This chapter, entitled "In Which the Story Pauses a Little" does not advance the plot at all. The author says she intends to tell the truth about people and not to idealize or sentimentalize them. She says she finds more to love in simple, ignorant people, even though they may be vulgar, than in strict idealists or social snobs. She ends with a defense of Mr. Irwine; he is not strictly religious, she says, but we should admire him for his warm heart.
Even though he has encountered other instances of Eliot's use of the "Dear Reader" technique before he comes upon this chapter, the modern reader is still somewhat surprised to find a self-contained essay dropped into the middle of a novel. Chapter 17 has no logical link with the rest of Adam Bede except that it forms a Analysis upon one of the characters and on the author's goal in writing the book. So extended a digression was not commonplace even in the nineteenth century, which was much more tolerant in such matters than the twentieth is. But Eliot felt it necessary to clarify her viewpoint on certain controversial subjects, and so she writes what amounts to a defense of her literary method.
Note that the switch from narration to exposition involves a switch in realities as well. We have been reading of the adventures of Adam Bede and his acquaintances; we have been absorbed in an eighteenth century world, complete in every detail. Suddenly the date is 1859, and we are jolted into the realization that the world of Adam Bede is unreal, a product of art. Eliot attempts to connect the two realities by her reference to Adam in his old age; the story, she implies, did actually take place, and she is writing from memory, or basing her work on the evidence of witnesses. But the illusion is destroyed. Instead of becoming a part of, and losing ourselves in, a fictional world, we are forced to detach ourselves from the story and regard it, at best, as a representation of a long-past episode in objective reality. The characters and situations in the novel lose their solidity and become mere fantasies.
Why did Eliot consider this interruption necessary? Adam Bede was a revolutionary novel in its day, a conscious attempt to free the novel from certain shackles which prevented it from representing reality as truly as it might. This is evident if one considers the way in which Eliot approaches her topic in this chapter. She imagines her readers raising objections to her way of presenting her characters; she assumes that her audience will find her method unusual and will react negatively to it. And so she defends herself and issues a manifesto.
The manifesto, rather obviously, relates to realism in fiction. Eliot says her readers expect her to create moral stereotypes instead of real human beings; they want the characters to be all good or all bad, and they want them, moreover, to be rewarded or punished in the book according to their deserts in the light of generally accepted moral standards. They want to be "edified," in short, to have all their moral prejudices confirmed.
This sarcastic attack on mid-Victorian taste was unfortunately well justified. The cult of respectability was so strong in England at this time that writers, in order to be commercially successful, had to conform to their readers' moral bias. There is a famous passage in the preface to Thackeray's Pendennis where he says he cannot represent the character of his hero completely realistically because public opinion forces him to omit the less "nice" side of a typical young man's behavior. The public demanded simple (and often cliched) solutions to simple moral problems, and by and large the public got what it asked for.
Eliot saw what great distortions of reality this prudish attitude caused, but unlike Thackeray, who protested but obeyed for the most part, she decided to do something about it. The result was Adam Bede. Here she attempts to draw people and human situations as they really are rather than trying to fit her characters and plot into a mold imposed by public taste. Scholars still debate how successful she was. While it is true that Eliot deeemphasizes some of the Victorians' favorite moral categories — Hetty, for example, is not condemned for sexual misconduct but for self-centeredness — it is also true that her characters are rewarded according to their relative virtue or vice, a sequence which, as we all know, does not always follow in the real world. Although Eliot was an agnostic, she sets up her moral world in such a way that external forces — "the way things are" — determine one's rise or fall. There is little difference in practice between a vision like this and one in which Providence rewards and punishes.
But even if Eliot's morality is more categorical than modern forms tend to be, it still enabled her to create characters somewhat more realistically than most of her contemporaries did. Except for Dinah, the characters in Adam Bede are not noticeably stereotyped; even the hero has very great weaknesses which he must overcome. Eliot's attitude toward human nature is essentially tolerant, which allows her to draw characters who are at the same time weak and admirable. They are realistically complex, realistically ambiguous, a plausible mixture of good and bad traits.
Indeed, Eliot's manifesto fades midway through the chapter into a plea for universal sympathy, for a recognition of the community of man. The Rev. Mr. Ryde is a more zealous clergyman in the technical sense, but Eliot prefers Mr. Irwine because Mr. Irwine is benevolent to his parishioners. The standard for judging is not idealistic but realistic. Mr. Irwine is judged a good man not because of what he believes but because of the way he treats other people. Thus Eliot's moral philosophy is based partially on feeling; she thinks it objectively unrealistic to judge people by a priori standards, and she also feels the intrinsic wrongness of arbitrary condemnation.
The revolutionary character of Adam Bede, then, cannot be stressed too much. We spoke earlier of the psychological method Eliot employs in reconstructing human characters and situations. This method, coupled with an original moral viewpoint and presented by a writer of genius, was enough to shift the novel's course of development. After Eliot, the mental as well as the physical aspect of man became fair game for the novelist, and fiction took a giant step in the direction of more accurately reproducing reality. Her work had the effect of liberating the novel (and, she hoped, the reader) from a narrow and conventionalized view of human life.