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.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on Adam Bede. Part I.

  1. I have always found the passage you quote about nature’s syntax to be itself rather beguiling. Is the narrator really suggesting that there is some real connection between exterior and interior, albeit one that is undecipherable until one understands nature’s syntactical rules? And if this is true, does the narrator understand these rules and use them in the narrative to sway us as readers? I suspect that the narrator deploys rather more traditional and legible notions of how physical appearance and virtue are linked (as you point out).

  2. I always think it’s funny that Eliot claims that she wants to gain our sympathy for the old lady with warts and the wife who waddles in Adam Bede, when meanwhile, Adam is hot! Nevermind Hetty’s kittenish good looks. Even Dinah is good-looking if a little preachy!

  3. Jen, I also find that passage an odd one: is the “hasty reading” one that we as readers make in our own lives, observing nature? And/or can it also reference hasty readings we make of characters in the novel?

    And good point, Karen! My professor in grad school highlighted Adam’s sexiness — which seems like a funny assertion (or at least it did to me back then), but when you look out for that, it is curious just how detailed Eliot’s descriptions of his muscles and good-looks are! I suppose what makes Adam so praise-worthy, though, is his unawareness of his own attractiveness (the same might be said of Dinah). Meanwhile, Hetty and Arthur both enjoy staring at themselves in the mirror.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s