Adam Bede is a solid, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth kind of man in the novel that bears his name by George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans, sometimes seen as Marian Evans). He lives in a pastoral community known as Hayslope in 1799 England. Adam is a carpenter and lives with his mother and brother, Seth. His closest friends are the Poysers, who run the nearby dairy farm, and Arthur Donnithorne, the young squire just coming of age who will inherit the estate when his grandfather dies. Adam is so well regarded at the carpenter shop that the owner not only wants Adam to take over when the owner retires; he also wants Adam to marry his daughter, Mary.
Adam, however, is in love with Hettie, the Poysers niece who has been living with them since she was orphaned. Sadly, Hettie is not the girl Adam thinks she is. She’s pretty, but she is also shallow, selfish, and vain. She wants out of her boring lifestyle. When Arthur visits the dairy and flirts a little with her, she begins to think that perhaps he will fall in love with her and make her a fine lady one day.
Seth, meanwhile, is in love with Dinah, a niece of Mrs. Poyser. Dinah doesn’t plan to marry, though, because she feels her calling is to preach God’s Word. Dinah and Hettie are set up as opposites. One night in their adjoining rooms, Hettie is trying on earrings and a shawl, parading up and down her room, admiring herself in a mirror, while Dinah is looking out the window, admiring the landscape and then praying. Dinah tries to befriend Hettie, but without success at first.
Brief descriptions of the book hint at a tragedy that occurs as a result of the love triangle, but it’s not the tragedy I was expecting. My jaw literally dropped at what happened. Some descriptions also mention the word “seduction,” which made me a little wary of the book. But I liked Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch so much, I decided to take a chance. I am glad I did. There is not a seduction per se in the novel. It’s more like an unwise falling into temptation. Elliot is quite discreet about it: there are no sordid scenes, just the tragic results.
Arthur, in fact, is kind of a study in a lighthearted, likeable man who drifts into temptation by excuse:
No young man could confess his faults more candidly; candour was one of his favourite virtues; and how can a man’s candour be seen in all its lustre unless he has a few failings to talk of? But he had an agreeable confidence that his faults were all of a generous kind—impetuous, warm-blooded, leonine; never crawling, crafty, reptilian. It was not possible for Arthur Donnithorne to do anything mean, dastardly, or cruel. “No! I’m a devil of a fellow for getting myself into a hobble, but I always take care the load shall fall on my own shoulders.” Unhappily, there is no inherent poetical justice in hobbles, and they will sometimes obstinately refuse to inflict their worst consequences on the prime offender, in spite of his loudly expressed wish.
He could no more believe that he should so fall in his own esteem than that he should break both his legs and go on crutches all the rest of his life. He couldn’t imagine himself in that position; it was too odious, too unlike him.
He was getting in love with Hetty—that was quite plain. He was ready to pitch everything else—no matter where—for the sake of surrendering himself to this delicious feeling which had just disclosed itself. It was no use blinking the fact now—they would get too fond of each other, if he went on taking notice of her—and what would come of it? He should have to go away in a few weeks, and the poor little thing would be miserable. He MUST NOT see her alone again; he must keep out of her way…He wondered if the dear little thing were thinking of him too—twenty to one she was. How beautiful her eyes were with the tear on their lashes! He would like to satisfy his soul for a day with looking at them, and he MUST see her again.
No man’s conduct will bear too close an inspection; and Poyser was not likely to know it; and, after all, what had he done? Gone a little too far, perhaps, in flirtation, but another man in his place would have acted much worse; and no harm would come—no harm should come, for the next time he was alone with Hetty, he would explain to her that she must not think seriously of him or of what had passed. It was necessary to Arthur, you perceive, to be satisfied with himself. Uncomfortable thoughts must be got rid of by good intentions for the future.
It was the last weakness he meant to indulge in; and a man never lies with more delicious languor under the influence of a passion than when he has persuaded himself that he shall subdue it to-morrow.
No man can escape this vitiating effect of an offence against his own sentiment of right, and the effect was the stronger in Arthur because of that very need of self-respect which, while his conscience was still at ease, was one of his best safeguards. Self-accusation was too painful to him—he could not face it. He must persuade himself that he had not been very much to blame; he began even to pity himself.
Though the love triangle forms the main plot and conflict, there are a plethora of other unique characters and subjects that come up during the course of the book. One subject is the nature of religion. Adam views using one’s gifts to do one’s best at one’s work as an act of worship and a practical display of faith. He preferred the pastor who was not the best preacher, but had a heart for his people, as opposed to a later minister who excelled at “doctrines and notions” without warmth and personal care of his church. It’s sad that Eliot later rejected Christianity: she seemed to have a good understanding of its main points here.
Another major theme is the effect of suffering. A couple of times Adam stoutly rejects the notion that good can come out of bad. But his suffering does soften him from the good but hard and slightly proud man he was to a more kindhearted and sympathetic version.
Eliot’s strength is getting into the minds of her characters and revealing them to us. Even though this was her first novel, she displayed that skill well. I ached along with several of them.
A few favorite quotes:
What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life–to strengthen each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?
We must learn to accommodate ourselves to the discovery that some of those cunningly-fashioned instruments called human souls have only a very limited range of music, and will not vibrate in the least under a touch that fills others with tremulous rapture or quivering agony.
Her little butterfly soul fluttered incessantly between memory and dubious expectation.
In a mind where no strong sympathies are at work, where there is no supreme sense of right to which the agitated nature can cling and steady itself to quiet endurance, one of the first results of sorrow is a desperate vague clutching after any deed that will change the actual condition. Poor Hetty’s vision of consequences, at no time more than a narrow fantastic calculation of her own probable pleasures and pains, was now quite shut out by reckless irritation under present suffering, and she was ready for one of those convulsive, motiveless actions by which wretched men and women leap from a temporary sorrow into a lifelong misery.
Mrs. Poyser, known for speaking her mind, when asked by the squire why she was leaving his grandson’s birthday party so early:
Oh, Your Honour, it’s all right and proper for gentlefolks to stay up by candlelight—they’ve got no cheese on their minds. We’re late enough as it is, an’ there’s no lettin’ the cows know as they mustn’t want to be milked so early to-morrow mornin’.
In chapter 17, the narrator or author addresses the reader directly on the issue of why one character was not drawn more ideally.
Certainly I could, if I held it the highest vocation of the novelist to represent things as they never have been and never will be. Then, of course, I might refashion life and character entirely after my own liking; I might select the most unexceptionable type of clergyman and put my own admirable opinions into his mouth on all occasions. But it happens, on the contrary, that my strongest effort is to avoid any such arbitrary picture, and to give a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind. The mirror is doubtless defective, the outlines will sometimes be disturbed, the reflection faint or confused; but I feel as much bound to tell you as precisely as I can what that reflection is, as if I were in the witness-box, narrating my experience on oath.
She goes on to say that in real life, there are people with whom we have to do who are flawed in major and minor ways, and the novelist does us a disservice by creating an ideal world when what we really need is to better view and interact with our real one:
These fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are: you can neither straighten their noses, nor brighten their wit, nor rectify their dispositions; and it is these people—amongst whom your life is passed—that it is needful you should tolerate, pity, and love: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people whose movements of goodness you should be able to admire—for whom you should cherish all possible hopes, all possible patience. And I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields—on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice.
I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Nadia May. If I have a choice of narrators, and May is one, I choose her! I also dipped into the written text online at Project Gutenberg and through a library copy.