Adam Bede By George Eliot Summary and Analysis Book I: Chapter 4

Summary

Adam reaches the cottage where he lives with his brother and their elderly parents. His mother tells him that his father, who is apparently an irresponsible alcoholic, has wandered off to a tavern in the next town, Treddleston, instead of making a coffin which he had contracted to finish that day. Adam is very angry and sets about doing the job without even eating supper.

Seth comes home saddened by Dinah's refusal of his proposal, and Adam will not allow him to help with the coffin. Seth tries to soothe their mother, and it comes out in the conversation between them that Adam is in love with a girl named Hetty Sorrel, who is a silly thing, pretty but naive and impractical. After praying together, Seth and Lisbeth go to bed. Adam stays up all night to finish the coffin.

About midnight, he hears a tapping on the door, but no one is there; he is reminded of a local superstition which holds that this occurrence is a sign of death. It happens again, but he pushes the superstition out of his mind.

Soon after dawn, he and Seth deliver the completed coffin, and as they are walking home, they catch sight of a body in the brook near their home. It is their father; he has fallen into the brook in a drunken stupor and drowned. They carry him home, and Adam regrets his past harshness to his father.

Analysis

Lisbeth, Adam and Seth's mother, occupies the middle ground between the principal characters like Adam and the background figures like Wiry Ben and his co-workers. Her principal function is to help set the novel's atmosphere with her country ways and thick country dialect; when she is on stage the reader can never forget that he is following the adventures of simple, uneducated rural folk. At the same time, she does not remain completely outside the action, but affects the course of events from time to time through her influence on Adam. This influence is subtly underlined by Eliot when she has Adam drop into the "country" dialect as he speaks with his mother.

The rough country folk introduced in these early chapters form the center of the book. Eliot sets out to write a novel about common people, in the social sense of the term, and besides emphasizing the rusticity of her main characters by their manners and mode of speech, she surrounds them with a gallery of farmers, workers, and small tradesmen. Adam resembles his mother, though the resemblance is only physical, and every day he rubs shoulders with such unsophisticated figures as Wiry Ben, Sandy Jim, Chad's Bess. The effect is clear: Adam in his adventures is to be seen not as an atypical young man, some paragon dropped down from nowhere upon a country village, but as a real flesh-and-blood carpenter, closely allied to his people and to the soil. He is exceptional with respect to strength and sensitivity, but still solidly a part of the rural scene.

Adam is a complex character, and it is of the utmost importance that the reader understand him as completely as possible. In this chapter, he is defined primarily in relation to his work. Adam is a perfectionist and has a high sense of duty; when his father fails to do the coffin he has contracted for, Adam stays up all night so that the order will be filled on time. He is described as being "roughly hewn" like one of the timbers he works on, which indicates his strength. And he is an uncomplicated soul who approaches all problems the way he approaches mechanical ones — note his high regard for "cal'clating." He feels that honest effort will solve most difficulties.

Because he sees life this way, Adam is not a dreamer like Seth is; he is immensely practical. Compare, for example, these two quotations which, according to Lisbeth, sum up the brothers' religious positions: while Seth believes one should "take no thought for the morrow," Adam feels that "God helps them as helps theirsens." While Seth places most of his trust in God, Adam prefers to rely on himself.

The incident involving the tapping at the door also serves to indicate Adam's practicality. He will not allow himself to be influenced by superstition, and he dismisses the strange occurrence and keeps his mind on his work. Note, however, that the tapping is a true portent of death; conceivably, if Adam had been less practical, he could have saved his father. Eliot indicates that Adam's pragmatism creates a blind spot: He is insensitive to and unresponsive towards those forces in life which are beyond his control. As the novel develops, this simplistic and overly confident view of reality takes on greater and greater significance; Adam must abandon it in order to reach maturity.

Although Adam's strength and self-control are admirable, he suffers from faults which trouble many aggressive people; as this chapter shows us, he is quick to anger and impatient of others' weaknesses. When his father fails to make the coffin he has contracted for, Adam is furious and contemplates leaving home; his natural urge is to reject people who don't act in a way he thinks proper.

He finally decides to stay out of a sense of duty, though, and this reemphasizes Adam's real strength. He may be proud and quick-tempered, but the young man is guided by a determination to do right. He has a good heart at base, too; he regrets having treated his father badly after he finds him dead.

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