The Significance of Nature in George Eliot’s Adam Bede

By Trudy A. Martinez

In Adam Bede nature is set against itself; this first becomes apparent on “the Green”.  Here two roads fork off into two directions:  One up and one down.  The road upward depicts a gloomy picture while the one downward presents a bright picture.  For instance, the road that goes up is “overlooked by its barren hills” and described as “a bleak treeless region” (28).  In contrast, the one that goes down is “under the shelter of woods” and is described as having “long meadow-grass and thick corn” (28).

The effect of nature leaves the reader wondering what is good and what is bad.  For instance, Mr. Irwine   is described as harmonizing “extremely well with that peaceful landscape” (76-77).  What is peaceful about his landscape?  The church is on the upward road and the only brightness described in that landscape is the “dark-red” of the bricks on the church.  Then again, just as “the red sunlight shone on the brass nails” of a coffin, the color signifies a different sort of peacefulness, that of death (60).  The sun was shining on Hetty wearing a red cloak but she hardly knew it; she had lost hope (348).  With “two roads before her,” she chose the downward path, the “one . . . which will take her into . . . shrouded pastures” (348).

On the downward path, nature is a non-benevolent force where day and night are at odds.  Gyps announces the non-benevolent nature when he gives out “a loud howl”.  In response, Adam goes outside in the dark to investigate; he sees “nothing except a rat; but what he hears calls “up the image of the willow wand striking the door” and foretelling death (58).  However, instead of death being discovered in the dark of night, it is discovered only after “daylight quenches the candles and the birds begin to sing” (60).  In addition, just as the birds sing, Gyps begins “to bark uneasily” after Seth asks, “What’s that sticking against the willow?”  Then Adam and Seth discover the “watery death” of their father (61).  Instead of water being a symbol of life, water becomes a symbol of death.  Eliot reverses the symbols just as she reverses nature.

Mr. Irwine communicates the opposing force of nature when he says, “Nature is cleaver enough to cheat even you, mother.”  His mother, however, disagrees and replies, “Nonsense, child!  Nature never makes a ferret in the shape of mastiff”   (72).  In other words, she can tell by the outward appearance.  Nevertheless, the outward appearance of nature is different.  Instead of the rain pouring down drops and producing mud, “the sun.  .  .  Is pouring down his beams.  .  .  and turning.  .  .  muddy water . . . into a mirror” (79).  And then again, a birthday feast is held at the time of year that is “Not the best time of year to be born in.”  Instead, it is held at the time of year where “Nature seems to make a hot pause” (241).

Nature also foretells the depth of emotions.  For instance, when Hetty is in the wilderness wandering and looking for a pool of water, she finds it “black under the darkening sky:  no motion, no sound near . . .  The pool was at its wintry depth now” and so is Hetty for she is thinking of drowning herself in it (367).  “She had reached the boarders of a new wilderness . . . (360).  Her sky is no longer bright with sunshine.  For example, the sky is “gray” and “clear” on the morning when Hetty and Dinah are riding in the cart and nearing the fatal spot.  Suddenly, Arthur appears, “carrying in his hand a hard-won release from death (438).  Consequently, nature gives a hint of what is to come.

The consequence of nature keeps the reader reading and unknowingly questioning if the sunshine is representative of death, why is Dinah pictured sewing in the sunshine outside the house?  (70-71). is this because she has not a hope of life as a single woman?  Later after Dinah marries Adam, she avoids the sunshine.  For instance, she shades “her eyes with her hands” and “turns away from the sunlight” (504).  In addition, she changes the color of her bonnet from grieving black to an innocent white.

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