As English lecturers, we often have to remind our students to move from emotional to critical readings of texts. I once had a student who had trouble discussing Dickens’s Great Expectations in our tutorials because she hated Pip so much. Despite working to develop a critical voice over the years, I certainly have emotional reading experiences and am pleased that after reading countless Victorian novels, they still make me laugh out loud or cry. The moment in Adam Bede that I find most affective is when Dinah comes to see Hetty in her prison cell and Hetty, after showing no emotion or real awareness of her circumstances, breaks down and embraces Dinah:
‘I’m come to be with you, Hetty – not to leave you – to stay with you – to be your sister to the last.’
Slowly, while Dinah was speaking, Hetty rose, took a step forward, and was clasped in Dinah’s arms.
They stood so a long while, for neither of them felt the impulse to move apart again. Hetty, without any distinct thought of it, hung on this something that was come to clasp her now, while she was sinking helpless in a dark gulf; and Dinah felt a deep joy in the first sign that her love was welcomed by the wretched lost one. The light got fainter as they stood, and when at last they sat down on the straw pallet together, their faces had become indistinct. (448-9)
It turns out that this moment was the basis for the novel. Eliot’s Methodist Aunt Samuel, who was a preacher like Dinah, similarly comforted a young woman who had murdered her child, and Eliot longed to tell this story. Eliot wrote in her journal that “the scene in the prison” was “the climax towards which I worked” (Appendix 1: 541) Despite Eliot’s desire to tell this story, I don’t think it is simply the realistic basis for this scene that makes it so compelling. In many ways, this chapter, “In the Prison,” reflects Eliot’s humanistic beliefs. Eliot was an atheist and a humanist, and believed that morality should be measured not by Christian sentiment but by our ability to sympathize with other human beings. It doesn’t seem important whether Hetty truly accepts God in this chapter (I don’t think does), but Dinah is able to give her comfort and relief by holding her and encouraging to tell her story. This moment, then, demonstrates the power of human sympathy and feeling, even though Dinah is motivated by her religious beliefs. This is also a remarkable moment between women. Though the Victorian novel was dominated by the marriage plot, Eliot often depicts intense bonds and moments of heightened emotion between same-sex persons, siblings, and parents and children, rather than only romantic partners. In fact, the novel ends with Adam recounting his meeting with the long-lost Arthur, with whom he has shared many moments of tenderness and pain. I wonder if this ability to show the complex range of human relationships is common in the work of many other Victorian novelists?
Finally, and on a different note, I have to ask why poor Seth is content to cohabitate with his brother’s wife and children, rather than his own: “to walk by Dinah’s side, and be tyrannized over by Dinah and Adam’s children, was uncle Seth’s earthly happiness”? I always felt like he was shortchanged in this scenario, but perhaps I can relate this to Eliot’s ability to show a range of satisfying and fulfilling human relationships. And perhaps tidily marrying Seth off to a local woman would have challenged Eliot’s desire “to give no more than a faithful account of men and things” (177).
Eliot, George. Adam Bede. London: Penguin Books, 1980.