Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Elaborated from a prison confession recounted by George Eliot’s aunt, Adam Bede began as a fourth story for Scenes of Clerical Life, but it grew to a densely realized novel of rural, semifeudal English life. For an audience conditioned to accept class subjugation and a double standard in sexual conduct, Eliot dramatized the sufferings of a dependent class when the economically powerful behave irresponsibly, emphasizing particularly the traumatic isolation of a young farm woman seduced by a wealthy “gentleman.”

Chapter 17, often cited as Eliot’s artistic creed, argues that realism is necessary to moral art because the idealized, and therefore false, characterizations in contemporary fiction wrongly directed readers’ sympathies, thereby denying sympathy to people who actually existed and also denying the proper cultivation of the moral sentiments expressed to readers. Eliot saw this cultivation as the true objective of art. She revolutionized characterization in fiction by her realistic psychological analysis and motivation, asking readers to “tolerate, pity, and love” their imperfect fellow mortals, including the oft-misrepresented laboring classes. Such direct address to readers was quite within the fictional conventions of Eliot’s time. Indeed, the moral perspective of her male narrator, whether tender, wise, or ironic, organizes and carries forward the plot quite as much as action and dialogue.

The story, developed chronologically, begins on June 18, 1799, in a rural workshop where carpenters exchange homely comments on humanity’s religious duty. Adam Bede, the foreman, introduces part of the theme: A man does as much good by building something that his wife needs and living productively as by ostentatious worship....

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Hayslope in the county of Loamshire

Hayslope in the county of Loamshire Midlands village in a fictional county of where Adam Bede, a skilled carpenter, works for Jonathan Burge. Scenes alternate between the indoors (the workshop, the Bede home, the rectory, the Hall farm) and the outdoors (the green, the woods, the churchyard, the orchard and garden) picturing the full range of a community. The novel opens in the village carpentry workshop, where Adam praises industrious creativity, which, he argues, God favors as much as the religious singing, praying, and preaching of the Methodists, a group to which his “dreamy” brother Seth belongs. The workplace emphasizes Adam’s strong integrity and reliability, as well as his tendency to be unsympathetic toward others’ weaknesses.

Bede cottage

Bede cottage. Cottage that Adam shares with his brother and parents. His work ethic dominates this place; he has been doing his father’s work for several years and is disgusted because his father too often visits the nearby pub. Eventually, however, Adam relents from his hard stance toward weakness, when he and Seth discover their drunken father has drowned.

Hall farm

Hall farm. Managed by Martin and Rachel Poyser, this is the best-kept tenant farm on the estate of Squire Donnithorne. Here the reader meets the fantasy-driven Hetty, niece of Martin, and sees the visiting squire flirting with her. Mr. Irwine, the rector, accompanies the squire and cautions him against turning Hetty’s head. After Hetty’s disgrace, the Poysers and Adam feel they must relocate; their move over a distance of only twenty miles is presented as a complete uprooting from their former sense of permanence. George Eliot is contrasting a lost agrarian world, Old England, with mid-century industrialized England.

Snowfield, Stoniton, and Stonyshire

Snowfield, Stoniton, and Stonyshire. Bleak areas, unlike the fertile Hayslope of Loamshire, that are associated not with agricultural productivity, but with the cotton mill where Dinah Morris works and with Hetty’s imprisonment and trial. They are also associated with the religion of the poor—outdoor Methodism—and Stoniton is the place of the upper room in which Bartle Massey looks after Adam, giving him bread and wine. Dinah says that the harsh conditions make the inhabitants responsive to religion.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Recognition of Eliot’s feminist concerns has come less readily than for some nineteenth century novelists, partly because the perspective of the male narrator in her early works has been read as Eliot’s perspective. In general it is, but the narrator’s specifically male attitudes insist on emphasizing the suffering of men, Adam and Arthur, when the woman is the real victim. Eliot introduced this masculine voice that diminishes the significance of women in Scenes of Clerical Life, telling women’s stories behind the appearance of men’s. Adam Bede is Eliot’s only complete novel to use this male voice before the author’s true identity became known. It is consistent with her irony that the masculine narrator delineates realistically the nineteenth century world of men going on with their lives as the woman is punished and fades away.

Such fiction is a disappointment to feminist readers who hope to see heroines rising to new heights despite obstacles imposed by a patriarchal culture. Yet Eliot’s literary aesthetic defined such a pattern of writing as idealized, as based on the author’s sentimentalized fantasy, and therefore misleading. She knew well a woman’s struggle to survive economically and to fulfill her creative potential, and she was committed to fiction based on the new concept from the French known as realism. Her achievement lies in having heightened readers’ sympathetic awareness of the plight of working-class...

(The entire section is 602 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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

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

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

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

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

Hardy, Barbara. Critical Essays on George Eliot. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1970....

(The entire section is 494 words.)