Adam Bede Themes and Analysis

‘Adam Bede’ is a novel with interesting themes, symbols, and a unique narrative style where the author gets up close and personal with the readers to put events in context.

Adam Bede

George Eliot

Adam Bede by George Eliot has an interesting narrative style where the author takes on the persona of the narrator and goes into a comprehensive exposition of her opinions in asides to the reader as it explores themes of beauty, hard work, family ties, and a lot more. The narrative style has had a controversial reception among readers and critics, some think the narration makes for a better appreciation of the story while some others see the narrative style as too intrusive and reducing the enjoyment of the novel. Let us take a closer look at these in this analysis.

Themes in Adam Bede

Adam Bede addresses a number of issues in human society and relationships, including aesthetics, diligence, emotions, family and duty, actions and consequences, etc.


The theme of aesthetics in Adam Bede teaches that our sensitivity to beauty sometimes affects our perception of reality. The novel contrasts inner beauty with outer beauty and highlights how our admiration of outer beauty can affect our perception of inner beauty. Mrs Irwine exemplifies this as she believes she must first like how a person looks before she can like the person as an individual. In her own words, “If I don’t like a man’s look, depend upon it that I shall never like HIM. I don’t want to know people that look ugly and disagreeable any more than I want to taste dishes that look disagreeable”(Chapter V, page 62).

Adam Bede is admired by acquaintances and strangers alike for his good looks, but the admiration of his family and close friends runs deeper because they are close enough to see his inner beauty in his good qualities of hard work, integrity, and intelligence.

In the case of Dinah Morris, although she has no interest in her physical beauty, she possesses it nonetheless and it makes people more receptive to her preaching and more disposed to see her inner beauty of kindness, selflessness, humility, and charity. 

But through characters like Hetty, we see that outer beauty is not always a guarantee of inner beauty as Hetty is an exceptionally beautiful girl but has the ugly inner qualities of selfishness, foolishness, pride, and vanity. Conversely, there is also the case of people who are ugly on the outside but still do not possess admirable qualities on the inside.

Mrs Poyser, in a conversation with her husband, uses the instance of Mrs Chowne (the wife of a neighboring farmer who is rather ugly and still inept at managing her home) to point out that ugly women do not necessarily make the best housekeepers and wives as some men erroneously believe. (Chapter XVIII, page 175). Overall, George Eliot makes a case for opening our minds to inner beauty even in the greatest outward ugliness. In her narrator’s aside to readers in Chapter XVII (page 164) she says: “It is these more or less ugly, stupid or inconsistent people whose movement of goodness you should be able to admire” (see more 09).

Work and Diligence

The novel highlights the rewards of diligence and how it can elevate one’s station in life.

Adam Bede and his father make a great character foil in this context. Both Adam and his father Thias Bede are skilled carpenters, Adam learns all he knows about carpentry from his father. But his father becomes lax with his work and takes more to alcoholism which launches him further into poverty until his death.

Adam, on the other hand, has a very humble beginning but due to his diligence, he first saves enough money to bail his brother out of an unwanted military servitude and also makes enough money to afford a better standard of living for himself and his family.

Mrs Poyser is another character whose diligence is noted in the story. She sets her clock many minutes faster than regular people in order to have a good enough start with her work and she is meticulous with the preparation of her cheese and butter. This, coupled with her husband’s own diligence in farming, results in their farm being the most prosperous in the neighborhood.


Adam Bede teaches how emotions drive human decisions and molds personality. Adam is blinded by the emotions of love so much that he does not see that Hetty has a blame in her evil act. Also, jealousy makes Adam vengeful to Arthur Donnithorne for seducing Hetty.

For Lisbeth Bede, loneliness and insecurity make her a fretful woman who complains and whines all the time hoping to get reassurances of love from her sons.

Emotions drive Arthur and Hetty to give in to the temptations of having premarital sex without considering the consequences in their conservative and judgmental society.

Family and Duty

Family values and a sense of duty to family members irrespective of how good or bad our relationship with them is, is a theme in Adam Bede. Adam has a strained relationship with his father due to alcoholism. He is hard on his father and sees him as an embarrassing burden.

His father on his part, cowers in Adam’s presence and is often ashamed to look him in the eye. Irrespective of this, Adam still takes care of his upkeep and carries the financial burden of the whole family. Adam mourns his father’s death deeply and lives the rest of his life with regrets about how harshly he treated his father.

Mr Poyser has strong family values too. He takes care of orphaned Hetty and accommodates Dinah because he believes he owes it to them for being his family. The same family value makes him believe duty demands it of him to uphold the family reputation and disown Hetty when she commits a crime.

Actions and Consequences

Adam Bede teaches that our actions result in consequences that do not only affect us but also affect others around us. Arthur gives in to his lust and commits the indiscretion of seducing and having sexual relations with Hetty and the result does not only cause him pain but leads to the killing of an innocent baby and a death verdict on Hetty all of which weigh heavily on his conscience.

Hetty is cold, unfeeling, and selfish. Her selfishness leads her to kill her baby in a bid to be free and upright in society’s eyes again but this leads to her mind being haunted by the baby’s cries, her imprisonment, death sentence, exile, and shame on her family name.

Analysis of Key Moments in Adam Bede

  1. Adam Bede and his colleagues at a carpentry workshop discuss religion and the news of a female preacher coming to preach in the green fields.
  2. The preacher is Dinah Morris who comes and preaches and is admired by a lot of people although they hardly get converted.
  3. Seth Bede walks Dinah Morris home and professes his love to her which she rejects.
  4. Adam returns home from work and gets furious because his father has abandoned the coffin he was meant to complete and gone in search of alcohol. In anger, he goes to his home workshop and begins to work on the coffin himself, refusing to eat while his mother begs him to eat and be patient with his father.
  5. Adam works late into the night and as he works, he muses on his father’s disappointing conduct but a willow tap on the door disturbs his work and musings, leaving him with an eerie feeling that the occurrence is an omen.
  6. The next morning, Adam and Seth find the corpse of their father in the brook—he had drowned to death.
  7. Arthur returns to Hayslopefrom the army and on visiting the Hall Farm, finds the blossoming seventeen year old Hetty attractive and they plan a rendezvous.
  8. Dinah tells Hetty that she has a premonition that Hetty would be in deep trouble some day and offers Hetty her unwavering friendship and support if she needs it.
  9. Hetty, who fancies herself in love with Arthur, dreams of marrying him and of all the beautiful things that come with being a lady of the upper class.
  10. Arthur celebrates his twenty-first birthday and announces that Adam has agreed to work for them as the manager of the Donnithorne woods.
  11. Adam walking through the woods find Arthur and Hetty in a lovers’ embrace and Hetty hurriedly leaves.
  12. Adam accosts Arthur for seducing and deceiving Hetty and they engage in a physical fight.
  13. Adam coerces Arthur to break up with Hetty so that she can be open to marry within her own class. Arthur agrees and writes a letter to Hetty to be delivered to her by Adam and departs to join the army again.
  14. Hetty is hurt by the breakup letter from Arthur and agrees to marry Adam.
  15. Hetty discovers that she is pregnant for Arthur and shields it from everyone as they make wedding preparations. Then she runs away in search of Arthur under guise of going to visit Dinah.
  16. On getting to the address Arthur gave to her, Hetty is told that Arthur and his army troop have departed for Ireland. Disappointed, Hetty begins to wander about aimlessly and contemplates suicide several times.
  17. Adam and the Poyser family begin to get worried about Hetty. And Adam embarks on a journey to Dinah’s address in search of Hetty.
  18. Adam returns to Hayslope without finding Hetty and Mr Irwine informs him that Hetty has been arrested for killing her child.
  19. Hetty remains obstinately silent all through her trial and is sentenced to death by hanging.
  20. Arthur returns to hear of Hetty’s predicament and uses his influence to get Hetty a pardon and Hetty is exiled instead of hanged.
  21. To placate the Poysers for the shame he has brought on Hetty, Arthur departs for the army again although his grandfather has died and he has laid claims to his inheritance as an heir. He leaves the Donnithorne properties under the care of Mr Irwine.
  22. Adam and Dinah discover they are in love with each other and eventually get married.

Style, Tone, and Figurative Language

Adam Bede is written in a unique style where the author sometimes puts the plot and the characters aside to get conversational with the reader or discuss ideas and topics outside the development of the plot at great length. Sometimes the narrator assumes what the reader is thinking and gives a sarcastic rebuttal of the reader’s assumed thoughts. At other times, the narrator goes decades into the future to give a commentary on the retrospect and reminiscent thoughts of certain events by the characters.

There is also a blend of humor and irony in the story especially found in the wit of sharp-tongued characters like Mrs Poyser and Bartle Massey.  

Then we find the technique of character foil notably in Dinah and Hetty. Dinah is kind, spiritual, empathetic, demure, and loves children; while Hetty is cold, carnal, insensitive, vain, and averse to children.

Analysis of Symbols


In Adam Bede, the hands symbolize the characters’ station in life. Arthur is an heir to a wealthy upper-class family and his smooth fair hands are symbols of his sheltered life. Adam’s hands are rough and darkened, emblems of his daily combat against poverty through hard work.

When Dinah gives Lisbeth a comforting embrace in her mourning, Lisbeth first thinks of Dinah as an angel but Dinah’s calloused hands restore Lisbeth’s belief in her humanity as it gives a feeling of camaraderie in their lower-class struggles for survival.

The Mirror

The mirror is a symbol of personal reflection in Adam Bede. Hetty loves admiring herself in the mirror which is an indication of her vanity. The mirror in her room is also a symbol of the aristocratic life she cannot afford. The mirror is majestic and must have cost a fortune in its glory days, but it is only present in Hetty’s bed-chamber in an old and rusty state which reflects how her lofty dreams of being an aristocratic lady is something her poor background cannot afford her.


Supper is a motif in Adam Bede that symbolizes unity and togetherness. It also heralds a hallmark event in the characters’ lives. The supper of bread and wine in the upper room shared between Adam and Bartle Massey as they await the impending tragedy of Hetty’s verdict is similar to the biblical last supper Jesus shares with his disciples as they await his impending crucifixion. The more feisty Harvest supper symbolizes a triumph over the tragedy of Hetty’s scandal.


Brooks are symbols of doom in Adam Bede. Thias Bede meets his death in a brook. The brook also symbolizes a reflection of conscience in the struggle between life and death, Hetty searches for a brook when she decides to commit suicide but on finding one, it dawns on her that she prefers life over death and eventually tries to distance herself from the brook as much as she can.


What was the profession of Adam Bede?

Adam Bede, the protagonist of the novel, was a carpenter. He learned carpentry from his father who was also a carpenter and carpentry became a family craft because Adam’s brother Seth also came to be a carpenter and they worked together.

Why does not Adam go to Ireland in George Eliot’s Adam Bede?

Adam’s reason for deciding to go to Ireland was to look for Hetty who he believed went to Ireland in search of her ex-lover Arthur. But Adam eventually does not go to Ireland because Mr Irwine informs him that Hetty had been arrested in England and it was no use searching for her in Ireland.

How old was Adam Bede?

Adam Bede is twenty-six years old as the novel begins in 1799. Therefore, at the end of the story in the year 1807, Adam Bede is thirty-four years old.

Onyeka Osuji
About Onyeka Osuji
Onyeka is a lecturer of Public Administration and a Literature enthusiast. After gaining accreditation in English Literature, Onyeka analyzes novels on Book Analysis, whilst working as an academic and writing short stories.
Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap