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....

(The entire section is 726 words.)