Adam and Seth Bede work as carpenters in the little village of Hayslope. Seth proposes to Dinah Morris, a gifted Methodist preacher, but she wants to devote herself to God's work. However, neither Dinah's faith nor her aunt Mrs. Poyser's sharp country truths can deflate the vain fancies of her pretty Hetty Sorrel (Mrs. Poyser's other niece). Although good Adam woos Hetty, she is distracted by the idle attentions of Captain Arthur Donnithorne, and when Adam finds out, he fights Arthur, who leaves town.

But when Hetty realizes she is pregnant, she runs away to see Arthur, only to find, arriving destitute after a difficult journey, that his regiment has been called away. Hetty restrains herself from suicide and gives birth in a lodging-house, then runs off with the infant and buries it in the brush, where it dies. After she is convicted for child-murder, Arthur finally hears the news, and Hetty's commuted sentence (transportation) saves her from the gallows. Two years later, Adam and Dinah realize they love each other, and they marry.


George Eliot (Marian Evans) published Adam Bede early in her career as a novelist, while her identity as author was still unknown, but it made her reputation as a "realist" author concerned with the homely experiences of rural working people. Her famous disquisition on a realist aesthetic, in chapter seventeen, draws on the mid-century trend toward realism in both science and literature. Dismissing the commonplace that a clinical realism implied an inhuman distance, George Eliot argues that a clear-eyed refusal to prettify the world, and careful attention to the details of even humble lives and unpleasant events, actually promotes the "deep human sympathy" that was central to her secular ethics.

Despite her atheism, she presents the Methodist preacher Dinah Morris as exemplary of this kind of unjudging acceptance and understanding, and the novel in general engages substantively with questions of spirituality and faith in ordinary life. Adam, for example, struggles to live peacefully with his alcoholic father (who drowns early in the novel) and to take care lovingly of his querulous mother, who becomes more demanding as she ages into widowhood.

It is not surprising, given George Eliot's concerns with ethics and realist truth in everyday problems, that Adam Bede provides an extended reflection on the causes and consequences of undesired pregnancy. The narrator acknowledges Hetty's faults but through empathy can also provide a remarkable psychological study of one woman's unwanted pregnancy and desperate, ambivalent abandonment of her child.

While the achievements of the novel established George Eliot's stature as a novelist, some critics attacked her realism for its unsavory choice of subject matter. She maintained her pseudonym partly because her own unconventional position--living with the writer George Henry Lewes as his wife (he was unable to divorce)--would have distracted critics even further from attending to the complex aesthetic and cultural questions she engages in this text.


First published: 1859


Viking Penguin

Place Published

New York




Stephen Gill

Page Count