A Compact Whole
The plot of Adam Bede is much better constructed, it is more coherent and well-knit, than that of many a contemporary novel. This is so because the novel was not published in parts. It was not serialised in any magazine, but was even, at first, published in book-form. So revision and excision could be possible. Loose odds and ends were tied up, and everything superfluous was rigidly excluded. There is not a single character or event in the whole novel which does not further it’s action. The novel is a compact whole, it is like a well-constructed building from which not a single brick can be taken out without damaging the whole structure.
The Four Stories—Their Integration
From George Eliot’s own account of the genesis of the novel, it is clear that she was quite alive to the problem of construction. There are four different stories in the novel (a) Adam-Hetty love story (b) Arthur-Hetty Sorrel love-story (c) Adam-Dinah love-story, and (d) The mutual relations of Arthur and Adam. The problem was how to integrate these four stories into a single whole. The story of Hetty—the girl who is seduced by the Squire’s son and is convicted of child-murder—forms the core of the novel. The interlinking of the various stones is made possible by the relations of Adam and Arthur to each other and to Hetty, and the marriage of Adam and Dinah rounds up the whole, and satisfies contemporary conventions by linking the lives of the hero and heroine at the close.
There is also thematic unity. The story grows like a plant out of the idea or theme that, failure to resist temptation is a moral weakness, and any yielding to temptation is sure to be followed by divine punishment and consequent suffering. This theme is inter-linked with the theme of moral enlightenment, self-education and regeneration. The moment of disenchantment, when all illusions and self-deceptions are shattered, comes to all alike. This is illustrated by the stories of Arthur, Hetty and Adam. Such are the themes out of which the story evolves step by step, logically and inexorably, and the characters and their stories are seen but to be the exposition or illustration of these themes and ideas.
The novels of George Eliot are “organic wholes” inasmuch as the story, the character and the social environment are well-integrated. The social environment forms the outer circle which evelopes the inner circle, i.e. the principal characters with whose life and fortunes the novel is concerned. For example, in Adam Bede the life of Hayslope envelops the tragedy. We come to know all grades of its society, artisans, labourers, farmers, rector, schoolmaster, innkeeper and Squire. It is an active community in which most men or women have work to do and their character is affected by that work. That character is also the product of religious influences; we become aware of the impact of Methodism upon the inhabitants of Hayslope and of the more subtly pervasive influence of traditional Anglicanism. In the Third Book the whole community is assembled at Donnithorne Chase to celebrate the young Squire’s coming of age; by that time the pattern of living out of which the central characters emerge is clearly established and their drama is already under way. After the climax, when Hetty Sorrel has been condemned to death, reprieved and deported, and another author would feel that the work was complete, there is a Sixth Book balancing the Third. In it the rhythm of Hayslope life is re-established and, with the inevitable gaps made by the intervening event, a Harvest supper reassembles the same community as celebrated the young Squire’s birthday.
Social Environment and the Central Tragedy
The central tragedy is intimately connected with this background. The full effect of Arthur Donnithorne’s yielding to the sensuous appeal of the pretty child-like Hetty and of all that ensues depends upon the relation of both characters to their world. The pride and well-grounded self-respect of the Poysers established in the reader’s mind by the vivid pictures of their surroundings, their working day, their home life, their Sunday observance, and the neighbours’ opinion of them, all play their part in causing the tragedy and in heightening the bitterness of its effect. It is the social background the Poysers have provided for their niece and the standard of conduct imbibed from it that make it inevitable for Hetty to take flight before the birth of her baby; it is the esteem in which they are held by which the reader measures their shame and it is the clear sense he acquires of their identification with Hayslope by which he measures the anguish as well as the probability of their contemplated uprooting when the shame is known to them. Similarly, it is Arthur’s upbringing, his relations with his grandfather, the Squire, his high conception of the love and esteem he will earn from all his dependents when he inherits the land, that explain the price he pays for his weakness and his suffering.
There is no part of what we have learnt of the outer circle that does not affect our sense of the inner. The cultured benignity of the Rector, the moral enthusiasm of the Methodists, the simple ignorance of the country-folk, all make their own impact on the central characters and help to determine the events. Although the impression while we read is of a leisurely sequence of naturalistic scenes of comedy or of pathos and of a world richly populated with entertaining characters, when we look back we find that every individual scene or character is directly or indirectly related to the simple story at the core of the book, of the carpenter’s betrothed betrayed by the Squire’s grandson. In its setting this commonplace story becomes widely significant. The simple, well-contrived pattern conveys the sense of a social structure enclosing four human beings as completely as the soil encloses the roots of growing plant and, in so doing, it illustrates one aspect of the author’s vision of life.
Integrations with the Physical Environment
Not only are the story and character integrated with their social environment, they are also well-integrated in the present novel with their physical environment. They are symbolic of it. They have the softness and fertility of Loamshire, but they have also its hardness, its spiritual deadness. Dinah’s preaching on Hayslope green leaves the audience, with rare exceptions, untouched. They are not receptive to religion, for their life of ease and self-indulgence has made them spiritually dead. Adam is hard and self-righteous, the stubbornness and hardness of Hetty comes out during the trial and Arthur is self-indulgent.
Dinah as Connecting Link
Dinah is the connecting link between Loamshire and Stony-shire. She has come from Stonyshire, rocky, hard and barren, but the people there are more receptive to religion, they are more alive spiritually. Therefore, whenever Dinah feels that she is in danger of being engulfed by the spiritual deadness of Hayslope, she retreats to Stonyshire to carry on her vocation there. Thus she leaves Hayslope without even participating in the Harvest supper, because she senses spiritual danger in the marriage-proposal of Adam. It is also to be noted that the nature-background changes in keeping with the change in the fortunes of poor Hetty. Her early happy life is lived in the idyllic physical environment of Hayslope; from here she goes to the barren and rocky Stonyshire where she is convicted and sentenced to death. Seasonal changes are also carefully noted, and well-integrated with the changing fortunes of the principal characters. For example, the marriage of Adam and Dinah takes place not on a green and golden morning of spring, but on “a rimy morning in departing November”. There is a tinge of sadness in the weather as there is in the joy which accompanies the wedding. Their painful memories of Hetty colour and subdue their joy in the present.
Parallelisms and Contrasts
There is thematic organisation of material and there is also close integration of the action of the novel with the social and physical environment. Further, the heterogenous material of the novel, has been organised and patterned through an elaborate system of parallelisms and contrasts. The structure is symmetrical. The six books of the novel divide themselves into three symmetrical parts, each with a central motif of its own. The centre of interest of Book I is the assembly of villagers on the village green to hear the preaching of Dinah Morris. The incident points to the force of Methodism that tends to take the villagers out of themselves, but it also gives a hint; that the Hayslope community is not capable of any drastic change in this direction. Till this stage the two Methodists, Seth and Dinah, loom large before the reader, but eventually it is not the Methodist, Seth Bede, but Irwine’s favourite parishioner, Adam Bede, who will steal the show, in Book III the central incident is the assembly of the villagers at the feast in honour of Arthur’s birthday. This can be regarded as a pivotal incident insofar as the evolution of the Arthur-Hetty episode is concerned. The Harvest Supper in Book VI is a similar focal incident. It restores the balance disrupted by the force generated by the outcome of Arthur-Hetty intrigue. Of all George Eliot’s novels “Adam Bede” possesses the most clearly discernible pattern.
The Rhythm of Rural Life
It may also be mentioned that the novelist has succeeded in capturing the slow, leisurely pace of rural life, as it was lived in, isolated communities like that of Hayslope, before the coming of the railways. Dorothy V. Ghent says in this connection, “the pace of Adam Bede is set to Mrs. Poyser’s clock, to all that, slow toil and activity that have made daylight and living valuable. Slower, organically, invisibly slow at the months of Hetty’s pregnancy; the Poyser’s clock, the clock at the Chase, do not keep this time with their eights and nines and half past nines. This other deep, hidden animal time drags the whole pace down to that of poor Hetty’s journey in despair, a blind automatism of animal night where the ticking of the human clock cannot be heard.”
Even the best of us have their faults and weaknesses and so has Adam Bede, despite its being one of the best constructed novels of the age. Its ending particularly has come in for a good deal of criticism. It has been pointed out that the marriage of Adam and Dinah is not properly motivated, and so it seems unnatural and forced, a mere yielding to contemporary conventions that the hero and heroine of the novel must be happily united at the end. In this connection Lettice Cooper’s comments are interesting and worth quoting at some length: “The weakness of the book, besides the oppressive virtue of Adam and Dinah is, as with many Victorian novels, the sacrifice of probability to plot, and the tidiness of the ending. George Eliot was moving towards a new kind of novel in which representation of life was to be more important than the resolution of a plot, but she was still partly bound by the old convention: Hetty’s pardon, so dramatically and improbably brought to the place of execution by Arthur Donnithorne, is an artificial device to spare the reader. In the relationship/between Hetty and Arthur and in all that grows out of it, there is a sense of destiny which is falsified by this resolution. Again while Adam’s love for Hetty is utterly convincing, and the thing that brings him most to life as a human being, his final marriage to Dinah has none of that inevitability, but seems like a mechanical device to round off the story.”
But these are flaws in a rich tapestry of rural life of the time, the farm, the cottage, the workshop, the Rectory, the great house. The novel has its faults, but they are minor faults and they in no way detract from the novelist’s skill in construction. It should be judged in the context of the age in which it was written and not by modern standards.