History: The first novel written by George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans), was published in 1859. The plot is founded on a story told to George Eliot by her aunt Elizabeth Evans, a Methodist preacher, and the original of Dinah Morris of the novel, of a confession of child-murder, made to her by a girl in prison.
Plot: The story's plot follows four characters' rural lives in the fictional community of Hayslope—a rural, pastoral and close-knit community in 1799. Adam Bede is a local carpenter much admired for his integrity and intelligence and Arthur Dinnithorne is in line to inherit a large estate and is currently a Captain in the military. They have been friends since boyhood. Unknown to each other, both are in love with Hetty Sorrel, a 17-year old orphan who works on a dairy farm run by her uncle and aunt. Of the two men, Hetty falls in love with Arthur, and the sophistication and wealth he represents, but due to class differences there can be no chance of a marriage between them.
In the first half of the novel, the dominant impact of Adam Bede is that of an extremely realistic portrayal of working-class England in the rural Midlands. The novel abounds with long descriptions, meticulous detail, and hard-working characters who only occassionally pause for relaxation. Their speech is captured in rough dialect, enlivened with the homey aphorisms of Mrs. Poyser (Hetty's aunt). People are what they do: Adam the carpenter is strong, sturdy, and upright. Hetty, introduced in an extraordinary scene in the dairy (ch. 7), seems as pliable as the butter she is making. Arthur, the military man, becomes a predator.
The other main character in Adam Bede is Dinah Morris, a Methodist preacher. (Until 1803, the Methodists allowed women to preach in public.) She makes her dramatic entrance in the second chapter, preaching outdoors to the faithful and the merely curious, and George Eliot includes a large part of Dinah's compassionate, charismatic, captivating sermon.
Dinah Morris floats in and out of the novel. Adam's brother Seth is in love with her, but she feels that marriage is not in God's plans. When Adam and Seth's father dies while staggering home drunk from a tavern and falling in a river, Dinah comes to their home to comfort their mother.
Events take a tragic turn when Arthur seduces Hetty (in a scene we don't see) and she later discovers she is pregnant, communicated to the reader in the author's necessarily circumspect language
When Adam interrupts a tryst between them, Adam and Arthur fight. Adam knocks Arthur out and thinks he has killed him. Arthur agrees to give up Hetty, writes her a letter telling her to give up on him, and leaves Hayslope to return to his militia. After he leaves, Hetty Sorrel agrees to marry Adam (she is pregnant but neither the reader nor Adam knows this). Adam thinks all is well, but shortly before their marriage, in desperation, she leaves the village in search of Arthur. She tells Adam and her family she is going to see Dinah, but instead goes to the address he put on the letter, over 100 miles and 1 weeks journey. She spends all her money, but she cannot find him, for his company has been sent to Ireland. She is penniless, but unwilling to return to the village on account of the shame and ostracism she would have to endure. She considers suicide, but chickens out.
At this point in the novel, time has progressed to Adam and Mr. Irving, and a letter received that Hettie is in prison in a nearby town, awaiting trial for killing her own child.
Adam is in shock, but Hettie refuses to see him. At the trial, she is found guilty, however does not admitt anything. It is only after Dinah visits her in a heart wrenching momemt, as Hettie is facing death and admits to Dinah what she has done. She did deliver her baby with the assistance of the woman running the boarding house where she was staying. In her confused and frantic state, she kills the child by abandoning it in a field, where it dies of exposure.
When Arthur Donnithorne, on leave from the militia for his grandfather's funeral, hears of her impending execution, he races to the court and has the sentence commuted to transportation, or imprisonment.
Arthur decides to leave the village, and his wealth as punishment for his own action, a decision of his own making. As the months go by, Hettie and her crime become a passing memory. Dinah stays with her family, but, as the reader learns, is very attracted to Adam. Adam's mother clues Adam into this, and Adam decides he is in love with her too, but because she is so religious, is afraid she will never marry him. However, they do, marry and live peacefully ever after.
Review: This is a feminist novel. Like The Scarlett Letter or Beloved, it is about the fate of women in the hands of men, or the culture that contains them.
Eliot’s view of human nature is complex. She does not preach, and she does not offer flat characters with whom it is impossible to sympathize. Instead, she offers real characters, whose motivations are sympathetic even when the motivations are tainted. Throughout the Adam Bede novel, assessments against another person’s negative actions are a condemning aim of the novel. Eliot contrasts the inner and outer beauty of the characters by portraying that external beauty may be more recognizable and superficially preferred to inner beauty, but it obviously is not the most desirable. This is made clear with Hetty’s lack of individual integrity; she is the more physically beautiful and those around her are often fooled or blinded by her appealing looks—Hetty’s true personality is that of immaturity and self centeredness. Adam, however, wrongly assumes she is a good person because of her appearance. The contrasting feelings for Dinah are more real because of being drawn in not only by beauty, but more importantly, by her inner character.
In George Eliot's moral universe, actions have consequences. Not because of fate, or karma, or divine retribution, but as a result of simple Newtonian mechanics. Hence, when something awful happens in one of her novels, it makes sense to examine where the characters went wrong. Surely Arthur Dinnithorne shouldn't have used his rank and privilege to lure Hetty into seduction. That we can all agree on. But Adam needed to be more involved. A more reticent courtship than the one he pursued seems hard to imagine.
I find it hard to blame Hetty, particularly with what we know today about such cases. In the context of the times, I suppose her big flaw was not knowing her place in the world, and how hopeless it was to try to escape upwards. But it's tough to stay focused on class boundaries when pretty things are dangled in front of your eyes by the village hunk. Surely a little more education would have helped Hetty, and the author agrees: "Hetty was quite uneducated — a simple farmer's girl, to whom a gentleman with a white hand was dazzling as an Olympian God." Yet, the local schoolteacher who helped Adam become educated is so misogynist that accepting Hetty as a student would have been inconceivable.
Eliot continually discredits those members of the artificial ‘nobility’ who deride the simple pleasures of the lower classes. The party gathering is a microcosm of everything distasteful about class prejudice; however, the empathy of the novel lies with the common people. In fact, the narrator encourages people to enjoy life’s simpler pleasures and not turn their noses up at characters or people just because they are of a lower class. Eliot is concerned and bothered with the many obvious external phoniness that presents appearances without substance or significance; she contrasts this shallowness with the individual’s lack of inner virtues that penetrate below the surface. Human nature is seen as a quintessence of the world or the universe.
Opening Line: “With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past.”
Closing Line: “So there is,” said Dinah. “Run, Lisbeth, run to meet aunt Poyser. Come in, Adam, and rest; it has been a hard day for thee.”
Quotes: “He was like a cock who thought the sun had risen to hear him crow.”
“We are apt to be kinder to the brutes that love us than to the women that love us. Is it because the brutes are dumb?”