Caveat: I discuss the ending of this book in this review, so if you haven’t read it, you might not want to read my entire review. Nutshell version: it’s fantastic and I recommend it.
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Here’s an odd thing: while I was wrapped up in Adam Bede, three or four of my friends asked me what I was currently reading. When I told them, they gave me a look of surprise (one of them as close to aghast as a person gets about a 19th-century English novel) and said, “Haven’t you read that yet?”
Well, I have, actually. I read it in 10th grade, which in my school system was British literature, and I didn’t understand it well or like it much (though I won’t enumerate my painfully lame complaints for you), and besides that’s [mumbles, counts on fingers] 27 years ago now. Time for a re-read, surely?
This novel takes place right around the turn of the 19th century (that is, about 60 years before George Eliot was writing it) in a rural village called Hayslope. The plot mostly follows four characters: the young, extremely pretty and self-centered Hetty Sorrel, her unacknowledged suitor Adam Bede, the young squire Arthur Donnithorne (also unhappily smitten), and a fervent, virtuous, and gentle young Methodist lay preacher named Dinah Morris. This brief overview doesn’t give even a hint at the complexity of the novel and its many minor characters, or the deep relationships that tie the community together, or the humor underlying many of its scenes, but stay with me, okay?
Almost the first thing that struck me about Adam Bede (despite the title) was the primacy of the female characters. Several characters try to convince Dinah that she ought to move away from her home in Stonyfield, because she doesn’t have family there and could be more comfortable and happy in Hayslope. One or two characters try to intimate that her Methodist bonnet is unflattering. No one during the entire novel, so far as I can remember, tries to convince her that her vocation is invalid, tells her that her sermons are stupid or too emotional, or shows her a Bible verse that says women should be silent in church. Mrs. Poyser, Dinah’s aunt, is outspoken (particularly about men) to a degree that ought to be offensive or even impossible, but her husband is manifestly proud of her and of the way she runs their dairy. She speaks up even to someone who ought to be her “better” (the old squire Donnithorne), and never considers herself too unworthy to have a voice. Even Hetty may be young, vain, and foolish, but she’s not an idiot. In Eliot’s hands, no female character is a caricature, and every one has more resilience, strength, and wisdom than it first appears.
One of the most interesting things about the book is the intertwining of class, gender, and religion in the power relationships that form and re-form. (George Eliot: intersectional since 1859!) Adam Bede is older than Arthur Donnithorne; he taught Arthur what he knows about carpentry and cabinetmaking when Arthur was a child. Now, Arthur is offering Adam a good job on his estate, and Adam is properly grateful — no upsetter of the status quo, is Adam. When Arthur trifles with Hetty’s affections (and worse — the scene in which Arthur puts a pale pink neckerchief in the waste basket is heartbreaking), however, Adam has no second thoughts. Honor takes precedence over gratitude, old friendship, and social class. It’s the same with Dinah. She is perfectly content to sit quiet and unnoticed, and has no aspirations to be a gentlewoman. But when some soul needs her, she simply assumes that her calling is a password anywhere she wishes to go, barriers of class, gender, power, education, and religion notwithstanding. The scenes of actual education are interesting in this regard: grown men struggling to learn their alphabet or the basics of arithmetic. What arcane passwords are they learning, in the face of the established order?
As with the other novels I’ve read by Eliot (Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss), the prose in Adam Bede is glorious. She uses a rural dialect for characters like Adam and Mrs. Poyser, which slowed down my reading a bit, and I was glad to be slowed down when I got to passages like this first description of Dinah:
There was no keenness in the eyes; they seemed rather to be shedding love than making observations; they had the liquid look which tells that the mind is full of what it has to give out, rather than impressed by external objects. She stood with her left hand towards the descending sun, and leafy boughs screened her from its rays; but in this sober light the delicate colouring of her face seemed to gather a calm vividness, like flowers at evening. It was a small oval face, of a uniform transparent whiteness, with an egg-like line of cheek and chin, a full but firm mouth, a delicate nostril, and a low perpendicular brow, surmounted by a rising arch of parting between smooth locks of pale reddish hair. The hair was drawn straight back behind the ears, and covered, except for an inch or two above the brow, by a net Quaker cap. The eyebrows, of the same colour as the hair, were perfectly horizontal and firmly pencilled; the eyelashes, though no darker, were long and abundant—nothing was left blurred or unfinished. It was one of those faces that make one think of white flowers with light touches of colour on their pure petals. The eyes had no peculiar beauty, beyond that of expression; they looked so simple, so candid, so gravely loving, that no accusing scowl, no light sneer could help melting away before their glance.
But I could have chosen any passage, really: a description of a birthday feast for Arthur, a description of Hetty decking herself in her cheap finery to look pretty for a fair, a description of the July landscape. It’s all precise, detailed, beautiful, full of symbolism and small connections with the reader.
I think it would be easy to get lost in that skillful prose, that beautiful rural landscape, and forget that this book is a tragedy. Hetty’s terrible journey while extremely pregnant, to find the father of her child and find out what to do next, is horribly painful to read. The sequel, when she is seeking suicide but is too firmly alive to find the requisite despair, is worse; the finale of that journey, when she murders her child instead of herself (and is persecuted by the child’s cries, which can only be in her mind) is chilling unto the bone. The scene in the prison when Dinah brings back a mentally and emotionally traumatized woman to the land of the living through the power of love, is (in my view) the most moving of the novel, only marred by Arthur Donnithorne’s hero complex. No Arthur, you do not get to be the savior today.
I remember when I was in 10th grade, I didn’t understand the logistics of why Hetty disappeared. Now I do — her sentence was commuted — but I still think it is taking the easy way out. Either she should have died, or she should have come back to her community, so that everyone could face the pain and grief. “Out of sight, out of mind” for both transgressors is a little too simple.
But by saying that, I don’t want to take away from also saying that this was a wonderful novel, layered and beautiful and complex. The fact that I wanted there to be even more of it is a testimony to how good it was. I don’t know why I haven’t read all I can of Eliot by now (perhaps that’s what my friends were really asking me? I’m not sure.) But I will. Oh, I will.