In Hayslope, you don't have Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street. You've got this guy. What with his gruff demeanor and short temper, Bartle Massey is the last person you'd want on PBS. Actually, there is something Oscar the Grouch-ish about him… But make no mistake, a schoolteacher like Bartle Massey is a creature of a grimmer, grimier era.
When good old Bartle first appears, we see him terrorizing, er, instructing the students in his night school. The schoolhouse is kind of dingy. The students are all
[…] rough men painfully holding pen or pencil with their cramped hands, or humbly laboring through their reading lesson. (243.21)
Bartle is a tiny man; he walks with a limp; and nobody seems to know why he wound up in Hayslope. Yet beneath the gruffness Bartle has a real investment in students who work hard—including his star pupil, Adam Bede.
As a whole, Adam Bede is a book about how an entire community can overcome obstacles and better itself. Bartle Massey embodies this on a somewhat smaller (but still super-important) level. In the words of the schoolmaster himself,
"plenty of these big, lumbering fellows 'ud never have known their ABC if it hadn't been for Bartle Massey." (21.49)
And Bartle doesn't just teach the ABCs; he teaches men to value "working with your own heads" (21.10). So if you're wondering where Hayslope learned the mixture of solidarity and self-control that helps it to weather the Hetty crisis, try Bartle Massey's schoolhouse. Bartle Massey: the shortest Pillar of the Community you'll ever see.
Bartle Massey is yet another (yet another!) of Adam Bede's massively flawed characters with a heart of gold. Yet his flaws are probably the hardest for a 21st-century reader to excuse. Just try explaining away Bartle's idea that
"there isn't a thing under the sun that needs to be done at all, but what a man can do better than a woman, unless it's bearing children." (250.21)
Or just try to make sense of his dislike of "marriage in general and the marriage of a sensible man in particular" (556.55). Just try!
The strange thing, though, is that Bartle has such a great capacity for care and affection. He is there for Adam round-the-clock during the Hetty fiasco—and is that the action of a man who really hates women, or people, or anything? Bartle admits to Adam that it was "a good many years since I was in trouble myself" (46.26). The man has had travails of his own. So what's the deal? Was there a lost love that embittered the poor guy? Is he an exiled Russian aristocrat, a defeated poet, a weary adventurer?
For every cringe-inducing thing he says about women¸ Bartle shows a moment of splendid kindness. Maybe the misogynist act is just the resort of a man who has seen and felt too much, and doesn't know what else to say. And in any case, it plays beautifully into Eliot's idea that "human nature is loveable"(17.14) despite all its massive failings.