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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.”

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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. His brother Seth leaves to hear the visiting preacher Dinah Morris, and, in chapter 3, the narrator broadens the theme: Morality based on human sympathy, such as that felt by Dinah and Seth, radiates through a community more effectively than abstract doctrine voiced by unreal characters. Speaking in the rural dialects that she knew, Eliot’s characters dramatize the interpersonal dynamic that she hoped would replace religious debates in fiction.

Scenes alternate between the Hall farm, the Bedes’ cottage, the rectory and Donnithorne estate, the school and church, and the outdoors, developing the characters and their milieus. Adam’s growth begins when he discovers that his father drowned in a brook and, regretting his harsh judgment of his father’s excessive drinking, he pities weakness. Hoping that the beautiful Hetty Sorrel will come to love him, he works hard to earn the financial base needed for him to marry. Hetty, however, has succumbed to Arthur Donnithorne’s temptations. The heir to the estate meets her secretly in the woods near his hunting lodge, determining several times to break off the affair, which is forbidden by class boundaries as well as sexual mores. He is unable to sustain his resolve, however, despite nonspecific cautions uttered by the unknowing Adam and the Reverend Adolphus Irwine. In August, striding through the woods that Arthur has appointed him to manage, hopeful because of his improved financial position, and thinking well of both Hetty and Arthur, Adam comes upon the lovers kissing. Hetty flees and Arthur pretends innocence, but Adam calls him a “scoundrel,” fights him, and forces him to write to Hetty disclaiming any meaningful attachment. In November, the resigned Hetty accepts Adam’s proposal, and a March wedding is planned.

Then in February, pretending a visit to Dinah, Hetty goes to Windsor to find Arthur, but learns that his regiment has left for Ireland. Hints about her figure reveal that pregnancy has caused Hetty’s journey, and the pitying narrator leaves her returning in despair. Back in Hayslope, just as Hetty is missed, word arrives that she is imprisoned in Stoniton for infanticide and will not speak. Witnesses at her trial provide missing details that establish guilt, and she is sentenced to be hanged, with the narrator emphasizing Adam’s suffering and grief. Then Dinah arrives and awakens Hetty from terrified paralysis; she confesses to having abandoned, not murdered, her child. Just as she is to be hanged, Arthur gallops up with a commutation of the sentence to deportation. Arthur joins the army to prevent Adam and the Poysers from departing rather than continuing to work for him. Eighteen months later, a softened Adam marries Dinah, and the epilogue shows their loving family six years afterward. An ill Arthur has returned home to improve his health, but Hetty has died.

Places Discussed

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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.

Context

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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 women—and of the men who supported or suffered with them—caused by culturally established gender stereotypes and limitations. Many contemporary readers were moved by Hetty’s story.

Dinah also reveals Eliot’s feminist concerns. She is ridiculed by some for preaching, but the Reverend Irwine finds Dinah a remarkable person. She succeeds in breaking Hetty’s silence when others have failed, and she proves a more worthy wife to Adam than Hetty would have been. She must submit to the Methodist Conference’s ban on women preaching, faulted by Seth’s male view, but she embodies most fully Eliot’s theme that it is feelings, not “notions,” that hold a community together and give individuals the strength to bear their burdens.

Other elements point to the author’s concerns for women. Rachel Poyser’s having “her say” to the old Squire may be an object lesson to the too-outspoken, but her spirit, incisive wit and metaphor, and excellent home management also argue strongly against the stereotype of female docile passivity. Dependent older women—Lydia Donnithorne, Mrs. Irwine and her daughters, Lisbeth Bede—remind readers that male inheritance lines and economic control can limit men as well as humiliate women. Hetty’s anger toward Arthur, and Adam’s insistence that Arthur be punished as well and suffer equally with Hetty are more effective arguments against the double standard than later treatises proved to be. The unrelenting delineation of Hetty’s childish, uncomprehending despair and terrified denial personalize the “fallen woman” cliché. Finally, the brilliant stroke of capturing woman-hating and woman-denigrating in Bartle Massey’s comical diatribes against his dog Vixen, the woman in his life, ridicule such attitudes even as they amuse the reader.

Adam Bede was her last work before George Eliot was identified as Mary Ann Evans. Fiction by other women had received only reluctant praise, but this novel was deemed “first-rate” by a reviewer for The (London) Times who thought the author male. Since critics could not retract praise already published, perhaps the book’s major impact was in proving that a woman’s art could be just as admired as a man’s if she could write anonymously and circumvent gender prejudice.

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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