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Eliot’s Adam Bede

Eliot’s Adam Bede

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May 24, 2024

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Recently, I had the great fortune to attend a discussion series on George Eliot’s Adam Bede. Hosted by Classical Pursuits, our leader Nancy Carr guided us through four deep and insightful discussions on Eliot’s novel. I have spent some time ruminating on the ideas that I want to share with you without giving away key parts of the plot. I loved the novel hope to promote it, however I am hesitant to spoil any big details for those who haven’t read it. Some spoilers will be unavoidable, but I’ll do my best to steer clear of big revelations. In classic Eliot style, I’ll do my best with innuendo.

Though our group discussed the importance of character growth, we didn’t belabor the point. So, I would like to belabor it a little bit here. One common theme in Eliot’s writing is a focus on characters who endured great suffering which helps them to reach their potential. Suffering somehow activates a necessary type of education in Eliot’s mind. If this is true, then I want to know what characters grew the most in Adam Bede? One would expect that Adam himself did the most growing, being the title character. However, I’m not sure that’s the case. Though his strength and morals were tested and he did alter some of his ideals, his purpose and goodness were never really in doubt. So while he did change, I’m not sure he changed the most.

I’m not entirely sure who changed the most. Some of the more superficial characters came to see their superficiality and confront it. While they did confront the uglier sides of their natures, I’m not sure that they altered their selfishness. Perhaps this is a point of importance. Would Eliot think that we can simply alter who we are? I doubt it. Instead of asking a reader to magically grow a new personality, she layers detail upon detail which makes the reader question their own judgments. The reader functions as an extension of the community of Hayslope, a community controlled by tradition, convention, and religion. Hayslope’s citizens act familiarly with one another while also reaffirming everyone’s place in society. Small ripples in society’s fabric tend to cause significant tears in the community. The reader is caught between wanting to maintain peace in the community and yearning for change. Eliot provides an undercurrent of rising discomfort due to changes already visible on the horizon.

For example, the book opens in the bustling workshop where Adam Bede and his fellow craftsmen are engaged in friendly, lighthearted conversation. Eliot takes this opportunity to introduce the potential for religious upheaval. We learn that locals are confused by the presence of a visiting female Methodist preacher, Dinah. Whether or not they support Dinah, she remains a fascination, an attraction, and often, an argument among the locals. Also in the mix, Eliot sprinkles hints of local anxiety about the encroaching Napoleonic Wars. The novel, then, appears to include the theme of inescapable change which forces society to adapt. 

Perhaps this is why the book moves in and out of magical spaces. I think of the gardens and forests like gateways to a fairy tale. So, for me, the book engages tropes often present in a fairy tale. Eliot provides day-to-day minutia which is meant to help us better understand characters as they make decisions and take questionable actions. These actions, though, do not exist on a single plane of, what I’ll call, real time. Rather, the characters live off-page as often as they’re present. They move in hidden corners, dark spaces, and sometimes in purely imaginary spaces. Much of the driving force of the novel comes from imagined lives, as characters dream of their own futures. These imaginary lives lead to questionable actions in real time, and thus to the conflict and climax of the book.

So, while I would like to know who changes the most, I actually think the better question to address is: what changes the most throughout the novel? Even this will be difficult to answer with any certainty, but my feeling is that all of the characters change individually, but also as a group. Outside pressures and the forces of reality alter, and perhaps remove, those imaginary spaces. The inner feelings and emotions, once so fertile and free, become restricted, truncated, and even nonexistent. At the end, the novel departs from fairy tale, and enters a singular, real world. Perhaps it is a new world, but Eliot doesn’t address this. She simply plants the seeds of change.

Discussion of Adam Bede will continue into next week’s blog, along with the interplay between real world and fantasy. Then expect a quick dive into fairy tales themselves.

Many thanks to Classical Pursuits, Nancy Carr, and all those wonderful conversation partners!

Photo credit: Shutterstock/ Morphart Creation

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