When I was a twenty-two year old senior English Lit major, wanting to get all my credits squared away, I disinterestedly signed up for a class called ‘British Literature: 1800-1900.’ By that point I’d deluded myself into thinking that I’d figured this whole literature thing out. Nearly every English professor since my freshman year let me skate by with As and I had been working as a tutor at my university’s writing center.
The professor for this class seemed nice and funny enough on the first day, and had the blunt, no-bullshit sense of humor I’m drawn toward. I’d heard talk about his reputation as a difficult teacher from others as the class got closer to the first grade – the midterm. The midterm would be a self-styled essay over all the poems and batches of writings we’d read up to that point, which consisted of selections from Carlyle, Shelley, Wordsworth, Ruskin, Keats, Coleridge, and others. This grade would account for something around thirty-five percent of the total grade, while around fifteen was used for class participation (showing up), and the other fifty for the final. Basically, we had two real grades for the entire semester.
I remember very clearly the day when we got our midterm papers back at the beginning of class. I wasn’t the only one to get a grade bordering on the failure line, because I noticed that after that day the roster dropped from twenty-something students to about eight, many of whom left right after seeing their circled percentage and all the meticulous markups and crossed out sections on their essays. I sat in class that entire period, angry about my shattered ego, barely able to listen to the professor’s lecture. He told that he was fully willing to discuss his grading at any time during his office hours, or even in the last fifteen minutes of the period, and that we’d get a chance to rewrite it. Nearly everyone who hadn’t left formed a line in front of him at the end of class.
I went multiple times to his office hours after that day, ignoring all the initial animosity I had against this guy who broke my essay-writing stride, and acted willing to play along with the writing and reading advice he wanted to give me. After a while, it was no longer acting, and I understood he was giving me the most valuable literary advice I’d ever gotten, and he did it by demolishing everything I thought I knew up to that point, making me suffer and struggle for merely a hope of passing his class, in the process squashing all the dilettantish quirks that other professors were too incapable or timid to thwart like he did in a full swoop.
During the second part of the course, the part after the midterm where the professor successfully got rid of every student who didn’t care enough about this sacred material to risk ruining a GPA, we were assigned to read Wuthering Heights, Adam Bede, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Our final paper would be based on these three novels and all the credible literary criticism we could garner on them. The general theme that our professor guided us toward was the gradual loss of religious faith in late nineteenth century England. Many of his lectures focused also on the innovative formal qualities of all these novels, especially those of Wuthering Heights, and also delved deeply into the biologically themed implications of Tess.
It’s been almost six years since I took that class, and both Wuthering Heights and Tess have stayed pretty fresh in my mind, but I remembered almost absolutely nothing about Adam Bede. Then the other day, about a week after having moved back to my unbelievably small hometown from Chicago in anticipation for an extended departure from the country next month, I was walking around a local flea market and found a really old, undated, and illustrated (!) hardcover version of Adam Bede for four dollars. Inside the light brown and library-must smelling pages a worn and torn off, formerly spinebound bright blue cloth bookmarker was left crumbled. I felt this immediate urge to reread it, and I followed that impulse.
A friend of mine said that when you start to reread novels it’s the early mark of literary conservatism, or something like that. I guess that trite adage about growing more conservative with age, in my case, has proved to be somewhat true, because lately with fiction I’ve almost been exclusively rereading. Usually when I reread something the memories refresh as I get back into the groove of the story, and a stronger understanding awakens as I pause to look deeper into the text. For Adam Bede, though, I can’t be sure if it was the worried panic of trying to do well in this class—reading with pressured nerves to prepare for the weighty final paper—or whether it was the blind drunkenness I used to throw myself into on weekends during those days, but for the first half of the reread nothing seemed familiar aside from the visions of pastoral landscapes and a few of the characters’ unique names. I remembered the internal resonance of names like Hetty Sorrel, Dinah Morris, Adam and Seth Bede (of course), the crotchety old misogynist schoolteacher Bartle Massey, but couldn’t really remember their characteristics, how they functioned in the plot, or how they led to broader themes. So I dug through my e-mail to search for the paper I wrote on this book, Wuthering Heights, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles to see what I got out of it back then.
Basically, the essay I wrote looked into the span of religious thought amongst these three books from the latter half of the nineteenth century. Wuthering Heights exhibited the most traditional Christian ethics, Adam Bede was somewhere in the middle, and Tess had an agenda to completely disregard religion. All of the books, however, seemed to push the idea that religion always surfaces its most ridiculous, harmful, misleading, and ultimately dismissible qualities when experienced at the group—the conventional—level, rather than looking at the material and deciding for oneself what the truth is, utilizing a critical or Hermetic method. Wuthering Heights did this by its form, overlapping narrators on top of each other so the reader couldn’t really be sure what was true and what was hearsay, opinion, lies, or distortion. Hardy threw away the whole spiritual enterprise with Tess, refusing to accept that anything valuable can be found among the religious, and even went a step further to suggest that biology isn’t much of a suitable replacement, aiming to show just how fucked the whole human experience is. But now that I reread Adam Bede, understanding it as a middle path of sorts between these other two novels, I see even clearer just how intricate of a message George Eliot was trying to craft, and how that message proved to be very formative for me in my late development.
One of the first elements we’re introduced to in the narrative is how the burgeoning religion of Methodism affected the English countryside in the late 1700s, via the female preacher, Dinah Morris, coming to give a sort of stump sermon to the small tight-knit village of Hayslope. One of the most important pieces of information for understanding Eliot’s intentions with this novel, I think, is that she wanted to draw on that same bursting energy that the Methodists brought to the stale religious rituals in the late 1700s. I couldn’t really see on my first reading of this book how the interaction between characters was set up to tell a story about Eliot’s imagined cracking of religion’s cemented surface in order to reach a broader, more fluid spirituality, one that drew its power from an individual conscience and did away with the strictly enforced group-formed dynamic, all while on the surface of the novel’s plot a love triangle wrought with dramatic irony proved capable of drawing in a more massive readership that, like me during my first reading, couldn’t grasp just how far past the foreground this plot went.
I’m of the belief that when a work this well crafted doesn’t fully register to your primary understanding on the first read through it still manages to stir something inside you unconsciously. With this book I know it did despite my having forgotten it, because the very specific message this novel hones in on, one that I find too infrequently elsewhere in fiction, is something I’ve developed an obsession over since. On my first read I had absolutely no conscious interest in religion, spirituality, Hermetic philosophies, and probably least of all in Romantic-era literature. At that still impressionable age many ideas were affecting me, attempting to solidify my belief system. A lot of imprints stayed briefly, and quickly disappeared—for example, believing Barack Obama would bring change, thinking that I might go to law school, thinking politics was a system for solving problems rather than creating them, etc. What it feels like now is that Eliot’s book made so big of an imprint on me that it totally engulfed my conscious surface and went beyond it broadly into the other layers—I was completely unaware just how interested I was in the message, and completely unaware of its lasting impression on me. It’s a pretty significant sensation to return to an artifact that, in hindsight, has become personal, approaching it again without the slightest cognizance of just how much it had secretly influenced you the first time around. Granted, there are probably much larger psychological elements at work in my needing to think the subjects involved through—childhood upbringing, my own travails with religious thought and the dogmatically religious, a quickly deteriorating satisfaction with material reality—but that intense and intricate recognition I found in this text was impossible for me to ignore as an initial spark.
The very small town I was raised in has similarities to the small town in Adam Bede.
Villagers never swarm; a whisper is unknown among them, and they seem almost as incapable of an undertone as a cow or a stag. Your true rustic turns his back on his interlocutor, throwing a question over his shoulder as if he meant to run away from the answer, and walking a step or two further off when the interest of the dialogue culminates.
It’s the type of town where all the weighty, difficult subjects stay hidden away from the socially smooth and seemingly pleasant veneer that instills immediate comfort for those who need it. This idea is the entrance point in the novel for the discrepancies between religious doctrine and spiritual seeking. Seth Bede, Adam’s younger brother, is very attracted to Dinah Morris, the Methodist preacher who just came to town, and he’s in a conversation with his mother about the power prayer can bring. “‘If thee wouldst pray to God to help thee, and trust His goodness, thee wouldstna be so uneasy about things,’” he tells her. Her rebuttal, garbled in a dialect that takes some getting used to, spotlights the strain of vanity that promotes comfort:
‘Unaisy? I’m i’ th’ right on’t to be unaisy. It’s well seen on thee what it is niver to be unaisy. Thee’t gi’ away all thy earnins, an’ niver be unaisy as thee’st nothin’ laid up again’ a rainy day. If Adam had been as aisy as thee, he’d niver ha’ had no money to pay for thee. Take no thought for the morrow—take no thought—that’s what thee’t allays sayin’; an’ what comes on’t? Why, as Adam has to take thought for thee.’
Seth tells her that this “take no thought for the morrow” sentiment comes directly from the Bible, to which his mother again compares him to Adam, saying that the passages that Adam picks from the Bible or elsewhere to represent his values show a better quality of character. For instance, “‘God helps them as helps theirsens,’” or, as Adam himself later quotes “‘They that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of those that are weak, and not to please themselves.’” Adam’s skills at scavenging for moral material to build his character on, it seems, aren’t as lazy as the others’.
Adam Bede initially comes across as an unbelievable character, especially by today’s standards. He’s almost akin to the dreamy male prototype of a romance novel, someone who’s young and strong, has a sharp sense of criticism, a healthy sense of duty toward working for others, well liked and highly respected by everyone in town, and ultimately led by a strong and sturdy sense of self-sought and –maintained morals. Throughout roughly the first half of the book he has nearly no negative qualities, but eventually we start to see that his highly acute sense of right and wrong leads him to outbursts of rage, excessive pride, and a frequent absence of sympathy for those who can’t seem to escape temptation and wind up doing wrong. Seth and Adam’s mother continually compares the two to one another, but it doesn’t cause any tension between the brothers, as Seth’s always ready to admit that Adam has his shit together way more than Seth does, and that without Adam’s physical and emotional strength, the family would have fallen apart long ago, their father having turned into an unreliable drunk. Adam gets the distinction of a confident independent thinker, given his mother’s and many others’ points of view on his piercing, righteous, critical character, mixed with his lack of concern about following religious custom for the sake of fitting in. As Eliot, our narrator, lays out in her description of him:
he had that mental combination which is at once humble in the region of mystery, and keen in the region of knowledge: it was the depth of his reverence quite as much as his hard common-sense, which gave him his disinclination to doctrinal religion, and he often checked Seth’s argumentative spiritualism by saying ‘Eh, it’s a big mystery; thee know’st but little about it.’ And so it happened that Adam was at once penetrating and credulous.
From there, more characters get introduced to act out the plot’s forefront, and to represent elements of the cosmic allegory in the background. The head church rector, Mr. Irwine, comes across as a friendly, affable, somewhat approachable representation of a broader spirituality than you would normally find at the head of a church. His mother has a French arcane elegance about her, as if maybe to suggest Christianity’s birth originates from a now denounced source. Imagining how readers would react to Irwine, Eliot writes, “‘This Rector of Broxton is little better than a pagan!’” also adding earlier that Irwine “was fonder of church history than of divinity.” Basically he has a point of view that isn’t necessarily enmeshed and limited within Christian religious philosophy, but rather holds a wider point of view of it from the outside. He sees better how the Christian church fits itself within the larger scheme of the interior world, and doesn’t get bogged down in focusing on the showmanship of his religion. His understudy, a squire named Arthur Donnithorne, however—a very pivotal character in the novel—is focused on the vain social status that his populous religion can bring him. Arthur, in contrast to Irwine, is someone whose understanding of himself and his world gets contained by church thought and custom, and as a result of his smaller spiritual world view, he winds up affixed with this hardened, uselessly conventional, face-saving, need-for-comfort-and-niceties—ultimately vain—quality that Eliot seeks to illustrate as the cause for much of the misunderstandings, follies, and general negativity around religion. This is the quality that she, through Adam, takes aim at in the novel.
There’s a girl in town named Hetty Sorrel, who, we’re made aware almost right from the get-go, is a pretty, shallow, self-obsessed, ultimately vain character as well. Being that she’s so young and attractive, plenty of men inch their way into flirting with her in social situations. Adam comes around every so often, to ponder over the idea, with borderline creepy sincerity, of taking her as a wife. Hetty’s caretakers, her aunt and uncle, reinforce this idea every time Adam comes around. Arthur the squire, however, also takes a liking to her, and since a person of his high class and standing is commonly assumed to be out of her league, Hetty heavily reciprocates his playful advances, and the hopes of him taking her as a wife infect her every waking thought and make of Adam next to nothing in her mind. Although Arthur comes across as the bad guy in this situation, as the exploiter, he’s genuinely not aware that this is what she’s thinking about with regards to his flirtations, assuming that she too understands the impossibility of their marriage, that all of this is just for fun. A certain aspect of being inconsiderate is simple ignorance, a quality that, unfortunately, acts as a hotbed for conflict and evil deeds. Arthur doesn’t necessarily hope to marry her, but instead romanticizes the initiation of ideal, uncomplicated, inconsequential love:
Love is such a simple thing when we have only one-and-twenty summers and a sweet girl of seventeen trembles under our glance, as if she were a bud first opening her heart with wondering rapture to the morning. Such young unfurrowed souls roll to meet each other like two velvet peaches that touch softly and are at rest; they mingle as easily as two brooklets that ask for nothing but to entwine themselves and ripple with ever-interlacing curves in the leafiest hiding-places.
The problem is that as he’s daydreaming all of this, filling his idle moments with fantasy, another part of him, a weaker one, knows he shouldn’t excite this passionate beast, and he actively attempts restraining it. His main priority is, after all, to appear within the socially accepted customs of a man in his standing. But, being that he’s a person concerned only with that image of religion—the appearance—he has a lesser understanding, concern, or ability to actually control his passion when behind closed doors. With the aid of pressured restraint and the thrill of transgression—another set of unfortunate religious consequences—he ventures to have the best of both worlds, taking advantage of this blind spot covered by his social position.
There’s a scene toward the end of the first section where our narrator goes on a spiel about the higher and lower natures of a person (which will be quoted at the end), and conveniently right afterwards she sets up a scene in which we’re made aware that Dinah Morris, the morality-on-her-sleeve Methodist preacher, and Hetty, have adjoining rooms for the time being, both girls being nieces on opposite sides of the Poyser family in whose house they’re staying. This sectioning off of the two girls emphasizes their representations as polar ends in the moral spectrum of our nature, Hetty the more vain, Dinah the truly well-intentioned. When it comes to happen later that Adam stumbles upon Hetty and Arthur after a little romp in the forest, he lashes out at Arthur in both moral indignation and violence, saying, among other things, “‘you’re acting the part of a selfish light-minded scoundrel.’” Using the paradigm that Arthur represents the shallow, selfish, more base elements of spirituality—religion—he winds up falling prey to his own lesser nature by seeking a secret indulgence of the shallow, selfish, more base elements of humanity in general, represented by Hetty, a character wrapped up in her surface beauty with little else going on.
Vanity’s robust quality is such that it tricks its user into wanting a connection with the likemindedly vain, while also proving itself incapable of avoiding lasting conflict and turmoil because of those connections. Its effects create a network that spreads beyond those immediate vain characters caught completely in its trap, and harms anyone else involved with even a minor shred of vanity at stake. This is exhibited on the micro scale between these three characters—Adam, Arthur, and Hetty. Arthur’s concern is for his own pleasure, achieved through an abuse of power, the image of him that Hetty is attracted to. Hetty is simply vanity personified. Her religious ritual is looking at herself in a mirror for hours on a nightly basis. By the happy ending of the novel she’s quarantined and repenting her ways, same with Arthur. Adam, as the focus of the novel, is the victim of circumstance, while not completely innocent, and acts as the site of moral development by his eventual overcoming of the similar quality in his own character that drew himself to Hetty. Just as Dinah says to Hetty, when letting her know that she’s always there for her if suffering happens to plague her, “‘trouble comes to us all in this life: we set our hearts on things which it isn’t God’s will for us to have, and then we go sorrowing.’” Adam experiences this ‘sorrowing’ as a result of the slightest bit of vanity he holds, and the suffering he experiences is simply the killing off of this ignorant impulse within him. When he knocks out Arthur he is “sickened at the vanity of his own rage,” and, as Eliot later narrates, “The horror that rushed over Adam completely mastered him, and forced upon him its own belief.” His harsh reaction to being wronged is itself a part of vanity’s infection, it playing out its power. As he comes to learn, he has to take the suffering onto himself to smother the vanity, as opposed to keeping it alive and allowing it to fuel impulsive reactions.
When this situation is zoomed out onto the macro scale, into the view of allegory, we come to understand that prioritization of image, custom, orderliness, power—the aspects that we find maintain religion and set it against the sublime breadth of the spiritual interior that is purportedly its focus—are completely profane in all their vain intentions. It was only a year later from the publication of this novel, just across the pond in France, that Eliphas Levi wrote in History of Magic, “Every definition of God hazarded by human intelligence is a recipe of religious empiricism, out of which superstition will subsequently extract a devil.” The church bids for authority through appealing to the baser vanities and instincts in people to prop it up. It fulfills the need of its congregation, which collectively seeks a definitive spiritual comfort, by presenting a long-held, traditional, sturdy, and powerful image of authority over spirituality and morality, all while in reality it has this tremendous blind spot over itself as a vain hurdle toward understanding God, as if ignoring the message of Ecclesiastes. The inevitability of creating conflict, misunderstanding, and negativity that reaches beyond the church and its congregation results in attacks onto it from people outside of it who recognize the evil that can furnish in its blindspots. This is the same story, but broader in scope, in which Arthur exploits Hetty’s innocence for his own pleasure and personal gain, and Adam—the outside, independent perspective—attacks him. But Adam comes to understand that his attack, his near attempt at totally killing Arthur (religion) is wrought with wrong intentions itself, as there is still something salvageable in this enterprise, namely the true element of spirituality that the church has nearly smothered by its power trip. This is the ultimate defining feature that separates this novel from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which also plots its story around a young girl getting taken advantage of and winding up pregnant.
When Arthur and Hetty are bearing the brunt of consequences for their actions, Adam, suffering on his own as a result, with minor condolence from the intellectual Bartle Massey, gets aid and understanding first from Rector Irwine and then from Dinah Morris, both characters that represent the truest of living and vibrant Godly values, as opposed to and somewhat outside of the deadening and troublesome confines of religion. Adam, in his independent criticism, and newly acquired empathy, also helps Arthur hone in on how to be a better person, how to understand the full weight of his wrongdoing, and how to actively repent—basically, how to allow that spiritual speck within him expand and dismantle his vanity. Adam himself learns how to forgive a man that he came to intensely hate for a large portion of the story.
Reading this book again, I was struck with how much it fit my childhood idea of what a novel was—describing both the interior human world and external nature with knowing precision, confidence, detail, and elegance, all completely without obscuring tones of postmodern kitsch or irony, nor sentimental triteness. The characters are impossible to describe without making them sound as if they were from a novel available for purchase at a grocery store, but somehow Eliot managed to make them resonate internally for people deeply concerned with self-improvement. Its effect is mythic or Biblical in its maturity, as if it managed to reach the height of human concern by implicating the reader in figuring out for him- or herself just how morality is distinguished from religion. This is a story about suffering that doesn’t seek sympathy for its characters or circumstances, but rather a story about the value of suffering, that renders suffering as a necessary transition, and not an ailment requiring pharmaceuticals. As I learned myself through the circumstances surrounding my first reading of this novel in that British Literature course, I had to ‘suffer’ (pale, comparatively) the destruction of bad writing habits, bad character qualities by my professor in order to gain anything of merit. I can only now see his invoking of the schoolteacher of the novel, Bartle Massey, in his approach to instruction:
‘I’ll have nobody in my night-school that doesn’t strive to learn what he comes to learn, as hard as if he was trying to get out of a dark hole into broad daylight. I’ll send no man away because he’s stupid: if Billy Taft, the idiot, wanted to learn anything, I’d not refuse to teach him. But I’ll not throw away good knowledge on people who think they can get it by the six-penn’orth, and carry it away with ‘em as they would an ounce of snuff. So never come to me again, if you can’t show that you’ve been working with your own heads, instead of thinking you can pay for mine to work for you.’
This novel is honestly too densely packed with valuable material, and the breadth of intricacies for what I wanted to focus on could fill twice as many paragraphs as have already been written. Eliot wrote all sides of the situation in a graceful brevity that I cant’ accomplish critically. She promoted the need for individual responsibility in the face of the inevitable situation in which we too often define ourselves as casualties. What she shows is that sometimes innocence is the false veil of ignorance, and by unmasking that painful guise, the scope and understanding of ourselves will widen through personal experience and inspection. Or, as she puts it much more eloquently:
It is our habit to say that while the lower nature can never understand the higher, the higher nature commands a complete view of the lower. But I think the higher nature has to learn this comprehension, as we learn the art of vision, by a good deal of hard experience, often with bruises and gashes incurred in taking things up by the wrong end, and fancying our space wider than it is.