Adam Bede by George Eliot
It is our habit to say that while the lower nature can never understand the higher, the higher nature commands a complete view of the lower. But I think the higher nature has to learn this comprehension, as we learn the art of vision, by a good deal of hard experience, often with bruises and gashes incurred in taking things up by the wrong end, and fancying our space wider than it is.
This story follows Adam Bede, a young carpenter who lives in rural northern England, and the people who form his community in this village where he lives. Adam is a diligent worker and a good friend, who often judges too harshly and responds to the faults in others with anger instead of mercy. As the story opens, he is working for a local business owner and is admired and respected by his community, but several circumstances in his life are preventing him from doing all he wishes to do. One of the things he wants to do is marry a girl named Hetty Sorrel, but he doesn’t feel like he has enough financial stability to do so. While Adam is working through his own life circumstances, Hetty meets and falls for Arthur Donnethorne, the young squire who is a friend of Adam’s. Conflict ensues.
This is not a story about a love triangle; Eliot is too complex for that, even in this, her first novel. Instead, this is ultimately a story about sin and sorrow. While a weaker work than Middlemarch, the things that I love about Eliot are still evident in Adam Bede. Her focus is always on character. What makes people tick? What are their flaws? How do those flaws impact their actions?
In Adam Bede Eliot is exploring the impact other people have on our lives. While in stories the main character tends to have to address problems that are due to their actions, Adam must work through problems that are caused by the actions of Arthur and Hetty. This is a less common kind of story, but a common human experience. If the people around you deeply wound you, how do you respond? And more importantly, how ought you respond? Adam’s initial responses are unhealthy (ahem, literal fistfight, actual hatred), but eventually, with the help of some friends, he shapes his heart towards forgiveness, and in doing so, helps Hetty and Arthur find repentance and forgiveness, too.
I continue to be amazed how well Eliot draws characters, how vivid and life-like they are. Even the minor characters, like Mr. Irwine or Bartle Massey, are so real. I do think the characters, generally, and Hetty, especially, aren’t as multi-dimensional as, for example, Rosamond Vincy or other figures later in Eliot’s career, but still excellently done. In addition, the plot was a little unevenly paced, and the action got rather dramatic at times. But as I want to emphasize, these are really only flaws in comparison to Middlemarch, which I think is one of the best English novels full stop, so they are minor flaws. As a first novel, especially, it’s marvelous. Eliot is a mature writer who rewards mature and attentive readers with an enormous feast of richness and truth.
As is happening more and more with classics, at first it took me a little bit to get into this book, and I read it casually around other things for a couple of weeks. I enjoyed it, but was okay with putting it down for a few days. And then I read the last 150 or 200 pages in one sitting. I kept telling myself “one more chapter” until I realized I was just going to finish the book. I think classics in general invite a longer settling in, they spend more time introducing and developing characters before diving into the plot. And the result, at least here, is that afore-mentioned richness.
Related to that reaction of mine, another aspect of the book I loved is that although we neither see or are told about some of the central actions in the book, Eliot manages to make us aware that they’re happening anyway, through small details that I think make those actions feel weightier (the little pink handkerchief — !!). Her choice to withhold details creates tension and a sense of dread in a very subtle and sophisticated way. There was a moment near the end where I actually gasped out loud, and then realized I’d been holding my breath, because the tension in that moment was so acute and so subtle. I thought I knew what was going to happen and had accepted it; turns out I hadn’t.
I identified a lot with Adam, being similarly good at doing the right thing, but sometimes struggling to be merciful when people don’t meet my own standards. The next time I read the book, I’ll be paying more careful attention to his development, because I know I’ll be able to learn a great deal from him. However, of all the major characters, it’s Hetty that I think about the most. I do think Eliot was right to name the book after Adam, because the book is ultimately about him, but Hetty plays a large role. Poor girl.
(The next paragraphs flirt with some spoilers, so if you don’t want to know more, look away!). Eliot shows us that Hetty is a vain, selfish, and empty-headed young woman. She wants nothing more than to be admired and liked, but doesn’t actually like or care about other people very much. She literally spends hours in her bedroom looking at herself in the mirror and daydreaming about getting pretty dresses and basking in the attention she gets from men.
This shallowness of character means she can’t really imagine how others think or feel, or see the world in a perspective outside of her own very limited one. And she can’t think complexly enough to anticipate potential consequences of her actions, or to recognize social realities that might deflate her daydreams. She really doesn’t see why Arthur will never consider her seriously as a potential wife. I compared her to Rosamond Vincy earlier because I think she is an early version of the kind of character Rosamond is, too. But while Rosamond has some redeeming moments, Hetty really doesn’t, although she does have a moment of repentance. Her poor character leads her to make bad decisions (it’s true her experience is not only her fault, but she’s certainly not a victim, and definitely makes things worse than they could have been), and then to not know how to deal with the consequences, leading to even worse decisions. While there were plenty of people from whom she could have sought help, and indeed who invite her to come to them if she needs help, her desire to be liked is stronger than anything, and so she is too proud and not imaginative enough to see these avenues that are open to her. And this leads to some pretty tragic consequences.
One of the reasons I wanted to think about Hetty more in this space is because I think her plot and character arc are one of those circumstances where it is all too easy to read with modern eyes and miss what the author is trying to say. Would things have been different for Hetty now? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that she would have had a better story; she would simply have made different kinds of mistakes, because it’s her character that Eliot is concerned with.
What Hetty has to learn is that her actions have consequences, not only for her, but for those around her who care about her: her cousin, Dinah, her aunt and uncle, and Adam, who loves her. This ripple effect also offers Adam the opportunity to grow; he realizes he didn’t know Hetty like he thought, and must work through his anger towards forgiveness. I think the fact that Adam has enough depth to recognize his flaws and choose to do the difficult personal work required to become a better person (and it is genuinely difficult – he suffers) is what makes him the protagonist of the story.
I definitely recommend reading Adam Bede, although I think it wouldn’t be the best introduction to Eliot — start with Middlemarch or Silas Marner. In addition to being a little weak (for Eliot), the country folks speak in a dialect that takes a little getting used to.
But as a discussion of sin, sorrow, anger and forgiveness, I think it’s a marvelous book and one I’ll be thinking about for a long time.
As a side note, while searching for the images I’ve included here, I stumbled on a very excellent analysis and discussion of Adam Bede. I recommend reading it.