I am reading Eliot’s Adam Bede for the first time since I read it in graduate school, in a class that focused on Victorian representations of masculinity and the male body. And it certainly is a novel that seems to revel in describing the body of its hero, Adam. Eliot’s narrator begins the novel in the Bede brothers’ workplace, recording the sonorous voice of one of the workmen:
Such a voice could only come from a broad chest, and the broad chest belonged to a large-boned muscular man nearly six feet high, with a back so flat and a head so well poised that when he drew himself up to take a more distant survey of his work, he had the air of a soldier standing at ease. The sleeve rolled up above the elbow showed an arm that was likely to win the prize for feats of strength; yet the long supple hand, with its broad finger-tips, looked ready for works of skill. In his tall stalwartness Adam Bede was a Saxon, and justified his name; but the jet-black hair, made the more noticeable by its contrast with the light paper cap, and the keen dance of the dark eyes that shone from under strongly marked, prominent, and mobile eyebrows, indicated a mixture of Celtic blood. (7-8)
There is a lot to take from this passage: Eliot’s attention to Adam’s race, her labeling him a “soldier” (when, in fact, Arthur Donnithorne is actually a solider), and her attention to his professional skillfulness. Eliot’s attention to Adam’s stalwart body is all the more intriguing because much of the first book attempts to show us how appearances can be deceiving. This is a point that the narrator makes in reference to the angelically beautiful Hetty, whose attractiveness hides a naïve, self-absorbed, and materialistic persona. “After all,” the narrator says, “I believe the wisest of us must be beguiled in this way sometimes, and must think both better and worse of people than they deserve. Nature has her language, and she is not unveracious; but we don’t know all the intricacies of her syntax just yet, and in a hasty reading we may happen to extract the very opposite of her real meaning” (152). So the narrator is not saying that appearances cannot tell us anything about what lies beneath, but that we are apt to be mistaken in our initial readings. What can Adam’s appearance, then, tell us about this character?
What seems to interest the narrator, and Eliot, is the contrast between Adam’s strong, masculine appearance, and his tender demeanour – his bashfulness in front of the woman he loves and his compassion (admittedly tinged with annoyance) for his mother. Poor Seth Bede, on the other hand, is like his brother’s ghost: “Seth’s broad shoulders have a slight stoop; his eyes are grey; his eyebrows have less prominence and more repose than his brother’s; and his glance, instead of being keen, is confiding and benignant” (8). In Seth’s case, bodily weaknesses do seem to translate to personal weaknesses, and Seth certainly doesn’t emerge victorious at the end of the novel (if I remember correctly). So are appearances truly deceiving? I am halfway through the novel and as I continue to read, I will be paying attention to Eliot’s categorization of Arthur, Adam, and Seth, attempting to see what qualities the ideal man possesses, remembering, at the same time, that Eliot is a writer who pointedly does not deal in utopias or ideals, but in realistic, flawed human characters.