English, Department of


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The George Eliot Review 17 (1986)


Published by The George Eliot Review Online https://GeorgeEliotReview.org


George Eliot's Adam Bede is seen frequently to be a good, but flawed novel, an interesting precursor to the much finer Middlemarch and other later novels. U. C. Knoepflmacher, in George Eliot's Early Novels: The Limits of Realism, considers that, essentially, Eliot shared John MiIton's purpose of justifying "Man's lot in the temporal world." Knoepflmacher adds: "Her own belief in scientific veracity did not allow her to create a supernatural world of essences; yet in her way she shared Milton's purpose. 11 But then he says:

The epic strain that was to find its most complex embodiment in Middlemarch is introduced in Adam Bede. In its subject matter, in its treatment of vision and knowledge, in its temporal ironies, and even in the nature of its reconciliation, Adam Bede displays George Eliot's intimate understanding of Milton's great poem.1

Whether or not Adam Bede can be seen as a secular parallel to Paradise Lost is not my concern. Nor do I want to consider whether or not Eliot's epic strain finds its most complex embodiment in Middlemarch. But what I do want to focus on, for the moment, are Knoepflmacher's reasons for considering why Adam Bede, by implication, is less "complex" than -MrdCilemarch. The reasons boil down to this:

"Despite her Miltonic efforts (to justify man to man') George Eliot could not bring herself to impress' mfnd and conscience on an order that remained unmindful and unconscious to higher feeling,” 2 as demonstrated by the severe way in which Hetty Sorrel is treated:

Adam Bede is ruled by a power as absolute as MiIton's God. "Nature," the narrator informs us, knits men together "by muscle and bone, and divides us by the subtler web of our brains; blends yearning and repulsion; and ties our heartstrings to beings that jar us at every moment" (chap. 4, p. 55). This Nature stamps the personality of all men (chap. 12, p. 186) and "has a language of her own, which she uses which strict veracity" (chap. 15, p.228). Those who dare to "extract the very opposite of her real meaning" (p.229) wiII suffer for their mistakes; even those who submit to her buffets soon learn, as small children do, "not to expect that our hurts will be made much of" (chap. 27, P. 5). Though equally harsh and demanding, Milton's God had been just; moreover, His justice was tempered by the Son's mercy. By comparison, the exacting Nature whose ways George Eliot's narrator tries to justify seems capricious and indifferent. 3