I thought that here was an author with an enquiring mind regarding human nature in all its imperfections, not afraid to wander outside of the wealthier classes for her setting, and certainly interested in examining the motivations and thought processes of her characters.
Throughout "Adam Bede", the better-drawn and more interesting characters are the women. The men, especially Adam Bede himself, are almost all two-dimensional figures around which the females drive the action. I thought that perhaps Eliot was trying to expose the real role of women in society - bereft of equal rights, they had to exercise their influence through men. This must have been deeply frustrating - witness Mrs Poyser's tirade against Squire Donnithorne while her husband stands by impotently. At its worst, women had to secure their future by marriage - thus Hetty Sorrel begins by being an unsympathetic, materialistic figure, but when seen in context, her options in life are strictly circumscribed. Can the reader really blame her for trying to make an "advantageous match"?
There were themes in the novel which I thought might have been developed more than they were - the challenge to the Church of England from Methodism features early in the novel, only to fade away as a real issue. Eliot alludes to the connection between class structure and the role of the Church of England, but seems to lose interest after making her point.Read more ›
Thus he seems an unlikely match for Hetty Sorrel, the prettiest girl in the village of Hayslope. Vain, selfish, materialistic, hating her laborious farm chores, Hetty bears more than a passing resemblance to Flaubert's Madame Bovary. However, while Madame Bovary's unattainable dream world is inspired by her reading romances, Hetty "had never read a novel" so she can't "find a shape for her expectations" regarding love. Unable to foresee any possible consequences for her actions, she allows herself to be seduced by Arthur Donnithorne, the old squire's grandson, who stands to inherit the land on which most of the Hayslopers live.
Arthur is a radiant example of Eliot's mastery in complicated character creation. Acutely aware of his position in society, he has the kind of charisma with which he can talk to his tenants politely but with just the slightest hint of condescension and completely win their respect for his authority.Read more ›
Adam is an upright, genuine character, and not as perfect as he seems. If his love for Hetty seems unfounded at times, it only serves to highlight how dangerous delusions can be. All the "sinners" are ultimately redeemed by truth - true love, true friends, true promises, and true acceptance. Religion plays a significant part in the novel, but don't let that deter you. It's so much more than that - Adam Bede is truly one of the few works that encompass a world of humanity between two covers.
AB reminded me of Tess of the D'Ubervilles a bit, but there is no villain here, just flawed, honest people in search of unattainable dreams. In the process of trying to get a bit of happiness, they stumble and bleed, but ultimately find something truly worth having. Bittersweetness is Eliot's trademark for good reason.
George Eliot's first full novel is obviously a bit less polished than her later works, but you see the wonderful command she has over language and expression. The book, the people, the story all come alive with her touch. A rare read that has something to say and says it beautifully.