Honor is an ancient theme with special resonance in medieval times, which is fitting in a novel set in a town that has an almost feudal landlord. There are two types of honor in this novel: that of females, and that of males. Female honor is fairly passive and relies entirely on chastity. If women lose this chastity, they are helpless to regain their honor. Male honor is more complicated and more active. Honor is tied up in their profession, land, and overall identity. When Adam runs away as a young boy because of family unhappiness, he chooses to return partially in order to maintain the honor of his family by keeping it economically afloat. He knows that the only way to provoke Arthur to fight is by insulting his honor, so instead of reproaching him, he calls him a coward.
The novel includes a few examples of true love based on mutual attraction. One positive example of mutual love is the relationship between Adam and Dinah at the end of the novel. But it takes others around them to work out their feelings for them, showing that it is not only mutual love that is important, but also a mutual love that is recognized and supported by both of the families of the lovers. Indeed, society matters for love; in other relationships, the complicating factor is always socioeconomic class, because the novel is set in a time period when marriage was more of a contract than a romantic affair. This problem extends to both men and women. Adam Bede is expected to marry Mary Burge merely because it would be an advantageous business proposition. Afterwards, he could become partners with her father, a man who had been his boss. What is more, there are two class-related barriers to a love affair between Arthur and Hetty. The first is obvious: Arthur cannot easily marry someone so far below his social class. The second is more subtle: it is unclear whether Hetty would be as attracted to Arthur if it were not for his wealth. When she does dream of their future together, she imagines the luxuries that he could provide her with, rather than the life that they could have together. There is even an impediment to Adam's courtship of Hetty, a pair who might seem to be of the same social stratum. Before his promotion to steward of the forest, some townspeople say that Adam is reaching too high trying to land the niece of a large dairy farmer.
Nature is a constant presence in all of Eliot's novels. Unlike many romantic novelists, she does not make the weather correspond directly with her principal characters' moods or feelings. Rather, she comments on the sort of injustice that the weather always seems to be at its most beautiful when man is going through a particular hardship. This disconnection of natural life from human life is part of Eliot's literary doctrine of painstaking realism. Rather than have the weather reflect her characters' feelings, she quite accurately has her characters mark their memories and experiences in the context of their actual environment. Adam marks his movement from happiness to adulthood by the beech tree that he contemplated moments before seeing Hetty and Arthur kiss under it. Hetty marks her homeward journey not to return to the family farm, but to regain some scenery that is familiar to her. Dinah and Adam always refer to his interception of her in Snowfield and their agreement to marry as "the meeting on the hill."
Eliot wrote Adam Bede at the time that the Industrial Revolution was beginning to change the face of life in Britain. More and more ingenious inventions meant that farmers were caught up in industry, and many moved away from their small towns into bigger cities. The village that Eliot portrays is a holdout against this new lifestyle, but the presence of new industry is indicated by the mill that Dinah works at when she is home. Eliot comments that Dinah is drawn to this town as well as to the industrial town of Leeds which, along with Manchester, was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. Dinah is drawn to such towns because of the great misery in them. Eliot seems to side with many poets and authors in lamenting the onset of industry insofar as it alienates people from nature. Eliot personifies the spirit of Leisure in contrast to this new industry, describing him as a portly old gentleman with excellent digestion.
As a novel which centers on an infanticide by a mother, Adam Bede is necessarily preoccupied with motherhood. The most obvious example of a strong mother figure is Lisbeth Bede, who loves her son, Adam, almost too much. She is constantly worried about where he is, what he is doing, and whether he has had enough to eat. Her constant nagging, which irritates Adam, also ashames him. Lisbeth's relationship with Seth is a much easier one, perhaps because she loves him just a little less--and therefore nags him just a little less. It is important to note that neither Hetty nor Dinah has a mother anymore. Both of them were orphaned and live with their uncle or aunt, respectively. The lack of a mother figure affects each of them profoundly. Dinah quickly grows into a mother figure herself, looking after and waiting on others before herself. Seth describes a young boy even climbing into her lap to be held during one of her preaching sessions. Hetty, in contrast, lacking strong guidance, grows up vain and petty. When she has a child of her own, admittedly under extremely tough circumstances, she kills it by burying it. She does have some motherly feelings, however, noting that she could not bear to look at its "little hands or little face" before she buried it. She imagines that she continues to hear it crying. This is why she returns to the spot where she buried it, and this is why she is apprehended as a criminal.
Because religion (in particular, Christianity) is of such importance in this novel, the issue of sacrifice--and its nobility--comes up quite often. The character most inclined toward sacrifice, Dinah, is also the most religious. Dinah is content to spend her life serving others if she thinks that she can bring them some comfort. This notion of sacrifice is parodied by Mrs. Poyser, who thinks that Dinah takes the idea to an extreme. Mrs. Poyser is upset that Dinah moves back and forth between different parishes, trying to calculate in which one the life is hardest so that she can choose the one needing the most help. Her aunt says of Dinah that she would only marry if the man were a Methodist and lame, consistent with her doctrine of help and sacrifice. Dinah must struggle against her conscience in order to allow herself to marry Adam, because she thinks that she loves him too much--it would be too little of a sacrifice. Eliot makes it clear that this argument (if not Dinah's whole perspective on sacrifice) is somewhat ridiculous, and besides, Dinah changes her mind in a short time and agrees to marry Adam. Eliot suggests that sacrifice is worthwhile for the most part, but not to an extent whereby it prevents overall personal happiness or other goods such as the creation of a family.
Female Identity and Autonomy
The issue of female identity is often at the forefront of George Eliot's novels, even in one named after a man, such as Adam Bede. Of course, in the mid-Victorian period Eliot was writing in a male-dominated world; for instance, she saw a need to assume a male pen-name in order to protect her identity and popularize her writing. Among the most memorable characters in the novel are women with strong voices who are attached to men.
The most confident female character is Dinah Morris, who asserts her identity to Lisbeth Bede in Chapter Ten, announcing: "I am Dinah Morris and I work in the cotton-mill when I am at home." Dinah is also a confident and effective female preacher. Her resistance to marriage because she is worried that it will curtail her religious teaching is resolved by Eliot in a manner calculated not to upset the male hierarchy. It turns out that Dinah was not in fact prevented from a traditional marriage by religiosity, but rather by the fact that no man that she truly loved had yet asked her to marry him. Indeed, she quiets into a typical housewife at the end of the novel, even consenting to discontinue her preaching because the Methodist men have decided that it is not a good idea.
Another strong female voice in Adam Bede is Mrs. Poyser. She is much more intelligent than her husband, and she has much more control over their farm than he does. She inevitably has her "say out," which involves working up her courage to tell her hated landlord what everyone in the community thinks of him. She prefaces this opinion with, "Then, sir, if I may speak--as for all I'm a a woman, and there's folks as thinks a woman's fool enough to stan' by an' look on while the men sign her soul away, I've a right to speak..." Still, Mrs. Poyser's marriage to Mr. Poyser gives her an added ethos in contrast to that of an outspoken maiden or, in Victorian fiction, the stock character of a dangerous widow.
Hetty Sorrel, in contrast to these stronger women, lacks the power or the initiative to speak up for herself. Hetty does not speak very much, and her preferred method of seduction is to burst into tears rather than to have a conversation. She pays dearly for this quietness, because she is not able to ask for help when she becomes pregnant. When she finally admits to Dinah in the jail cell that "I did it," this first instance of her assertion of agency comes far too late.
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