Study Guide

Adam Bede Love

By George Eliot


In less than an hour from that time, Seth Bede was walking by Dinah's side along the hedgerow-path that skirted the pastures and green corn-fields which lay between the village and the Hall Farm. Dinah had taken off her little Quaker bonnet again, and was holding it in her hands that she might have a freer enjoyment of the cool evening twilight, and Seth could see the expression of her face quite clearly as he walked by her side, timidly revolving something he wanted to say to her. It was an expression of unconscious placid gravity—of absorption in thoughts that had no connection with the present moment or with her own personality—an expression that is most of all discouraging to a lover. Her very walk was discouraging: it had that quiet elasticity that asks for no support. Seth felt this dimly; he said to himself, "She's too good and holy for any man, let alone me," and the words he had been summoning rushed back again before they had reached his lips. But another thought gave him courage: "There's no man could love her better and leave her freer to follow the Lord's work." They had been silent for many minutes now, since they had done talking about Bessy Cranage; Dinah seemed almost to have forgotten Seth's presence, and her pace was becoming so much quicker that the sense of their being only a few minutes' walk from the yard-gates of the Hall Farm at last gave Seth courage to speak. (3.1)

Eliot portrays Seth's agonized love for Dinah by focusing on his moments of alternating doubt and courage. Doubt, then courage, then doubt, then courage, then—boy is this dizzying. But there is an underlying sense of certainty, since Seth firmly believes that his love for Dinah and his religious well-being are one and the same.

But as to marrying Adam, that was a very different affair! There was nothing in the world to tempt her to do that. Her cheeks never grew a shade deeper when his name was mentioned; she felt no thrill when she saw him passing along the causeway by the window, or advancing towards her unexpectedly in the footpath across the meadow; she felt nothing, when his eyes rested on her, but the cold triumph of knowing that he loved her and would not care to look at Mary Burge. He could no more stir in her the emotions that make the sweet intoxication of young love than the mere picture of a sun can stir the spring sap in the subtle fibres of the plant. She saw him as he was—a poor man with old parents to keep, who would not be able, for a long while to come, to give her even such luxuries as she shared in her uncle's house. And Hetty's dreams were all of luxuries. (9.4)

Hetty's conception of love is based on materialism, plain and simple. She is not jaded, but she seems incapable of thinking beyond possessions and wealth to value Adam's other virtues. None of that "inner beauty" nonsense for her.

Arthur too was very uneasy, but his feelings were lit up for him by a more distinct consciousness. He hurried to the Hermitage, which stood in the heart of the wood, unlocked the door with a hasty wrench, slammed it after him, pitched Zeluco into the most distant corner, and thrusting his right hand into his pocket, first walked four or five times up and down the scanty length of the little room, and then seated himself on the ottoman in an uncomfortable stiff way, as we often do when we wish not to abandon ourselves to feeling.

He was getting in love with Hetty—that was quite plain. He was ready to pitch everything else—no matter where—for the sake of surrendering himself to this delicious feeling which had just disclosed itself. It was no use blinking the fact now—they would get too fond of each other, if he went on taking notice of her—and what would come of it? (12.50-51)

Arthur is making a conscious effort not to "abandon" himself to his feelings for Hetty. We wish him luck, we really do. Alas, his preoccupation with her, and with the problem she poses, shows just how much she has come to dominate his thoughts.

"Yes; but there's this difference between love and smallpox, or bewitchment either—that if you detect the disease at an early stage and try change of air, there is every chance of complete escape without any further development of symptoms. And there are certain alternative doses which a man may administer to himself by keeping unpleasant consequences before his mind: this gives you a sort of smoked glass through which you may look at the resplendent fair one and discern her true outline; though I'm afraid, by the by, the smoked glass is apt to be missing just at the moment it is most wanted. I daresay, now, even a man fortified with a knowledge of the classics might be lured into an imprudent marriage, in spite of the warning given him by the chorus in the Prometheus." (16.39)

Here, Mr. Irwine argues that reason and judgment are not perfect safeguards against dangerous love affairs. (Is this in a safety manual somewhere?) Love cannot be eradicated like a disease; its symptoms linger and flare up unpredictably. Sort of like certain skin rashes. Yuck.

But Adam's thoughts of Hetty did not deafen him to the service; they rather blended with all the other deep feelings for which the church service was a channel to him this afternoon, as a certain consciousness of our entire past and our imagined future blends itself with all our moments of keen sensibility. And to Adam the church service was the best channel he could have found for his mingled regret, yearning, and resignation; its interchange of beseeching cries for help with outbursts of faith and praise, its recurrent responses and the familiar rhythm of its collects, seemed to speak for him as no other form of worship could have done; as, to those early Christians who had worshipped from their childhood upwards in catacombs, the torch-light and shadows must have seemed nearer the Divine presence than the heathenish daylight of the streets. The secret of our emotions never lies in the bare object, but in its subtle relations to our own past: no wonder the secret escapes the unsympathizing observer, who might as well put on his spectacles to discern odours. (18.60)

Despite his whole manly man act, Adam is capable of experiencing love at its most divine and inspiring. The church service—which for other attendees is just a chance to show off or doze off—is for Adam the "best channel" for his feelings toward Hetty.

"Yes, he does care for me; I know better nor you," Hetty burst out. Everything was forgotten but the pain and anger she felt at Adam's words. 

"Nay, Hetty," said Adam, "if he'd cared for you rightly, he'd never ha' behaved so. He told me himself he meant nothing by his kissing and presents, and he wanted to make me believe as you thought light of 'em too. But I know better nor that. I can't help thinking as you've been trusting to his loving you well enough to marry you, for all he's a gentleman. And that's why I must speak to you about it, Hetty, for fear you should be deceiving yourself. It's never entered his head the thought o' marrying you." (30.13-14)

Here, Adam tries to explain to Hetty that her affair with Arthur was a piece of self-deception. Though Adam's words seem cruel, Adam is motivated by a mature and caring love. He is not afraid to hurt or frighten Hetty for her own good. Tough love is Adam's thing. He'd make a stellar dentist, wouldn't he?

"I wish I could go with you and take care of you, Hetty," he said, the next morning, leaning in at the coach door; "but you won't stay much beyond a week—the time 'ull seem long."

He was looking at her fondly, and his strong hand held hers in its grasp. Hetty felt a sense of protection in his presence—she was used to it now: if she could have had the past undone and known no other love than her quiet liking for Adam! The tears rose as she gave him the last look.

"God bless her for loving me," said Adam, as he went on his way to work again, with Gyp at his heels. (35.13-15)

Hetty's grandiose visions of Arthur and his "love" have been replaced by a "quiet liking" for Adam. She's done sowing her wild oats. This seems like a more mature form of affection, but the transgressive, doomed Hetty will never have a chance to see it to fruition.

That is a simple scene, reader. But it is almost certain that you, too, have been in love—perhaps, even, more than once, though you may not choose to say so to all your feminine friends. If so, you will no more think the slight words, the timid looks, the tremulous touches, by which two human souls approach each other gradually, like two little quivering rain-streams, before they mingle into one—you will no more think these things trivial than you will think the first-detected signs of coming spring trivial, though they be but a faint indescribable something in the air and in the song of the birds, and the tiniest perceptible budding on the hedge-row branches. Those slight words and looks and touches are part of the soul's language; and the finest language, I believe, is chiefly made up of unimposing words, such as "light," "sound," "stars," "music"—words really not worth looking at, or hearing, in themselves, any more than "chips" or "sawdust." It is only that they happen to be the signs of something unspeakably great and beautiful. (50.47)

Love is "unspeakably great and beautiful," but it is not impossible to explain or comprehend. Thank heavens, because how else could we explain Valentine's Day? Small moments of affection can provide access to the sublime power of love. Now there's a sentiment that belongs on a card!

Adam paused and looked into her sincere eyes.

"Then we'll never part any more, Dinah, till death parts us."

And they kissed each other with a deep joy.

What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined for life—to strengthen each other in all labour, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting? (54.18-21)

Genuine love does not blind Eliot's characters, or her narrator, to the realities of labor and death. Rather, love provides Adam and Dinah with the desire and the strength to face the eventualities of life together. Aw, shucks.

Behind this last couple came Mr. Irwine, glad at heart over this good morning's work of joining Adam and Dinah. For he had seen Adam in the worst moments of his sorrow; and what better harvest from that painful seed-time could there be than this? The love that had brought hope and comfort in the hour of despair, the love that had found its way to the dark prison cell and to poor Hetty's darker soul—this strong gentle love was to be Adam's companion and helper till death. (55.7)

Dinah's love for Adam is not a mere matter of romantic attraction, though it sure could be. How often do you see a guy as handsome as Adam? Instead, the spirit of compassion and hope that has guided her in other, totally non-romantic circumstances will guide her now as a married woman.