Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Review: Adam Bede, by George Eliot

Adam Bede, George Eliot's first full-length novel, borders between traditional values and liberal attitudes regarding women (at least for its time). The novel features two young women who dream of something bigger than their prescribed course in life. For Dinah Morris, it is to be a Methodist preacher and live among the needy, much to the chagrin of her family. For Hetty Sorrel, it is to leave her farmer life and enter a higher class through marriage to a gentleman. Both women risk ridicule; the difference is that one woman's pursuit is much more noble than the other's. Watching the characters in the novel try to make a happy life for themselves, it becomes clear there is more social pressure placed on women to conform than on men.

There are four central characters in this sprawling narrative: Adam Bede, Hetty Sorrel, Arthur Donnithorne, and Dinah Morris. Adam Bede is an honest working man with a powerful build, a charismatic personality, a sometimes fiery temper, and a strong moral character based on the ethics of hard work. Adam is perhaps the most remarkable young man in the town of Hayslope. He is well-liked by everyone. He lives with his constantly complaining mother, his drunkard father, and his brother, Seth, who is in all regards an inferior version of himself: meek, smaller, and kinder - too kind. Adam could have his pick of any woman in the town, and he sets his eyes on the beautiful Hetty.

Hetty is a seventeen year old girl who lives with her aunt and uncle, the Poysers. She's not well-educated and always appears aloof, but she stands out because of her remarkable beauty. Adam's not the only one fond of her. There are several other suitors, but Adam is superior, at least among those in his own class. Hetty, however, does not love Adam, though she knows he loves her. She has dreams of moving into a higher social class, where she can look pretty all day and be admired for her beauty. Yes, she's shallow, but by the story's end she was the character I felt the most sympathy for, partly because she's so naive. In our modern world with our modern cultural thought, there should be nothing wrong with Hetty rising to a higher class if a man of higher social standing is willing to marry her. However, in this world of England in 1799, such a marriage would be seen as scandalous. As such, Hetty sees something more than mere flirtation in the attention she receives from the well-groomed Arthur Donnithorne, who is heir to the Chase, the estate overseeing Hayslope.

Arthur is the most respected, most liked man in the entire town. His father, the old squire, is cranky and stingy, and the people can't wait until he dies so Arthur can take over and make improvements to the town. Arthur prides himself on how well-liked he is, but this ego manifests itself in a friendly face. He is careful to wrong nobody. But this doesn't prevent him from falling falls in love with Hetty. It's difficult for a young man not to fall in love when a beautiful young woman appears so madly in love with him. Why this love is so wrong is because it's deceitful. Arthur, wanting to lead the life of a respectable gentleman, cannot marry a farmer's niece. His marriage must be with somebody of his social rank, not below it. Arthur continuously convinces himself their feelings for one another aren't very strong. It's just a little bit of flirtation. He tells himself again and again, "Tonight, tomorrow, I'll tell her this must stop." It's like when we tell ourselves that tomorrow we will start eating healthy, no more ice cream, but when tomorrow rolls around we convince ourselves that it's no harm to indulge just a little bit more. We always have tomorrow to do the right thing. For Arthur I do feel sympathy, because the world he lives in would not allow him to follow his heart in this case. Nonetheless, between the two, Hetty is more the victim because she risks losing everything.

The final major character to discuss is Dinah. Dinah serves as a foil to Hetty, and those who have some knowledge about Victorian literature (or even some modern romantic comedies), will be able to predict how the story ends based on this information alone. Dinah is remarkable in that she is a Methodist preacher, a position generally reserved for men. She has no desire to be married, but wishes to go off to the small town of Snowfield, where the people are poorer and more miserable than where she lives. Her aunt and uncle, again the Poysers, don't want her to leave, and her aunt begs that there are plenty of people who are miserable where they are. Dinah, though, wants to be with people who are more miserable and are in more need of her. To stay with the Poysers would mean Dinah is choosing her own material welfare over the spiritual welfare of a more needy people. Dinah is the one virtuous character without any faults. One could argue her desire to leave home to care for strangers is a fault, but I see it as a strength. She is choosing the terms of her life rather than allow society to make this choice for her.

The novel begins slowly, very slowly, being written in the verbose style of Victorian authors. Sometimes Eliot describes one too many pieces of furniture in a house, or one too many pieces of scenery. This is typical, and I see it as the author painting a scene with her words. Eliot, I admit, is a very effective painter of people and scenes. Characters are developed in full before things begin to happen to them. The reader gets to know each character very intimately, and we also get to know the narrator very well. This narrator is omniscient, though not objective. She passes judgments on characters and feels sympathy for them. In this day and age, such a writing style doesn't fly, thankfully. It's nice when the reader can make their own judgment of a person or action. However, Eliot is much more effective at developing characters using the omniscient narrator than many authors today are using a less knowing narrator.

After a slow start, momentum builds quickly. Some of the best scenes are the seduction of Arthur and Hetty. Most romance authors today fail to recreate the thrill of seduction the way Eliot does here. I felt just as giddy as the characters felt, though I knew what they were doing was wrong according to the values of this world. I also felt compassion for characters when things didn't go their way. Adam and Dinah may be the most perfect, most flawless of the characters, but my favorites were Arthur and Hetty, because it is more human to be flawed. It's clear the narrator loves her two "good" characters the most, but she still feels pity towards those two flawed lovers. Pity, however, is a condescending emotion, and it is Adam and Dinah who are the most rewarded.

In the afterword of the Signet Classics version of the novel, Regina Barreca argues that this novel belongs not to Adam Bede, but to Dinah and Hetty. I would agree, except that I believe this novel is more Hetty's than Dinah's. Dinah's fate is sealed early on, though nobody realizes it yet, because of her goodness. Hetty's troubles feel much more real, much more modern than Dinah's. It's true that Dinah chooses to assert her independence by choosing to live life her own way, but this assertion is cloaked in a very conservative disguise, since she is still serving under the one ultimate male: God. Hetty, sure, is selfish, but she dreams of a better life for her own sake. Her teenage mind grows tired at the prospect of living a life of toil, and can you blame her? She has the makings of a modern heroine. Disney princesses, such as Cinderella, Ariel, and Belle, all dream of bigger, better things than the simple, toilsome lives they lead. Perhaps it's true that Hetty has no larger aspirations than to be wealthy and comfortable, but it seems a tad unfair the way the novel punishes her for daring to dream of a life other than the traditional one prescribed for her.

Class mobility is impossible in this world, especially for women. There is an assumption about the natural differences between people of different classes. The narrator herself holds many prejudices towards the peasants, as she calls them, and can't help but point out when certain peasant feelings get the better of even the superior-minded Adam Bede. Those of higher social classes look upon the peasant class with either condescending pity, apathy, or disgust. They enjoy inviting peasants to lavish parties just to see how amazed they are at the sight of such a huge mansion and so much food. However, it seems that very few of the farmers dream of achieving a higher class. In fact, they frown at the thought. When Hetty puts a rose in her hair, given to her by Adam, Adam disapproves and explains that he dislikes when women decorate themselves with such ornaments. Today Adam would be seen as controlling, and I would say that may be true, yet Adam is a good man and he is only speaking based on the values of times long past. It is dangerous for Hetty to ornament herself because then she might soon see herself as too good for an artisan such as Adam. Adam's disapproval, then, is a protective instinct.

The novel is an extraordinary read. It doesn't measure up to Eliot's Middlemarch, but that is a novel leagues better than most anything ever written. Not only does it have an enjoyable story (mostly), but it's fun to dissect the cultural differences between this time and our time. Eliot, however, does describe a lot of universals, particularly in terms of human feeling, and that's why it's so valuable. And old as it is, the love triangle is a plot device loved by today's readers. That said, this is a novel whose story could not possibly play out in the same way today because the values that determine the story's direction come from a more traditional, less progressive era. Anyone who wants to read a great story, or anyone who loves Victorian literature, should set aside some time for Adam Bede - or any George Eliot, for that matter.

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