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Synopsis

Adam Bede, the titular hero of George Eliots first novel, is of a character so sterling that one little anecdote serves to define his whole life and work ethic: Hes a carpenter, and he had done some work for a lady whose father, an old squire named Donnithorne, suggested that she pay him less than the fee he requested. Adam insisted that he would rather take no money for the job, for to accept a reduced amount would be like admitting he overcharges for shoddy work. By standing on his principles, he won his full fee in the end and cemented his reputation as a businessman of honor and acumen, proving his fairness to both his customers and himself.

Thus he seems an unlikely match for Hetty Sorrel, the prettiest girl in the village of Hayslope. Vain, selfish, materialistic, hating her laborious farm chores, Hetty bears more than a passing resemblance to Flauberts Madame Bovary. However, while Madame Bovarys unattainable dream world is inspired by her reading romances, Hetty had never read a novel so she cant find a shape for her expectations regarding love. Unable to foresee any possible consequences for her actions, she allows herself to be seduced by Arthur Donnithorne, the old squires grandson, who stands to inherit the land on which most of the Hayslopers live.

Arthur is a radiant example of Eliots mastery in complicated character creation. Acutely aware of his position in society, he has the kind of charisma with which he can talk to his tenants politely but with just the slightest hint of condescension and completely win their respect for his authority. In fact, he is so accustomed to receiving nothing but admiration for his apparent moral integrity that it comes as a genuine shock to him when Adam, a man he truly likes, reproaches him for his reckless behavior with Hetty, a girl both he and Adam truly love. And the tragic irony is that Hetty doesnt really deserve either of them.

Religion plays a curious role in the story. Adams brother Seth is infatuated with a woman named Dinah Morris, a cousins cousin to Hetty and a Methodist evangelistic preacher who was inspired by Wesley in the flesh. Her influence among the villagers comes to the attention of the Anglican Rev. Dauphin Irwine, the vicar of Hayslope, who visits her to try to figure out her game and concludes that shes essentially a good woman with a good heart. Indeed, she is the first one to sense that Hetty may be headed for troubled waters and earnestly offers her spiritual guidance, to which Hetty responds with distrust and irritation.

Most powerful of the novels images is that of Hetty wandering through the darkness and dangers of the English countryside in desperate search of the departed Arthur, carrying with her a symbol of their tormented love, and oblivious to the goodness of Adam, whose only desire is to protect her from the disappointment, shame, and disgrace that result from her pitiful reliance on Arthurs ability to buy her pretty things. But Eliot is too fond of her hero to let him suffer for long when the tides of fate come crashing violently to their inevitable shores, and the ultimate product is a novel of great compassion for its characters.

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