This isn't any old character summary—this is a summary for Adam Bede, in a novel titled Adam Bede. So take a deep breath there, Shmoopers.
Adam Bede is a strong, handsome, intelligent young carpenter. He's hawt, but his life isn't perfect—he keeps getting dragged down by "lesser mortals" like his drunken father Thias and his vain girlfriend Hetty.
That's a pity, because Adam is one ambitious fellow. No, he doesn't dream of arming the farmers of Hayslope with pitchforks and running the local gentry out of town. He doesn't even dream of joining the gentry himself. He simply has,
[…] confidence in his ability to achieve something in the future; he felt sure he should some day, if he lived, be able to maintain a family and make a good broad path for himself. (19.4)
That "something" involves setting up a carpentry business and making money off a kitchen cabinet of his own design. What do you think he wanted to do? Swim in a big pool of money like Scrooge McDuck? That's not Adam's style.
Adam doesn't just have reasonable ambitions; he lives in a society where reasonable ambitions are rewarded. The aristocracy—the real Scrooge McDucks of Hayslope—learn to admire Adam. Arthur Donnithorne declares that Adam is "a fine fellow, and I like the opportunity of letting people know that I think so" (22.29).
Arthur also puts his money where his mouth is and hires Adam to oversee the local woods and forests. Good call, because Adam is all about giving back to the community. He wants to "maintain a family" and help his town grow. Not a bad way of thanking Hayslope for giving him a leg up in life.
But think of this: what would Adam Bede be like with a less ambitious character at its core? A whole book about the crotchety Bartle Massey or loudmouthed Mrs. Poyser would be a one-note boredomfest. Adam, though, is trying to get ahead. His success is uncertain. For all his ambitions, he's got a bad temper, and his attachment to a shallow gal like Hetty is a disaster waiting to happen. We watch him for the same reason we watch The Apprentice: because personal ambition + uncertain results = a riveting show.
Hayslope's own Mr. Perfect has a lot to learn about the way life really is. At the beginning of the novel, he's almost too honest for this world, too trusting of self-absorbed girls like Hetty and flippant fellows like rich young Arthur Donnithorne. To Adam, folks like these aren't "self-absorbed" or "flippant." They're cordial and good-looking. And Adam is incapable of imagining that they might be self-absorbed, shady, or sneaky. Aww, it's kind of cute.
Look what happens when Adam is faced with pretty good proof of Hetty and Arthur's affair. He gets an eyeful of a fancy locket that Hetty was given, and "a puzzled alarm" takes "possession of him. Had Hetty a lover he didn't know of?" (26.40). Unless you blacked out during every single Hetty-and-Arthur scene, you know the answer to that question.
Adam, however, sets his mind to rest with a "flash of reviving hope" (26.41). It never seriously occurs to him that Hetty, with her taste for finery, would be turned off by a carpenter like him and find other options. Please, Adam, lose the rose-tinted glasses.
By the end of the novel, Adam isn't afraid to "look painful facts right in the face" (48.25). And he's learned to do so calmly and intelligently. When Adam first discovers what Arthur and Hetty are really up to, he goes ballistic. But by the end of Adam Bede, Adam Bede has a handle on his temper even in tense situations. If Dinah had rejected him, Adam Bede 2.0 probably would have kept calm and carried on.
But he gets the girl. It's almost like Eliot is rewarding him. Some of us are given kind words and raises for doing better; Adam is given the wife of his dreams. Lucky duck.
There's another reason why Adam Bede is way more interesting than your average Ken Doll (even if he looks like one). He (Adam, not Ken) was based on George Eliot's own father. Eliot and her intellectual dad had a tense relationship as Eliot grew up, and they quarreled mightily about religious matters. Sadly, Father Eliot never saw his daughter evolve into a novelist. He died in 1849, a decade before Adam Bede was published.
Adam Bede wasn't exactly written to sing Papa Eliot's praises. Adam isn't a complete saint; he's got some really big flaws and some really big virtues. But it suggests the depth of the debt (try saying that three times fast) that Eliot owed her father. In one passage, Eliot's narrator sings the praises of men like Adam:
Their employers were the richer for them, the work of their hands has worn well, and the work of their brains has guided well the hands of other men. (19.9)
Men like Adam weren't great, but they helped make greatness happen. And in this, Adam is just like Eliot's father. He didn't wind up in the history books. (What's his name, anyway? Turns out, after a lot of Googling, that it's Robert Evans.) But without him and his tough love, George Eliot wouldn't have made literary history, either.