Signet Classics edition
Paperback Edition (1961)
ISBN 0 451 52527 2
As F.R. Leavis writes in the introduction to this edition, in Adam Bede readers get a glimpse of George Eliot learning how to write a compelling novel. Therefore this book is significant from the viewpoint of Eliot’s development as an author; and more importantly, this book has some interesting elements of its own. The love triangle between Adam, Hetty, and Arthur is intriguing enough to keep one reading; and the way this situation forces the characters to overcome their flaws and to grow as individuals is well done. Nevertheless, on its own Adam Bede is often too slowly paced, and often broken up by the author’s trivial commentary, so that is not a totally satisfactory book.
At the opening of the story we meet the title character, who is a thoroughly decent guy: hardworking, dependable, wise, and universally admired. He has the poor judgment to fall for Hetty Sorrel, however. Hetty is nice enough, if rather empty-headed and careless, but what strikes Adam is her beauty. Hetty has the even poorer judgment to fall for Arthur Donnithorne, the grandson of and heir to the local squire. Arthur, too, is attracted to Hetty; and characteristically enough, sees no harm in flirting with her and leading her on. If Adam’s biggest fault is to overlook the weaknesses of his loved ones, then Arthur’s is to figure that any harm he inflicts on others can be readily fixed.
Now, for those of us who live in the real world, it is obvious that country gentlemen do not up and marry farmer’s daughters, however lovely. But Hetty is more familiar with La-La-Land than with reality, for she honestly believes that Arthur will marry her and make her a lady. It is clear that Arthur has feelings for Hetty, but he recognizes that they can have no future together. Even so, he continues to encourage Hetty – you can guess where this is going. When Adam discovers them together, the remainder of the novel deals with the three of them trying to come to terms with what cannot be undone (this is vague, I know, but I’m trying not to spoil the story). Adam must acknowledge that Hetty is not the woman he thought she was; Arthur has to learn that good intentions cannot erase his past recklessness; and Hetty, in her immaturity, is driven to an act of desperation.
Other major characters include Seth, Adam’s brother, who is also a genuinely good man, but usually in his brother’s shadow. Seth is in love with Dinah Morris, a young and saintly Methodist preacher. Seth only seems to be useful as a foil to his brother, and Dinah can be every bit as irksome as she sounds, but she figures largely in the lives of both Adam and Hetty later in the story.
Unfortunately, this moderately exciting storyline is hindered by a sluggish pace and irrelevant tangents made by the narrator. While it is necessary, of course, to set the scene and give us an understanding of Adam’s world, the three principle figures discussed above do not start to interact until we are ninety pages into the story. We are given instead the occasional description of a person who will figure later in the plot (as with Dinah), or are given scenes that illustrate Adam’s or Hetty’s home life, for example. More often, readers are faced with numerous descriptions of characters who are not in the least important (do we really need to hear about the neighborhood shoemaker?), or worse, tangents where Eliot decides to pause the action of the story and warn us not to judge a character too harshly – or worse still, she will abandon the narrative altogether and start talking about the good old days. Such tangents get in the way of the main story and, to be honest, are not all that fascinating. And Adam Bede does not really pick up until halfway through, when Adam finds Arthur and Hetty together, and the development of these individuals is set in motion. This might be too harsh – we have less patience these days to sit through long novels with lots of digressions – but even so, other books written roughly around the same time as this one are not nearly so tiring in this way. The story’s conclusion is agreeable in that the really deserving characters find happiness and the less deserving atone for their mistakes, and better yet, each of them has grown at least a bit wiser in this experience. On their own, Adam, Hetty, Arthur, Dinah, and Seth would be fairly boring, but together they manage to carry this story.
Overall, I would recommend this book – it’s a classic for a reason. But more importantly, the various relationships and the emotional progress of these figures makes Adam Bede worthwhile.