George Eliot, Adam Bede. Edited with an Introduction by Stephen Gill. Penguin Books, London, 1980, rpt. 1985.
Summary of Chapter 1: The Workshop
The narrator will magically use the ink of her pen as a mirror to show us the carpentry workshop of Jonathan Burge in the village of Hayslope in Loamshire, England, 1799. Five workmen there are busy, the most striking of them a tall strong man singing a hymn in a baritone voice as he finishes a mantelpiece. This is Adam Bede, the obvious leader of the group. His brother, Seth, is younger and claims he has finished the door he is working on. Sandy Jim teases him that he forgot the panels on the door. Wiry Ben Cranage pipes in saying that after all, Seth is a wool-gathering Methodist. Adam pushes Ben against the wall until he promises to leave his brother alone. In friendly laughter, the men accuse Seth of thinking of the woman Methodist preacher who will preach on the Green tonight. Seth is in love with Dinah Morris and invites the others to hear her. Adam declares his loyalty to the Church but believes everyone should worship as he chooses. When the church clock strikes six, the other men immediately leave off working, but Adam chides them for having no pride in their work, and he continues until he finishes, going home with his dog, Gyp, while Seth goes to the Green to hear Dinah preach. A stranger, passing by on horseback, cannot help but admire Adam Bede as he passes.
Commentary on Chapter 1
The chapter introduces the place and plunges us into a rural community in Loamshire, perhaps a fictitious name for Warwickshire where the author, Mary Ann Evans grew up and knew farm and village folk. Her father managed an estate there, and his early life provided material for the character of Adam Bede. This is country life in old England before the industrial revolution changed everything, and people moved to the cities for jobs. The author investigates the rural people, their habits and thinking, in greater detail than the English novel had done, for it usually dealt with the upper and middle classes. In this, Eliot is indebted to the poet, William Wordsworth, whose poetry is mentioned in the text. A quote from Wordsworth’s “The Excursion” also appears on the title page. The trials of simple country folk were significant to Wordsworth in what they could teach about life, since they were closer to the earth and primal feelings.
Adam Bede’s name indicates a primal man, like Adam in the Garden of Eden before the fall. Bede is the name of the Anglo-Saxon saint and historian of seventh and eighteenth century England and again brings up the suggestion of early English life in its simplicity. Adam is a peasant attached to the earth and is contrasted to the more spoiled gentry, like Arthur Donnithorne. Eliot uses dialect for the lower class characters, who speak for themselves, and then the narrator comments on their ways and their history, like a latter day Bede.
Adam’s protectiveness towards his younger brother Seth, his fondness for his dog, his love of his work, his love of learning, and his integrity all surface in the very first chapter. The other men respect him, even when he is a little stern with them. The discussion of religion is a main theme in the book and begins here with introducing the “dissenters” or groups that disagreed with the established English church, like the Methodists. Methodism began as a reform movement within the Church of England, begun by John and Charles Wesley, in 1729. Soon, it separated and became a religious movement of its own. The Methodists ministered to the poor, especially in the growing populations around industrial mill towns. These poor were more desperate than the poor in farm country. Methodists made converts easily near the mills and gave people hope, support, and unity. Seth is a Methodist, but Adam does not see why people should not stick to the Church. However, he has been influenced by his own pastor, Mr. Irwine, a tolerant man believing one should worship according to conscience. Adam also defends practical knowledge as important to learn as religion, and that is why he goes to night school to better himself.
The theme of the book is found in the hymn Adam keeps singing: “Let all thy converse be sincere,/ Thy conscience as the noonday clear.” Adam is known for his honest dealings with others, a standard that not everyone can maintain, he finds out. Because he is so strong, both physically and morally, he cannot understand the weakness of others.