Study Guide

Adam Bede Family

By George Eliot


"St. Paul says as plain as can be in another place, 'I will that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully'; and then 'two are better than one'; and that holds good with marriage as well as with other things. For we should be o' one heart and o' one mind, Dinah. We both serve the same Master, and are striving after the same gifts; and I'd never be the husband to make a claim on you as could interfere with your doing the work God has fitted you for. I'd make a shift, and fend indoor and out, to give you more liberty—more than you can have now, for you've got to get your own living now, and I'm strong enough to work for us both." (3.4)

Although Dinah resists marriage, Seth argues that family life would give her exactly what she needs. She would have more independence to serve the needy, and she would be answering the will of God as set forth in the Bible. And Seth would get to do a lot of housework. Honestly, Seth, think this through. You want to do housework?

Family likeness has often a deep sadness in it. Nature, that great tragic dramatist, knits us together by bone and muscle, and divides us by the subtler web of our brains; blends yearning and repulsion; and ties us by our heart-strings to the beings that jar us at every movement. We hear a voice with the very cadence of our own uttering the thoughts we despise; we see eyes—ah, so like our mother's!—averted from us in cold alienation; and our last darling child startles us with the air and gestures of the sister we parted from in bitterness long years ago. The father to whom we owe our best heritage—the mechanical instinct, the keen sensibility to harmony, the unconscious skill of the modelling hand—galls us and puts us to shame by his daily errors; the long-lost mother, whose face we begin to see in the glass as our own wrinkles come, once fretted our young souls with her anxious humours and irrational persistence. (4.3)

Eliot's narrator depicts family life as a mixed blessing—and we do mean mixed. It's a combination of extreme positives and extreme negatives. Even individual family members can combine the best traits of a family with weaknesses and poor judgment. There's a little Jekyll and Hyde in all of us.

Arthur knew the rector too well to suppose that a clever invention would be of any use, so he said, with his accustomed frankness, "No, I went to look at the pretty butter-maker Hetty Sorrel. She's a perfect Hebe; and if I were an artist, I would paint her. It's amazing what pretty girls one sees among the farmers' daughters, when the men are such clowns. That common, round, red face one sees sometimes in the men—all cheek and no features, like Martin Poyser's—comes out in the women of the family as the most charming phiz imaginable." (9.8)

After his encounter with Hetty, Arthur offers some comical ideas about the local farming families. His distinctions—pretty women, clownish men—should be taken with a grain of salt. Yet his humorous discussion of farmers' daughters could conceal his budding affection for "the pretty butter-maker." Also, he uses the word "phiz," short for "physiognomy." C'mon, Arthur. Stop trying to make "phiz" happen. It's not going to happen

"Eh, my lad, my lad!" Lisbeth burst out immediately, her wailing impulse returning, for grief in its freshness feels the need of associating its loss and its lament with every change of scene and incident, "thee'st got nobody now but thy old mother to torment thee and be a burden to thee. Thy poor feyther 'ull ne'er anger thee no more; an' thy mother may's well go arter him—the sooner the better—for I'm no good to nobody now. One old coat 'ull do to patch another, but it's good for nought else. Thee'dst like to ha' a wife to mend thy clothes an' get thy victual, better nor thy old mother. An' I shall be nought but cumber, a-sittin' i' th' chimney-corner. (Adam winced and moved uneasily; he dreaded, of all things, to hear his mother speak of Hetty.) But if thy feyther had lived, he'd ne'er ha' wanted me to go to make room for another, for he could no more ha' done wi'out me nor one side o' the scissars can do wi'out th' other. Eh, we should ha' been both flung away together, an' then I shouldna ha' seen this day, an' one buryin' 'ud ha' done for us both." (10.13)

Lisbeth bemoans the role that she plays in the Bedes' family life. Which is nice, because Adam often bemoans her. Yet Lisbeth is aware of her son's intolerance for weakness. Her constant complaints and outbursts seem, on some level, to be an attempt to move Adam to pity and remorse. Yeah, the logic of this is pretty backwards. But it is what it is.

Nature has written out his bride's character for him in those exquisite lines of cheek and lip and chin, in those eyelids delicate as petals, in those long lashes curled like the stamen of a flower, in the dark liquid depths of those wonderful eyes. How she will dote on her children! She is almost a child herself, and the little pink round things will hang about her like florets round the central flower; and the husband will look on, smiling benignly, able, whenever he chooses, to withdraw into the sanctuary of his wisdom, towards which his sweet wife will look reverently, and never lift the curtain. It is a marriage such as they made in the golden age, when the men were all wise and majestic and the women all lovely and loving. (15.7)

In this passage, Adam analyzes Hetty's character and imagines the familial bliss that he and Hetty will enjoy. Adam feels certain that Hetty, with his guidance and protection, will be a reverent, loving wife. This definitely doesn't pan out, but it's a nice little dream.

Old Martin opened the gate as he saw the family procession approaching, and held it wide open, leaning on his stick—pleased to do this bit of work; for, like all old men whose life has been spent in labour, he liked to feel that he was still useful—that there was a better crop of onions in the garden because he was by at the sowing—and that the cows would be milked the better if he stayed at home on a Sunday afternoon to look on. He always went to church on Sacrament Sundays, but not very regularly at other times; on wet Sundays, or whenever he had a touch of rheumatism, he used to read the three first chapters of Genesis instead. (18.9)

Old Martin does not play an integral role in the Poysers' social life. But he is there, doing his thing. And he is motivated not by self-absorption, but by a quaint belief that his tangential activities are important to the whole family. He also goes to Sacrament Sunday, which is not to be confused with Throwback Thursday or Taco Tuesday.

Like all strong natures, Adam had 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; but he had too cool a head not to estimate to the full the obstacles that were to be overcome. And the time would be so long! And there was Hetty, like a bright-cheeked apple hanging over the orchard wall, within sight of everybody, and everybody must long for her! To be sure, if she loved him very much, she would be content to wait for him: but did she love him? His hopes had never risen so high that he had dared to ask her. He was clear-sighted enough to be aware that her uncle and aunt would have looked kindly on his suit, and indeed, without this encouragement he would never have persevered in going to the Farm; but it was impossible to come to any but fluctuating conclusions about Hetty's feelings. She was like a kitten, and had the same distractingly pretty looks, that meant nothing, for everybody that came near her. (19.4)

In forming a family with Hetty, Adam has many factors on his side—from confidence in his own abilities to the endorsement of Hetty's guardians. He might even have a 401K. Yet Hetty might not be attracted to Adam's plans… she might just be attracted to the attention he gives her.

"What a capital thing it is that they saved this piece of the old abbey!" said Arthur. "If I'm ever master here, I shall do up the gallery in first-rate style. We've got no room in the house a third as large as this. That second table is for the farmers' wives and children: Mrs. Best said it would be more comfortable for the mothers and children to be by themselves. I was determined to have the children, and make a regular family thing of it. I shall be 'the old squire' to those little lads and lasses some day, and they'll tell their children what a much finer young fellow I was than my own son. There's a table for the women and children below as well. But you will see them all—you will come up with me after dinner, I hope?" (22.23)

As Arthur surveys his present circumstances, his mind wanders to his future role as a patriarch. He wants to provide a bright future for the families of Hayslope, and to create a family of his own that will be a source of pride for the community. Maybe he'll also carve the turkey on Thanksgiving and dress up as the Easter Bunny every spring. All for the community, of course.

And yet a day on which a blighting sorrow may fall upon a man. For if it be true that Nature at certain moments seems charged with a presentiment of one individual lot must it not also be true that she seems unmindful unconscious of another? For there is no hour that has not its births of gladness and despair, no morning brightness that does not bring new sickness to desolation as well as new forces to genius and love. There are so many of us, and our lots are so different, what wonder that Nature's mood is often in harsh contrast with the great crisis of our lives? We are children of a large family, and must learn, as such children do, not to expect that our hurts will be made much of—to be content with little nurture and caressing, and help each other the more. (27.3)

Here, Eliot's narrator expands the concept of family to include the single "large family" of humanity. Congratulations, your family tree is now a gazillion times bigger. We're all in it together. And yet, this is not an inspiring vision of interdependence. It is up to people to make the most of the occasional assistance of this "family" and develop reserves of self-reliance.

"Aye, aye, we're coming," Seth answered from within, and presently appeared stooping under the doorway, being taller than usual by the black head of a sturdy two-year-old nephew, who had caused some delay by demanding to be carried on uncle's shoulder.

"Better take him on thy arm, Seth," said Dinah, looking fondly at the stout black-eyed fellow. "He's troublesome to thee so."

"Nay, nay: Addy likes a ride on my shoulder. I can carry him so for a bit." A kindness which young Addy acknowledged by drumming his heels with promising force against Uncle Seth's chest. But to walk by Dinah's side, and be tyrannized over by Dinah's and Adam's children, was Uncle Seth's earthly happiness. (Epilogue.7-9)

Although Seth has not married, he still plays an important role in the Bede family. Despite his disappointed pursuit of Dinah, Seth has found "earthly happiness" as the guardian of Adam and Dinah's children. It's a consolation prize, but it's a good consolation prize.