Study Guide

Adam Bede Criminality

By George Eliot


"All this he bore for you! For you—and you never think of him; for you—and you turn your backs on him; you don't care what he has gone through for you. Yet he is not weary of toiling for you: he has risen from the dead, he is praying for you at the right hand of God— 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' And he is upon this earth too; he is among us; he is there close to you now; I see his wounded body and his look of love." (2.54)

Here, Dinah exhorts the people of Hayslope to cast off their ignorance and think of God. Although these folks slight Christ's suffering by turning away from him, Dinah states that Christ still offers them redemption from their weaknesses.

"But don't you find some danger among your people—I don't mean to say that it is so with you, far from it—but don't you find sometimes that both men and women fancy themselves channels for God's Spirit, and are quite mistaken, so that they set about a work for which they are unfit and bring holy things into contempt?"

"Doubtless it is so sometimes; for there have been evil-doers among us who have sought to deceive the brethren, and some there are who deceive their own selves. But we are not without discipline and correction to put a check upon these things. There's a very strict order kept among us, and the brethren and sisters watch for each other's souls as they that must give account. They don't go every one his own way and say, 'Am I my brother's keeper?'" (8.14-15)

In this dialogue, Mr. Irwine gently, gently casts doubt on Dinah's religious mission. He raises the possibility—and an unpleasant possibility, mind you—that she is mistaking deceptions for God's will. Yet Dinah assures him that community, discipline, and mutual watchfulness keep her people from straying into evil. Good for them!

The chances are that he will go through life without scandalizing any one; a seaworthy vessel that no one would refuse to insure. Ships, certainly, are liable to casualties, which sometimes make terribly evident some flaw in their construction that would never have been discoverable in smooth water; and many a "good fellow," through a disastrous combination of circumstances, has undergone a like betrayal.

But we have no fair ground for entertaining unfavourable auguries concerning Arthur Donnithorne, who this morning proves himself capable of a prudent resolution founded on conscience. One thing is clear: Nature has taken care that he shall never go far astray with perfect comfort and satisfaction to himself; he will never get beyond that border-land of sin, where he will be perpetually harassed by assaults from the other side of the boundary. He will never be a courtier of Vice, and wear her orders in his button-hole. (12.4-5)

At this early point in the novel, it is not certain whether or not Arthur will stray from virtue. But one thing is clear: he would never be proud of opening himself to vice, sin, or criminality. Who would? Okay, yeah, all those mustache-twisting villains would, but who else?

Hetty had seated herself as she tied on her cap, and now Dinah leaned forwards and took her hands as she answered, "Because, dear, trouble comes to us all in this life: we set our hearts on things which it isn't God's will for us to have, and then we go sorrowing; the people we love are taken from us, and we can joy in nothing because they are not with us; sickness comes, and we faint under the burden of our feeble bodies; we go astray and do wrong, and bring ourselves into trouble with our fellow-men. There is no man or woman born into this world to whom some of these trials do not fall, and so I feel that some of them must happen to you; and I desire for you, that while you are young you should seek for strength from your Heavenly Father, that you may have a support which will not fail you in the evil day." (15.25)

Here, Dinah tells Hetty of the inevitability of suffering, sin, and trial. Gee, what pleasant bedtime thoughts. Still, Dinah endorses faith in God, not despair. Though Hetty may face an "evil day," she should not feel abandoned as long as she has God's love in her life.

"Why, then, instead of acting like th' upright, honourable man we've all believed you to be, you've been acting the part of a selfish light-minded scoundrel. You know as well as I do what it's to lead to when a gentleman like you kisses and makes love to a young woman like Hetty, and gives her presents as she's frightened for other folks to see. And I say it again, you're acting the part of a selfish light-minded scoundrel though it cuts me to th' heart to say so, and I'd rather ha' lost my right hand." (27.19)

Adam directs these harsh words at Arthur Donnithorne. Arthur has not violated any laws—heck, he doesn't have so much as an unpaid parking ticket—but he has misled a weaker member of society. This immoral act is not simply a lapse, in Adam's opinion; it is proof that Arthur can act like a criminal.

But why did not Arthur rise? He was perfectly motionless, and the time seemed long to Adam. Good God! had the blow been too much for him? Adam shuddered at the thought of his own strength, as with the oncoming of this dread he knelt down by Arthur's side and lifted his head from among the fern. There was no sign of life: the eyes and teeth were set. The horror that rushed over Adam completely mastered him, and forced upon him its own belief. He could feel nothing but that death was in Arthur's face, and that he was helpless before it. He made not a single movement, but knelt like an image of despair gazing at an image of death. (27.37)

Adam's violent actions are followed quickly by pangs of self-consciousness. Like the pangs we feel when we say something really loud and really stupid, but much worse. His assault on Arthur is evidence of his violent temper, yet he realizes that his nature can have destructive, criminal consequences.

"It's his doing," he said; "if there's been any crime, it's at his door, not at hers. He taught her to deceive—he deceived me first. Let 'em put him on his trial—let him stand in court beside her, and I'll tell 'em how he got hold of her heart, and 'ticed her t' evil, and then lied to me. Is he to go free, while they lay all the punishment on her... so weak and young?"

The image called up by these last words gave a new direction to poor Adam's maddened feelings. He was silent, looking at the corner of the room as if he saw something there. Then he burst out again, in a tone of appealing anguish, "I can't bear it... O God, it's too hard to lay upon me—it's too hard to think she's wicked." (39.35-36)

These words are directed at Mr. Irwine, and are Adam's attempt to re-assign blame for Hetty's crime. Because Arthur knowingly "taught her to deceive," he should be made to pay for Hetty's crimes. Hetty was just his dupe.

He was silent again for a few moments, and then he said, with fierce abruptness, "I'll go to him—I'll bring him back—I'll make him go and look at her in her misery—he shall look at her till he can't forget it—it shall follow him night and day—as long as he lives it shall follow him—he shan't escape wi' lies this time—I'll fetch him, I'll drag him myself."

In the act of going towards the door, Adam paused automatically and looked about for his hat, quite unconscious where he was or who was present with him. Mr. Irwine had followed him, and now took him by the arm, saying, in a quiet but decided tone, "No, Adam, no; I'm sure you will wish to stay and see what good can be done for her, instead of going on a useless errand of vengeance. The punishment will surely fall without your aid." (39.39-40)

This scene involves a clash of temperaments: Adam's stern and passionate personality versus Mr. Irwine's spirit of gentility and gentleness. (Any bets on who wins out?) And the two characters take two different approaches to Arthur's faults. Adam seeks active vengeance, while Mr. Irwine believes that the natural course of events will be vengeance enough. In other words, Adam's approach would make a much cooler Cohn Brothers movie


It was the verdict every one expected, but there was a sigh of disappointment from some hearts that it was followed by no recommendation to mercy. Still the sympathy of the court was not with the prisoner. The unnaturalness of her crime stood out the more harshly by the side of her hard immovability and obstinate silence. Even the verdict, to distant eyes, had not appeared to move her, but those who were near saw her trembling. (43.16-17)

The crowd that witnesses Hetty's sentencing reacts strongly, yet ambivalently, to her crime. In the court at large, the desire for mercy is accompanied by discomfort about Hetty's lack of emotion. Both good reactions, right?

Still there was silence. At last Hetty spoke, in a tone of beseeching—

"Dinah... help me... I can't feel anything like you... my heart is hard."

Dinah held the clinging hand, and all her soul went forth in her voice:

"Jesus, thou present Saviour! Thou hast known the depths of all sorrow: thou hast entered that black darkness where God is not, and hast uttered the cry of the forsaken. Come Lord, and gather of the fruits of thy travail and thy pleading. Stretch forth thy hand, thou who art mighty to save to the uttermost, and rescue this lost one. She is clothed round with thick darkness. The fetters of her sin are upon her, and she cannot stir to come to thee. She can only feel her heart is hard, and she is helpless. She cries to me, thy weak creature... Saviour! It is a blind cry to thee. Hear it! Pierce the darkness! Look upon her with thy face of love and sorrow that thou didst turn on him who denied thee, and melt her hard heart." (45.47-50)

Hetty here acknowledges that her criminal acts have hardened her. Her heart is a few sizes too small, just like the Grinch's. Yet Dinah does not believe that Hetty, who has "known the depths of all sorrow," is uncomprehending or hopelessly immoral. Again, just like the Grinch. Rather, Hetty's circumstances are so dire and fearsome that divine aid must be invoked. Or, if God isn't available, how about the people of Who-Ville singing a Christmas carol?