Study Guide

Adam Bede Society and Class

By George Eliot

Society and Class

Those were times when there was no rigid demarcation of rank between the farmer and the respectable artisan, and on the home hearth, as well as in the public house, they might be seen taking their jug of ale together; the farmer having a latent sense of capital, and of weight in parish affairs, which sustained him under his conspicuous inferiority in conversation. Martin Poyser was not a frequenter of public houses, but he liked a friendly chat over his own home-brewed; and though it was pleasant to lay down the law to a stupid neighbour who had no notion how to make the best of his farm, it was also an agreeable variety to learn something from a clever fellow like Adam Bede. (9.3)

Different strengths raise a craftsman like Adam and a farmer like Poyser to roughly the same social level. Craftsmen are more clever in conversation, yet farmers have a "latent sense of capital" and "weight in parish affairs" that lend them respectability. But the most important question remains: do farmers or craftsmen get to wear cooler hats?

Arthur had laid his hand on the soft arm that was nearest to him, and was stooping towards Hetty with a look of coaxing entreaty. Hetty lifted her long dewy lashes, and met the eyes that were bent towards her with a sweet, timid, beseeching look. What a space of time those three moments were while their eyes met and his arms touched her! Love is such a simple thing when we have only one-and-twenty summers and a sweet girl of seventeen trembles under our glance, as if she were a bud first opening her heart with wondering rapture to the morning. Such young unfurrowed souls roll to meet each other like two velvet peaches that touch softly and are at rest; they mingle as easily as two brooklets that ask for nothing but to entwine themselves and ripple with ever-interlacing curves in the leafiest hiding-places. While Arthur gazed into Hetty's dark beseeching eyes, it made no difference to him what sort of English she spoke; and even if hoops and powder had been in fashion, he would very likely not have been sensible just then that Hetty wanted those signs of high breeding. (12.47)

Arthur temporarily disregards Hetty's class status in this passage. Bad idea. Although such disregard allows Arthur to have a moving experience, Eliot's narrator doesn't really endorse Arthur's actions. Sure, Arthur, Eliot is showing exactly what you think; but don't expect any of us to agree with you.

He was feeling much more strongly than he had done in the morning: it was as if his horse had wheeled round from a leap and dared to dispute his mastery. He was dissatisfied with himself, irritated, mortified. He no sooner fixed his mind on the probable consequences of giving way to the emotions which had stolen over him to-day—of continuing to notice Hetty, of allowing himself any opportunity for such slight caresses as he had been betrayed into already—than he refused to believe such a future possible for himself. To flirt with Hetty was a very different affair from flirting with a pretty girl of his own station: that was understood to be an amusement on both sides, or, if it became serious, there was no obstacle to marriage. But this little thing would be spoken ill of directly, if she happened to be seen walking with him; and then those excellent people, the Poysers, to whom a good name was as precious as if they had the best blood in the land in their veins—he should hate himself if he made a scandal of that sort, on the estate that was to be his own some day, and among tenants by whom he liked, above all, to be respected. He could no more believe that he should so fall in his own esteem than that he should break both his legs and go on crutches all the rest of his life. He couldn't imagine himself in that position; it was too odious, too unlike him. (13.17)

Here, Arthur considers the bad consequences of flirting with a girl outside "his own station." Yet he is incapable of imagining that such consequences will come to pass—perhaps because his own high station has shielded him from harm for so long. Arthur Donnithorne: Bubble Boy. Doesn't have the same ring as Arthur Donnithorne: Pride of His Community, but it's a more fitting title.

Adam, I confess, was very susceptible to the influence of rank, and quite ready to give an extra amount of respect to every one who had more advantages than himself, not being a philosopher or a proletaire with democratic ideas, but simply a stout-limbed clever carpenter with a large fund of reverence in his nature, which inclined him to admit all established claims unless he saw very clear grounds for questioning them. He had no theories about setting the world to rights, but he saw there was a great deal of damage done by building with ill-seasoned timber—by ignorant men in fine clothes making plans for outhouses and workshops and the like without knowing the bearings of things—by slovenly joiners' work, and by hasty contracts that could never be fulfilled without ruining somebody; and he resolved, for his part, to set his face against such doings. On these points he would have maintained his opinion against the largest landed proprietor in Loamshire or Stonyshire either; but he felt that beyond these it would be better for him to defer to people who were more knowing than himself. (16.6)

Though he wants to prosper in life, Adam's ideas are by no means radical or revolutionary. So don't expect to see him building street barricades, waving a big red flag, or any of that other Les Misérables-style stuff.  He respects the upper classes, he really does. His complaints against his superiors have to do mainly with individual instances of ill management.

"Mr. Ryde was a deal thought on at a distance, I believe, and he wrote books, but as for math'matics and the natur o' things, he was as ignorant as a woman. He was very knowing about doctrines, and used to call 'em the bulwarks of the Reformation; but I've always mistrusted that sort o' learning as leaves folks foolish and unreasonable about business. Now Mester Irwine was as different as could be: as quick!—he understood what you meant in a minute, and he knew all about building, and could see when you'd made a good job. And he behaved as much like a gentleman to the farmers, and th' old women, and the labourers, as he did to the gentry. You never saw HIM interfering and scolding, and trying to play th' emperor. Ah, he was a fine man as ever you set eyes on; and so kind to's mother and sisters. That poor sickly Miss Anne—he seemed to think more of her than of anybody else in the world. There wasn't a soul in the parish had a word to say against him; and his servants stayed with him till they were so old and pottering, he had to hire other folks to do their work." (17.9)

Here, Adam outlines the difference between two of Hayslope's ministers—Mr. Irwine and Mr. Ryde. Mr. Ryde was learned, proud, and impractical. And Mr. Irwine was his polar opposite. Though both men were intelligent, Mr. Irwine garnered respect because he could relate to the lower classes. Also, Irwine knew a thing or two about craftsmanship… and Mr. Ryde was pretentious.

"People in a high station are of course more thought of and talked about and have their virtues more praised, than those whose lives are passed in humble everyday work; but every sensible man knows how necessary that humble everyday work is, and how important it is to us that it should be done well. And I agree with my friend Mr. Arthur Donnithorne in feeling that when a man whose duty lies in that sort of work shows a character which would make him an example in any station, his merit should be acknowledged. He is one of those to whom honour is due, and his friends should delight to honour him. I know Adam Bede well—I know what he is as a workman, and what he has been as a son and brother—and I am saying the simplest truth when I say that I respect him as much as I respect any man living. But I am not speaking to you about a stranger; some of you are his intimate friends, and I believe there is not one here who does not know enough of him to join heartily in drinking his health." (24.8)

Mr. Irwine offers this speech in praise of Adam Bede. Though Mr. Irwine isn't blind to the class differences between him and Adam, he does declare the idea that an excellent member of a lower class deserves as much respect as "any man living." Good guy, that Adam. But Mr. Irwine still won't be inviting him over for crumpets and a game of chess.

He walked on, speaking to the mothers and patting the children, while Mr. Irwine satisfied himself with standing still and nodding at a distance, that no one's attention might be disturbed from the young squire, the hero of the day. Arthur did not venture to stop near Hetty, but merely bowed to her as he passed along the opposite side. The foolish child felt her heart swelling with discontent; for what woman was ever satisfied with apparent neglect, even when she knows it to be the mask of love? Hetty thought this was going to be the most miserable day she had had for a long while, a moment of chill daylight and reality came across her dream: Arthur, who had seemed so near to her only a few hours before, was separated from her, as the hero of a great procession is separated from a small outsider in the crowd. (24.19)

There are emotional tensions beneath this display of amicability. A "pretend I don't love you" act is never fun, but try that act with someone from a whole different social class. Arthur's calm patronage of his "inferiors" hides his anxiety toward Hetty, while Hetty quietly submits to Arthur's ceremony despite her disappointed hopes. Which of them seems more uncomfortable?

"Here is the prize for the first sack-race," said Miss Lydia, taking a large parcel from the table where the prizes were laid and giving it to Mrs. Irwine before Bessy came up, "an excellent grogram gown and a piece of flannel."

"You didn't think the winner was to be so young, I suppose, Aunt?" said Arthur. "Couldn't you find something else for this girl, and save that grim-looking gown for one of the older women?"

"I have bought nothing but what is useful and substantial," said Miss Lydia, adjusting her own lace; "I should not think of encouraging a love of finery in young women of that class. I have a scarlet cloak, but that is for the old woman who wins." (25.26-28)

In the course of this dialogue, Lydia Donnithorne reveals her hoity-toity attitude toward Hayslope's working class. The "young women of that class" are attracted to finery. Such vanity will not, must not, cannot persist. So Lydia gives her inferiors practical yet aesthetically unappealing presents. Thanks a lot, Lydia.

Hetty laid her small plots and imagined her little scenes of cunning blandishment, as she walked along by the hedgerows on honest Adam's arm, quite as well as if she had been an elegantly clad coquette alone in her boudoir. For if a country beauty in clumsy shoes be only shallow-hearted enough, it is astonishing how closely her mental processes may resemble those of a lady in society and crinoline, who applies her refined intellect to the problem of committing indiscretions without compromising herself. Perhaps the resemblance was not much the less because Hetty felt very unhappy all the while. The parting with Arthur was a double pain to her—mingling with the tumult of passion and vanity there was a dim undefined fear that the future might shape itself in some way quite unlike her dream. (30.5)

Eliot's narrator looks beyond Hetty's relative poverty and compares her to an upper-class coquette. Hetty may be "shallow-hearted," but she can apply a fair amount of brainpower to the tricks of cunning and manipulation that ladies of a higher station also practice. See that, Hetty? You can be a Mean Girl too.

"And I feel it would be a great evil for you if your affections continued so fixed on me that you could think of no other man who might be able to make you happier by his love than I ever can, and if you continued to look towards something in the future which cannot possibly happen. For, dear Hetty, if I were to do what you one day spoke of, and make you my wife, I should do what you yourself would come to feel was for your misery instead of your welfare. I know you can never be happy except by marrying a man in your own station; and if I were to marry you now, I should only be adding to any wrong I have done, besides offending against my duty in the other relations of life. You know nothing, dear Hetty, of the world in which I must always live, and you would soon begin to dislike me, because there would be so little in which we should be alike." (31.5)

In this passage of dialogue, Adam uses his greater experience of the world to argue that Hetty's class biases are wrongheaded. (What greater experience? Doesn't he just hang around in Hayslope and build things?) Hetty values luxury; yet Adam is convinced that she could not be happy unless she marries a man of her "own station." Gee, now what man of that "station" might he have in mind…?