Adam: His Faults
Critic after critic has expressed the view that Adam is too good to be true. It has been said that he is a perfect human being, George Eliot’s ideal, fully mature and enlightened from the very beginning. But the truth is otherwise. A moments reflection shows that he is proud, hard and self-righteous with little sympathy for ordinary sinners, which we all poor mortals are. As a matter of fact, the novel traces the process by which he gradually sheds his faults—of his education, enlightenment and maturity, through a process of suffering and love—and becomes ultimately a complete man, a fully integrated personality, through his love of Dinah and his marriage with her. The process of his education occupies the centre of the novel. The point would become clear, if we briefly consider this process.
Hard and Self-righteous
There can be no denying the fact that Adam is hard and self-righteous. In the very chapter we are told, “The idle tramps always felt sure they could get a copper from Seth; they scarcely ever spoken to Adam”. This is the flaw (not a fatal one) in Adam’s innocence: his confidence that he is righteous and that it is not too hard for anyone to be so—suggested in the hymn he sings and confirmed in the conversation that follows—makes him less readily accessible to compassion than his brother. Even so, it is perfectly appropriate that the chapter should end with Adam’s singing, on his way home, the same hymn—and that the impression produced by the whole chapter is one of delight in a life that has (and not only in the workshop) the quality of good, sound craftsmanship: the hidden joints no less well made than the visible ones. For to Adam, evidently the thought that,
‘God’s all seeing eye surveys
Thy secret thoughts, thy works and ways’.
Thy secret thoughts, thy works and ways’.
is a matter for cheerful song.
Proud of his Clarity of Vision
He does not knowingly wrong anybody, but he does not hesitate to hurt. He is convinced of the clarity of his vision and his understanding: “I’ve seen pretty clear, ever since I could cast up a sum, as you can never do what’s wrong without breeding sin and trouble more than you can ever see…..“. Under the impact of the shock which he receives when he sees his friend Arthur making love to his beloved, Hetty, his confidence in his own righteousness is shaken, and gradually he comes to realise that one cannot fore-see the consequences of his own wrong doing. When he sees the two in the wood, he at once knows, “how incomplete his mental seeing has been: He understood it all now—the locket, and everything else that had been doubtful to him a terrible scoring light showed him the hidden letters that changed the meaning of the past.” This is the beginning of the process of his education and self-realisation.
Imbalance of Head and Heart
As George R. Creeger points out in the beginning, Adam may be intelligent, diligent, trustworthy and loyal, but he is not yet a mature man. This is so because in him the head outweighs the heart. He is wrathful, stern, stiff and masterful, unyielding, harsh, hot and hasty, intolerant and essentially humourless. Whenever, in George Eliot’s moral world, there is such an imbalance of head and heart, intellectual keenness is in danger if turning into hardness and pride. About Adam’s pride there is little disagreement; we hear of it on all sides and are given frequent examples of it. [The same is true of sides and are given frequent examples of it]. The same is true of Adam’s hardness, which consist in has having “too little fellow-feeling with the weakness that errs in spite of foreseen consequences”. Without this fellow-feeling, George Eliot continues, “how are we to get enough patience and charity towards our stumbling, falling companions in the long and changeful journey?” The answer, implicit in the first part of Adam Bede, is that we do not. Repeatedly in the opening chapters of the book we see Adam, proudly in control of his own life, losing all patience with lesser mortals who stumble and fall—like his own father, for example. “The function of old Thias Bede as a character is, indeed, precisely that of revealing the extent of his son’s hardness. The same is true of Arthur. Towards both men, Adam is unforgiving, and even when he repents of his severity, the repentance is futile because it reflects no genuine increase in his capacity for sympathy.”
His Emotional Involvement with Hetty
The reason is that Adam is not fully involved emotionally with either his father or Arthur. Because of this he can neither participate in their plight nor understand it. What is necessary for Adam is that he should get “his heartstrings bound round the weak and erring, so that he may share not only the outward consequence of their error, but their inward suffering”. Precisely such an emotional involvement exists for Adam in his relationship with Hetty. This relationship is not a rational one; rather it is a passion which overmasters him. Adam’s heart-strings are bound fast to Hetty.
His Consequent Suffering
As result of this emotional involvement, Adam suffers, and learns to share the suffering of others. He suffers when he sees Arthur and Hetty together in the wood, he suffers when he thinks that Hetty has run away to Arthur to avoid their approaching marriage, and he suffers still more when Hetty is arrested and tried for child-murder. He suffers from deep spiritual anguish, but his response is different from that of Hetty: where she sank into passivity and inaction, he goes in the opposite direction toward violent action. Hetty fell below the level even of human craving; Adam lusts for revenge. The response of both is in keeping with their characters: Hetty, whose hardness is that of selfishness, has no will at all: faced with a situation she cannot handle, she is brought to a dead quiet. Adam, whose hardness is that of pride, is all active will, and he lashes out. But the fierce desire for activity does nothing to mitigate his suffering the marks of which, as in the case of Hetty, are revealed in the changes in his physical appearance.
Regeneration Through Love
At this crisis in his life there is yet the possibility for regeneration through a human agent exercising the power of love. Adam’s suffering is indeed a pre-condition for his regeneration. The agent is a double one: Mr. Irwine and Bartle Massey. Both men, themselves fully mature, do what they can to help Adam in his misery. Sensing in him a potentiality for violence and a desire to take vengeance on Arthur, they seek to divert him. Irwine uses the power of reason, arguing that to injure Arthur will not help Hetty and that passionate violence will lead only to another crime. Adam agrees, but it is not full acceptance. This full acceptance is brought about by Bartle Massey.
Role of Bartle Massey
The scene takes place in Stoniton in what George Eliot pointedly calls “an upper room”, a “duel upper room”. Adam, who in this scene comes to comprehend the necessity for compassion and forgiveness in life and thereby achieves what George Eliot calls an awakening to “full consciousness”, participates in a kind of symbolic Lord’s supper. Before reporting the latest news of the trial Bartle says, “I must see to your having a bit of the loaf, and some of that wine Mr. Irwine sent this morning…..I must have a bit and a sip myself. Drink a drop with me, my lad—drink with me.” At first Adam’s thoughts continue to play bitterly on his own suffering and his desire for revenge, but gradually, as Bartle speaks, his hardness melts and finally he declares that he will go to the court and stand by Hetty, that her own flesh and blood were cowardly to cast her off. To which Bartle replies: “Take a bit, then, and another sip, Adam, for the love of me.” Nerved by an active resolution, Adam took a morsel of bread, and drank some wine. He was haggard and unshaven, as he had been yesterday, but he stood upright again, and looked more like the Adam Bede of former days.
Attainment of Maturity—Love of Dinah
Adam’s decision to stand by Hetty, an expression of his old love for her as well as of his new willingness to involve his life with the suffering of others, has two consequences: it leads to his being able to forgive Arthur, and it makes him capable of a new sort of love. He realises the truth that “Love does not exist without sympathy; sympathy does not exist without suffering in common.” For many, the love which subsequently grows between Dinah and Adam (as well as their marriage) seems an anti-climax. “While granting that George Eliot has some difficulty in focusing the conclusion, I cannot agree that it is an “artistic weakness”, as Henry James would have it: without it one is left with two of the principal figures—Adam and Dinah—still incomplete human beings. They have suffered in common, they have in common painful memories of Hetty; such common suffering gives rise mutual sympathy, love follows such sympathy, and hence it is in the fitness of things that the two should come together and get married”. This love leads to the fulfilment of his personality, and the process of his growth and maturity is completed. There is now a full integration of head and heart.