Adam Bede, George Eliot uses some of the conventions of the Romantic novel while violating others. In the end the book asks us, as readers, to answer the fundamental question posed in so many books written within the Romantic tradition: Do the hero and heroine live happily ever after? But this is not the mindlessly vacuous posing of that question that we come across in so many works, for Eliot is far too intelligent a writer simply to ask us whether a particular romantic pairing will turn out well. Rather, behind the question of what happens to particular characters is - for Eliot as well as for ourselves - the larger question of what makes a human life happy. It is Eliot's insistence that we examine the nature of love, the position of the individual in the society that she is writing about, and the importance of fate as opposed to free will that marks this work as an important Romantic - and not just a romantic - novel.
In order to understand the framework within which Eliot created Adam Bede, it is essential that we examine the novelistic traditions in which she was writing. In doing so, we should consider especially how women in this book serve as arbiters both of the emotional lives of the characters and of the morality of this world as well.
Published in 1859, Adam Bede presents us with the story of the completely ethical title character and his love for Hetty Sorrel. Hetty's beauty of face is outshone only by the superficiality of her own character and morals. Much of the business of the story is taken up by Bede's attempt to save the superficial and misguided Sorrel from the fate that she seems unable to avoid. Indeed, she seems determined to embrace a fate that must in the end cause grief as she allows herself to be seduced by the squire, Arthur Donnithorne.
Donnithorne, of course, abandons her as soon as he has been successful in winning her. In her grief over losing the squire she agrees to marry Adam - but then discovers that she is pregnant. She gives birth to a son who dies in a decidedly ambiguous way. We are never entirely sure to what extent she may be responsible for the baby's death. She is condemned for murder, although her sentence will later be commuted to transportation to the colonies for life, a commutation that mirrors our own confusion over the extent to which she is guilty. In the end Adam marries Dinah Morris, a young Methodist preacher, a woman who is as wise and good as Hetty is not and is capable of bending both emotions and morality to be forces for good.
Is this then a Romantic novel? Mostly. Romanticism was in fact a movement that covered a great deal of intellectual and aesthetic territory. It was in large measure an intellectual attempt to use various forms of artistic expression to throw into confusion the orderly, neoclassical conventions that had developed during the Enlightenment - and even more an intellectual and artistic attempt to combat the dislocation and depersonalization of so much of daily life that had been forced upon people by industrialization.
Romantic novelists and novels - and this is certainly true of George Eliot and Adam Bede - threw out classical conventions such as the unities of time, place, and action of tragedy that had been so enthusiastically revived by the neoclassical writers of the 18th century. The virtues of spontaneity and lyricism in tone and writing were fundamental to much of Romantic writing, virtues that Romantic writers found in medieval lays as well as folk stories and vernacular speech, and these too can be found throughout Adam Bede. The measured language of neoclassical linguistic traditions is nowhere to be found in this novel, with its natural and varied speech patterns.
Eliot too firmly pitched her camp with other Romantic writers with her choice of both hero and heroine. While in many ways they certainly seem (to us as 21st-century readers) to be stereotypically virtuous, they are both more realistic and more psychologically complex than the heroes than populated 18th century literature. They may not always act as we would, but we recognize in Arthur and Hetty, in Adam and Dinah real human beings driven by the kinds of complex motivations and desires that we ourselves are home to. Each of them is idiosyncratic - none of them is the sort of Everyman or Everywoman that one found in novels of the pre-Romantic era.
One of the reasons that Adam Bede is not generally classified amongst the top tier of Romantic novels is that it contains elements of Realism in it. This does not negate its overall Romantic structure - especially in terms of the ways in which Dinah acts as a moral compass in the story. Indeed, had Eliot written Adam Bede a decade or so later, she might well have made of it a fully Realistic novel, dedicated primarily to the task of describing human behavior as it truly is and the world in which her characters live exactly - without any idealization - as it is. Her work marries highly Realistic descriptions with a Romantic sensibility about fate and morality.
The mixture of Romanticism and Realism can be seen in the plot of the novel far more than in the characters, which remain almost purely Romantic conventions. The novel can be analyzed in terms of the conventions of the traditional dramatic three-act structure. In this structure, in the first act, two people are brought together and at least one of them falls in love with the other. into proximity to each other and one begins to fall in love with the other. In the second act, the lovers are pulled apart by forces that it seems are invincibly stronger than they are. But in the third act, the lovers overcome the forces arrayed against them and are united. Eliot's Realistic twist on this standard Romantic tale is that it is not the couple of the first act that we are encouraged to believe will live happily ever after.
We do believe - or at least we want to believe - that this is a happily-ever-after story, because we have seen Adam and Dinah suffer and learn from their sufferings. Their idea of what love is has been altered by experience by the end of the book when they speak to each other the following lines:
What a look of yearning love it was that the mild grey eyes turned on the strong dark-eyed man! She did not start again at the sight of him; she said nothing, but moved towards him so that his arm could clasp her round.
And they walked on so in silence, while the warm tears fell. Adam was content, and said nothing. It was Dinah who spoke first.
Adam,' she said, 'it is the Divine Will., My soul is so knit with yours that it is but a divided life I live without you. And this moment, now you are with me, and I feel that our hearts are filled with the same love, I have a fulness of strength to bear and do our heavenly Father's will, that I had lost before.'
Adam paused and looked into her sincere loving eyes.
Then we'll never part any more, Dinah, till death parts us.'
And they kissed each other with a deep joy.
What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life - to strengthen each other in all labour, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?
Adam and Dinah have some real chance at happiness as this book ends because we understand that Dinah - unlike Hetty - is a force that brings moral as well as emotional order into Adam's life. Hetty, with her lack of intellectual and ethical depth brought chaos and confusion to Adam, but Dinah reverses this process.
Dinah is in some ways a stereotypical Victorian heroine, the angel in the home that redeems men from their baser natures and the temptations of the world. But she is also a Romantic heroine, and we see in her natural goodness something of the nurturance that women - with what was perceived as their close connection to the natural world - could provide to men.
Of course, this happy ending, this chance for a woman to enter into the life of a man and create a sheltered place of both goodness and joy, is not the universal reward for characters in this novel. Adam and Dinah may find each other to be the kindred spirits that they need to redeem themselves and their lives, but there is no similar pairing for Hetty. Hetty loses Arthur and Adam,…