George Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede
, was first published in 1859. George Eliot is the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, a respected and well-published scholar of the time who, nevertheless, chose to publish her novels under the pseudonym. The novel has remained in print ever since its original publication and is regularly used in university studies of nineteenth-century English literature.
The novel is set in the village of Hayslope towards the end of the eighteenth century. In the village lives a young carpenter by the name of Adam Bede. He is described as being tall and muscular and is respected by everyone for his honesty and solid work ethic.
Adam is such a good worker that his employer, Jonathan Burge, has been encouraging him to get together with his daughter, Mary Burge. He would be proud to welcome Adam into his family as his son-in-law as well as his business partner. However, Adam only has eyes for the beautiful Hetty Sorel. Hetty is the niece of Mrs. Poyser, whose husband, Martin, runs Hall Farm. Hetty takes no notice of Adam, as she is interested only in the squire, Captain Arthur Donnithorne, whom she met one day at her aunt’s dairy, and who happens to be Adam’s best friend.
Everyone in Hayslope is opposed to the idea of a union between Adam and Hetty, especially his mother Lisbeth, who feels threatened by any girl who might steal her son away from her. She becomes even more dependent on her favorite son after her husband drowns while on his way home from the village inn.
Adam’s brother, Seth, is in love with a young Methodist preacher named Dinah Morris. Dinah is Hetty’s cousin, but the two could not be more different, not unlike Seth and his brother. When Seth proposes marriage to her, she declines, stating that she has devoted her life to preaching the gospel.
Donnithorne celebrates his twenty-first birthday with a great feast and invites Adam to sit at his table. This incites pride in Adam’s mother as well as jealousy, for she fears her son his moving further out of her reach. Several weeks later, Adam is heading home after finishing work on the Donnithorne estate and he passes Donnithorne and Hetty in a close embrace. Donnithorne is embarrassed and tries to explain how they met in the street by chance. Feeling betrayed by his best friend, Adam calls him a liar and a scoundrel. The conflict escalates until it comes to blows, and Donnithorne is knocked to the ground. Adam helps him up, demanding that he write a letter to Hetty telling her that he will not see her again.
Donnithorne places the letter to Hetty in Adam’s care, giving him the responsibility of delivering it. Adam gives the letter to Hetty the following Sunday and upon reading it, she is overcome with despair. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Burge offers Adam a partnership in his business, and Adam proposes to Hetty. The wedding must be delayed until two new rooms can be built onto the Bede house.
As the wedding approaches, Hetty grows frantic with the knowledge that, although she is engaged to Adam, she is pregnant with Donnithorne’s child. She tells her aunt that she is going to visit Dinah at Snowfield, but really, she is determined to find Donnithorne. She arrives in Windsor, where she has been told that he is stationed, but soon finds out that the regiment has been moved to Ireland. In complete despair, Hetty ends up in a strange village in the house of a widow named Sarah Stone, where she gives birth. Confused and frightened, Hetty wanders on, leaving her baby to die in the woods. Later, tortured by her conscience, she returns to find the child gone.
When Donnithorne returns to Hayslope, he finds that Hetty is in prison, having been charged with the murder of her child. He dedicates himself to freeing her in whatever way he can. Dinah arrives at her prison cell and prays with Hetty to open up her heart and tell the truth.
Finally, poor Hetty breaks down and confesses everything that has happened since she left Hayslope. She says that she had no intention to kill her baby and had, instead, considered taking her own life. Two days later, some news arrives: Hetty’s sentence is commuted to deportation. A few years later, she dies on her way home.
After Hetty’s exile, Dinah spends more time at the Poysers. Gradually, she and Adam are drawn to each other, but Dinah’s heart is still set on her preaching. She leaves Hall Farm and goes back to Snowfield. Adam finds his only satisfaction in toiling at his workbench. One day, Adam’s mother brings up Dinah, leading Adam to try to find her. Adam and Dinah eventually marry, have two children, and settle with their children and a doting Uncle Seth.