See the difference between the impression a man makes on you when you walk by his side in familiar talk, or look at him in his home, and the figure he makes when seen from a lofty historical level, or even in the eyes of a critical neighbor who thinks of him as an embodied system or opinion rather than as a man.
In chapter 5, the narrator describes Mr. Irwine from the perspective of his domestic situation. Mr. Irwine has chosen to remain a bachelor in order to care for his mother and sisters, likes a leisurely morning before a day of hard work, and is kind to his dogs. These details make Mr. Irwine a real man, rather than a mere figurehead or even merely the rector of Hayslope. This interjection comes after first meeting Mr. Irwine, whom the narrator has gone to great lengths to personalize.
Eliot uses this personal approach to all of the characters for two reasons. First, Eliot encourages readers not to judge their neighbors harshly but rather to accept those them for who they are. This approach to interpersonal relationships stems in part from Eliot’s realist approach to novel writing and partly from her worldview. Realism demands that Eliot describe her characters as they are, not as ideas or in conformation with some literary ideal. Real people, of course, have domestic lives as well as public ones, so it is important that Mr. Irwine’s home life be part of the realist novel. Eliot’s worldview, which requires suspension of judgment on the basis of things like class, religion, and gender, also fits with this kind of description. None of the characters in Adam Bede is wholly good or wholly bad. None of them is easy to judge.
Second, the personal approach encourages religious tolerance, of which Mr. Irwine is a prime example. Eliot writes in an age of religious tension in England, and she wants to encourage a gentler approach to conversion and religion. Mr. Irwine, with his tolerance of Dinah and the other Methodists, might be viewed by some readers as too lax. Eliot seeks to show that he is motivated by love. To reveal his motivations, she must show him in his home and help us understand and respect him. That is why it is important to Eliot that Mr. Irwine not be seen as an “embodied system or opinion.”
No: people who love downy peaches are apt not to think of the stone, and sometimes jar their teeth terribly against it.
In chapter 15, while Hetty preens herself in her bedroom after the first time she kisses Captain Donnithorne, the narrator makes this observation about Adam’s love of Hetty. Like the peach, Hetty is pretty and soft on the outside but inside has a hardness that does not match her outward appearance. Adam does not perceive the hardness on the inside. He believes Hetty must be as beautiful inside as outside. For that reason, Adam is even more injured when Hetty turns out to have acted in an immoral way, both in her affair with Captain Donnithorne and in the killing of her own child. Adam’s love for Hetty is foolish but forgivable in the novel because it is natural for a man to fall in love with a breathtaking young woman. It is also natural, if foolish, for Adam to believe that Hetty’s outward appearance corresponds to an inner virtue. His is a wishful thinking, imagining her to be what he wishes she were and ignoring signs to the contrary.
Throughout the novel, inner and outer beauty often fail to correlate. Captain Donnithorne and Hetty Sorrel, described as the two most comely characters in the novel, are both vain, shallow, and selfish people. The villagers, especially people like Mrs. Poyser and Bartle Massey, may lack physical beauty, but in times of need they are the virtuous, hardworking, charitable people on whom others must rely. On the other hand, Eliot is careful not to accuse all beautiful people of vice. Both Adam and Dinah are described as very beautiful people, and they are both filled with love of their neighbor and a desire to do good for others. The only way to know people, in Eliot’s view, is live with them. People cannot be judged on appearances, wealth, or the quality of their speech. The best thing to do, she suggests, is to love the people in each other’s lives and make every effort to see the good in them.
“A man can never do anything at variance with his own nature.”
In chapter 16, Captain Donnithorne attempts to confess his feelings for Hetty to Mr. Irwine, and Mr. Irwine offers him this advice. Captain Donnithorne goes to Mr. Irwine to tell him about Hetty in an attempt to prevent himself from acting on his impulse to seduce Hetty. Instead, he ends up trying to justify his potential transgressions because he has attempted to resist them. He tries to convince Mr. Irwine that a man can be convinced to act against his nature because of a combination of circumstances. Mr. Irwine is not convinced, and he tells Captain Donnithorne that circumstances are not responsible when a man commits evil.
Mr. Irwine believes that human natures are all mixed, that even the wisest of people can be foolish and even the best of men can commit evil acts. This nonjudgmental approach makes him gentle with sinners and induces the villagers to love him. It makes his preaching practical, loving, and down-to-earth, and it is why he is remembered fondly when he is gone. This gentle approach, however, does not suit some religious zealots, who would have him be more stern with the peasants in an attempt to convert them and keep them on the right path. These people, whom Eliot apparently believed were her readers, advocate a position of moral righteousness rather than a tender touch. Although she feigns apology for Mr. Irwine, Eliot makes clear that she believes his approach is the right one and that he breeds love where the more zealous preacher sows only hatred and contempt. Mr. Irwine is the novel’s single example of a high-bred man who is good and kind, although even he has his faults. His over-indulgence of Captain Donnithorne prevents the latter from confessing to him on the occasion of this meeting, and because Captain Donnithorne does not confess, the affair continues with disastrous consequences.
No wonder man’s religion has so much sorrow in it: no wonder he needs a Suffering God.
In chapter 35, Hetty flees Hall Farm, headed to Windsor to find Captain Donnithorne, who she hopes can do something to help her. She is pregnant, and her wedding to Adam is fast approaching. She feels she must run away because she cannot bear the shame of her affair with Captain Donnithorne, and it will be impossible to hide much longer. The narrator describes the beauty of the scenery through which she flees and contrasts it with Hetty’s misery over her plight. The world, the narrator says, takes no pity on the suffering of people, and people need religion in the absence of any other solace. The Suffering God refers to Christ, whom Christians believe died on the Cross to save mankind from Hell. Eliot suggests here that the sympathy of Christ, who suffered himself, can console people in misery.
This quote represents the true beginning of Hetty’s despair, and the interjection of religious doctrine, which suffuses the entire novel and heightens the pathos of the scene. Hetty can find no comfort anywhere in the world, and Eliot suggests that the only comfort she may come to find is in the next world, where God may end her sorrow. The idea that God is a comfort to sufferers is emphasized throughout the whole novel. Dinah preaches salvation through suffering. Other characters, particularly Lisbeth, criticize this doctrine, saying that it seems like Methodists enjoy suffering, but when Dinah comes to comfort Lisbeth, she allows herself to be soothed by the gentleness of Dinah’s faith. Dinah writes to Seth about how only in suffering and sorrow can anyone truly be one with the rest of the world, where so much suffering and sorrow exist. And Adam is the living example of how personal turmoil can bring a man into closer communion with the rest of the world. Only through his experience of pain over Hetty’s affair, crime, and conviction does he lose his sense of pride and the hardness of heart that characterizes him in the beginning of the novel. Sympathy and compassion are characteristics Eliot prizes above all else, and part of compassion is suffering. For this reason, people like Hetty, she says, need a God who has suffered too.
The bucolic character at Hayslope, you perceive, was not of that entirely genial, merry, broad-grinning sort, apparently observed in most districts visited by artists.
Chapter 53 is devoted to the Harvest Supper at Hall Farm. The Harvest Supper is an annual tradition in which the Poysers host all their workers and others from the village at a huge meal to celebrate the end of the growing season. Eliot describes the meal in great detail and devotes lengthy descriptions to each of the minor characters seated around the table. Delving into their personal quirks and their age-old grudges, Eliot marks each of them with a texture of personality unique to themselves. She does not attempt to describe idyllic, idealistic peasants but attempts to describe real people, which comports with her realist novel. It also makes it hard to describe any of the characters either as good or bad, since they are all a little of each.
The narrator’s tone here is sarcastic. The reference to other artists is a derisive shot at other novelists and painters who portray poverty as somehow saintly and happy. Eliot rejects this glossing over of the harsh realities of day-to-day living, preferring a more honest description, and she is not above making fun of those who do not. The narrator does not, of course, believe that other artists actually observe “entirely genial, merry, broad-grinning” people in other districts. He believes that life in other districts is the same as in Hayslope, where sorrow and happiness mingle freely and good and bad characteristics are present in every person. Eliot often employs this sarcastic tone, in which the narrator says one thing when he means the opposite, when she writes directly to the reader. The technique makes clear the absurdity of an opposing position and the veracity of her own.