Adam Bede By George Eliot Summary and Analysis Book I: Chapter 16

Summary

Arthur sets out early the next morning to carry through his resolution of confessing to Mr. Irwine. On the way, he meets Adam, and they talk for a while of Adam's prospects. Arthur offers to lend Adam enough money to set himself up in business; Adam is grateful but puts the prospect off into the indefinite future. They discuss morality briefly and then part.

When Arthur reaches Broxton Parsonage, Mr. Irwine is sitting at breakfast. As soon as Arthur is in the parson's presence, his determination to confess begins to slip. Mr. Irwine talks easily about books and scholarship, and Arthur mentions his plans for improving the estate when he becomes master at his grandfather's death. The talk turns to love, and, given the opportunity to speak of Hetty, Arthur again vacillates; he is afraid Mr. Irwine will think him foolish. The conversation then switches to morality in general, Arthur arguing that a man who sins isn't necessarily bad and Mr. Irwine maintaining that one must take into account the probable consequences of his actions before giving in to temptation. By this point the rector suspects that Arthur has a personal problem to discuss, and he asks him directly if he is presently struggling with temptation with respect to a woman. Arthur says no and leaves soon after, dissatisfied with himself.

Analysis

This chapter consists essentially of two long conversations, both of which center on morality. Here, as in many other places, Eliot is more interested in explaining the issues behind the plot than in forwarding the plot itself. This technique may seem ponderous to a modern reader; we are used to novels which move along at a much faster pace. But in order to explain the ethical theory she is setting forth, Eliot must indulge in abstract generalizations as well as in concrete illustrations, and she expresses these abstractions sometimes in her own voice, sometimes — as in this chapter — through one of her characters. Adam and Mr. Irwine here become mouthpieces for the author. It is perhaps implausible to represent a carpenter as being so interested in questions of morality, but that consideration is effaced for the moment by the author's need for an outlet for a series of ideas which the reader must understand in order to interpret the novel correctly.

Just as Hetty and Dinah are contrasted, so are Arthur and Adam. Again the contrast works on the appearance-reality basis; both Adam and Arthur appear to be honorable and upstanding young men, but only Adam is so. The distinction between the two men is not drawn in unrealistic black-and-white terms as is that between the two women; Adam, unlike Dinah, has faults, and Arthur is not presented as being quite so self-centered as Hetty is. But the fundamental structure of the contrasts is similar; in each pair of characters, one person who is corrupted by pride is contrasted against one who is relatively humble.

This is apparent here. We said earlier that Adam is a proud man. This is true; his pride sometimes makes him insensitive to others' feelings, and the great lesson he learns in the course of the novel is one of humility. But, at the same time, he is much less proud than Arthur. Arthur tends to project the future as totally bright and sunny; he sees himself as the popular young squire, and he does not try to avoid trouble because he does not feel that trouble will come. Note, for example, his benevolent projections for helping Adam in the future and the way in which he avoids confessing to Mr. Irwine in order to preserve his self-image. Adam, on the other hand, knows as Dinah does that trouble is a part of life. He tells Arthur that we must "do without" things in this life, something which Arthur, at least in the case of Hetty, has not learned.

The issue of pride forms the basis for another aspect of the contrast, vacillation. As the conversation between the two young men brings out, Adam never vacillates; if Arthur is too indecisive, Adam is too inflexible. Both attitudes are extremes, and neither character is praised for possessing his particular trait. Both men have a problem: Arthur thinks be can sail through life avoiding all trouble, while Adam thinks he can solve any difficulty through work. But Arthur's attitude is the worst of the two, and Eliot indicates this (among other things) by contrasting the characters, one against the other.

This chapter presents the most striking illustration of Arthur's vacillation. His determination to confess to Mr. Irwine falters when he gets to Broxton Parsonage, and he deliberately evades the issue. When the rector asks him pointblank if he is having problems with a woman, he denies it. Arthur is following his usual pattern. He sets out to do something, then changes his mind in order to avoid unpleasant consequences. He is aware of his own lack of resolution but hasn't the strength to do anything about it though he certainly has every opportunity to do something about it.

Just as Eliot emphasized Hetty's bad traits in Chapters 14 and 15, she now emphasizes Arthur's. Some of the same techniques are employed in both cases: contrast with another character, and verbal instruction by another character. As Dinah had counseled Hetty, so Adam and Mr. Irwine counsel Arthur. Just as Hetty's weakness was reemphasized by her failure to heed Dinah's advice, so Arthur's situation is made ironic in that he continues to behave foolishly even while Adam and Mr. Irwine tell him why he shouldn't The chapter's second conversation connects logically with the first. Adam insists that there is an unpleasant side to life and emphasizes each man's responsibility for his own deeds. Later, Mr. Irwine makes the same point in more sophisticated language. Both speakers focus on the inevitability of suffering and the necessity for self-restraint, but Arthur pays no heed.

So ends Book I. The author has introduced all her principal characters, set the plot in motion by creating the triangle of Adam, Hetty, and Arthur, and sketched out the ideas upon which the novel is based. We find upon looking back that a moral theory is emerging, one that will apparently be illustrated through the rest of the story. Three of the four central characters are affected by a form of pride: Adam feels he can control the course of his own life, Arthur feels that he can do whatever he wants and escape punishment, Hetty's main goal in life is to be admired. Opposed to them stands Dinah, the archetype of the humble woman; she puts her trust in God. Eliot calls our attention to the force of circumstance, that element in life which is beyond our control, and to the fact that our actions necessarily involve certain consequences. It seems clear that the proud person, the one who refuses to recognize the nature of things, will blunder into trouble, while the humble person, the one who expects to suffer and who conducts himself so as to avoid unpleasant consequences, will lead a more peaceful life and be able to handle whatever unavoidable trouble comes his way.

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