The importance of Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads to the way Adam Bede is written has often been noted. Like Wordsworth's poems, Adam Bede features minutely detailed empirical and psychological observations about illiterate "common folk" who, because of their greater proximity to nature than to culture, are taken as emblematic of human nature in its more pure form. So behind its humble appearance, this is a novel of great ambition, seeking to manifest in novelistic form a key principle of Wordsworth's aesthetic philosophy.
Genre painting and the novel arose together as middle-class art forms and retained close connections until the end of the nineteenth century. According to Richard Stang, it was a French treatise of 1846 on Dutch and Flemish painting that first popularised the application of the term realism to fiction. Stang, The Theory of the Novel in England, p. 149, refers to Arsène Houssaye, Histoire de la peinture flamande et hollandaise (1846; 2d ed., Paris: Jules Hetzel, 1866). Houssaye speaks (p, 179) of Terborch's "gout tout hollandais, empreint de poesie realiste", and argues that "l'oeuvre de Gerard de Terburg est le roman intime de la Hollande, comme l'oeuvre de Gerard Dow en est le roman familiere.", and certainly it is with Dutch, Flemish, and English genre painting that George Eliot's realism is most often compared. She herself invites the comparison in chapter 17 of Adam Bede, and Mario Praz applies it to all her works in his study of The Hero in Eclipse in Victorian Fiction.