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Adam Bede

George Eliot

Summary and Analysis Book IV: Chapter 29


When Arthur rises the next morning, he is deeply troubled. He sits at home for a while and then goes riding, and all the time his mind is turning over the situation with Hetty. He feels guilty about deceiving Adam and about leading Hetty to hope for marriage, but he dodges his own guilt, unwilling to accuse himself of wrongdoing. He doesn't want to cause Hetty pain by writing the letter, but he decides that he must clear the way for Adam to win Hetty's love. He writes the letter and gives it to Adam with the injunction that Adam must follow his conscience in deciding whether or not to deliver it to Hetty. Arthur then leaves to join his regiment, which is stationed at Windsor.


This chapter emphasizes a side of Arthur's character which should not be missed. Although he is weak, Arthur is not a villain in the usual sense of the word; he has plenty of good qualities. Indeed, it is often the good qualities which get him into trouble. Time and again, when Arthur decides to break off with Hetty, it is his kindness which stops him; he cannot bring himself to hurt her. In creating Arthur, as with Adam and Hetty, George Eliot is carrying out the philosophy she had stated elsewhere: "My artistic bent is directed not at all to the presentation of eminently irreproachable characters, but to the presentation of mixed human beings in such a way as to call forth tolerant judgment, pity, and sympathy."

Arthur's bad qualities are greatly in evidence too. He cannot bring himself to face "the irrevocableness of his own wrong-doing"; he finds it impossible to let go of the complacent view of himself which he had always possessed. He had seen himself as the amiable young man who was far too honorable to commit any serious wrong. This attitude had made him careless of his own behavior and irresponsible with respect to its possible consequences. Now he is faced with the fact that he has greatly hurt both Adam and Hetty, but his instinct is still to evade taking the full blame. He casts about for excuses with which to comfort himself and tries to evade responsibility for his final action by leaving it up to Adam whether to deliver the letter or not. By emphasizing his weakness, Eliot indicates that Arthur has not yet learned his lesson.

In this chapter, Eliot sums up the feeling which led to the love affair. Arthur was physically attracted to Hetty; she was attracted by the prospect of becoming his wife and gaining prestige. Although Arthur had not deliberately deceived her, he knew that Hetty, operating on her childish fantasies, expected marriage. Yet he could not undeceive her; he could not bear to give her that much pain. Thus the relationship is a web of misunderstanding, kindness, vanity, innocence, and passion. From such complex threads, Eliot implies, are all human relationships woven.

Note Adam's intransigence with respect to Arthur; that pride which will not accept weakness in others is still controlling him. He says that forgiveness means only that one decides not to take revenge and tells himself that he can never feel friendly towards Arthur again. Adam's idea of forgiveness is superficial; to harbor a grudge, even if no revenge is actually taken, is certainly not to forgive.

Eliot does not lose the opportunity to moralize upon the deeds of her characters. The moral philosophy she dispenses in Adam Bede is known as "ethical determinism" for reasons which this chapter makes clear. "Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds," says Eliot, and she goes on to illustrate the remark. Arthur was once an honest man; he becomes a liar about Hetty because he can see no other way to preserve his self-respect. If he had not seduced Hetty, he would not have had to lie to Adam; if he had not seduced Hetty, he would not have felt that lying was justified. Thus his crime determines him; it makes him a liar.

This pattern, according to Eliot, explains much of human behavior. A man is always free to make his first great moral choice, but after that choice is made his later actions (or some of them, at least) are determined by it. In her novels, the characters who make good moral choices prosper, while those who make bad moral choices fall. Earlier novelists in whose books this pattern occurs imply that it is a result of the fact that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked. Not so Eliot; in her opinion, man controls his own moral destiny. The good man's rise is caused directly by his own choices, and vice versa.

This is why there is so much emphasis on human will in her books. Since certain inevitable consequences will flow from one's actions, one must have the foresight to predict what those consequences will be and the will power to act accordingly. If, like Hetty, one fails to foresee what the result of an action will be, as Hetty fails to see that her affair will not end in marriage, disaster results. If, like Arthur, one foresees the consequences but lacks the strength to avoid the bad action, the same end follows. The watchwords of Eliot's philosophy are "moral realism" (accurate foresight) and "self-control." The reader must be aware of the plot line as an illustration of this theory if he hopes to adequately understand Adam Bede.

The heart of Adam Bede, then, is the set of ideas it presents: This use of the novel for the explication of a philosophy is an innovation of the first importance, and the reader should take careful note of it. Before Eliot, the novel was thought of primarily as a form of entertainment; some writers, like Dickens, attacked social abuses in their books, but this was looked upon as a secondary function. Eliot, by structuring her fictional works as vehicles for the discussion and illustration of serious intellectual issues, raised the novel to a higher plane and gave it greater dignity as an art form. In this way, as in several others which we have mentioned, Adam Bede is a revolutionary book.