I started reading George Eliot’s Adam Bede waaay back in August of last year, after reading some rather disparaging comments about it in Cold Mountain. I attribute my sloth speed to getting sidetracked by other books, and to the first third of the book which was itself rather slow going as Eliot set up the cast of characters. Once the plot got rolling, though, it turned into one of those books that makes you stay up too late.
Since this was a bedtime book for me I didn’t read it very seriously and so I can’t say too much about it. It’s clearly a marvellous book, well-written and very enjoyable, but I am having trouble discerning what it is actually about. Although there is great drama in this novel (what’s a novel without a body count?), the story is driven by character. Ada in Cold Mountain wishes the characters in Adam Bede were “not so cramped by circumstance,” yet the cramped circumstances of Hayslope village produce a rich diversity of characters, even within the same family. Given the title, I am tempted to think the book is really about a type of simple but honourable rural English craftsman, full of “native intelligence,” which Eliot wished to honour with this story.
Adam Bede, son of a drunkard father and complaining mother, is a strong, upright, hard-working, intelligent, and loving young man. He might seem too good to be true if we were not privy to his inner struggles and his moments of hardness (later regretted) towards his father and towards his rival, Captain Donnithorne. His major fault, of course, is his blind but true love for the vain and beautiful dairymaid, Hetty. When he discovers her true nature he does not blame her, nor does he blame himself for having loved her. His sorrow is pure and he is strong enough to bear it without recourse to bitterness or recriminations. He feels Hetty’s troubles as strongly as he does his own, even though the former are the cause of the latter.
As I alluded to earlier, Adam Bede is the type of man a girl could really fall for. As his mother Lisbeth puts it, “An’ what should she do but love thee? Thee ‘t made to be loved—for where’s there a straighter, cliverer man?” If you can get past the rural dialect, which is troublesome at times, I definitely recommend taking Adam Bede to bed with you.
A more serious and thorough treatment of the book can be found at the Literary Encyclopedia.