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Adam Bede | Study Guide

George Eliot

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Adam Bede | Themes


Edenic Preindustrial England

An important theme running through the novel is that, despite the suffering some characters endure, life before the Industrial Revolution in England was something of a paradise. Although the Industrial Revolution is already in progress in the world of Adam Bede—Dinah works in a mill, for example—the modern world has hardly touched the peaceful village of Hayslope. Even the name of the town is reminiscent of nature's beauty and symmetry, described at length in many chapters. The narrator sums up this nostalgia for pre-modern, rural England in Chapter 52, after Adam and Dinah declare their love for each other and are walking through a sunny field after church. The narrator laments real leisure is gone, along with spinning wheels, pack horses, slow wagons, peddlers, and the like. "Even idleness is eager now—eager for amusement: prone to excursion trains, art museums, periodical literature and exciting novels: prone even to scientific theorizing, and cursory peeps through microscopes," says the narrator. Certainly the author remained up to date on advances in science and culture changes in her own Victorian world, but she sees enough value in bygone days to have written a novel that commemorates both her father's early life and her own life growing up in the rural and barely spoiled Midlands of England.

The Limits of Female Autonomy

An important theme in Adam Bede is that women's freedom is far more limited than men's. In fact, during the time span of the novel, 1799–1807, women and children were the property of men, and a female went from her father's jurisdiction to her husband's. Women's province was housekeeping and children. However, such constraints did not prevent women from being strong, as both Rachel Poyser and Dinah Morris demonstrate. Mrs. Poyser runs the dairy, has considerable authority in running the farm, and makes all decisions within the household. Mr. Poyser, less opinionated and less vocal, is content to allow her to dominate. Although Mrs. Poyser is a forceful character who would likely try to rule in whatever situation she found herself, she is able to be successful only because her husband allows it.

Dinah Morris feels sufficiently confident in her own spiritual gifts to take on preaching, but she gives up her vocation after her patriarchal church decides it is no longer appropriate for women to preach. When Seth objects to this ruling, Adam says the Methodists are right, for most of the women "do more harm nor good with their preaching—they've not got Dinah's gift nor her sperrit—and she's seen that, and she thought it right to set th' example o' submitting, for she's not held from other sorts o' teaching. And I agree with her, and approve o' what she did." However, Adam, a man of his time, doesn't stop to consider the same judgment might apply equally to men.

Once a woman puts herself outside the bounds of the law, as Hetty Sorrel has done, she loses the protection of both family and society. Although both she and Arthur Donnithorne have transgressed society's norms, the penalty falls much more heavily on the woman in such instances than on the man. Hetty is well aware she has destroyed her life by giving birth to an illegitimate child and, therefore, tries to get rid of it. As a child herself, she sees no way out at all.

The Transformative Power of Compassion

The transformative power of compassion is a theme that runs through not only this first novel of George Eliot but through all them. Although she herself put aside traditional Christianity and was likely an agnostic or atheist, she continued to believe in the Christian values of forgiveness and compassion—that human beings ought to cultivate sympathy for their fellow travelers. Dinah calls Hetty a "poor wanderer," and, indeed, all human beings are poor wanderers on the earth who must suffer travails and live with the knowledge of their eventual demise. The more people can develop sympathy or compassion, the wider their understanding will grow and the more love they will have in their hearts. This is George Eliot's belief. When one human being understands the sorrows of another, it is difficult to be judgmental.

For example, Adam Bede is a self-righteous man with no patience for people who can't do the right thing. But he is transformed in his own trial of suffering, especially when he realizes he has been projecting his own feelings onto Hetty and does not understand her. His broken heart—for himself as well as for her—allows him to become more forgiving of others. In the end he is able to forgive Arthur and open himself to a more complex and nuanced love with Dinah.

Deluding Power of Sexual Passion

The deluding power of sexual passion is revealed in the actions of three characters: Adam, Hetty, and Arthur. Adam believes he loves Hetty, but he is simply attracted to her sexually, as is Arthur Donnithorne. Hetty and Adam are of the same class and, therefore, could be a sanctioned couple. But if Adam had married Hetty, he would soon have learned her head is empty and her heart cold. With his initial sexual desires satisfied, he likely would have found himself in an unhappy, unloving marriage to a self-centered partner with whom he had nothing long in common.

Arthur, however, has a more realistic understanding of his attraction to Hetty. He claims to have loved her when he meets Adam in the Grove after Hetty is sent to serve her sentence, but he never intended to marry her. He knows they are not suited by class, but he probably knows they are unsuited in other ways as well.

Hetty, although not savvy in the ways of the world, knows enough to use the deluding power of sexual attraction to keep the interest of both men at various points in the story. As a young working-class woman, she has little power otherwise. Although she doesn't love either of these men, she chooses Arthur first because she thinks he will bring her riches. She chooses Adam second because she thinks he can get her out of her aunt's house. Of course, once the results of her sexual dalliance with Arthur land her with a baby, her sexuality is transformed into a huge life-threatening and destroying liability.

Work as a Reflection of Character

Another important theme in Adam Bede, as well as in Eliot's subsequent novels, is the importance of work in providing meaning to people's lives. The way people do their work is a reflection of their character. Adam is not only a master craftsman with a gift but also a conscientious worker who gets angry when workmen throw their tools down at quitting time. For him, work is never simply a job or a way to make money. Work defines Adam, giving him pleasure as well as pride and self-worth. For someone like Adam, work is an integral part of his character and without it he would be unable to live.

Mrs. Poyser is another character who defines herself, at least partially, as a master dairywoman and housekeeper. Her running of the farm, however, is blended with her motherhood; thus these duties are more intertwined with human relations than is the case for Adam. However, she too takes pride in what she does and would never be able to deliver a product that was not first-rate—the absolute best of which she is capable.

Both Adam Bede and Rachel Poyser have a vocation, as does Dinah Morris, of a different sort. She has been called to preach, but because she does not get paid for preaching, she supports herself by working in the mill. However, preaching is the center of her life and inextricably linked to her relationship with God. It may seem Dinah gives her work up too easily after the Methodists decide women should no longer preach. Perhaps this is because Eliot could not imagine a wife and mother who was also a dedicated public preacher, but, in any case, Dinah does not seem overly troubled at all as the book ends.

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