Adam Bede

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.

* * *

adam bedeHere’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.

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17 Responses to Adam Bede

  1. Tony says:

    Yep, it’s great – and I *have* read all of Eliot (well, all her novels, a couple of shorter pieces and some of her non-fiction), and you should do the same ;)

    • Jenny says:

      I plan to! Along with most of Hardy, all Dickens’s novels, a good chunk of Trollope, several large Chinese novels, the sagas of the Icelanders, and The Remembrance of Things Past… I look both ways before I cross the street, you know? I have things to do.

  2. What a great review. This is my favorite of the “fallen women” novels (the other great ones being Tess of The D’Urbervilles and The Scarlet Letter). I read them all one summer many years ago, and Adam Bede, precisely because of the beauty of the rendering of the women, became my favorite. I admit that I love Eliot’s Daniel Deronda more (because it is so beautifully flawed), but this book should make anyone a fan of George Eliot. It doesn’t matter whether you read it early or late–you read it and liked it!

    • Jenny says:

      Did I ever. It’s so beautiful, and Dinah is such an unexpected character. I have a lot more thoughts about Adam Bede, but this post was 1300 words already (!) and I had to stop sometime. But yes. Magnificent.

  3. Hi, Jenny. I too am an Eliot fan, so I found your evocative and moving essay on her book “Adam Bede” above to be just my cup of tea. The one I hadn’t read at all was “Daniel Deronda,” and I finally read it this year, and loved it. “Adam Bede,” “Middlemarch,” “The Mill on the Floss,” and “Silas Marner” are all in my past too, and I’m wondering after reading your review if it isn’t time not only to drag some of those out again, but to look for what else Eliot wrote that I might read. I agree with you about her gift for description, and the way her characters avoid being stereotypes, but I had never put it into words before, or thought of it in just that way; thank you for your review.

    • Jenny says:

      My husband just read Silas Marner, and I’m looking forward to more Eliot, as well. I can’t help but think that these books are so rich that they would benefit from multiple readings, or readings with a book club or partner.

  4. Deb says:

    Middlemarch is my favorite Eliot, but Adam Bede is a close second. My quibble is with the ending (SPOILER): I didn’t think the eventual relationship between Adam and Dinah seemed as if it grew organically from their characters; it seemed to have more of a tacked-on feel, an attempt at a somewhat “happy” ending. Also, if memory serves, Dinah is finally prohibited from preaching by the (male) elders of the Methodist community–but as this is exactly what happened to all women who “felt the call” in the early days of Methodism, we can hardly blame Eliot for that.

    • Jenny says:

      No, I agree, we can’t blame her, but it feels disappointing to a modern reader, and maybe to her contemporaries as well — Dinah’s call is so strong. I’d be interested in knowing what the reaction was then.

  5. realthog says:

    A great review of a book I loved. I was about to add that the only Eliot novel that I didn’t enjoy — that defeated me, in fact — was Daniel Deronda, but reading the remarks of your commenters has persuaded me I should give it another try. It is, after all, [mumbles, counts on fingers] a lot more than 27 years ago now since last I gave it a try!

    • Jenny says:

      I can’t speak for Daniel Deronda, but I think by this time that I can trust George Eliot. I do think, often, that there are major and minor works for a reason. But if I don’t respond well to The Iliad (for instance), it’s probably my fault more than Homer’s.

  6. It is a little bit heartening that someone is still out there who can be aghast that you have not read Adam Bede. Almost no one has read Adam Bede. I hope you were similarly aghast back, about The Story of the Stone or something like that.

    • Jenny says:

      These were friends from the English department, so they watch out for my gaps! But you’re right, I ought to be appalled that they haven’t got round to The Tale of Genji or what have you.

  7. JaneGS says:

    I really loved this book too when I reread it a few years ago. I never read it in high school, but did read it too young to truly appreciate it.

    >In Eliot’s hands, no female character is a caricature, and every one has more resilience, strength, and wisdom than it first appears.

    She is tremendous, and I loved this post that is as much about Eliot’s facility with words and her understanding and compassion when it comes to themes in her stories.

    • Jenny says:

      My mother studied 19th-century British literature in college, and had me read a lot of novels when I was too impoverished a reader to appreciate them. I’m glad I’ve had the chance to revisit them! And yes, compassion is a wonderful word here, thank you Jane.

  8. Pingback: Novelist George Eliot, 150 years later | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  9. Laura J. Bloxham says:

    I think Hetty’s commuted sentence and removal from the community is due to Eliot’s belief in a humanistic world view, where folks must be punished for crimes against the community. We see it in Bulstrode in Middlemarxh, for example, and in Mill on the Floss, too. Even when Eliot likes characters, she makes them pay for those moral transgressions.

  10. Nicola says:

    Great review. I read this last summer and was completely drawn in. Love the Victorian coyness about Hetty’s pregnancy – suddenly she is with child!

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