(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Adam Bede George Eliot

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

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

“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


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Geraldine Jewsbury (review date 1859)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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W. L. Collins (review date 1859)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Eneas Sweetland Dallas (review date 1859)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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The Westminster Review (review date 1876)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joseph Wiesenfarth (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kenny Marotta (essay date 1976)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mason Harris (essay date 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Elizabeth Holtze (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mason Harris (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lori Lefkovitz (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peggy Fitzhugh Johnstone (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Eli Adams (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Daniel P. Gunn (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mark Warren McLaughlin (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9415 words.)

Caroline Levine (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 837 words.)