In Adam Bede, Eliot again represents the humor and wit of the lower classes through their rural dialect and idiom, a skill that had captivated readers of “Amos Barton” and helped to establish her as a writer of humor, pathos, and social realism. Where the earlier work had divided such wit between a few characters and the narrator, however, Adam Bede concentrates it in Mrs. Poyser, master of the colorful maxim, and leaves the narrator more distant than in the earlier story. Eliot interrupts the narrative, nevertheless, to instruct the reader in the aesthetic rules of realism. The well-known chapter 17 is often quoted as Eliot’s artistic creed, favoring truthfulness over idealism, exhorting the reader to find beauty in “old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands” as well as in “a face paled by the celestial light,” and urging the reader to “tolerate, pity, and love” his “more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent” fellow mortals.
For the germ of her story, Eliot recalled an episode recounted during her youth by her Methodist Aunt Samuel, who had visited in prison a young woman condemned to execution for the murder of her child, and who had wrought from her a penitential confession after the failure of others to do so. The novel goes far beyond the historical event, however, rendering it as art by the detailed fictional creation of Hetty Sorrel as childishly and unconsciously self-engrossed, hardly capable of any moral awareness that her acts could bring significant consequences, hardly able to distinguish fantasy from reality.
In a design of paired opposites found also in her other fiction, Eliot sharpens the delineation of Hetty’s character by contrasting her with the selfless Dinah Morris, the young Methodist open-air preacher. Similarly, Eliot contrasts the title character, a village carpenter, to Arthur Donnithorne, heir to the estate and future landlord of the Hayslope community. They are compared primarily by their respective ways of expressing their love for Hetty, who is expected to marry Adam but whose aspirations to luxury and fashionable adornments make her susceptible to Arthur’s admiring eye, as her fantasies enable him to seduce her, although he knows quite well that a young man of his class cannot marry a working girl.
Hetty’s recognition of her limitations and errors is so slim that she can hardly be called a tragic character. Adam is the primary sufferer, since his love for Hetty has been genuine, if blind. Narrow and inflexible in his rectitude, he learns through his suffering to be more tolerant of weakness and, with his new “power of loving,” to give and receive sympathy in the shared condition of fallibility. His moral growth is slow, in keeping with Eliot’s psychological realism, but he softens in his judgment of others and awakens to the realization that Dinah, though not at all kittenish like Hetty, has her form of appeal too. In turn, Dinah reconsiders her resolution to follow an ascetic life, rechannels her ministering love in interpersonal directions, and comes to return Adam’s love for her.
The misogynistic Bartle Massey claims his place in the community as he brings food and wine to the suffering Adam in an “upper room,” one of the story’s Christian images. Mr. Irwine, in his failure to sense Arthur’s need for confession, is one of Eliot’s recurrent churchmen who appear benevolent but prove ineffective.
Arthur, whose expected responsible leadership has represented hope to the community, can only leave Hayslope in shame. His departure signals the end of that older world, as the narrator regrets the loss of “Fine Old Leisure,” but the novel ends optimistically, centered on Adam, Dinah, and their children.
In the village of Hayslope at the close of the eighteenth century, there lives a young carpenter named Adam Bede. Tall and muscular, Adam is respected by everyone as a good worker and an honest and upright man. Even the young squire, Captain Arthur...
(The entire section is 1,606 words.)