And I found “Adam Bede” to be beautifully written and perceptive about human strengths and weaknesses. Right up until the last meeting between the two male characters of their little love triangle I found the characters quite believable and interesting. At that point, the novel made the reverse error of “Mill on the Floss” in being perhaps too forgiving of human follies, but I really did want to know what happened to these characters throughout. If these characters had lived today, I would say there was no villain, since frankly the consequences for their sort of mistakes are generally so slight now, but back then Adam Bede’s anger with Arthur was much more justified.
From time to time, the dialogue could be hard to read, as Eliot switched to local dialects, but I could still make it out and my edition had footnotes for the more difficult idioms or those that needed historical context. She wasn’t afraid of authorial intrusion, and starts right off “With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. That is what I undertake to do for you, reader,” evening going so far as to claim her novel is based upon her interviews with the people involved with the long ago events. The narrative even has a direct conversation with Adam Bede as a much older man, a pleasantly strange occurrence reading in a time when writers’ workshops are so keen on pointing out POV violations.
It was also interesting reading a pre-Marxist novel about the interactions between people of different levels of society. I don’t mean pre-Marxist in time so much as pre-Marxist in mindset, as Marx was alive and publishing at the time “Adam Bede” came out. These characters are completely aware of status, but they don’t think in terms of class. They are aware of differences in power, but good and evil actions come from individual character or Biblical notions of sin rather than economic determinism. The only characters who are very religious are those who make the conscious decision to leave the Anglican Church and become one of those weird, wild Methodists (which was of constant amusement to me since I grew up in a rather mainstream, middle class, moderate Methodist church). The Anglican minister is a basically good chap who unfortunately missed his chance at helping his friend at a critical moment; the Methodist characters are equally ineffectual upon the plot but are a mainstay of spiritual strength for coping with the emotional turns of the plot twists. Looking back upon it, Eliot must have had a lot of sympathy for the Methodist movement, since at critical moments turning towards or away from Dinah could have been symbolic of turning towards or away from God’s spiritual strength.