Study Guide

Adam Bede Compassion and Forgiveness

By George Eliot

Compassion and Forgiveness

He ran back to Seth, and the two sons lifted the sad burden in heart-stricken silence. The wide-open glazed eyes were grey, like Seth's, and had once looked with mild pride on the boys before whom Thias had lived to hang his head in shame. Seth's chief feeling was awe and distress at this sudden snatching away of his father's soul; but Adam's mind rushed back over the past in a flood of relenting and pity. When death, the great Reconciler, has come, it is never our tenderness that we repent of, but our severity. (4.82)

In death, Adam can forgive his father best. Tell us: how can you forgive somebody who's always off blowing money at the local inn? Do you blunder in and shout "Father, I forgive you!" in front of everybody? But now that Thias is dead, he is no longer a burden or a nuisance to the Bede household—simply a sign of personal downfall and a man to be pitied.

Perhaps he was the only person in the world who did not think his sisters uninteresting and superfluous; for his was one of those large-hearted, sweet-blooded natures that never know a narrow or a grudging thought; Epicurean, if you will, with no enthusiasm, no self-scourging sense of duty; but yet, as you have seen, of a sufficiently subtle moral fibre to have an unwearying tenderness for obscure and monotonous suffering. It was his large-hearted indulgence that made him ignore his mother's hardness towards her daughters, which was the more striking from its contrast with her doting fondness towards himself; he held it no virtue to frown at irremediable faults. (5.63)

Mr. Irwine's compassion is remarkable in several respects. He gives more consideration to his sisters than their own mother does, and gives them considerably more attention that Eliot's narrator. Yes, even this narrator has some pretty big failures of compassion. While the story itself quickly moves past them, Irwine lingers over these unfortunate maids.

These fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are: you can neither straighten their noses, nor brighten their wit, nor rectify their dispositions; and it is these people—amongst whom your life is passed—that it is needful you should tolerate, pity, and love: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people whose movements of goodness you should be able to admire—for whom you should cherish all possible hopes, all possible patience. And I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields—on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice. (17.4)

Eliot's narrator does not sugarcoat weakness and stupidity. Yet the best way to improve society is to show compassion for people like these—not to coldly demand that people should be better. So buy those self-help books for yourself, but don't shove them in everybody else's face.

Perhaps here lay the secret of the hardness he had accused himself of: he had too little fellow-feeling with the weakness that errs in spite of foreseen consequences. Without this fellow-feeling, how are we to get enough patience and charity towards our stumbling, falling companions in the long and changeful journey? And there is but one way in which a strong determined soul can learn it—by getting his heart-strings bound round the weak and erring, so that he must share not only the outward consequence of their error, but their inward suffering. That is a long and hard lesson, and Adam had at present only learned the alphabet of it in his father's sudden death, which, by annihilating in an instant all that had stimulated his indignation, had sent a sudden rush of thought and memory over what had claimed his pity and tenderness. (19.6)

Adam does not need to compromise his own "strong" nature to sympathize with the weak. Rather, he needs to understand weakness and greet it with patience and kind deeds, not indignation or anger. Like Superman does, or maybe Oprah.

"Perhaps he's i' th' right on 't not to see me," thought Adam. "It's no use meeting to say more hard words, and it's no use meeting to shake hands and say we're friends again. We're not friends, an' it's better not to pretend it. I know forgiveness is a man's duty, but, to my thinking, that can only mean as you're to give up all thoughts o' taking revenge: it can never mean as you're t' have your old feelings back again, for that's not possible. He's not the same man to me, and I can't feel the same towards him. God help me! I don't know whether I feel the same towards anybody: I seem as if I'd been measuring my work from a false line, and had got it all to measure over again." (29.21)

In this internal monologue, Adam is honest with himself about his problems. His inability to forgive Arthur, his former friend, has colored his relations with everyone he knows with strangeness and confusion. Remember the green-tinted glasses in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? Well, imagine that those color everything with confusion and vague distrust, and you'll understand what Adam feels.

But this money would not keep her long. What should she do when it was gone? Where should she go? The horrible thought of want and beggary drove her once to think she would go back to her uncle and aunt and ask them to forgive her and have pity on her. But she shrank from that idea again, as she might have shrunk from scorching metal. She could never endure that shame before her uncle and aunt, before Mary Burge, and the servants at the Chase, and the people at Broxton, and everybody who knew her. They should never know what had happened to her. What could she do? She would go away from Windsor—travel again as she had done the last week, and get among the flat green fields with the high hedges round them, where nobody could see her or know her; and there, perhaps, when there was nothing else she could do, she should get courage to drown herself in some pond like that in the Scantlands. (37.4)

Hetty is considering her options, and is overcome with a feeling of isolation. Not good. She yearns for the forgiveness and sympathy of her closest friends, yet is convinced that they would refuse to show her such compassion. The poor girl needs a hot chocolate and some kind words, and that just isn't happening.

Mr. Irwine had sat down again in silence. He was too wise to utter soothing words at present, and indeed, the sight of Adam before him, with that look of sudden age which sometimes comes over a young face in moments of terrible emotion—the hard bloodless look of the skin, the deep lines about the quivering mouth, the furrows in the brow—the sight of this strong firm man shattered by the invisible stroke of sorrow, moved him so deeply that speech was not easy. Adam stood motionless, with his eyes vacantly fixed in this way for a minute or two; in that short space he was living through all his love again.  

"She can't ha' done it," he said, still without moving his eyes, as if he were only talking to himself: "it was fear made her hide it... I forgive her for deceiving me... I forgive thee, Hetty... thee wast deceived too... it's gone hard wi' thee, my poor Hetty... but they'll never make me believe it." (39.37-38)

Mr. Irwine offers Adam the opportunity to work through his emotions and grapple with Hetty's crime. Wise choice, your Irwine-ness. And we're not being sarcastic; this really is a great idea. On his own, Adam arrives at a statement of compassion and forgiveness that is very much in line with Mr. Irwine's own philosophy.

"Good come out of it!" said Adam passionately. "That doesn't alter th' evil: her ruin can't be undone. I hate that talk o' people, as if there was a way o' making amends for everything. They'd more need be brought to see as the wrong they do can never be altered. When a man's spoiled his fellow-creatur's life, he's no right to comfort himself with thinking good may come out of it. Somebody else's good doesn't alter her shame and misery." (46.25)

Adam directs this statement at Bartle Massey. Adam is capable of forgiveness, but he realizes that putting a crime into perspective does not erase its destructive effects. And isn't it nice that, for once, Bartle doesn't break in with something misogynistic? Misfortune puts a lot into perspective.

"I don't want to lessen your indignation against me, or ask you to do anything for my sake. I only wish to ask you if you will help me to lessen the evil consequences of the past, which is unchangeable. I don't mean consequences to myself, but to others. It is but little I can do, I know. I know the worst consequences will remain; but something may be done, and you can help me. Will you listen to me patiently?" 

"Yes, sir," said Adam, after some hesitation; "I'll hear what it is. If I can help to mend anything, I will. Anger 'ull mend nothing, I know. We've had enough o' that." (48.18-19)

Here, Arthur asks Adam to help him atone for the past. Patch it all up, and try to move on. And Adam is willing to "help to mend" everything that has been set wrong. Come to think of it, his willingness to listen to Arthur suggests that things are already being mended. Adam is treating Arthur not as a criminal, but as a man deserving of pity and understanding.

"But no one who knows you will think that, Adam. That is not a reason strong enough against a course that is really more generous, more unselfish than the other. And it will be known—it shall be made known, that both you and the Poysers stayed at my entreaty. Adam, don't try to make things worse for me; I'm punished enough without that."

"No, sir, no," Adam said, looking at Arthur with mournful affection. "God forbid I should make things worse for you. I used to wish I could do it, in my passion—but that was when I thought you didn't feel enough. I'll stay, sir, I'll do the best I can. It's all I've got to think of now—to do my work well and make the world a bit better place for them as can enjoy it." (48.49-50)

Hayslope's own Dynamic Duo is back—sort of. Here, Arthur and Adam are learning to move beyond past faults and hope to restore a way of life that will be beneficial. Arthur wants to keep his former friends in Hayslope, and Adam is coming to view Arthur with "affection" once more.