Summary and Analysis
Book II: Chapter 19
The next morning, Adam sets off to work on repairs on a country house. His mind is occupied with Hetty; with his drunken father gone, his burden of responsibilities is lightened, and he can begin to think of marrying within another year or so. He plans to set up a little business on the side; he and Seth will make furniture and sell it in the neighborhood. Adam is not at all sure that Hetty is fond of him, but he has hope and decides to stop at the Hall Farm that evening.
The author then comments on Adam's love for and pride in his work, his small stock of book-learning, and his manly virtues. Such men, she says, are always to be found among the laboring classes.
Adam is a very practical young man, as his deliberations here show. Although he is grieved by the loss of his father, he also realizes the advantages it entails for himself — without an alcoholic father to support, he can think of marriage. He thinks of ways to circumvent his mother's disapproval of Hetty and begins to make plans for going into business for himself. He is not one to rush into marriage blindly, and he considers the pragmatic aspects of his position with great care.
Toward the end of this chapter, Eliot touches again upon a subject she has mentioned several times before. She says that although Adam is not an "average man," there are many people with his virtues among the working classes. The point, though it is commonplace enough in our democratic society, was not so obvious in 1859. The working classes had only recently begun to emerge from the obscurity in which they had historically been sunk and were taking their place as a self-conscious segment of society whose humanity was recognized. In Eliot's day, most "fashionable" novels still dealt with the upper and middle classes; a novel of "low life," at least one by a serious author, was something of a rarity. But Eliot refused to see human worth in social terms; she says in Chapter 17 that she has spent many years among "people more or less commonplace and vulgar" and has learned to love human nature through her contact with these simple souls.
Eliot sets out to show that in her mind the "commonplace and vulgar" people are in fact more useful, more virtuous, and more worthy of praise than their "betters." The novel focuses almost completely on the lives and ways of lower-class figures, in the first place. The hero and heroine are both workers, and the villain — if Arthur really deserves that label — is an aristocrat. The only upper-class figure who is presented sympathetically, Mr. Irwine, is a benevolent man who treats his parishioners as valuable human beings, and the only lower-class figure who is condemned, Hetty, is fascinated by that material splendor which characterizes the rich.
The author sets up a general contrast between the common people and the gentry. A comparison of the upper- and lower-class characters reveals that while the former tend to be sickly, stuffy, hypocritically polite, and morally irresponsible, the latter are on the whole healthy, honest, and vital. On a more particular level, Adam and Arthur are implicitly (sometimes explicitly) compared throughout the novel, and Adam clearly comes off as the more noble figure.
Adam Bede, then, is revolutionary in another sense than the ones discussed earlier. Written at a time when rigid social distinctions were only beginning to break down, it defends the dignity of the common man and opposes the notion that human worth is a product of social rank. Eliot, as a matter of fact, seems to attack the very notion of social distinctions on the grounds that they blur communication between man and man, exalt inferior people over their natural superiors, and generally cause more harm than good. Arthur's irresponsibility in seducing Hetty can be attributed to his rich and pampered upbringing, and Hetty's fall is a product of her desire for wealth and social prestige. If the class structure did not exist, their tragedy would not have come about. Eliot, in a time and place where democracy was not very popular, shows some clear democratic leanings.