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Adam Bede is about Adam Bede. Though Adam actually is not part of the central actions of the novel, the novel is not driven by its plot. Instead, the novel focuses on the characters of Hayslope and how they react when a tragedy occurs in their midst. Adam is the central figure of the novel because he is a good man who undergoes a significant personality change in the face of great sorrow. Eliot begins the novel by showing us Adam in ordinary life.
He is a carpenter and a hard worker, but he is too proud of his work. Adam supports his family, but he is too hard on his wayward father. The death of his father causes Adam to reflect on his own character, but this sadness is not enough to bring about a complete personality change. The events with Hetty, however, cause Adam to completely reconsider his view of the world. They change him by making him gentler, humbler, and, on the whole, a better man.
Eliot intends us to model ourselves in some small part on Adam. An admirable character, Adam is meant to guide readers through their own lives. The novel is a moral novel. It is meant to show how even so admired and brave and good a man as Adam is in the beginning of the story can be made better by a little compassion toward his fellow man. The narrator often emphasizes this point when he breaks through the story to make comments.
That is why Eliot calls the book Adam Bede. She intends to keep the focus on him, even through the more exciting plot developments that center on other characters.
Dinah’s prayer with Hetty in jail and Hetty’s ultimate conversion are a major emotional highpoint in the novel, but they are not the climax of the book. Although Hetty is at the center of all the major action of the novel, she is not the subject of the story. Instead the story focuses on Adam and Dinah. To the extent that Dinah preaches to Hetty and the reader sees Dinah as a preacher and religious woman, the scene is important for what it says about Dinah. It is also a critical scene because it shows the effects of compassion in action. Where no one else could touch Hetty’s hard heart, Dinah can through her gentleness and lack of judgment. The scene embodies the moral of the novel, that judging our neighbors is not a proper way to live and that love has more transformative power than all the preaching in the world. For that reason, the scene is at the heart of the novel’s emotional power. It crystallizes Eliot’s moral purpose in writing the novel and renders clear the meaning that is threaded through the rest of the story. But because Hetty and even Dinah are really secondary to Adam in their place in the novel, the scene between them in the jail is not the climax. This scene inspired the novel, but the novel grew away from it in the telling. Adam’s life is the more complex and more elaborated allegorical version of the message encapsulated in the jail scene, and his life is the focus of the book.
Adam cannot see Hetty’s faults because he wants so badly for her to be the perfect wife for him and because she is so beautiful. Adam falls victim to Hetty’s charms because he believes the best of everyone. He sees the world in good terms and expects others to see it that way too. Because he loves Hetty, in his love he believes what he wants to believe about her: that she is innocent, caring, and gentle. Adam also expects inner beauty to correlate to outer beauty. But Adam is a practical man, and to him, building a strong, straight wall is doing God’s work. A wall seldom has characteristics that are much hidden from the human eye, and Adam expects people to be like walls, basically self-revealing of flaws and cracks. But people, of course, are not like that. Although Hetty’s strength does not derive from good, she is strong in her own way, and her powers of deception are exceptional. Adam expects her to be the kitten she seems. Whether his infatuation and blindness lessen his character is something Eliot leaves to her reader to decide. She argues that his infatuation stems from his finest qualities. Adam’s inability to see the truth, however, does set him up for misery. Had they married, Hetty and Adam would likely have been an unhappy couple.
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