Adam Bede

Adam Bede Study Guide

Since Adam Bede is the product of George Eliot's first serious attempt to write a novel, it is a good source for identifying some features of her development as a novelist and for seeing signs of themes in her later novels. Moreover, despite its flaws, Adam Bede deserves its status as a classic.

Eliot's work is groundbreaking in that it is a clean break from the work of her artistic predecessors. Eliot declares her intent to depart from convention and write realisticallly: "So I am content to tell my simple story, without trying to make things seem better than they were; dreading nothing, indeed, but falsity." Though her work may not seem realistic when compared with more modern efforts, Eliot took large steps that helped to allow for the creation of contemporary fiction. Her work was revolutionary in its time, contributing substantively to the development of the novel as an art form. Her innovation was realism focusing on the common man.

George Eliot had a vast store of personal experience to draw upon in her writing. Eliot's realism stems from her tendency to avoid caricature and stereotype, instead creating complex and ambiguous characters whose faithful representation makes them not only believable, but difficult to pigeonhole. Her novels are attempts to analyze the subtleties of the human mind, rather than just plot structures (like many of her contemporaries). This allows Eliot to present human situations as they really occur, reproducing the mental and physical aspects of people's actions.

Eliot also confronts the issue of popular morality, repudiating the over-reliance on divine will that dominated conventional wisdom. Consistent with her personal shift away from Christianity when she became an adult, she focuses instead on the vital role of human choices. Eliot believed that predetermination could not be the entire story, as some contemporaries suggested; human choices also participate in causing one's destiny. Additionally, Eliot contributed to the development of the novel as an art form by using her novel to address serious political and philosophical issues in a wide popular forum.

Adam Bede is Eliot's first experiment with the type of new fiction that she pioneered. She tests a new view of the function of prose fiction as more than entertainment and diversion from the problems of real life. Eliot argued that like poetry, novels can express and teach serious ideas about the quality of the human condition. This renewed attention to the serious side of fiction was revolutionary in a significant year: many scholars point to 1859, with the publication of Adam Bede, Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Darwin's On the Origin of Species, and Dickens's Tale of Two Cities, as a major turning point in the breakdown of mid-Victorian moralistic cliches and tastes.