Adam Bede: Essay Q&A

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1.  How can Eliot be considered a writer of realism?

Chapter 17 of Adam Bede contains Eliot’s artistic manifesto. She claims her purpose is not to depict ideal characters but “the real breathing men and women” (Chpt. 17, p. 178) who are not always beautiful or virtuous. She compares her realism to Dutch paintings that are “faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence” (Chpt. 17, p. 179). These homely scenes focus on such images as an old woman with a flower pot, rather than on clouds and angels. The author too prefers a village wedding to an epic story. The purpose for dwelling on the homely is to increase love, pity, and acceptance of “These fellow-mortals” even if they are “ugly, stupid, inconsistent people” (Chpt. 17, p. 178). Eliot admits that it is difficult to “say the exact truth” (Chpt. 17, p. 178) about life, but it is better than indulging in fantasies and falsehoods.

Eliot’s devotion to realism in storytelling came from her admiration of European novelists such as Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert. These authors moved away from the romanticizing of life to the uglier and common side of human nature. They wanted to show life as it is in real settings, with historical events as the background. Like the Dutch paintings Eliot speaks of, their portraits are faithful to details, even with crooked noses, or other flaws. This sort of writing fit in with Eliot’s fascination for science with its emphasis on observation, accumulation of data, and hypotheses about the laws of nature. She says she will write as though “she were in the witness-box narrating my experience on oath” (Chpt. 17, p. 177).

What led Eliot to this aesthetic was the number of “silly” novels being churned out by Victorian women authors for other women. She described these novels in her 1856 essay for the Westminster Review, “Silly Novels by Women Novelists.” The essay begins, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists are a genus with many species, determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them—the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic.” She refers to the kind of formula romances that are still found in supermarkets, with no original thought, and with much moralizing. Her novels, on the other hand, depicting common people, she conceived as forums for intellectual discussion and inquiry into human nature.

Critics have questioned her claims to realism, however, as being biased according to her own philosophy. She consistently comments as the omniscient narrator on her characters’ behavior, judging them to be right or wrong. Realism today usually means showing, not telling—presenting characters and action without intrusive comment by a narrator. Nevertheless, Eliot does not claim to be without her own point of view. She says she gives “a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind” (Chpt. 17, p. 177). Even the scientist or witness on the stand can only present the facts they have observed. Her excessive commentary on the characters is for the sake of finding the laws of psychological truth.

2.  How are Romantic ideas reflected in the telling of Adam Bede?

Although she called herself a realist and eschewed the sentimental, Eliot was very much influenced in her pastoral depictions in Adam Bede by the poetry of William Wordsworth. (Arthur Donnithorne even mentions the book written by Wordsworth and his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, in Chapter 5). Wordsworth’s poems on rural people, though to a degree sentimental, brought attention to the real tragedies of country folk as their peaceful way of life was disappearing at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth, the time frame of Adam Bede. Wordsworth’s portrait of the shepherd Michael, for instance, who loses his son to the dissolutions of city life; or Margaret in “The Ruined Cottage” whose husband goes off to war and leaves her in poverty; or the deformed leech-gatherer who teaches the poet how to endure a hard life—these were the literary archetypes that Eliot drew on. Hetty is similarly like Wordsworth’s Martha Ray in “The Thorn” who kills her child and then stays rooted to the spot. Wordsworth declares he becomes a wiser person from these sorrowful tales of simple country people, learning “the secret spirit of humanity” from “meditative sympathies” (“The Ruined Cottage”). Such portraits are elegiac, suffused with nostalgia for a slower way of life closer to the essential human emotions. The narrator of Adam Bede similarly laments that “Leisure is gone—gone where the spinning wheels are gone, and the pack-horses, and the slow wagons, and the pedlars” (Chpt. 52, p. 514). Since Eliot grew up in a rural environment, she saw the types Wordsworth had written about, and his affection for them and attention to the lessons they teach, was a precedent for her own portraiture of English farmers.

The Poysers and their efficient farm are the focus for Eliot’s memories of the rural classes with their dialect, folksy wisdom and wit, and hardworking nature. They have the endurance of Wordsworth’s peasants, having been on the land for generations. Though Squire Donnithorne legally owns the estate, it is the like of Adam Bede and the Poysers who have a relationship to the land they work and love that bring prosperity to the community. Arthur Donnithorne instinctively respects the people who work his estate and wants them to believe in him. He knows they understand how to make the land produce. Yet he looks on the people primarily as his subjects.

Eliot uses aspects of Romanticism in making comments on class distinctions. She romanticizes the common man as closer to nature and real life. Mr. Irwine for instance, tells the farmers at Arthur’s party that people of high station receive all the attention rather than “those whose lives are passed in humble, everyday work, but every sensible man knows how necessary that humble everyday work is and how important to us that it should be done well” (Chpt. 24, p. 268). Adam Bede is very much a Wordsworthian type, like the strong shepherd, Michael, believing that “good carpentry was God’s will” (Chpt. 50, p. 489).

Eliot uses humor in depicting the ignorance of country folk, for example, Mr. Craig on politics, but the lower classes ultimately seem wiser in the ways of life than the pampered people like Arthur who do not have to work. The farmers and workers of Hayslope are the ones who are the stable element of social life, while the Donnithornes come and go. As for “the common, coarse people,” “It is so needful we should remember their existence” so they are not left out of “our religion and philosophy,” says the narrator (Chpt. 17, p. 180).

3.  What is the Religion of Humanity?

Eliot was raised in an Evangelical religion, which, like Dinah’s religion, embraced a belief in the need for personal salvation. Evangelicals went directly to scripture for guidance and inward experience of religion, such as Dinah has in her visions. Eliot lost her faith at an early age when she began to read German critics, such as David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus (1835) and Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1841). They were  both translated by Eliot into English, and represented for her a demythologized view of Christianity, valuable chiefly for its ethics rather than metaphysics. These writers were aware of the new scholarly research calling into question the literal historical truth of the Bible.

Eliot, nevertheless, does not reject religion. It has a good effect on most people if taught in a humane way. Mr. Irwine is the Church of England vicar who is set up as an ideal clergyman. His idea is to “live and let live”; he refuses to get involved in a war of the religious sects. When Joshua Rann complains about Dinah and the Methodists, he says it is unimportant. After Irwine meets Dinah, he respects her as genuine, though they differ in beliefs. He is tolerant and “tender to other men’s failings and unwilling to impute evil” (Chpt. 5, p. 70).

As for Methodism, the narrator dismisses the doctrines and instead focuses on “the rudimentary culture” that Dinah brings the people, which links their thoughts to a “pitying, loving, infinite Presence” (Chpt. 3, p. 39). The narrator, as an enlightened unbeliever, thinks it is all right to have “erroneous theories and very sublime feelings” like Dinah has (Chpt. 3, p. 40). Who cares what doctrines Dinah believes in? She is a comforter in her unselfish care of others, just as Mr. Irwine manages to be “everyone’s friend” in the tragic crisis (Chpt. 40, p. 421).

Mr. Ryde, the narrow-minded and dogmatic clergyman who replaces Mr. Irwine sometime in the future, is described by Adam Bede as a “dose o’ physic” compared to the “good meal o’ victual” received in Mr. Irwine’s presence (Chpt. 17, p. 183). The important thing about religion for Eliot is that it should teach “the heart of man is the same everywhere” (Chpt. 10, p. 113). True religious emotion is “a vague sense of goodness and love, and of something right lying underneath and beyond all this sorrowing life” (Chpt. 10, p. 114). “The secret of deep human sympathy”(Chpt. 17, p. 180) is thus the basis of Eliot’s Religion of Humanity, based not on doctrine, but on love of one another. Sympathy for others is a higher stage of spiritual growth than mere intellectual belief in something, according to Auguste Comte, Eliot’s philosophical mentor on religion.

4.  What is the place of suffering in Eliot’s philosophy?

Eliot was greatly influenced by her reading of Greek tragedy. She transferred some of the principles of tragedy to the story of Hetty and Arthur. Arthur fits the tragic character as a noble person with one fatal flaw that brings his downfall. Hetty is the tragic victim whose death purges the social body of evil. In an important conversation in Chapter 16 between Arthur and Mr. Irwine, they discuss the tragic idea of character and fate. Irwine says his mother has predicted Arthur will be ruled by the woman he chooses, but Irwine doesn’t want to believe Arthur has such a weak character. Arthur thinks Mr. Irwine’s point is an evil omen, for he is already helplessly gone over Hetty. Arthur tries to bring up the idea that circumstance could be to blame for a wrong choice. Irwine reminds him of “Nemesis,” the name of the Greek goddess of retribution; suffering is the Nemesis of wrongdoing, and one’s good intentions don’t count, for “Consequences are unpitying” and they are rarely confined to ourselves (Chpt. 16, p. 171). This foreshadows both Arthur’s fall and the suffering that spreads to other people, especially to Hetty, Adam, and the Poysers.

Eliot asserts in the novel that character is fate: “a man can never do anything at variance with his own nature” (Chpt. 16, p. 171). Arthur’s character is weak and lazy. He gets into trouble by letting things get worse with Hetty, hoping nothing bad will happen. Eliot says, however, “Our deeds determine us as much as we determine our deeds” (Chpt. 29, p. 315). Arthur’s character determines what he does, and what he does further limits his choices. This is the slippery slope that Adam describes as his father’s downfall into drunkenness: “there’s no slipping up hill again, and no standing still when once you’ve begun to slip down” (Chpt. 4, p. 50). Arthur’s guilt and suffering over Hetty’s fate are retribution for his mistake, but Adam’s suffering over Hetty is not entirely his fault, just as it isn’t his fault his father is a drunkard and causes the family to suffer. Eliot speaks of “Nature, that great tragic dramatist” who “knits us together,” (Chpt. 4, p. 41) tying people by blood ties or friendship into sad situations beyond our control. Suffering cannot be entirely avoided, but it is better not to be the cause of it.

If suffering is a form of natural retribution for wrongdoing, it is also nature’s way of purifying and deepening character. Eliot says of Adam’s agony at Hetty’s trial: “Deep, unspeakable suffering may well be called a baptism” (Chpt. 40, p. 427). Sorrow, for Eliot, can be a transformative force “passing from pain into sympathy,” (Chpt. 50, p. 488) and this is the opportunity for spiritual growth. Both Adam and Arthur became better people after the tragedy. Hetty, on the other hand, cannot profit from suffering. It makes her hard and unable to receive help. For her, suffering is “Nemesis,” and her death seems inevitable.

5.  Is Eliot too hard on Hetty Sorrel?

Eliot likes to set up the lives of her characters as though they are sociological experiments and she, the omniscient narrator, is the scientist gathering data. Throughout the narrative, she draws conclusions from the facts given. Readers sometimes feel that Eliot stacks the deck against some of her characters to prove her hypotheses. For instance, she maintains that Hetty comes to a bad end because she is not morally developed. Eliot tries to give proof of this. In explaining why Hetty becomes engaged to Adam after being dumped by Arthur, the narrator, far from sounding like an objective scientist, tells us that Hetty is a “little trivial soul” that has “no supreme sense of right” (Chpt. 31, p. 340). Such a shallow soul is ready to “leap from a temporary sorrow into a life-long misery” and of course, drag Adam with her (Chpt. 31, p. 340).

Leading up to this point, the narrator has repeatedly compared Hetty to a kitten, a dog,  a butterfly, and a pigeon, implying her intelligence is little better than an animal’s. She is leading a “sleeping life” (Chpt. 15, p.160). Hetty, in other words, has a pretty surface but is without any humanity. She has a hard heart and feather-head according to Mrs. Poyser. She lives in “narcotic dreams” (Chpt. 9, p. 100), never thinking of anyone else.

After Hetty is in trouble, wandering the countryside alone, about to give birth to her illegitimate child and trying to commit suicide, the narrator is suddenly sympathetic: “My heart bleeds for her as I see her toiling along on her weary feet” (Chpt. 37, p. 391). The last part of the story makes us feel tragic pity for the waste of her life. The narrator suspends her harsh judgment and follows Hetty’s fearful descent into murder, making it believable that she could be in some temporary shock. This is closer to the sympathy and understanding the narrator has been preaching. Unlike the more believable fall of Arthur, who is a normal feeling person that we watch step by step slip into error, Hetty is harshly condemned outright as a sort of witch before she does anything. Thus, though the reader is prepared for her to fail by what Eliot tells us about her, her character is drawn as an extreme example of selfish evil, even as Dinah is drawn as extreme example of unselfish good. Are they both set up to prove Eliot’s moral? The reader has to decide.

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