On June 18, 1799, there are five workmen in the carpenter's shop of Mr. Jonathan Burge in the village of Hayslope. The tallest worker, Adam Bede, is singing. He is a fine, large man with Celtic blood. His brother, Seth, has a different aspect. He looks more shy and less robust. Seth says that he has finished the door that he is working on, and the rest laugh at him because he has forgotten the panels. They joke about hanging the door in the shop as a joke, but Adam persuades them to stop making fun of his brother. Wiry Ben jokes that Seth was absent-minded in finishing the door because he was dreaming about a female Methodist preacher. Seth invites Ben to come and see the preacher for himself so that he can get religion. Adam reveals that he is not so keen on women being allowed to preach, and he disputes Ben's suggestion that Parson Irwine will be upset at him for attending a Methodist meeting.
Adam objects to Methodist philosophy, saying that it is too inward-looking; God put his spirit into the worker to build the tabernacle, and there is holiness in mills and aqueducts as well as in a church. Ben teases Seth once again about the unfinished doors, and Seth concedes that he has a good joke. Ben says that it is better that he does not bristle at every joke like his brother does.
The clock strikes six, and all of the men prepare to go except Adam, who is indignant that the men give up work so quickly, as though they do not enjoy it. Seth says that he will be home late after the preaching, especially since he will see Dinah Morris home if she will allow it. Adam leaves the workshop with his dog Gyp and passes a nearby house, where an old woman named Dolly invites him in to dinner, saying that Miss Mary is there and that Mister Burge will be there soon as well. Adam declines and walks on. An elderly horseman turns around to look at Adam, but Adam does not see him.
At a quarter to seven, the village of Hayslope shows unusual signs of excitement. Mr. Casson, the landlord of the town inn, stands at the entrance to his property. Although his face looks quite healthy, he is enormously fat. The horseman who stopped to look at Adam pulls up at the door on his horse. Mr. Casson explains that the town is busy because a female Methodist is about to preach on the green. Their parson lives in the next town. The stranger expresses surprise that there are Methodists in such a rural area, and Mr. Casson explains that there are really only two: Will Maskery and Seth Bede. Mr. Casson explains that he is the butler to Squire Donnithorne, and now his grandson, Captain Donnithorne, lives on their property called Donnithorne Chase.
The stranger mentions seeing Adam Bede, who he says would be good for helping to "lick the French." Mr. Casson says that he is extremely strong and is popular with the gentry. The stranger rides to the green, where he is interested in the beauty of the landscape and the crowd of curious townpeople who are staring at the green but who are careful not to enter onto it so that they are not mistaken for Methodists. A group of men are gathered around the blacksmith's shop, where the blacksmith, Chad Cranage, laughs at his own jokes. Mr. Joshua Rann, called "Old Joshway" by his neighbors, stands silently with disapproval.
The women are more curious, and they draw closer to the green. Bessy Cranage, the blacksmith's busty daughter, wonders why the Methodists make such funny faces. She is known locally as "Chad's Bess." She also wears fake-garnet earrings, of which Methodists disapprove. "Timothy's Bess" is the wife of Sandy Jim, who has two children. Her little boy goes by "Timothy's Bess's Ben," and he struggles against being held back from inspecting the Methodists. Mr. Casson says that Seth is wasting his time trying to court the female preacher, because she is too high-class for him, being the niece of the Poysers.
As Dinah approaches, the stranger is surprised by her unselfconsciousness, and the other townsmen are surprised by her prettiness. Dinah gives a prayer, and then she talks about hearing Jesus's prayer to preach to the poor at a Methodist revival when she was a young girl--she decided then that this is what she should do. She assures her listeners that although they are poor, the poor were Jesus's main beneficiaries during his lifetime, and they will continue to benefit after they die.
The stranger notes that Dinah, unlike other "Ranters," does not preach by shouting and gesturing, but simply by modulating her voice to her changing emotions. Chad's Bess is made vaguely uncomfortable by the preaching, knowing that she could be considered a "bad girl" for having loose morals. Dinah beseeches Chad's Bess to think of God rather than of earrings, and the girl, in a fit, throws her earrings off. As the service ends, the horseman rides away to the sound of Methodist hymns.
As Seth walks Dinah home, he wants to talk to her about their relationship, but he feels discouraged because she seems too holy to need a husband. She tells him that she has made up her mind to go back to Snowfield on Monday, although she would prefer not to leave, especially since she is worried about Hetty Sorrel, in whom Adam is interested.
Seth again asks Dinah to marry him, arguing that the Bible says that this is natural; furthermore, he would be the only man in the world likely to leave her free to continue preaching. Dinah thanks him but says that the Bible also calls upon each man to walk as he will, and she has been called upon to be a minister rather than to have any joys or sorrows of her own. Seth says that he will have to pray to bear it--and his faith must be weak, because he cannot imagine life without her. Dinah counsels him not to follow her to Snowfield.
Seth cries as he walks home, and Eliot observes that he is only twenty-three and that to love as he loves Dinah is almost like a religious feeling, because he feels that she is better than he is. Eliot writes that at this time, Methodism was still a rural, grassroots movement, rather than being associated with low-hanging churches and a hypocritical middle class (as it is at the time during which she has written the novel). Seth and Dinah are still somewhat unthinking in their religious understanding: they believe in modern miracles, open the Bible at random for advice, and often misread and misquote the Bible. Even so, we read, they are still worth the reader's sympathy.
Adam makes his way home, where his mother, Lisbeth Bede, is waiting at the door. Eliot observes that there is sadness in family resemblances because we are forced to see faces very like our own as they utter sentiments that we do not agree with. After learning that his father has gone to Treddles without finishing work on a coffin, Adam grows angry and goes into the workshop to do it himself, while his mother entreats him to have dinner. Adam is very upset that his father has promised to do work but has not completed it, and he threatens to go away, which makes his mother cry. She says that his father was not so bad before he took to drinking.
His mother gets up and calls to Adam's dog Gyp, intending to feed him extra food because she cannot feed her son, and Adam encourages him to go with her. Adam works off some of his anger and tells his mother to go to bed, with his native dialect deepening when he is kind to his mother. Seth comes home at ten and goes to help Adam, who asks him what is the matter. Seth will not tell him, and Lisbeth worries to Seth that Adam might leave, but Seth reassures her that he will not. Lisbeth complains that he has his heart set on Hetty Sorrel, though he could have had Mary Burge, who is much richer. She reproaches Seth for praying too much and for giving away all of his earnings. She says that Seth over-interprets the Bible, while Adam always says "God helps them that help themselves."
As Adam works, he imagines how awful it will be when his mother reproaches his father when he returns tomorrow morning; the cycle will continue. He remembers that when his father, Thias Bede, was younger Adam used to be proud to learn carpentry from him. When his father began to drink when Adam was eighteen, however, Adam ran away once, returning in two days because he was worried about his family. His mother has been haunted by this memory ever since.
Someone taps at the door, and Gyp howls. When he sees that there is no one there, Adam cannot help feeling a little superstitious. But the morning comes without incident. The two boys carry the coffin to Broxton, and Adam suggests that they look for their father. They find him drowned in a stream. Adam runs home to tell his mother. Looking at his dead father, Adam pities him even though he had been so hard on Adam.
The rain was also strong at Broxton Parsonage, where Mr. Irwine has been playing chess with his mother. The home is pleasant but not opulent. The vicar wears a powdered wig, and his mother is elegant, wearing a number of rings. She has just won the chess game. The vicar's sister, Anne, is an invalid. Mr. Rann comes to tell the vicar about the happenings in Hayslope. He warns the vicar that the Methodists are likely to get the upper hand in the town if he is not careful, although he does not want to advise him too much because that would mean "getting above his station."
Mr. Rann says that Dinah is about to leave, but he is more worried about Will Maskery, who has no skill as a preacher, yet who insults the townspeople. The vicar says to leave well enough alone; since Maskery has found religion, he has become more responsible, stopped beating his wife, and stopped drinking.
Arthur Donnithorne (Captain Donnithorne) bursts on the scene. He is a well-dressed, handsome young man. Mr. Rann finally comes out with the news that Thias Bede has been found dead. Adam asks the vicar if his father can be buried by the White Thorn because of a dream that his mother had. The vicar agrees.
Captain Donnithorne says that he respects Adam greatly and would like to have him manage the woods on his estate, but for some reason his grandfather dislikes him. He has also seen Dinah and was quite stuck by her appearance. The vicar says that he would like to see her. The Captain's arm is in a sling, explaining why he is not with his regiment, but he expects to return in August. The vicar's mother, Mrs. Irwine, says that she would never have been godmother to the Captain except that when he was a baby he took after his mother's side. The Captain has brought Mrs. Irwine a few books including Lyrical Ballads.
The vicar visits his invalid sister upstairs. Eliot remarks that aristocratic families thought that it was a pity that such a magnificent mother should have such insignificant girls, while the townspeople think that they are good at medicine and call them "the gentlefolks." It is thought that the vicar would have taken a wife if he had not needed to take care of his mother and two spinster sisters. Eliot says that the vicar has no particular religious fervor, although he is a good man. The vicar sets off with Mr. Rann.
Neither the door nor the gate of the Hall farm has been opened in a great many years, and the inside contains rags and a big wooden doll with no nose. It used to be the home of a squire, but it is now reduced to a working farm. Mrs. Poyser keeps the kitchen spotless and the surfaces polished, and her niece, Hetty Sorrel, often looks at her reflection in these surfaces. Mrs. Poyser is ironing and scolding the maid, Hetty is making butter, and Dinah is sewing. A young, fair-haired child named Totty is ironing miniature rags. Mrs. Poyser says that Dinah looks like her mother's other sister, Judith, who brought her up after she was orphaned. She says that if Dinah marries she will give her a dowry.
She is alarmed by the sight of the vicar and the Captain approaching, afraid that they have come to speak to Dinah about her preaching and that she will be thrown out of her house. But the men claim that they have come only to speak to her husband. The Captain compliments her farm and says that if he ever married and settled down, he would love to settle down on this farm. Mrs. Poyser hurriedly explains the farm's demerits, afraid that she will be kicked off of the land where she is a tenant. The Captain asks to see the dairy, and Mrs. Poyser takes him in.
Hetty blushes when the Captain talks to her, and he is captivated by her kitten-like charm. The activity of butter-churning is perfectly suited to showing off her well-shaped arms. He invites the women to a dance on the 30th of June and asks for two dances from Hetty. Mrs. Poyser thinks that it will be much easier to be a tenant of the Captain than of his grandfather, because he is so good-natured that everyone will get new fences and good returns.
The Captain gets Hetty alone by sending her mother off to look for Totty. The Captain asks Hetty if she ever goes out walking. Hetty says that she sometimes walks to see Mrs. Pomfret, the lady's maid, who is teaching her to mend lace. She adds that she is going to tea with Mrs. Pomfret next afternoon. Mrs. Poyser returns with Totty, and the Captain asks her if she has a pocket. Totty lifts up her dress to show him that she has one but that it is empty. The Captain gives her five sixpence and returns to find the vicar.
The vicar converses with Dinah about her hometown of Snowfield, which has changed since a new mill was built there, which brought in more residents. Dinah says that she is a member of the Society (of Methodists), which does not prohibit women from preaching. The first time that she preached was in Hetton-Deeps, a mining town without a preacher or minister. Mr. Irwine feels that it would be useless to try to convince her not to preach, since it would be like telling a tree not to grow in its own shape.
He asks her if she ever feels self-conscious knowing that so many young men are looking at her while she preaches, and Dinah says that she does not think that the men are aware of her appearance. She adds that Moses did not notice the burning bush but instead the brightness of God shining out of it. The vicar tells Dinah that Thias Bede has died. She starts to fold up her work to see if she can be of any assistance to Seth's mother.
The Captain returns briefly, and the men leave. Dinah explains that the vicar was quite pleasant to her, and she tells the news about Thias Bede. Mrs. Poyser says that it is a good riddance to the Bede family, because he almost ruined them. Hetty does not look seriously affected when she hears the news.
Chapter One mainly serves to introduce the namesake character of the book and to show off certain of his characteristics as he interacts with others. An interesting aspect of the author's description of the main character is her characterization of him as having "Celtic blood." While this might refer to Welsh or Scottish or Irish descent, by including this detail, Eliot signals to her audience that Adam might tend towards the poetic or towards the violent, both common stereotypes of the Celts at the time that she was writing this novel. Adam Bede and his brother, Seth, although they work at the same trade, are set up as opposites in many ways, especially with their divergent opinions about religion.
Religion is first brought up by Wiry Ben, who paraphrases Matthew 11:9, saying, "What come ye out for to see? A prophetess? Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophetess-an uncommon pretty young woman." Adam rebukes Ben for taking the Bible lightly in referring to a pretty young Methodist preacher in their town, showing that he is indeed a religious man. Yet, he follows this rebuke by extolling modern progress and technology, rather than the inward-looking practices of the Methodists. He mentions Arkwright's mills in particular, referring to the spinning frame which Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-92) invented. In some ways like Adam, Arkwright was a self-taught mechanic who, after working all day, at night studied the mathematics that was needed for his inventions.
Chapter Two introduces Dinah as a very charismatic young woman. The view of the Methodist meeting on the Green is filtered through the eyes of the horseman, who has the advantages of being an outsider to the community and having some previous knowledge of Methodism. Given his ability to compare Dinah to other Methodist preachers, whom he has seen thump the Bible, mock holiness, or rant, the reader realizes that this is not the first Methodist meeting that he has attended.
The reference to "licking the French" sets the novel in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, which began in February 1793. The French fought against the self-proclaimed emperor, Napoleon, to try to prevent his imperialistic sweep through Europe. It is possible that the horseman is a recruiter for the British Army.
In her sermon, Dinah mentions the founding father of Methodism, John Wesley, as her inspiration. Methodism is a denomination of Christianity founded in Britain in the eighteenth century that emphasized the idea that anyone can be saved. Along with his younger brother Charles, John Wesley launched a religious movement known for its open-air revivals. The preachers at these revivals were often so animated that they were accused of fanaticism.
We see in Chapter Three that the novel not only examines the working class but demonstrates a way to write a novel about the working class. In this chapter, for the first time, the voice of the narrator comes forth in first-person. The narrator seems to overlap enough with Eliot herself that this ClassicNote will refer to the narrator as Eliot, even though the narrator does not necessarily represent Eliot's views precisely.
Eliot's strong voice in the novel is an acknowledgment of the fact that she is writing a new type of novel. Her heroes are not handsome horsemen, and her heroines do not languish in fancy dresses. Rather, Adam Bede is the beginning of a great tradition of social realism in novels. Eliot advocates strongly for this new type of novel, arguing that "we can hardly think Dinah and Seth beneath our sympathy."
In Chapter Four, the night that Adam spends alone making the coffin involves elements of the gothic. First, when the rapping on the door first occurs, Gyp howls instead of barking as usual. Second, Eliot is careful to point out that Adam is uneasy and imagines a number of supernatural occurrences when he does not find anyone at the door. Eliot describes superstition as an unavoidable part of Adam's peasant nature. Although this may seem condescending, it is justified when Adam and Seth find their father dead the next morning--although it is as yet unclear what connection the two events might have.
Although Adam Bede is quite clearly a novel, it also contains more direct commentary on human nature in general than is common in most fiction. This means that, at times, it reads rather more like a treatise than like a novel. This is another sign of Eliot's own views coming through. For example, when Adam stays up all night, he feels a great deal of resentment towards his father, and he thinks rather bitterly that the man will be a "thorn in his side" for many years to come. But when he finds his father dead, Eliot observes that "when death, the great Reconciler, has come, it is never our tenderness that we repent of, but our severity." By generalizing in this statement, Eliot indicates that a certain way of feeling not only applies to Adam but also to most humans. This is a successful way of convincing readers that a story about the working class can have implications for, or shed light on, their own lives as well.
In Chapter Five, the vicar's powdered wig is a signal of old age and conservatism in his society. Eliot is careful to describe his place in the community precisely. He is well liked, but he has no burning immediate concern about the souls of his parishioners. He cannot, or will not, work himself up into an emotional state in the manner of some of the most famous Methodist preachers. By characterizing him in this way, Eliot demonstrates that there is a space left in the community for the role of leading some of the more thoughtful, religious townspeople.
The scene between the vicar, his mother, and Mr. Rann has some qualities of a farce. Mr. Rann delays telling the most important news as a result of his eagerness to talk about what is most important to him. Mr. Rann wastes a great deal of time ranting and raving about the fact that a Methodist has insulted him by calling him irreligious, and he forgets to inform the vicar that a death has just occurred in his vicarage. As in a traditional farce, the characters are exaggerated according to stereotypes: the rigid, class-conscious matron; the jolly, accommodating vicar; the bumbling rustic, eager to show off his own holiness or intelligence to persons of higher position.
Chapter Six shows some interesting similarities among members of the Poyser family. It draws a familial relationship between Dinah and Hetty of which the reader was not previously aware. Their relationship is not one of blood; Hetty is Mr. Poyser's niece, while Dinah is Mrs. Poyser's niece. The two girls, both love interests of the respective Bede brothers, act as foils for one another. Dinah is serious and unromantic, while Hetty is flighty and beautiful, using the surfaces that her aunt has polished to admire her own reflection.
Mrs. Poyser's nervousness at seeing the grandson of her landlord approach reflects on her position in the social hierarchy. In late eighteenth-century England, the social hierarchy was quite rigid, and everyone from the poorest farmer to the richest aristocrat knew his place in the pecking order. The Poysers have been viewed in previous chapters as quite high-class given their large farm. It has even been suggested that a marriage between Dinah and Seth would not quite be acceptable given the difference in social status. Problems of love and marriage across socioeconomic boundaries constitute a common theme among early female novelists, including Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, who influenced George Eliot.
Chapter Seven begins a flirtation between the Captain and Hetty. The story of a beautiful milk-maid seduced by a squire dates back to the days of Chaucer, and Eliot updates it by making the unequal nature of the interest clear from the very start. It is obvious that the seduction will succeed if the Captain wants it to, not only because he is young and attractive, but also because he is coming from such a position of power over the Poyser family.
It is in his power not only to invite the family to a ball, but also to evict them from his land if he so desires. That this unequal distribution of power might affect his relationship with Hetty is demonstrated by the unquestioning acquiescence of Totty to the Captain's questions. When he asks her if she has a pocket, she "immediately and with great gravity lifted up her frock and showed a tiny pink pocket." Totty's action has a distinctly sexual undertone of obedience, and it may foreshadow Hetty's future actions.
In Chapter Eight the narrator's visible interjections become less visible. It is possible that Eliot is willing to generalize expansively about human nature, but she wants to keep her feelings about religion to herself. Critiquing religious thought and practice can be dangerous, but perhaps she is choosing to let the reader see for himself what is going on in Methodism and how it affects the rural poor. Eliot does not come down in favor of Methodism, but she gives it a very respectable and persuasive voice in the character of Dinah, which impresses even the local vicar.
Although she only makes a brief appearance in this chapter, the reader must begin to wonder if Hetty is a suitable match for Adam. She is flirtatious and flighty in the previous chapters, which is forgivable in a pretty, young girl. But she now is thoughtless and uncaring to hear that Adam's father has died, which is somewhat shocking.