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.