Hetty Sorrel and Adam Bede

Some new short thoughts on my recent read, George Eliot’s “Adam Bede”.

Did Adam Bede really love Hetty Sorrel? The entire novel is built on the premise that he did. But he doesn’t actively court her. Everyone in town has paired them off already as a couple, or at least a couple-to-be, and both Adam and Hetty seem to understand and accept this semi-arrangement. But Adam and Hetty barely interact. There is no real courtship, certainly no detectable passion or even effort.

And Adam seems quite content about this situation, for a long time:

The calm patience with which he had once waited for Hetty’s love, content only with her presence and the thought of the future, had forsaken him since that terrible shock nearly three months ago.

The shock referred to here is his discovery of Hetty’s affair with another man. And it’s true that this shock does rouse Adan out of his contentment into something like urgency to be with Hetty.

But if jealousy is behind this new urgency, that just raises the question anew: how much did Adam really love her, and in what way?

If he loved her, I think that there were limits to his love, not merely because he could wait patiently for Hetty’s love — a good man can do that — but because he never seems to have had a great desire to see her.

So what did he feel?

It’s not mere lust without love, because he loves and admires Hetty’s character, as he sees it. But Hetty is not the kind of woman whose soul and character could really attract and challenge him. Hetty’s mind, as Adam has made it out, is little more than a reflection of himself. “He created the mind he believed in out of his own, which was large, unselfish, tender.”

In essence, what he looks forward to marrying is a mere copy of himself. And though such a thing can be attractive, I can understand why it hasn’t seemed to stir Adam to a greater degree.

Eliot has some idea of what Adam’s feelings might be, if they were turned to someone quite different from Hetty. Adam has a brother, Seth, who has fallen in love with Dinah Morris, the traveling Methodist preacher who is so devoted to her calling, and whose speech never fails to attract. Eliot describes Seth’s feelings:

He was but three-and-twenty, and had only just learned what it is to love—to love with that adoration which a young man gives to a woman whom he feels to be greater and better than himself. Love of this sort is hardly distinguishable from religious feeling. What deep and worthy love is so, whether of woman or child, or art or music. Our caresses, our tender words, our still rapture under the influence of autumn sunsets, or pillared vistas, or calm majestic statues, or Beethoven symphonies all bring with them the consciousness that they are mere waves and ripples in an unfathomable ocean of love and beauty; our emotion in its keenest moment passes from expression into silence, our love at its highest flood rushes beyond its object and loses itself in the sense of divine mystery. And this blessed gift of venerating love has been given to too many humble craftsmen since the world began for us to feel any surprise that it should have existed in the soul of a Methodist carpenter half a century ago, while there was yet a lingering after-glow from the time when Wesley and his fellow-labourer fed on the hips and haws of the Cornwall hedges, after exhausting limbs and lungs in carrying a divine message to the poor.

That afterglow has long faded away…

This is Eliot at her most mystical. And if I’m not mistaken, and despite Eliot writing the above after the loss of her faith, she’s saying that religious faith used to be an aid for us in loving one another better — even in romantic love — and that it is no longer.

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