents opinions as if they belonged to a specific character: “For my own part … I think …” (p. 326). Descriptions of the novel's scenes are presented as if from a precise location in time and space: “We will enter very softly and stand still in the open doorway, without awaking the glossy-brown setter who is stretched across the hearth, with her two puppies beside her” (p. 47). In another example, the description of the Poysers' dairy is first presented as if from a neutral standpoint. The chapter begins: “The dairy was certainly worth looking at: it was a scene to sicken for … in hot and dusty streets” (p. 74). This voice then switches to speak for the eyes of Arthur Donnithorne, who has just come on the scene. The description breaks off: “But one gets only a confused notion of these details when they surround a distractingly pretty girl of seventeen … Hetty blushed a deep rose-color when Captain Donnithorne entered the dairy” (p. 74).

In the context of this careful embodiment of vision, it might seem peculiar that the text, like Hetty herself, is closely allied with the figure of the mirror. In good realist fashion, the novel poses as a mirror of the world it portrays: “With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, reader” (p. 1). But what kind of a mirror is it? In one of the best known passages in the novel, the narrator claims “to give no more than a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind” (p. 161). And this mirror is far from perfect: “The mirror is doubtless defective; the outlines will sometimes be disturbed; the reflection faint or confused” (p. 161). Eliot's mirror is an image of the world, yes, but one explicitly located in the narrator's own mind, and “doubtless” reflecting imperfectly. This is indeed a curious realism, relying as it does on the mind of the subject, and refusing to promise either clarity or accuracy. But the reader will remember that Hetty's mirror, too, reflected the particularity of her own mind rather than a perfect, flawless reflection. It gave her back an image of her own absorbed self-consciousness. Thus, the apparently incongruous parallel between Hetty's unethical self-consciousness and the ethical realism of the narrative is ultimately a good one: both attest to the limited particularity of the spectator, refusing to claim universal, neutral, or impersonal status. And the difference between Hetty's mirror and that of the narrator is telling indeed: while Hetty sees and admires herself, the narrator reflects the other—“men and things.” Notably, the novel's mirror also reflects the world for the other—that is, for the reader—in the interests of instructing us to see the world differently, with human sympathy. If Hetty's admiration of herself is circular, showing her to herself alone, the narrative's reflection traces a far more circuitous, productive, and social path: it travels from “men and things” to the mind of the narrator; from the narrator to the reader; and—with any luck—from the reader back to the world, with sympathy.


True love, the end of the novel suggests, requires that a woman be able to see a man as an individuated, particular subject, rather than, as Hetty does, a generalized, impersonal eye—and also that she see herself through the eyes of that singular other. Similarly, the realist artist rejects the ideal and the typical in favour of the varied specificity of the real, and acknowledges the embodied particularity of the visual. In the end, Dinah, Adam, and the realist come to share the “proper” connection between looking and loving: they recognize the personhood of the other and recognize themselves, too, as seeing subjects. They repudiate impersonal form in favour of the visual aesthethics of “human sympathy,” an appreciation of “that other beauty,” which operates regardless of gender.

But we must not forget that Dinah is also feminized through her self-recognition in the eyes of Adam Bede. Love, whether sexual or ethical, may require an embodied spectator capable of appreciating the beauty of the other, but Eliot's ideal of heterosexual, bourgeois love also calls for the reciprocally (en)gendering gaze, masculine and feminine alike spellbound in the mutual recognition of self and other.

However, it must be said that this gendering of the eye, though strictly heterosexual, is not merely conservative; it also reveals radical undertones in Adam Bede. After all, there is an understated gesture toward equality in Eliot's model of sexual love: Dinah sees Adam as fully as Adam sees Dinah; the mutual look of true love is based on an equal interchange of gazes, requiring that both man and woman be at once spectator and spectacle. It is possible, too, to read Hetty's destruction as subversive: the story of her seduction and infanticide condemns the gaze, denouncing the impersonal vision of women as objects of aesthetic beauty and implying that this unidirectional admiration of feminine beauty poses a significant danger to women's self-consciousness. It is clearly crucial to Hetty's downfall, both moral and material, that she is incapable of considering the other, and this ethical failure is at least in part a product of the ways that she sees and is seen as an object of “impersonal beauty.” Moreover, considered in the context of other representations of femininity, Hetty's destructive self-consciousness is all too obviously political: it implies that the beautiful heroine of fiction, myth, and even nineteenth-century science23 is a cultural construct with potentially dire moral and social consequences.

If her own ideal had been less bourgeois, Eliot might perhaps have envisioned—pardon the pun—an embodied gaze which was not so entirely contingent on the individual, or on the opposition of masculine and feminine. She might have conceived of an erotic gaze, which, like her ethical gaze, acknowledged the other in his or her particularity, regardless of the strict gender dichotomy of heterosexuality. Or she might have theorized ways of seeing which belong to the group: the collective gaze, neither impersonal nor strictly individual, but culturally embedded, social-political. Falling short of such radical formulations, Adam Bede nonetheless launches an ethical critique of Kantian formalism and pushes its readers toward a recognition of the partial, embodied nature of the visual, pointing to the real consequences of the idealizing, impersonal gaze. Falling short of a revolutionary radicalism, perhaps, the textual exploration of the relations between aesthetics and ethics nonetheless reveals that Adam Bede is very much in tune with a critical understanding of the politics of looking.


  1. See, for example, Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Visual and Other Pleasures (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 14-26; and Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), especially pp. 201-219.

  2. George Eliot, Adam Bede (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1859), p. 162. All subsequent quotations will refer parenthetically to page numbers from this edition.

  3. Judith Mitchell, The Stone and the Scorpion: The Female Subject of Desire in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy (Westport and London: Greenwood Press, 1994), p. 97.

  4. Ibid., p. 96.

  5. Nancy L. Paxton, George Eliot and Herbert Spencer: Feminism, Evolutionism, and the Reconstruction of Gender (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 59.

  6. Norman Bryson, Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 87, 89.

  7. “‘I’m half a mind ta’a look at her to-night … a uncommon pretty young woman,’” says Wiry Ben in the first pages of the novel (p. 4). “‘She looked like St. Catherine in a quaker dress,’” says Arthur, “‘It’s a type of face one rarely sees among our common people’” (pp. 55-56).

  8. “Adam, unconscious of the admiration he was exciting, presently struck across the fields” (p. 8).

  9. Kimberley Reynolds, Girls Only? Gender and Popular Children's Fiction in Britain, 1880-1910 (New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990), pp. 23-24.

  10. See Joseph Bristow, Empire Boys: Adventures in a Man's World (London: Harper Collins, 1991), pp. 53-64.

  11. Murray Knowles & Kirsten Malmkjaer, Language and Control in Children's Literature (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), p.9.

  12. Both Bristow's Empire Boys and Reynolds's Girls Only? cite Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays as the first major text of boys' fiction.

  13. George Eliot (1860) The Mill on the Floss, Ed. Gordon S. Haight (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), pp. 45, 30, 33, and 35.

  14. The epigraph to Tom Brown's Schooldays includes this phrase, apparently taken from the Rugby Magazine. Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown's Schooldays (Cambridge: Macmillan and Company, 1857), title page.

  15. Margaret Homans, “Dinah's Blush, Maggie's Arm: Class, Gender, and Sexuality in George Eliot's Early Novels,” Victorian Studies, 36, (1993), pp. 155-170.

  16. “Hetty blushed a deep rose-color when Captain Donnithorne entered the dairy and spoke to her; but it was not at all a distressed blush, for it was inwreathed with smiles and dimples, and with sparkles from under long curled dark eyelashes” (pp. 74-75).

  17. “Dinah's sexualization is limited to blushing,” Homans, “Dinah's Blush,” p. 168.

  18. Immanuel Kant (1790) Critique of Judgement, tr. J. H. Bernard (London and New York: Hafner, 1951), p. 54.

  19. G. W. F. Hegel (1807) Phenomenology of Spirit, tr. A. V. Miller (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 111.

  20. Homans makes a highly persuasive argument that the novel favours the marriage between Adam and Dinah as the realization of middle-class ideology, which Eliot “universalizes … by making its peculiar characteristics appear natural, generically human ones,” Homans, “Dinah's Blush,” p. 156.

  21. Both Arthur and Adam are said to be “beguiled” when they see Hetty as “a dear, affectionate, good little thing” (p. 141), and the narrator tells us that it is “wonderful how little she seemed to care” about her family (p. 142).

  22. I am using the masculine pronoun to describe the narrator in Adam Bede, following J. Hillis Miller, who writes: “I say ‘his’ to remind the reader that the putative speaker … is not Mary Ann Evans, the author of Adam Bede, but a fictive personage, ‘George Eliot,’ who narrates the story and who is given a male gender.” J. Hillis Miller, The Ethics of Reading: Kant, de Man, Eliot, Trollope, James, and Benjamin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), p. 66.

  23. Paxton offers a forceful case that Eliot's representation of Hetty is a polemical response to Herbert Spencer: “By describing Hetty's ‘impersonal’ beauty, Eliot questions Spencer's unexamined assumption that perfect beauty reflects intellectual perfection in men but moral virtue in women. Hetty's beauty, indeed, disguises the private and various secrets of her inner life.” Paxton, George Eliot and Herbert Spencer, p. 47. This chapter as a whole considers the problem of beauty: “Beauty, Sexuality, and Evolutionary Process: Adam Bede and ‘Personal Beauty’” (Paxton, George Eliot and Herbert Spencer, pp. 43-68).

Further Reading

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Adam, Ian. “The Structure of Realisms in Adam Bede.” In Nineteenth Century Fiction 30, No. 2 (September 1975): 127-49.

Looks at how the level of accuracy with which commonplace subject matter is presented has structural significance to Adam Bede.

Adams, Kimberly VanEsveld. “Feminine Godhead, Feminist Symbol: The Madonna in George Eliot, Ludwig Feuerbach, Anna Jameson, and Margaret Fuller.” In Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 12, No. 1 (Spring 1996): 41-70.

Argues that by placing Adam in the role of Christ figure and Dinah as the Madonna, Adam Bede becomes a representation of the Godhead's female qualities; through this configuration of the female earthly ideal, the Madonna figure becomes a means to criticize social oppression of women.

Anderson, Roland F. “George Eliot Provoked: John Blackwood and Chapter Seventeen of Adam Bede.” In Modern Philology 71, No. 1 (August 1973): 39-47.

Examines Eliot's disagreement with publisher John Blackwood as the real-life impetus for her discussion of artistic realism and Dutch painting.

Brown, Monika. “Dutch Painters and British Novel-Readers: Adam Bede in the Context of Victorian Cultural Literacy.” In Victorians Institute Journal 18 (1990): 113-33.

Looks at how Eliot's use of Dutch painting in Adam Bede establishes conventions for literary realism.”

Cleere, Eileen. “Reproduction and Malthusian Economics: Fat, Fertility, and Family Planning in George Eliot's Adam Bede.” In Genders 24: On Your Left, Historical Materialism in the 1990s, edited by Ann Kibbey, Thomas Foster, Carol Siegel, and Ellen Berry, pp. 150-83. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Presents historical and economic information to support a reading of women as commodities within various family structures in Adam Bede.

Eifrig, Gail McGrew. “History and Memory in Adam Bede.Soundings LXXVI, Nos. 2-3 (Summer-Fall 1993): 407-20.

Examines Eliot's extensive familiarity with contemporary fiction, biographies, and histories, and discusses how this experience informs her treatment of character history in Adam Bede.

Erickson, Joyce Quiring. “Multiculturalism and the Question of Audience: Adam Bede as a Test Case.” The Victorian Newsletter No. 85 (Spring 1994): 20-25.

Discusses the value of teaching Adam Bede in multicultural classrooms.

Herbert, Christopher. “Preachers and the Schemes of Nature in Adam Bede.Nineteenth Century Fiction 29, No. 4 (March 1975): 412-27.

Looks at Adam Bede as more than a simple country story but as a dialogue of the moral and religious issues circulating through Eliot's culture.

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): 155-78.

A feminist reading of Adam Bedeand The Mill on the Floss that discusses gender, sexuality, and how Eliot generalizes middle-class womanhood as all womanhood.

Hunter, Shelagh. “George Eliot: Adam Bede—the Bounds of the Idyll.” In Victorian Idyllic Fiction: Pastoral Strategies, pp. 120-66. London: Macmillan Press, 1984.

Concentrating on rural people and their world as presented in nineteenth century fiction, this chapter considers Adam Bede to be Eliot's only idyllic novel, and explores its pastoral nature.

Knoepflmacher, U. C. “The Post-Romantic Imagination: Adam Bede, Wordsworth and Milton.” In ELH 34, No. 4 (December 1967): 518-40.

Discusses the act of seeing as vital to the creation of reality in works by Milton and Wordsworth and examines their influence on Eliot's use of realism in Adam Bede.

Lewis, Robert P. “‘Full Consciousness’: Passion and Conversion in Adam Bede.” In Religion and the Arts 2-4 (1998): 423-42.

Examines Eliot's religious influences and explores Adam Bede's treatment of the failure of religious figures to save the truly lost sheep.

Martin, Bruce K. “Rescue and Marriage in Adam Bede.” In Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 XII, No. 4 (Autumn 1972): 745-63.

Discusses criticism of Eliot for Adam Bede's happy ending, and seeks to understand authorial intent behind her use of rescue and marriage in a plot otherwise concerned with Adam's acquisition of sympathy.

Moldstad, David. “George Eliot's Adam Bede and Smiles's Life of George Stephenson.” In English Language Notes XIV, No. 3 (March 1977): 189-92.

Draws comparisons between The Life of George Stephenson and Adam Bede.Also looks at Eliot's life experiences as models for Adam Bede.

Morgan, Susan. “Paradise Reconsidered: Edens without Eve.” In Historical Studies and Literary Criticism, edited by Jerome J. McGann, pp. 266-82. Madison, Wis.: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Suggests that nineteenth-century British fiction explores the notion of paradise as a matter of history and gender intertwined, and describes the difficulty of performing a feminist reading of Adam Bede considering its male-centered plot.

Sadoff, Dianne F. “Nature's Language: Metaphor in the Text of Adam Bede.Genre XI, No. 3 (Fall 1978): 411-26.

Examines the tension between transcendence and realism in Adam Bede through Eliot's theory of figurative language, and deconstructs the novel's assertions of coherence, stability, and symbolic unity.

Squires, Michael. “Adam Bede and the Locus Amoenus.” In Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 XIII, No. 4 (Autumn 1973): 670-76.

Argues that with the use of locus amoenus (lovely place) Eliot combines pastoral conventions and Christian morality in Adam Bede.

Additional coverage of Eliot's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography 1832-1890; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 21, 35, and 55; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0,; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 20; and World Literature Criticism.

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Adam Bede


Critical Evaluation