REVIEW: Adam Bede by George Eliot
Since reading Middlemarch in 2010, I have been working my way through George Eliot’s fairly sparse backlist. I had already read Silas Marner in high school (I should reread it, actually) and hadn’t loved it. Middlemarch remains a high point for me (I now consider it one of my favorite novels) but I also liked Daniel Deronda and The Mill on the Floss.
Adam Bede was apparently Eliot’s first published novel. It’s set in the fictional village of Hayslope, and focuses on several local families and their interwoven lives.
The opening introduces the titular character but focuses more on his brother Seth, and the woman Seth is infatuated with, Methodist preacher Dinah Morris. Dinah preaches on the village green and many are drawn to her gentle and moving style, though others condemn the very idea of a woman preacher.
The relationships unfold in the first couple of chapters thusly: Seth is in love with Dinah, but she’s not drawn to him or the notion of marriage (though she cares about Seth) and instead feels that she should leave Hayslope and go back to where she’s from and where she feels that she’s needed more urgently. (Dinah is a goody-goody to the nth degree; more on that later.) Seth’s brother Adam is in love with Hetty Sorrel, the local beauty and Dinah’s…cousin? (Dinah’s aunt is Mrs. Poyser and Hetty’s uncle is Mr. Poyser; they are local tenant farmers who figure prominently in the story.) Hetty is, well, she’s pretty much in love with herself, but she also becomes infatuated with Arthur Donnithorne, the “young squire” and heir to the local landowner. Arthur is young and handsome and charming and well-admired by pretty much everyone, including Adam, but his cheerful facade hides some personality flaws that he himself is not even quite aware of.
The cast of characters are rounded out by Adam and Seth’s mother Lisbeth, who favors Adam and has perfected the martyrish-mother act; the aforementioned Poysers; the local rector, Reverend Irwine, who is compassionate and fair-minded, and the schoolteacher Bartle Massey, a woman-hating grump who is something of a mentor to Adam. All of the secondary characters add color to the story (as well as the tertiary characters who appear in several scenes, mostly laborers from the village and surrounding area).
Adam and Seth’s father Thias is an alcoholic who never even really appears in the book before drowning in a brook in Chapter 3 on his drunken way home from the pub. His character seems to exist to illustrate Adam’s weaknesses: Adam’s moral rectitude is such that he has little patience with or understanding of human frailty. This leads him to misjudge others; he has a very black-and-white view of the world. One of the things that bugged me a good deal about Adam early on is his idealization of the silly and shallow Hetty, though Eliot, in the voice of the omniscient narrator she uses occasionally throughout the story, does address this:
“…it was altogether extremely unbecoming in a sensible man to behave as he did—falling in love with a girl who really had nothing more than her beauty to recommend her, attributing imaginary virtues to her, and even condescending to cleave to her after she had fallen in love with another man, waiting for her kind looks as a patient trembling dog waits for his master’s eye to be turned upon him. But in so complex a thing as human nature, we must consider, it is hard to find rules without exceptions. Of course, I know that, as a rule, sensible men fall in love with the most sensible women of their acquaintance, see through all the pretty deceits of coquettish beauty, never imagine themselves loved when they are not loved, cease loving on all proper occasions, and marry the woman most fitted for them in every respect—indeed, so as to compel the approbation of all the maiden ladies in their neighbourhood. But even to this rule an exception will occur now and then in the lapse of centuries, and my friend Adam was one.”
I did appreciate the acknowledgment that Adam was a fool where Hetty was concerned, even if the explanation seemed to boil down to, eh, shit happens.
The earlier part of the novel read like a gentle pastoral story, sort of a slice of life of the village and its inhabitants at the turn of the 19th century. It takes a while for the romantic connections to come into focus, but when they do, the story becomes darker and more serious.
The portrayal of religion in Adam Bede was really interesting, if a little puzzling, to me. My understanding is that George Eliot, though fervently religious in her youth, turned her back on Christianity and was essentially “godless” by the time she wrote Adam Bede. Yet Dinah often seems to act as Eliot’s mouthpiece – she’s got the faintest whiff of Mary-Sueness about her – and she is the holiest of rollers. I was left a bit perplexed by the idealization of a character whose beliefs seemed very different from Eliot’s own.
So, Dinah. After Adam, she’s the main character of Adam Bede, though she’s gone from the novel at various points, back ministering to her own people in faraway Snowfield. My reaction to Dinah was pretty much split down the middle between irritation and admiration. On the one hand, she is genuinely a good person, pretty much flawless, kind and serene. Her serenity much impresses the people around her and her beauty, quieter than Hetty’s, draws attention as well. I was at times impressed by how very good she was, in a way that felt real and very rare. And yet…she is so self-sacrificing and aware of the fact that she gives all her energy to others and so “God-God-God” all the time that she also kind of made me want to vomit. So there’s that.
Let me spoiler-tag the following because far be it for me to ruin a 150 year old book for anyone:
Spoiler (Spoiler): Show
Okay, my spoilered-info-dump of the last third of the book was kind of snotty, but I really did like Adam Bede. Eliot had such an observant eye for human nature and the complexity of her characters. I’ve said it before, but I’m always surprised when I read centuries-old literature with characters who aren’t merely moral examples and stick figure heroes and villains. I don’t know *why* it surprises me, because I’ve read enough 19th century literature at this point, certainly, to know that’s not the case. But the stereotype still exists in my mind.
So now I just have Romola and Felix Holt, the Radical left to read from Eliot. I may save these for a little while because I’ll be sad when I have no more of her work to read. My grade for Adam Bede is a B+.