Off the Shelf Classics (continued)
PHILIP LAWLIS is the director of counseling and health services.
The plot for Adam Bede by George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans’ nom de plume) came from a story Eliot heard from her aunt, a devout Methodist.
A young woman, one Mary Voce, had been sentenced to the gallows after killing her infant child. Eliot’s Aunt Samuel had befriended the young woman and spent a prayerful night with her, and the next day rode with her in the death cart to the gallows. Eliot wove a plot around that event, utilizing memories from her Warwickshire childhood. Despite Eliot’s having abandoned her Christian beliefs (and her Christian family having forsaken her), she felt a strong bond to her rural roots. Her books are set against the “quiet English country life” that simultaneously attracted her and caused her pain.
Adam Bede, the main male character of the story, is a carpenter of simple faith. Two female characters who play a large role in his life are Hetty, the “Mary Voce” character, and Dinah, loosely based on Eliot’s pious Aunt Samuel.
As a psychologist, I am drawn to Eliot, one of the very best Victorian novelists, who demonstrates a remarkable psychological sense—a capacity to pull us “into the heads” of her characters—and at the same time hold us captive with the plot. Adam discovers his beloved Hetty in his rival Arthur’s embrace. Through Adam’s confrontation of Arthur, Eliot shows how Adam’s authenticity causes Arthur to see himself and his actions without his usual self-deception:
[It] . . . was a shock which made him for the moment see himself in the light of Adam’s indignation, and regard Adam’s suffering as not merely a consequence, but an element of his error. [Adam’s] words of hatred and contempt—the first he had ever heard in his life—seemed like scorching missiles that were making ineffaceable scars on him. All screening self-excuse, which rarely falls quite away while others respect us, forsook him for an instant, and he stood face to face with the first great irrevocable evil he had ever committed.
Eliot’s insight and gift for language have spellbound generations of readers—including this one!
—PHILIP LAWLIS is the director of counseling and health services.
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