Critical Essays The Symbolic World of Adam Bede


George Eliot communicates the meaning of her novel partially by employing symbolism in the description of the physical world in which her characters live. These patterns point up contrasts and support, by an appeal to the visual imagination, some of the book's central ideas.

It is obvious that the names of the two counties mentioned in the novel and the names of the two towns where principal characters live are significant. Snowfield, Dinah's home town, is located in Stonyshire; as the names indicate, this is a bleak, forbidding region in which people eke out a poor living on the rocky hills or else work in a factory. Hayslope in Loamshire, on the other hand, is a pleasant spot where the farmers are prosperous and the workers comfortable; there are no factories, but only small neighborhood businesses like Jonathan Burge's workshop.

The "world" of the novel thus divides into light and dark, or hopeful and gloomy areas. Taking this world to represent life, we can see that Eliot is dividing experience into the pleasant and the unpleasant — giving us symbols for the "light" and "dark" sides of life. Dinah lives in Stonyshire; she is familiar with the darker side of life, accepts human suffering as necessary and inevitable, and knows how to deal with it. Adam, Arthur and Hetty, on the other hand, take a much more optimistic view of things and must learn what Dinah already knows. The crisis of the novel takes place in Stonyshire (in a town called Stoniton, as a matter of fact) and it is here that the three Loamshire people discover the meaning of "irremediable evil."

This division is supported by another one — that between controlled and uncontrolled human actions. We noted in the commentaries that the seduction, the fight between Adam and Arthur, and Hetty's abandonment of her child all take place in the woods. These actions, prompted by "natural" urges rather than by a "civilized" use of intellect and will, form one of the two primary causes of suffering in the novel.

The other cause is that part of reality which is beyond man's control. This area of human experience is symbolized by the tapping at the door in Chapter 4 which, though a superstition, turns out to be a valid portent of death, by the force of blind circumstances, and by God. Religion in George Eliot's novels seems to mean a respectful attitude towards the great unknown. Dinah, the completely religious woman, realistically recognizes the existence of evil and is patient and humble. Adam, who is religious in a naturalistic way, and Arthur and Hetty, who are not religious at all, have pride in them and must learn humility through experience.

Thus the world of the novel is set up to show that man must recognize that life has its less pleasant side and that suffering derives from the nature of things and from a lack of self-control. Like Dinah and Mr. Irwine, he must act upon this knowledge, avoiding evil whenever possible, accepting and dealing with it when it cannot he avoided.