Adam Bede By George Eliot Summary and Analysis Book I: Chapter 5

Summary

The scene shifts to Broxton Parsonage, home of the Reverend Mr. Irwine, the local Church of England clergyman. The rector is playing chess with his mother when Joshua Rann, the Hayslope parish clerk, arrives. He tells Mr. Irwine that the Methodists — especially Dinah — are causing religious dissension in the town.

At this point, Arthur Donnithorne, the grandson and heir of the local squire, or landowner, comes in. He is a pleasant, outgoing young man, a captain in the militia. Joshua tells the two men of Thias Bede's death, then goes into the kitchen. There is some talk of Thias' funeral and of Adam, and Arthur suggests that he and Mr. Irwine ride to Hall Farm and then to Bede's. Mrs. Irwine, who is Arthur's godmother, talks about the celebration planned for his twenty-first birthday. Mr. Irwine goes upstairs to visit his two spinster sisters, one of whom is an invalid; then the two men set out for Hall Farm so that Mr. Irwine may speak with Dinah.

Analysis

Having established that her book is to focus on the common people, Eliot now introduces the gentry. Arthur, the local representative of the aristocracy, serves as the agent for provoking the novel's crisis, while Mr. Irwine, with Dinah, is the focal point for the development of its moral message.

The introduction of the gentry creates the need for some background information. The reader should try to understand the relationship which existed between the country aristocracy and the lower classes around 1800. In the first place, Squire Donnithorne, Arthur's grandfather, is literally the local landowner; his estate includes the land on which the town of Hayslope and its surrounding farms are built, and most of the other characters in the novel are tenants holding leases on his property. This economic arrangement, coupled with the traditional reverence of the common people for the aristocracy, accounts for the great respect with which the lower class people in the novel treat Arthur, heir to the estate. This great social distinction will become very important later on.

Mr. Irwine is an attractive figure. He does not take his religion as seriously as Dinah takes hers. He is not very hard-working or ambitious, Eliot tells us, and he is not very interested in teaching his parishioners the niceties of dogma. But he has charity, and this for Eliot is the important consideration. Mr. Irwine shares with Dinah a sincere love for humanity. They do not express themselves in the same way, but each applies principles in daily life; what Dinah does out of a love for God the rector does out of a generalized benevolence. This humanitarian attitude is significant in several ways; for the moment it will suffice to note that it is the attitude which Adam will eventually come to. His pride sometimes prevents him from reacting sympathetically toward others.

Mr. Irwine, then, is in general an easygoing, sophisticated, comfortable man, one who, more by instinct than by training, strives to behave like a Christian in any given situation. The picture we get of Arthur is much more ambiguous. He is obviously a charming fellow, very casual, very affable, very popular for his good nature among those who know him. But as the novel progresses, we also learn that Arthur is vain and dangerously overconfident; he is not aware of his own faults and thus can take no steps to compensate for them. The negative aspects of Arthur's personality come to the fore only subtly in this chapter, but Eliot does give the young man some dialogue which indicates a certain shallowness. He refers, for example, to his upcoming twenty-first birthday as "the grand epoch of my majority" and complains lazily of being bored in the country.

The reader should note that Adam and Arthur were boyhood friends, and that Arthur still has a very high opinion of the humble carpenter. The fact that these two young men have respect for each other intensifies the drama of the novel's crisis, as we shall see presently. The linking also serves to emphasize the fact that Arthur and Adam share some basic characteristics: Arthur's confidence in his virtue is matched by Adam's confidence in his ability to solve all problems and control the course of his own life.

Eliot dilates upon the existence of the two "insignificant" sisters, Kate and Anne Irwine. Her comments here form part of the fabric of the humanitarian gospel Eliot is preaching. To her, no human life is insignificant, for the reason that every human being can be a source of love and comfort for his fellows. Note, in this context, how the rector treats his sisters.

However, according to Eliot, insignificant people can also stir up evil tempers, affect the price of bread, and, in the case of the Irwine sisters, cause their brother to remain a bachelor. In Eliot's words, "they play no small part in the tragedy of life." She points out that such people can be as effective in their own innocuous way as the more colorful people she writes about, and should not be underestimated or dismissed.

In this chapter, the author employs at great length a literary method which has appeared once before, toward the end of Chapter 3. She breaks off her story line to comment, in her own voice, on issues which her descriptions of the thoughts and actions of her characters have raised. This sort of direct authorial comment, sometimes referred to as the "Dear Reader Technique," is no longer in wide use since it interrupts the plot and destroys the illusion of reality which the novel as a whole should create. But it is one of Eliot's favorite devices, one of the primary ways in which she communicates her meaning to the reader and controls his reactions to her characters and the situations she places them in.

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