Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1182
One of the major issues in George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede is a binary opposition in characterization: Adam Bede versus Arthur Donnithorne and Hetty Sorrel versus Dinah Morris. In contrast to Adam’s hardworking, staunch personality, Arthur comes from money and, though he does hold a military position, does not have to work. Dinah is similar to Adam in her zest for her cause, preaching, but Hetty’s cause is her beauty, about which she obsesses.
From the beginning of the novel, Adam is presented as a hardworking, ethical man who encourages others to behave in similar ways. For example, when the workday draws to an end, Adam’s coworkers stop work and begin to collect their belongings before the final toll of the clock. Adam alone continues to work, chastising his mates for their lack of work ethic. His responsibility extends to his family relationships. Though he teases Seth for neglecting to complete his work, he also provides a lesson in proper labor. He continues to mentor Seth by commenting on Seth’s interest in Dinah’s preaching and its relevance to religious beliefs that Seth had been exposed to prior to her arrival.
Adam’s familial responsibility stretches further as his father dies, and he is left with his mother’s care. Despite his mother’s clinging possessiveness and open dislike of the woman he believes himself in love with, Adam prepares to provide for her needs. His love for Hetty allows for another instance of his constancy. When Adam spies Arthur kissing Hetty and later finds evidence that the kiss has been the least of their relations, he forces Arthur to do the right thing and let Hetty know that there will never be a chance for their relationship to be legally consummated. Later, when Adam is informed of Hetty’s imprisonment, he refuses to believe that she could be so wicked and vows to go after Arthur for his part in Hetty’s downfall.
When Adam goes to the jail where Hetty is being held, he is horrified by the story presented to him and refuses, even when irrefutable evidence is presented to him, to believe that Hetty would be so selfish and evil. Adam’s purity of heart is yet again displayed when he and Hetty talk for the last time and she asks his forgiveness, which he willingly gives. He is continually more concerned about her loss than his own. He is also able to forgive Arthur, and in doing so regrets what he perceives as his own previous shortcomings.
While Adam truly cares for Hetty and wants to marry her, even after she has been involved with another man, Arthur uses her and is willing to let her go to Adam. The only truly selfless action Arthur takes is to get Hetty’s sentence changed to exile rather than execution. He feels sorry for the damage he has done to others only after that damage has been done; prior to Hetty’s imprisonment, he had never stopped to think about the consequences of his actions. The novel ends with a final opposition: Adam marries Dinah and lives happily, while Arthur remains single and contracts an illness that almost kills him.
Dinah and Hetty present another binary opposition. Dinah’s preaching is done out of pure motives. She is interested in the well-being of others, even to the point that she travels to minister to Hetty in jail. She stands next to Hetty when the punishment is handed down. She agrees to marry Adam only when she is sure that the relationship is the best choice. The differences between Hetty and Dinah are as clear as the ones between Adam and Arthur. While Dinah refuses to join into a relationship without clear thought and meditation, Hetty jumps into a relationship with Arthur and then with Adam when Arthur rejects her. In contrast to Dinah’s self-sacrifices, Hetty regrets the abandonment of her infant only because of the repercussions on herself. The end of the novel brings a last opposition to the women, as it does the men: Dinah marries Adam and becomes the angel of the house. Hetty dies on her way home from exile, and she becomes no more than a footnote.
The binary contrasts between the four main characters in the novel reinforce several of the major themes. For example, the novel presents an opposition in the theme of marriage and motherhood. Adam’s mother, Lisbeth Bede, is selfish and greedy for her son’s attention. She is jealous of others who might draw his interest away from her. Her own marriage is so weak that she relies more on her son than on her husband. Hetty, though she accepts Adam’s proposal, is never meant to be a wife. She is too self-centered. She agrees to marry Adam, but only because she needs a husband to cover for her pregnancy. Hetty also is an unfit mother, abandoning her newborn child and admitting to a total lack of feeling for her child. She returns to the forest where she left the child because she wants to alleviate her own guilt rather than to care for the child.
Dinah, on the other hand, becomes the consummate wife and mother. She is even gentle enough that Lisbeth encourages Adam’s relationship with her. In motherhood, Dinah not only gives up her call to preach but also agrees with new Methodist tenets that deny women the right to share the message in a public venue.
A variety of additional themes reflect contrasts. Adam’s industrious occupation in Mr. Burge’s woodworking operation brings the issue of a changing nation to light, while Dinah’s devoted preaching opens questions about religious belief and change. Political issues also are raised, as the class system is challenged and the king’s governmental leadership is questioned. In addition, much criticism of the novel is concerned with the pastoral and the way the novel reflects Eliot’s own childhood memories.
Another aspect of the novel is the quest. Though the immediate assumption would be to follow Adam’s journey, Hetty’s quest is more interesting. The novel traces the psychological journey of Hetty from the protected innocence of childhood dreams to the harsh realities of a woman’s choices. From a quest standpoint, then, Adam Bede is the story of Hetty’s coming of age. Her pregnancy forces the mental child Hetty, who is living in a daydream world, to face the repercussions of the real world and adult problems and actions.
The narrative point of view in the novel is a final critical point. The narrator readily admits that he sees things through a slightly warped mirror and that he shares his observations with his readers based on the abnormalities present in that vision. Thus, the characters are reflected in a limited way: Hetty’s physical beauty becomes her most obvious characteristic, Adam’s sometimes unbending expectations become the focus of his attention, Dinah’s devotion to religion becomes her defining characteristic, and Arthur’s irresponsibility becomes his central trait.
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