Love triangles: nobody likes being stuck in them, but everybody likes reading about them.
But even as the love-triangulators of the world stay up late at night, crying (or making Voodoo dolls of their rivals), we're glued to the pages of any book that contains an especially gory love triangle… whether it's between a human, a vampire, and a werewolf on the Olympic Peninsula or three normal ol' humans in Hayslope, England circa 1799.
Welcome to Adam Bede. Our titular hero Adam Bede has a thing for a pretty little dairymaid, who has a thing for an aristocratic dude, who has a thing for… knockin' boots with pretty little dairymaids.
But this novel isn't just a simple love triangle. It's not even just a love rectangle, or dodecahedron. No: Adam Bede exists in three dimensions—it's a book about a love triangle, the dawn of a new century, the church, the class system, the role of women, and education. Oh, and drunks drowned in creeks, secret pregnancy, and murder.
Basically, the love triangle is the skeleton of Adam Bede—it's what holds the plot together, but it's by no means the only thing going on. To call Adam Bede "that love triangle book" is like calling Moby-Dick "that whale book" or calling Citizen Kane "that newspaper movie" or calling The Wire "that cop show."
George Eliot's most famous book, Middlemarch (which literary heavyweight Martin Amis calls "the central English novel"—no biggie) is easily identified as a novel about the community of Middlemarch—it's right there in the title. But Adam Bede, published a decade earlier in 1859, could totally have been titled Hayslope.
The community of Hayslope's socks are rocked by the (seriously sordid) love triangle action going on in their sleepy little hamlet. We get to see the aftershocks reverberate throughout the townsfolk, and George Eliot goes deep into the minds of basically everyone in town with the cunning of a superspy and the psychological know-how of Freud. It's eerie. Eliot makes Charles Dickens's complex characters seem as simplistic as Dick and Jane. She makes Jane Eyre's emotional depth seem like Patrick Bateman's.
So do yourself a favor and immerse yourself in the world of George Eliot. She's as lauded today as she was by such glittering historical literati as Virginia Woolf (who wasn't exactly a gentle critic). Start with her first novel—Adam Bede—and relish the torrid love affairs, small-town gossip, and literary genius.
What do George Eliot and Judd Apatow have in common? Answer: they both like (no, love) to cast their family members. This should be a recipe for disastrous self-indulgence, but—for Eliot and Apatow both—it yields funny, humane stories.
Adam Bede uses such homey materials that it never, ever should have been the masterpiece it is. Adam himself was modeled on Eliot's father, and Dinah was based on one of Eliot's other relatives. Yet Eliot took her rustic roots and used them to convey a larger vision of the big, wide world. She started as humble as she could, and knocked it out of the park. Of course, it didn't hurt that she was a crazy-talented literary genius.
But Eliot, unlike a lot of crazy-talented literary geniuses (lookin' at you Kafka, Plath, Bukowksi), was all about starting small and staying sensitive. We know how that sounds—it sounds like a big, fat Kumbaya circle. It doesn't sound cool. But it is actually awesome: Eliot helped define the way we think of characters even today. Flawed. Well-rounded. Weird.
And to get characters like that, Eliot started at the micro-level.
Adam Bede revolves around the idea, quite simply, of seeing everyday life as it is. Everyone, including these characters, is totally bizarre-o and messed up and human. We learn a lot about the characters in Adam Bede just by watching them screw up. Eliot gave us these characters—mistakes and all—because they are true to human nature. To err is human, y'all.
Hey, we're not saying that the next time you're stuck at a family barbecue or Thanksgiving dinner you shouldn't get annoyed. Your family is annoying. But also keep an eagle eye out for your uncle's idiosyncrasies, or what makes your grandma tick. Not only is that the stuff of human life—merely human people doing merely human, screwed-up stuff—it's also the fodder for great literature.
Reading Adam Bede might just make you a more tolerant, openhearted person. But if it doesn't, it will definitely make you a more observant person… because humans are weird animals and their flaws make for good stories.
The George Eliot Fellowship
A society for scholars, readers, and other proud Eliotians, Eliotites, Eliotists? What is the word for someone who loves George Eliot? These people must know.
The Victorian Web
An outstanding resource on Victorian authors, culture, and literature. Yup: that includes Ms. Eliot.
The Life of George Eliot (2012), by Nancy Henry
There've been almost 40 biographies of Eliot. (With literary biographies, there can never be only one.) So let's see what the critics are saying about Nancy Henry's book.
A Profile of George Eliot
Don't have time to read a George Eliot biography of Adam Bede-ian proportions? Check out the following overview of Eliot's life and writing.
Adam Bede Audiobook
Our fine friends at Librivox have read, recorded, and released every chapter of Adam Bede. The book's fifty-odd chapters have been divided among a bunch of readers. You won't get bored by any one voice, but you will get a top-quality, easy-to-use audiobook—and for free. Not a bad deal.
This video clip may be a bit amateurish—or, to be honest, flat-out amateur. But Hetty's a bit of an amateur, prancing around in her "finery" and dreaming of wealth. So it fits. And one way or another, it's a funky, playful look at Hetty's ideal world, amateurism and all.
"Adam Bede in 3 Minutes 47 Seconds"
First of all, yes, that is a zombie on a horse in the background. Apparently somebody used video game graphics (and mumbly dialogue) to create a condensed version of Adam Bede. It's not a bad summary, amazingly. And if you don't mind seeing a ninja or two wandering around, this clip might put a smile on your face.
Adam Bede (1918)
Turns out somebody made Adam Bede into a silent film back in the day. Weird thing to do with a novel where everyone talks so much, but we like ideas that just might be weird enough to work beautifully—like this one.
Adam Bede (1992)
At 102 minutes, this BBC adaptation isn't as mind-numbingly long as it could be. Why not give it a chance, with its bonnets and short pants and old-timey dialogue and everything else?
Adam Bede Illustrations. Lots of Them.
Still trying to figure out what Eliot's characters look like? Even if you're not, this collection of Adam Bede images might be worth a gander.
Here are some sketches of the woman behind Adam Bede, Middlemarch, and other gargantuan books.