There isn't much that's massively wrong with Seth's life. And yet, despite his dreamy, helpful, generous disposition, we can't help wondering how happy Seth "Let's Just Be Friends" Bede really is. Face it: being rejected hurts more than a million paper cuts doused in lemon juice. That's what Dinah does to Seth, though she does tell him that "let's just be friends," is a part of "God's will" (3.5). She says she's supposed to be alone (God told her so)… and then she marries Seth's brother. Ouch.
As it is, Seth has already spent a lot of time in his older brother Adam's shadow. His demeanor, "instead of being keen" like Adam's, is "confiding and benign" (1.3). Adam is the one who comes up with big plans to run a carpentry business and invent new types of furniture; Seth follows along. Adam is applauded as a model citizen; Seth does some of the applauding. Poor dude spends the whole novel playing Robin to Adam's Batman.
But Seth's less-than-stellar life is a fascinating piece of realism. (Think that'll make him feel better?) Adam Bede is often a study of personal merit and social divisions—and how can you have merit or divisions without somebody at the bottom?
It might be too much to suggest that Seth enjoy being second or third banana. We can't all be presidents, or ballerinas, or Dinah Morris's husband. That's not realistic, or realism. But as Seth's case indicates, even a less-than-ideal situation can bring out reserves of patience and acceptance. He can bear up under Dinah's rejection—"She spoke so firm, and she's not the woman to say one thing and mean another" (30.59)—without getting bitter.
Let's be honest: Seth Bede is one hapless dude. And let's be honest again: Eliot could have knocked Seth down to the level of a Mr. Craig, a Joshua Rann, or any other of Hayslope's unofficial clowns pretty easily. But she doesn't. Instead, she gives him a dignified role—helping out around the house, consoling his mother, and other odd jobs. And at the end of the novel, we discover that Seth's "earthly happiness" is "to be tyrannized over by Dinah and Adam's children" (Epilogue.9).
Has Seth has transformed into Mr. Mom? That's not how Eliot sees it:
I hope you will not think him unmanly, any more than you can have thought the gallant Colonel Bath unmanly when he made the gruel for his invalid sister. (50.31)
Manliness isn't a matter of Marlon Brando-style posturing; rather, it's a matter of knowing how to deal with difficulties and take care of others. Take that, haters.
And there's more. Fairly early on, Eliot pinpoints the models of virtue that her novel is meant to challenge: "heroes riding fiery horses, themselves ridden by still more fiery passions" (3.15). Seth "was never on horseback in his life except once," yet Eliot is holding him up as a new kind of manly good guy (3.16). Patience over passion, selflessness over pride: these are Seth's superpowers. He's a truly admirable man, but he sure isn't Avengers material. Can you imagine Seth getting along with Iron Man?