Adam Bede: Theme Analysis

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Appearance vs. Reality

Eliot uses the omniscient narrator against which to contrast the limitations of the individual point of view. The omniscient narrator, knowing everything about the characters, can expose their innermost thoughts to the reader. The characters, however, do not have this advantage. They deal with their preconceptions of each other and with their own illusions blindly. Eventually, time and circumstance force the individual out of illusion into a more mature and realistic evaluation of life.

Adam, Hetty, and Arthur form a romantic triangle that becomes more and more entangled and complicated by their conflicting fantasies and dreams. Each considers his or her own inner drama as primary and the other people as supporting actors. Adam assumes because Hetty is pretty she must also be lovable and virtuous. He has dreamed of her as his wife in their own little cottage, never thinking Hetty is ambitious for material wealth and station. Arthur thinks of Hetty as a gentleman’s flirtation, which he can conveniently leave off when he is finished. Hetty thinks Arthur is going to change her world, and suddenly she will have money and power. The tragedy tears apart these illusions in a painful way. Of the three, Adam alone is able to rise from the ashes to a better life, for he is an unselfish person and has not been the cause of injury.

Arthur’s birthday party shows the dynamic of the overlapping illusions. Hetty believes Arthur loves her and is going to acknowledge her. Arthur watches Hetty but pretends not to know her, playing his part as the gentleman. Adam is excited about dancing with Hetty, who is indifferent to him. The accident with the locket at the dance begins to give him a clue that all is not as it seems. When Adam actually sees Arthur kissing Hetty in the wood, he realizes he has been “measuring my work from a false line” and has to begin again (Chpt. 29, p. 319). He speaks as a carpenter, who, once he sees a mistake, tries to rectify it. But it takes him a long time to change his perception. Even during the trial, he continues to think the tragedy is only Arthur’s fault. He cannot believe Hetty is evil. The narrator tells us, “He created the mind he believed in out of his own, which was large, unselfish, tender” (Chpt. 33, p. 354).

The theme of self-delusion comes out strongly in the metaphoric scene where Hetty is in her room secretly looking at herself in a mirror at night with all her finery. She has only a little light and a blotched mirror in which to look; she cannot see her whole self at one time. She goes through great exertions with several mirrors trying to see herself. Symbolically it describes the characters without self-knowledge, especially Arthur and Hetty. They are the ones who suffer most.

The Consequences of Actions

Adam suffers when Hetty sins and goes to prison, for he knows “it can never be undone (Chpt. 41, p. 424).” Arthur only begins to understand “the irrevocableness of his own wrongdoing”(Chpt. 29, p. 313) after Adam sees him with Hetty and knocks him down. The physical blow makes him see, “Adam could receive no amends; his suffering could not be cancelled” (Chpt. 29, p. 313). This refers to the fact that Arthur knows he has already deflowered the bride that Adam had been hoping for. In fact, the consequences have not yet reached their worst limit. Like a stone thrown in a pond, the ripples move out and out and affect the whole pond. Mr. Irwine tries to explain to Adam how “The evil consequences that may lie folded in a single act of selfish indulgence” (Chpt. 41, p. 424) affect more than the single person. Adam’s desire to revenge Hetty’s wrong on Arthur is part of the evil and could be a seed of further evil.

Where does it start and where does it stop? Eliot is the psychologist who tracks wrongdoing and its consequences from the innermost thought to the external result. Arthur’s desire for Hetty and the seduction take place in spring and summer of one year. The results last a lifetime. Arthur creates the tragedy step by step. His illusion is that he can stop the momentum somewhere in its trajectory.

First, he believes he can control the impulse through good intentions; then by leaving town; then by confession. When he can’t control the impulse, then he will control the extent of the action: he will just give Hetty a present; he will just give her a kiss, and so on. His lack of control over himself is always excused with the thought that if he can’t avoid the wrong, at least he can make up for it. He will give money, favors, something to make amends. His greatest suffering is that he never can undo the wrong to Hetty, and he can never make up for it. She dies. Arthur is not bad, but he is a mushy thinker and does not understand what the more scientific narrator knows about the laws of cause and effect: they operate in the physical realm, and in the moral realm.

Eliot is not exactly a fatalist. She does believe in free will. Adam was able to reject his desire for revenge before it got out of hand. In Arthur’s case, however, she presents the slippery slope of the weak person’s fall. Each step makes the person less and less capable of withdrawing: “There is a terrible coercion in our deeds which may first turn the honest man into a deceiver, and then reconcile him to the change; for this reason—that the second wrong presents itself to him in the guise of the only practicable right” (Chpt. 29, p. 315).

Higher Human Nature and the Mystery of Love

Although evil cannot be undone, it can be transmuted. Hetty’s sacrifice becomes the means for Adam to rise. The first five books are like a five-act tragedy, ending with Hetty’s conviction of murder. The sixth book is anti-climactic but necessary to show Eliot’s full philosophy of human development and how good comes from evil.

Dinah and Mr. Irwine are the primary agents for helping Adam and the community to heal from the shock of Hetty’s fall. Both are developed human beings and models for Eliot in that they accept the weakness of others with sympathy. They do not preach at people; they forgive and show how to forgive. Adam slowly uses his sorrow to grow into a better person. If there is a slippery slope down, there is also a way upwards: “The  growth of higher feeling within us is like the growth of faculty, bringing with it a sense of added strength: we can no more wish to return to a narrower sympathy” (Chpt. 54, p. 530). Dinah is the one who gives him the steady love and trust that frees him to go forward.

Dinah tells Adam we must “learn to see the good in the midst of much that is unlovely” (Chpt. 50, p. 486). Is this unwarranted optimism? It is, rather, Dinah’s ability to see potential. She does not even give up on Hetty, but helps her to confess and regain her human nature. Dinah tells Seth in a letter, “Infinite Love is suffering too. . . . sorrow is then part of love, and love does not seek to throw it off” (Chpt. 30, p. 329). This is the secret of sympathy and acceptance that allows life to grow. On the other hand, Hetty’s response of pride and fear shuts her down and turns her to stone. She has already died before the trial.

In an early scene, the narrator explains how Dinah uses her imaginative and intuitive prayer to help others. She feels, for instance, the “blank in Hetty’s nature” (Chpt. 15, p. 157) but feels it in the context of an unbounded sympathy and love, moved thus to warn Hetty of her coming danger. She explains her method of sympathy to Hetty: “I feel their [other people’s] lot as if it was my own, and I take comfort in spreading it before the Lord and resting in His love, on their behalf” (Chpt. 14, p. 141). Dinah stays with Hetty in this way up till the moment of execution, trying to bear her spiritual burden and lift her up.

Love is the counter force to evil and selfishness. It is a mystery that one does not need to label as a doctrine or sect, but it is real. Eliot presents a sort of ladder of love when she speaks of Seth’s love for Dinah. His love for someone or something greater than his small ego enlarges him in the same way religion or a Beethoven symphony makes people experience “they are mere waves and ripples in an unfathomable ocean of love and beauty” (Chpt. 3, p. 39). Thus does Eliot present in Adam Bede her vision of the full range of human tragedy and human glory. Humans can fall, but they can also rise.

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