Thursday, November 18, 2010

Adam Bede

Last year I decided that George Eliot was going to be my new focus, having spent several years reading works by and about Elizabeth Gaskell. I started with Jenny Uglow’s bio of George Eliot, which was the penname of Maryann Evans. I confess I’m slightly disappointed with the bio—I was expecting the same depth and breadth that Uglow provided in her bio of Gaskell, but her bio of Eliot is much briefer and lighter. Nevertheless, I am sticking to my guns and reading Eliot’s works chronologically as I encounter them in the biography, although my pace is much slower than I had hoped having gotten bogged down in her early works.

Adam Bede is Eliot’s first novel. She transitioned from non-fiction to fiction with her set of three short stories that she published under the title Scenes of Clerical Life, which I found very slow going despite being fairly short. Adam Bede clearly grew out of her work with these earlier fictional scenes in that she explores issues of morality, community, familial relationships, and religious calling, particularly Methodism, but her characters in Adam Bede are much more fully developed and complex and her storytelling improved immensely between Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede. The former I had to force myself to continue reading and the latter I had to force myself to put down.

Although the three stories in Scenes of Clerical Life are written in Eliot’s clear prose and provide her characteristic compelling word images—she really is masterful at depicting realistic scenes without becoming pedantic with her level of details- I never really felt a warmth or interest in the characters in Scenes, whereas with Adam Bede, I was able to get to know and care deeply about the fate of Adam, his brother Seth, their mother, their neighbors, the Poysers, and the Poyser’s two nieces, Dinah Morris and Hetty Sorrel. The novel passed the acid test in being able to move me to tears at several points near its end, which is always a good sign.

Back when The Common Reader catalog was still a going concern, I remember reading the blurb on Eliot’s Middlemarch, my all-time favorite novel, and nodding in agreement with the description of the book as being “the wisest book I’ve ever read.” One of the aspects of Eliot’s style that I love is her willingness to articulate the points on her moral compass, and I was happy to see that aspect of Middlemarch in Adam Bede as well. She toyed with it a bit in Scenes, but with Adam Bede her narrative voice comes into its own.

She does a superb job of using her characters and their story to explore issues, but she does what so many authors, especially modern authors, don’t do, namely use her power as a narrator to reflect on the human condition, and she does this with such compassion and understanding for human frailty that I always come away from Middlemarch, and now Adam Bede, with a sense of fortified optimism despite the sorrow and tragedy that tempers the pastoral world Eliot portrays so well.

It seems to me I’ve read critics complain a bit about the unrealistic perfection of Adam himself, but I found him to be a flawed and therefore an interesting character. It’ s true that he is handsome, strong, and noble, but he is also willfully naïve when it comes to Hetty Sorrel to the point you want to shake him. Likewise, Arthur Donnithorne, his rival and counterpart, is truly a tragic figure because he has so many good qualities. I couldn’t help but compare the story of Hetty Sorrel to both Gaskell’s Ruth that preceded it and Hardy’s Tess that came after it. I think Eliot’s Arthur Donnithorne is a more complex and sympathetic villain than either Gaskell’s Bellingham or Hardy’s Alec d’Uberville.

Now for the BBC adaptation from 1991. I will give it a try, though I was shocked and appalled by the Woman in White travesty I tried to watch after completing that book so I’m not holding out a lot of hope that this will wow me…but you never know! Susannah Harker played the divine Methodist preaching woman, Dinah Morris, before she became Jane Bennet in BBC’s masterpiece Pride and Prejudice. Dinah is actually my favorite character in the book, and I found in her more than a little bit of Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke, one of my favorite heroines, particularly in how she ultimately lets herself live within the passionate love that she cannot disown.

I cannot imagine not rereading Adam Bede again in the not too distant future. It's a wonderful book by a brilliant novelist that has given me a lot to think about.


  1. I think I'll wait for your assessment of the BBC adaptation before I give it a try. It's been long enough since reading that I don't think the story would bother me, but I have no patience with low quality adaptations after seeing so many excellent ones that have been made in recent years. But, like you say, you never know!

  2. I've never read Adam Bede but I agree with your choice of reading George Eliot'w work as you did with with Gaskell. I've only read her The Mill on the Floss but only excepts from Middlemarch. Now I've got Daniel Deronda (I loved the BBC adaptation starring Hugh Dancy, Romola Garai, Hugh Bonneville) on my TBR list. Then sooner or later Middlemarch. G. Eliot is one of those writers I've always studied about but never read actually! Shame on me you say? You are right. Going to remedy soon! Thanks for sharing, Jane.

  3. Somewhere in this house, I have an old copy of this. I have no idea where it came from and I'm not sure why I kept it if I haven't read it and don't even remember where it is. But you've inspired me to go on a search!

  4. Janet, I really admire your goal-setting and follow-through on your reading goals. Thanks for the astute analysis of Adam Bede, which I've never read. Can't wait until you get to Middlemarch!

    I agree with you that many modern authors--not in literary fiction--don't reflect on the human condition, or on much of anything else. It's all about the plot!

  5. I've read Middlemarch (though I confess it was after watching the excellent BBC adaptation) but I haven't read any other Eliot novels yet - so after your review I think I'll have to revisit her books.

  6. George Eliot is one of my most favorite writers. Her prose are incredibly complex and philosophical - a delight as well as a challenge to read. The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda are two of my favorite books ever written. I am very much looking forward to hearing your thoughts as this journey continues - perhaps I'll be inspired to reread myself!