Study Guide

Adam Bede Transformation

By George Eliot


"Ah, poor blind child!" Dinah went on, "think if it should happen to you as it once happened to a servant of God in the days of her vanity. She thought of her lace caps and saved all her money to buy 'em; she thought nothing about how she might get a clean heart and a right spirit—she only wanted to have better lace than other girls. And one day when she put her new cap on and looked in the glass, she saw a bleeding Face crowned with thorns. That face is looking at you now"—here Dinah pointed to a spot close in front of Bessy—"Ah, tear off those follies! Cast them away from you, as if they were stinging adders. They are stinging you—they are poisoning your soul—they are dragging you down into a dark bottomless pit, where you will sink for ever, and for ever, and for ever, further away from light and God."

Bessy could bear it no longer: a great terror was upon her, and wrenching her ear-rings from her ears, she threw them down before her, sobbing aloud. Her father, Chad, frightened lest he should be "laid hold on" too, this impression on the rebellious Bess striking him as nothing less than a miracle, walked hastily away and began to work at his anvil by way of reassuring himself. "Folks mun ha' hoss-shoes, praichin' or no praichin': the divil canna lay hould o' me for that," he muttered to himself. (2.58-59)

Many of the people in Hayslope are set in their ways and unwilling to change their opinions. Bessy loves her trinkets; Chad is a creature of habit. Yawn. Only harsh impressions—or tough love—can spur otherwise contented characters like Bessy to transform.

The history of the house is plain now. It was once the residence of a country squire, whose family, probably dwindling down to mere spinsterhood, got merged in the more territorial name of Donnithorne. It was once the Hall; it is now the Hall Farm. Like the life in some coast town that was once a watering-place, and is now a port, where the genteel streets are silent and grass-grown, and the docks and warehouses busy and resonant, the life at the Hall has changed its focus, and no longer radiates from the parlour, but from the kitchen and the farmyard. (6.5)

Much like the characters in Adam Bede, specific settings have well-defined histories and are susceptible to great transformations. The Hall Farm was once an aristocratic family seat; now it is a prospering farm. Would it be too much to say that the Hall Farm is almost a human being? Yes, it certainly would. Forget we said anything.

"There's nothing but what's bearable as long as a man can work," he said to himself; "the natur o' things doesn't change, though it seems as if one's own life was nothing but change. The square o' four is sixteen, and you must lengthen your lever in proportion to your weight, is as true when a man's miserable as when he's happy; and the best o' working is, it gives you a grip hold o' things outside your own lot." (11.3)

Early in the novel, Adam's view of life is founded on a principle of permanence. Change, for him, is only an appearance that overlays the deeper, unchanging nature of life. Think of it as a Hayslope version of "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

The brickmaker had been a notorious poacher, and was suspected, though there was no good evidence against him, of being the man who had shot a neighbouring gamekeeper in the leg. However that might be, it is certain that shortly after the accident referred to, which was coincident with the arrival of an awakening Methodist preacher at Treddleston, a great change had been observed in the brickmaker; and though he was still known in the neighbourhood by his old sobriquet of "Brimstone," there was nothing he held in so much horror as any further transactions with that evil-smelling element. He was a broad-chested fellow with a fervid temperament, which helped him better in imbibing religious ideas than in the dry process of acquiring the mere human knowledge of the alphabet. Indeed, he had been already a little shaken in his resolution by a brother Methodist, who assured him that the letter was a mere obstruction to the Spirit, and expressed a fear that Brimstone was too eager for the knowledge that puffeth up. (21.6)

Even Eliot's minor characters are capable of fashioning new, or partially new, identities. Brimstone has abandoned his immoral life for learning and religion. He's not Einstein or Gandhi, but there are lots of kinds of "learning and religion." Yet a main trait of his personality—his fiery devotion to whatever lifestyle he chooses—has remained intact.

Are you inclined to ask whether this can be the same Arthur who, two months ago, had that freshness of feeling, that delicate honour which shrinks from wounding even a sentiment, and does not contemplate any more positive offence as possible for it?—who thought that his own self-respect was a higher tribunal than any external opinion? The same, I assure you, only under different conditions. Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds, and until we know what has been or will be the peculiar combination of outward with inward facts, which constitutes a man's critical actions, it will be better not to think ourselves wise about his character. There is a terrible coercion in our deeds, which may first turn the honest man into a deceiver and then reconcile him to the change, for this reason—that the second wrong presents itself to him in the guise of the only practicable right. The action which before commission has been seen with that blended common sense and fresh untarnished feeling which is the healthy eye of the soul, is looked at afterwards with the lens of apologetic ingenuity, through which all things that men call beautiful and ugly are seen to be made up of textures very much alike. Europe adjusts itself to a fait accompli, and so does an individual character—until the placid adjustment is disturbed by a convulsive retribution. (29.6)

In this analysis of Arthur, Eliot's narrator makes a broader argument about personal character. An individual can abandon virtue for vice. (Abandoning vice for virtue is a whole different ball game.) And the same person will rationalize this shift by finding private justifications for a vicious lifestyle.

It was a pretty scene in the red fire-light; for there were no candles—why should there be, when the fire was so bright and was reflected from all the pewter and the polished oak? No one wanted to work on a Sunday evening. Even Hetty felt something like contentment in the midst of all this love. Adam's attachment to her, Adam's caress, stirred no passion in her, were no longer enough to satisfy her vanity, but they were the best her life offered her now—they promised her some change. (34.22)

Now that her affair with Arthur has gone kaput, Hetty's expectations have changed. But she still wants to "change" her condition, and Adam's humbler offerings nonetheless offer a chance for improving her lot. Besides, Adam is way cuter than that Mr. Craig guy.

"Ah, there's no staying i' this country for us now," said Mr. Poyser, and the hard tears trickled slowly down his round cheeks. "We thought it 'ud be bad luck if the old squire gave us notice this Lady day, but I must gi' notice myself now, an' see if there can anybody be got to come an' take to the crops as I'n put i' the ground; for I wonna stay upo' that man's land a day longer nor I'm forced to't. An' me, as thought him such a good upright young man, as I should be glad when he come to be our landlord. I'll ne'er lift my hat to him again, nor sit i' the same church wi' him... a man as has brought shame on respectable folks... an' pretended to be such a friend t' everybody.... Poor Adam there... a fine friend he's been t' Adam, making speeches an' talking so fine, an' all the while poisoning the lad's life, as it's much if he can stay i' this country any more nor we can." (40.21)

The Poysers' entire domestic situation has gone from good to all-out awful. But behind this transformation of circumstances is a transformation of opinions. Arthur, once a source of pride, is now perceived as a destructive and deceptive young man. Oh how the mighty have fallen…

When the sad eyes met—when Hetty and Adam looked at each other—she felt the change in him too, and it seemed to strike her with fresh fear. It was the first time she had seen any being whose face seemed to reflect the change in herself: Adam was a new image of the dreadful past and the dreadful present. She trembled more as she looked at him. 

"Speak to him, Hetty," Dinah said; "tell him what is in your heart." (46.40-41)

In this scene, Eliot presents Hetty and Adam as mirror images of suffering. Each has been changed by Hetty's crime. Each offers the other a new medium for comprehending what has happened. Just don't expect them to start singing "Stand by Me" or anything.

For Adam, though you see him quite master of himself, working hard and delighting in his work after his inborn inalienable nature, had not outlived his sorrow—had not felt it slip from him as a temporary burden, and leave him the same man again. Do any of us? God forbid. It would be a poor result of all our anguish and our wrestling if we won nothing but our old selves at the end of it—if we could return to the same blind loves, the same self-confident blame, the same light thoughts of human suffering, the same frivolous gossip over blighted human lives, the same feeble sense of that Unknown towards which we have sent forth irrepressible cries in our loneliness. Let us rather be thankful that our sorrow lives in us as an indestructible force, only changing its form, as forces do, and passing from pain into sympathy—the one poor word which includes all our best insight and our best love. (50.27)

Adam cannot forget the pain of Hetty's crime, or the pain of losing her. Adam's outlook on life has been permanently changed, but he has not allowed his can-do spirit to be destroyed by his private sorrows. He's a textbook workaholic.

"Didst find him greatly altered?" said Dinah.

"Why, he's altered and yet not altered. I should ha' known him anywhere. But his colour's changed, and he looks sadly. However, the doctors say he'll soon be set right in his own country air. He's all sound in th' inside; it's only the fever shattered him so. But he speaks just the same, and smiles at me just as he did when he was a lad. It's wonderful how he's always had just the same sort o' look when he smiles."

"I've never seen him smile, poor young man," said Dinah. (Epilogue.20-22)

Here, Adam tells Dinah of his meeting with Arthur, who has just gotten back from abroad. On the plus side, Arthur still has many vestiges of his former self. But on the minus side, these vestiges make Arthur's profound changes in mood and demeanor stand out in a stark, tragic manner. Do the pros or cons win out here, folks?