Study Guide

Rev. Adolphus Irwine in Adam Bede

By George Eliot

Rev. Adolphus Irwine

Principles and Principals

Mr. Irwine is a dignified, prosperous, learned man: a Reverend in the Church of England. Okay. So why does he come off less like a religious leader and more like the vice principal of a high school?

Well, maybe it's because his underlings come off like high-school students. Here's Joshua Rann tattling on Will Maskery. Here's Arthur Donnithorne, who just broke up with Hetty and clearly hasn't been attending his sex ed classes. Irwine is composure itself, and everyone else just seems to run wild.

This isn't the only reason why Vice Principal Irwine has an appropriate ring to it. He isn't exactly lazy, but he isn't out to set anybody's world on fire. As Eliot's narrator explains it:

[…] although he would probably have declined to give his body to be burned in any public cause, and was far from bestowing all his goods to feed the poor, he had that charity which has sometimes been lacking to very illustrious virtue. (5.65)

He likes his chess and his lapdogs and his big breakfasts. And you can get all that, and help some kids out, and keep your nerves intact, on a vice-principal's salary.

The Sanest Man in Hayslope?

Irwine's lack of fiery "virtue" is, amazingly, just what Hayslope needs. The other really remarkable members of the community—Arthur and Adam—have strong passions that lead them to the brink of chaos. Irwine knows how to hold all this in check. For instance, when Adam seeks to avenge Hetty, Irwine puts everything in perspective:

"There are others to think of, and act for, besides yourself, Adam; there are Hetty's friends, the good Poysers." (39.42)

So much for the B-movie vigilante stuff.

Mr. Irwine spends a lot of Adam Bede finding "others to think of." Among other others, he's got two invalid sisters. Most people are bored by these Irwine ladies; Mr. Irwine is absolutely devoted to them.

Now, this isn't the kind of virtue that gets written up in the history books. But Mr. Irwine has just the kind of virtue that is best for a close-knit community like Hayslope—a community that runs on neighborliness, compassion, and restraint. Everyone can learn a thing or two from his mildness and generosity. Even the folks on after-school specials. He's that good.

Keeping It Real

There is a lot more that saves Irwine from being a kindly mediocrity. He's wonderfully pragmatic, and this earns him the respect of his rough-hewn parishioners, lap dogs or no lap dogs. Adam Bede himself muses that "Mr. Irwine has got notions o' building more nor most architects" (49.55). And this is Adam Bede, builder extraordinaire.

So yeah, Mr. Irwine could help you install some storm windows or clean your gutters, no problem. Yet this can-do spirit makes him popular for other reasons. As Eliot's narrator notes, Mr. Irwine's

[…] influence on his parish was a more wholesome one than that of the zealous Mr. Ryde, who came twenty years afterwards. (17.9)

And why's that? Well, Ryde preached big abstract doctrines, and Irwine preached practical principles and short moral sayings. Pretty obvious who was the better fit for hardheaded Hayslope. Pretty obvious whom you'd rather invite to a barbecue.

Don't get us wrong; Mr. Irwine isn't a representative resident of Hayslope. His first name, after all, is Adolphus. Can you imagine anyone else in this humble community carrying around a name like that? Still, he has the gift of getting down and dirty, or as down and dirty as Hayslope gets, and that isn't much.

Anyway, he knows his parishioners' talents and respects their limits. Who could ask for anything more?