Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Inner vs. Outer Beauty
Eliot contrasts inner and outer beauty throughout the novel to express the idea that external and internal realities do not always correspond. Although Hetty is more physically beautiful than Dinah, she is cold and ugly inside. Hetty’s outer beauty masks her inner ugliness, especially to Captain Donnithorne and Adam. Even when Hetty cries or is angry, she still appears lovely to both men. Adam is so blinded by Hetty’s appearance that he often misinterprets her tears and excitement as love for him. Hetty’s outer beauty also blinds Captain Donnithorne such that he loses control when she cries and he kisses her. Unlike Hetty, Dinah has an inner beauty because she helps and cares for those around her. She comforts Lisbeth through the mourning of her dead husband, and Adam takes notice of this. Adam does not think Dinah is as physically beautiful as Hetty, but he is drawn to her love and mission to help those around her. His feelings for Dinah change after he witnesses Dinah consoling Hetty, and Adam begins to see Dinah as outwardly beautiful. Eliot’s description of the natural beauty of the English countryside also shows the contrast between internal and external beauty. On the day Hetty wanders off to find Captain Donnithorne, the day is beautiful and the countryside is magnificent. However, Hetty suffers enormously under the weight of her plight. Eliot uses this contrast to encourage the reader to look beyond the surface and explore a deeper meaning.
The Value of Hard Work
One of the chief differences between the good characters and the evil characters is their commitment to working hard. Most of the characters in Adam Bede are hard-working peasants who spend their days laboring on farms, in mills, or in shops. Those characters are generally characterized by gentle intelligence and simple habits. They do their best not to harm others, and they produce goods others can use and value. Examples are Mrs. Poyser, whose dairy supplies the other villagers and whose cream cheese is renowned in the area; Adam, whose skills in carpentry are unmatched and who is a good and fair manager of people and resources; and Dinah, who works in a mill. By contrast, those few malingerers in the novel are generally evil as well as lazy. The strongest example of laziness is Captain Donnithorne, who often complains that he has nothing to do, and whose boredom may well have contributed significantly to Hetty’s downfall. If Captain Donnithorne had been busy sowing fields, he might not have engaged in his illicit and unwise affair. Those who work hard take pride in their work, and they do not harm others because they are careful and meticulous and do not have time for idle self-indulgence.
Love as a Transformative Force
Love has the power to transform characters in the novel. The characters who love are portrayed as gentle, kind, and accepting. Dinah, for example, is a preacher but is never preachy. She accepts Hetty as she is, even when Hetty is peevish and selfish toward her. Dinah’s love transforms Hetty in jail because she comforts and listens to Hetty and does not judge her. Before, Hetty was selfish and only thought about her own happiness. After, she is sincerely sorry for the shame she caused her family and even apologizes to Adam. Another example is Mrs. Poyser, and how she can be harsh toward those she loves. When Hetty’s crime comes to light, Mrs. Poyser is the only one in her family who does not seem to judge Hetty. Here, Mrs. Poyser transforms from strict and critical to a loving and accepting woman. The one character that is not transformed by love is Mrs. Irwine, who is critical and sharp and never manages to help others. She does not feel, and so she is neither transformed by love nor capable of transforming others. For example, at Captain Donnithorne’s coming-of-age party, one of her presents to a peasant girl is an ugly gown and a piece of flannel. This gift only aggravates the girl and makes her reject the present. Mrs. Irwine thinks she is giving the girls only what they deserve, and therefore she is not transformed by love because she does not care for anyone. Love only transforms the characters that want to help people other than themselves.
The Consequences of Bad Behavior
Bad behavior and wrongdoing have consequences that extend beyond the wrong-doer, and even relatively small transgressions can have massive collateral effects. The central lesson from Hetty’s experience with Captain Donnithorne is that doing the right thing is important because doing the wrong thing might hurt others in ways that cannot be controlled. Though Captain Donnithorne is not inherently evil, he provokes bad behavior in Hetty because she cannot go to him for help when she learns that she is pregnant. Hetty is ashamed and only thinks of herself when she commits her crime. As she awaits the trial, Hetty does not think about how her bad behavior affected anyone else: she does not consider the shame she has caused the Poysers or the effect her crime has on Adam. Hetty feels no real remorse for her sins and just wishes to not be reminded of any wrong she has done. Eventually, she apologizes to Adam and asks God for forgiveness, but the lesson of the story is that bad behavior, evil, and wrongdoing cannot be undone.
Eliot’s description of the natural beauty of the English countryside, especially in scenes of great sadness or evil, expresses the idea that external and internal realities do not always correspond. For example, when Hetty wanders off toward Windsor to find Captain Donnithorne, the day is beautiful and the countryside is magnificent. The reader would think Hetty’s stunning looks combined with the sunny countryside backdrop would describe an equally joyful scene in the book. However, unbeknownst to the reader, Hetty suffers enormously under the weight of her plight. Although Hetty herself is beautiful, her appearance contrasts with her internal character, which is weak, selfish, and ugly. Unlike Dinah, who is beautiful both externally and internally, Hetty has no inner beauty. Eliot uses the contrast between internal and external beauty to encourage the reader to look beyond the surface of people and things to their deeper characteristics and meanings.
The dogs in the novel reflect the temperament of the characters with respect to helpless beings. Adam’s dog, Gyp, loves his master. He is happy and trusting and devoted to Adam. Gyp’s condition reflects Adam’s love of the helpless and his desire to help and care for those who depend on him. Mr. Massey’s dog is also healthy but cowers whenever Mr. Massey displays his split personality. As one who deeply cares for the helpless, Mr. Massey can be grouchy and crotchety even while he provides nourishment and assistance to those in need. Mr. Irwine has dogs, who are happy and contented. They laze around the hearth. As his relationship with his dogs suggests, Mr. Irwine is kind and gentle toward those who depend on him, but he is a little lazy and cares more for the comforts of his home.
The narrator in Adam Bede butts into the story to provide ironic and often sarcastic commentary on the characters and the reader’s impression of them. The narrator pokes fun at the reader, especially the imagined, haughty reader who has a low opinion of such simple characters as Adam and Mr. Irwine. Making fun of the reader has two effects. First, it feeds the idea that the nobility is frivolous and a bad judge of character. The narrator clearly approves of the characters, and the narrator calls into question the reader’s judgment by suggesting that the reader does not. Second, the satire keeps the narrative brisk and the tone light. The narrator pushes the heavy idea that readers should not judge others and that they should love their neighbors. To avoid becoming preachy, the narrator uses humor, and a big part of that humor is in the sarcasm.
The characters in the novel frequently linger around gates and pass through gates outside homes and in the fields. The gates suggest major changes in the characters’ lives, as when Hetty passes through the gates as she walks toward the Chase to meet Captain Donnithorne, leaving the innocence of childhood behind and walking into a very adult situation. The gates outside the characters’ homes also represent the attempt to keep the affairs of the heart private. Those who are allowed to pass through those gates are allowed into the heart of the family and into its most intimate secrets. Adam does not create any disturbance when he comes through the gates at Hall Farm: he is an accepted and beloved member of the community, and he enters quietly and respectfully. In contrast, Captain Donnithorne creates a huge ruckus whenever he enters. He loudly calls to Dinah at one point, and at other points he arrogantly makes his presence known. Adam comes quietly into the Poysers’ confidence while Captain Donnithorne brings noise, disturbances, and, ultimately, shame.
Hearth and Home
The hearth and home are the sources of nourishment in the novel, and their images recur repeatedly as the grounding force of the characters’ lives. The most prominent example of hearth and home is Hall Farm, the home of the Poysers. Each of the scenes at the farm returns to the hearth, where the grandfather sits and around which the whole family gathers. Problems are discussed and conflicts are resolved around the hearth. In the same way, at the Bedes’ home, life revolves around the hearth in the kitchen. Lisbeth’s whole day is spent there, and Dinah is useful and praised when she visits because of her ability to clean, cook, and do chores near the fireplace. The strongest and most worthwhile characters are those who spend the most time around the hearth.
The characters’ choice of clothing represents important qualities of their nature, showing on the outside how they choose to represent themselves to the world. Hetty, for example, dresses in the best finery she can get, whereas Dinah dresses all in black with a simple cap. Hetty’s ostentatious dress symbolizes the shallow, flashy nature of her character, and when her dress falls into disrepair on her trip, it tracks the disintegration of her spirit. By contrast, Dinah’s black gown and simple dress symbolize her practical love of simple things. She chooses not to put herself forward but to shrink into the background and come forward only when she can help others. Characters’ clothing choices reflect fundamental truths about their natures.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!