George Eliots’ Moral Concerns
George Eliot’s novels are all dramas of moral conflict. She did not believe in art for art’s sake, but in art for morality’s sake. According to Leslie Stephen, “George Eliot believed that a work of art not only may, but must, exercise also an ethical influence.” She believed that, “our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds”. If we yield to temptation and sin, suffering and nemesis are sure to follow.We have to reap the consequences of our own actions. Her characters suffer because they violate some moral code, because they yield to temptation whether consciously or unconsciously, in Adam Bede both Hetty and Arthur suffer for this reason. Poignant tragedy is the result because both Arthur and Hetty are creatures of weak moral fibre. They are unable to resist temptation. This moral weakness results in sin, which is followed by punishment and intense suffering. Arthur-Hetty story traces the movement from weakness to sin and from sin to nemesis.
Hetty: An Intensely Human Figure
Hetty Sorrel is the central figure in the novel. She is sketched neither as a temptress nor as an innocent virgin ruined by a profligate young man, but simply as a village girl who has romantic dreams of life with a handsome and rich lover. She pays the full price for her unthinking folly. Her suffering makes the reader take a sympathetic interest in the feelings and action of this limited, selfish yet intensely human figure. In respect of the suffering that she undergoes she is regarded as the central figure of the tragedy. In the words of Henry James: “The central figure of the book by virtue of her great misfortune is Hetty Sorrel. Her suffering gives her special eminence. In the presence of that misfortune no one else assuredly, has a right to claim dramatic pre-eminence.”
Her Sheltered Early life
In the beginning of the novel we find her, happy and contended, in her aunt’s home, looking after the usual work in a diary. Excepting rebukes from time to time from her aunt Mrs. Poyser, who really is fond of her, she lives a sheltered life and has not to face the hardships and difficulties which are the lot of man on this earth. But she is vain and frivolous. She loves finery, and is often lost in a world of dreams and fantasy. She is a creature of weak moral fibre, and is unable to resist the temptation when it comes to her in the form of Arthur Donnithorne.
Moral Weakness: Inability to Resist Temptation
Hetty is loved by Adam Bede, a skilled carpenter, hard-working and honest, widely admired and respected for his qualities of head and heart. He is a man of whose love every woman would be proud. Hetty, too, is aware of his sterling worth, but he is poor and so he cannot be her prince charming for he cannot provide her with all those comforts and luxuries, all those means to a splendid life, which she yearns for. Vain and frivolous as she is, the admiring glances of Arthur go to her head even during their first meeting in the dairy of Hall Farm. Foolish Hetty is intoxicated, it is her dream of a Prince sharing come true. Her imagination is excited and she at once dreams of the splendid life she would lead after her marriage with Arthur.
Her Dream World
The novelist comments on her dream world and writes, “A new influence had come over Hetty—gay, atmospheric, shaping itself into no self-confessed hopes or prospects, but producing a pleasant narcotic effect, making her tread the ground and go about her work in a sort of dream, unconscious of weight or effort, and showing her all things through a soft, liquid veil, as if she were living not in this world of brick and stone, but in a beautified world, such as the sun lights up for us in the waters. The poor child no more conceived at present the idea that the young Squire could ever be her lover, than a Baker’s pretty daughter in the crowd, whom a young emperor distinguishes by an imperial but admiring smile conceives that she shall be made empress. But the baker’s daughter goes home and dreams of the handsome young emperor, and perhaps weighs the flour amiss while she is thinking what a heavenly lot it must be to have him for a husband: and so poor Hetty had got a face and a presence haunting her waking and sleeping dreams; bright soft glances, had penetrated her, and suffused her life with a strange happy languor. Since then her inward life had consisted of little else than living through in memory the looks and words Arthur had directed towards, her—of little else than recalling the sensations with which she heard his voice outside the house, and saw him enter, and became conscious that his eyes were fixed on her, and then became conscious that a tall figure, looking down on her with eyes that seemed to touch her, was coming nearer in clothes of beautiful texture, with an odour like that of a flower garden borne on the evening breeze”. Hetty was quite uneducated, “a simple farmer’s girl, to whom a gentleman with a white hand was dazzling as an Olympian god”
Yielding to Temptation
Hetty was thus tempted, and the grown up child that she was, she at once yielded to temptation. When Hetty realized that Arthur loved her, she became thoroughly conscious of her own beauty. The scene in her bed-chamber shows her at her vainest. Dinah’s serious talk upsets her, not because she responded to it, but because she had the timidity of a luxurious, pleasure-seeking nature which shrinks from the hint of pain.
But poor, beautiful Hetty was destined to face great pain and her lovely dreams ended in tragedy. “The parting with Arthur was a double pain to her: mingling with the tumult of passion and vanity, there was a dim, undefined fear that the future might shape itself in some way quite unlike her dream.” Hetty’s girlish happiness died on the night that she received Arthur’s letter of farewell. There is no despair so absolute as that which comes with the first moments of our first great sorrow”. They met frequently, and Hetty continued to live and move in a world of fantasy; till one day they were observed by Adam. The fight in the wood followed and Adam compelled Arthur to write a letter to Hetty telling her in unambiguous terms that he could never marry her. All the romantic dreams of poor Hetty were thus shattered.
Hetty was tempted and she yielded to that temptation. This sin, the result of moral weakness, was followed swiftly by punishment and suffering. The two chapters—”Journey in Hope” and “Journey in Despair”—the two most powerful chapters in the novel, are the records of her deep spiritual anguish. She is dazed and bewildered by the tragedy that has over-taken her, moreso for when she realises that she is pregnant and marriage with Adam, has, therefore, become out of question. She is driven to desperation and contemplation of suicide by fear of shame and disgrace. She had no guiding principle to follow, for although she had attended church regularly, she had not absorbed a single Christian idea or feeling. Worn out with her wanderings to
and back to Stoniton, she gave birth prematurely in the house of a stranger, Sarah Stone. The next evening, feverish and half-crazy, she went out and tried to escape from her shame by abandoning her baby in the woods. Its cry haunted her and she returned—but too late. Facing the public disgrace of her trial and the knowledge that she was condemned by all, Hetty “shut her heart against her fellow-creatures”. Dinah alone was able, through her loving sympathy, to reach out and help her, convincing her of God’s mercy and removing her dread of perpetual remorse beyond the grave. A sort of spiritual regeneration takes place when she opens out her heart to Dinah, confesses her crime, and prays with her for God’s mercy. But this is not much of a regeneration. For Arthur is able to save her from execution, but not from transportation. Windsor
Thus Hetty’s story illustrates the moral truth that sin—any yielding to temptation—is sure to be followed by punishment and suffering. This truth is also illustrated by the character of Arthur. He too is a man of weak moral fibre, he too yields to temptation, and the result is the tragedy that wrecks poor Hetty’s life, as well as his own. He knew from the start that he could never marry Hetty, still he flirted with her, and had intimate relations with her. He was a man, superior to Hetty both in years and in experience of the world. As Arthur James points out, “A weak woman is, indeed, weaker than a weak man”, and so Arthur’s responsibility is much greater for the suffering and tragedy of poor Hetty.
His Responsibility for Hetty’s Tragedy
The way in which Arthur seduces Hetty—treats her as a juicy morsel to satisfy his lust—would make him the conventional villain of a melodrama, without the insight that the novelist has given us into his mind and soul. His is the tragedy of a weak man who is unable to live up to his good intentions. Writes R.T. Jones in this connection, “the innocence that Arthur represents consists in cultivating friendly relations with everybody; never willingly doing harm to anybody; and being willing to make amends for any harm he may accidentally do. This innocence is a matter of intentions, of meaning well and meaning no ill, and is necessarily presented in descriptions of his thoughts rather than in actions. Without the account of his intentions, his actions, objectively regarded, would be almost indistinguishable from those of calculated villainy.” For example consider the following:
“Do you always come back this way in the evening, or are you, afraid to come so lonely a road?”
‘Oh, no, sir, it’s never late; I always set out by , and it’s so light now in the evening. My aunt would be angry with, me if I didn’t get home before nine.’
‘Perhaps Craig, the gardener, comes to take care of you?’
A deep blush overspread Hetty’s face and neck. ‘I’m sure he doesn’t, I’m sure he never did; I wouldn’t lex him; I don’t like him she said hastily, and the tears of vexation had come so fast, that before she had done speaking, a bright drop rolled down her hot cheek. Then she felt ashamed to death that she was crying, and for one long instant her happiness was all gone. But in the next she felt an arm steal round her, and a gentle voice said—
‘Why, Hetty, what makes you cry? I didn’t mean to vex you. I wouldn’t vex you for the world, you little blossom. Come, don’t cry; look at me, else I shall think you won’t forgive me.’
‘Arthur had laid his hand on the soft arm that was nearest and was stooping towards Hetty with a look of coaxing entreaty……‘
Comments R.T. Jones, “If Arthur had been conventionally wicked Squire’s son setting out to seduce the village maiden he could hardly have made a better start. Yet George Eliot enables us to look at this scene—with the additional knowledge that there is no prospect of Arthur’s marrying Hetty—and still remain convinced that he means no ill.”
His Good Intentions—His Fatal Error
For we have seen how Arthur has tried not to allow himself to meet Hetty: “If he lunched with Gwaine and lingered chatting, he should not reach the Chase again till nearly five, when Hetty would be safe out of his sight in the House keeper’s room, and when she sets out to go home, it would be his lazy time after dinner, so he should keep out of her way altogether.” His error is to underestimate the strength of his impulse to meet Hetty; this becomes more evident in the sentences that follow, but is already implicit in his apparent belief that after-dinner laziness will be an adequate deterrent. He goes, but returns early, and the author’s generalisation serves to make the return intelligible to us and, at the same time, to make us aware of a common inconsistency which we may recognise in ourselves. “It is the favourite stratagem of our passions to sham a retreat, and to turn sharply round upon us at the moment we have made up our minds that the day is our own.”
Stratagems of Passion
The ‘stratagems of passion’ are seen with illuminating clarity when Arthur, after luncheon, is unable to ‘recall the feelings and reflections which had been decisive in his decision to avoid Hetty’. We are told of his conscious thoughts, and the self-deceptions and distortions of truth that we see in them make, so to speak, a chart of the subconscious force of his impulse to see her—as a strong underwater current, showing nosing on the surface, is yet known to be present by the extent to which its pull on the keel of a ship alters its course. It is in such accounts of motives, conscious and unconscious, that Arthur is created and exists as a character in the novel. Our recognition of his good intentions, self-deceptions and weaknesses of will makes the portrayal real and acceptable to us.
His Suffering and Punishment
As a result of his moral weakness in yielding to temptation, Arthur too suffers from deep spiritual anguish. His life is also wrecked. He is miserable, wretched and repentant. He tries to do his best, amends but he fails to save Hetty from transportation, and cannot heal the wounds that he has inflicted on himself, on Adam, on the Poysers, and on all those connected with the tragic tale of poor Hetty. However, by going away for several years Arthur made it possible for the Poysers and Adam to remain at Hayslope. He drank the bitter cup of repentance to the full, for, as he said to Adam, “I was all wrong from the very first, and horrible wrong has come of it. God knows, I’d give my life if I could undo it.”
In short, the novel is a study in moral weakness and its terrible consequences.