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The tragic role of the character Hetty Sorrel is one that is central to the storyline of Adam Bede; her heinous crime of infanticide greatly unsettles the fictional community of Hayslope. Hetty aspires for something more than the manual labour of working on her Uncle’s farm; she is initially attracted to the young squire Arthur Donnithorne, Arthur is attracted to Hetty and returns her flirtations without honourable intentions of marrying her, he believes that it would be wrong to marry outside of his own class. During their encounters Hetty naively romanticizes that Arthur will surely marry her, the marriage she visualises however is not one of love but one of luxury and finery, luxuries which would be unobtainable to Hetty as an orphan dependant on the charity of her uncle and his wife. Hetty gives herself to Donnithorne falsely believing that her dreams of grandeur will undoubtedly come true, however she immediately turns her affections to Adam Bede when she realises that Donnithorne will not make her a ‘lady’. The characterization of Hetty Sorrel seems to vary throughout the novel in the earlier chapters she is condemned by the author for her vanity and selfishness, however in the later chapters of her suffering she appears to be dealt with more sympathetically.
Hetty is beautiful and is often described using metaphors symbolic of nature and of animal imagery; she has ‘a beauty like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks’ (Adam Bede 91). ‘Hetty’s was a springtide beauty; it was the beauty of young frisking things’ (Adam Bede 92), it was a beauty that seemed ‘made to turn the heads not only of men, but of all intelligent mammals, even of women’ (Adam Bede 90). However, Hetty is aesthetically beautiful which could be dangerous as it hides her lack of feeling George R. Creeger states that Hetty’s beauty is that of ‘a false beauty, for it conceals in the case of Hetty a core of hardness’, [i] and it is the women she interacts with that are more inclined to notice this, Mrs Poyser tells her husband that ‘she’s no better than a peacock, as ‘ud strut about on the wall, and spread it’s tail when the sun shone if all the folks i’ the parish was dying’, and she believes that ‘her heart’s as hard as a pebble’ (Adam Bede 175). Mrs Pomfret, with whom Hetty studied the duties of being a ladies maid with notes that although Hetty ‘gets prettier and prettier everyday, she’ll get neither a place nor a husband the sooner for it. Sober well to do men don’t like such pretty wives’ (Adam Bede 151). Hetty is aware of her beauty and ‘is quite used to the thought that people liked to look at her’ and she is also ‘not blind to the fact’, (Adam Bede 106) that she attracts the attention of men. Hetty’s beauty seems to set her apart from other women in a seemingly class-inscribed way and old Mrs Irwine remarks of it, ‘she’s a perfect beauty! … What a pity such beauty as that should be thrown away among the farmers’ (Adam Bede 309). And as Pauline Nestor notes Hetty’s ‘physicality seems to triumph over her little trivial soul’ as her ‘body bears the burden of others’ misinterpretation, as character after character reads in her expression what they themselves wish to find there’. [ii]
Hetty desires material possessions and she believes that her beauty can be her means to obtain a life of luxury, however, instead of marriage and the life she longs for she gets an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. It is a pregnancy that Hetty is not emotionally equipped to handle as she repeatedly denies that she ever was and shows little or no emotion at her trial she looks ‘down at her hands’ (492) throughout the trial and has a ‘blank hard indifference’, standing ‘like a statue of dull despair’. (494) Hetty is unsure what she feels for the baby as she says ‘I seemed to hate it’, but she is sure of one thing and that is that she ‘longed so to be safe at home’. (514) Hetty is continually linked with connotations of maternal ideology from her less than caring attitude towards her cousin Totty and baby animals to her subsequent crime of infanticide.
‘But Totty was still a day long plague… Hetty would have been glad to hear that she should never see a child again; they were worse than the nasty little lambs that the shepherd was always bringing in to be taken special care of in lambing time; for the lambs were got rid of sooner or later’. (174)
Gillian Beer notes that Hetty’s ‘relationship to her charge the dreadful Totty, is cool on both sides’. [iii] George R. Creeger observes of Hetty’s relationship with her young cousin that Totty is a good measure of ‘Hetty’s inability to love – anyone besides herself’. [iv] Kristin Brady however, defends Hetty’s indifference to Totty as she notes that:
‘Hetty was brought as an orphan into her Uncle’s household, not as a full member of the family, but as a domestic help to her aunt… It is not surprising, therefore, that Hetty should form a dislike for Totty, who so voraciously consumes exactly the maternal attentions that Hetty is deprived of’. [v]
Dorothea Barrett similarly defends Hetty stating that ‘the case built up against Hetty seems particularly weak’, as her ‘indifference to… children, animals… is used to discredit her’, and that there is ‘actually no reason… for Totty’s baby-sitter to love her as her mother does’. [vi]
The character flaws of Arthur Donnithorne are not implicated in the events of Hetty’s downfall, though he clearly displays characteristics for which Hetty is condemned. It is after all vanity that drives Donnithorne in his seduction of Hetty, he knows that his desire for her is impractical but he carries on in his seduction of her nonetheless. Arthur is shallow and is ready to ‘pitch everything… for the sake of surrendering himself to this delicious feeling’ (Adam Bede149) that Hetty has created in him. Joan Bennett notes of Arthur that he is ‘generous, impulsive, greedy for the approval of his fellows but prone to yield to his own immediate desires and to trust the future to take care of itself’. [vii] Following Hetty and Arthur’s encounter in the woods Arthur asserts he ‘had not yet seen the woman who would play the lady wife to the first-rate country gentleman’ (Adam Bede 497). Moreover he is annoyed by Hetty’s expectations of marriage ‘her vision was all spun by her own childish fancy’ (353), and he goes on to say ‘but Hetty might have had the trouble in some other way if not in this’ (354), further trivialising Hetty’s fall and his own role in it. Arthur never offers to marry Hetty although he is free to do so, he writes ‘I know you can never be happy except by marrying a man in your own station’, (376) remaining tenaciously class bound throughout the novel. Arthur’s rejection of Hetty is a great shock t her, her earlier dreams of becoming a ‘lady’ are shattered by Arthur’s letter but moreover her ego. Dorothea Barrett states that ‘Arthur exasperates us at the end of the novel, not necessarily because we feel he is to blame but because he is equally at fault – yet he suffers nothing in comparison’. [viii] And as Pauline Nestor notes ‘though arguably the true victim, Hetty dies, while Arthur is left to live with his shame and achieve some final degree of reconciliation’. [ix] At the conclusion of Adam Bede the reader is encouraged to believe that stability is brought about by learning through suffering and accordingly Arthur carrys out a form of symbolic penance by going away to fight at war, on his return home he resumes his place as head of the community, as Josephine McDonagh notes ‘Arthur Donnithorne, the squire, disgraced for having seduced Hetty, is reincorporated into the community by the end of the novel’. [x] Hetty receives no such redemption; she in fact dies during her journey home following the completion of her sentence, thus disposing of her in order to secure the acceptance of Donnithorne back into his position as head of the community.
George Eliot gives Hetty Sorrel the ultimate punishment of death for her ambition of marrying above her station, consequently George Eliot was merely a pseudonym used by Mary Ann Evans to hide her identity as a woman writer writing in a male dominated world and as Dorothea Barrett states she ‘had much to loose by openly sympathizing with female sexual delinquency’. [xi] Little insight is provided into the mindset of Hetty Sorrel, as her thoughts and feelings are predominantly replaced by the narrators own interpretation of Hetty’s story and as Gillian Beer notes she ‘is never herself articulate and is given remarkably little direct speech’. [xii] The narrator seems to scold Hetty for her narcissistic ways and as Kristin Brady remarks Eliot continually presents Hetty ‘in exactly the way she envisions herself, that is, as an erotic object’, but that following Hetty’s ‘flight after she discovers she is pregnant with Donnithorne’s child’ that ‘suddenly the narrator’s condescending remarks about Hetty’s triviality and sensuality become veiled accusations against his own sex. What will be the end? He asks’. [xiii] Gillian Beer however, demonstrates that Eliot’s knowledge that ‘the sequestration of an origin for the work has its effects in the books composition’, [xiv] she further considers Eliot’s own knowledge as a female writer ‘writing purportedly as a man’, when dealing with issues such as when does Hetty actually conceive her child and who is it that in fact impregnates her:
The maleness of the narrator is dramatised in relation to Hetty in ways that are sometimes awkward or absurd, but which point to the difficulties of distinguishing between imagining and physically creating- difficulties particularly acute for the woman writer writing purportedly as a man. [xv]
In conclusion the story of Hetty Sorrel’s downfall is essential to the moral development of the other characters in the novel as they ultimately learn to take responsibility for their individual actions. George Eliot aimed to portray through her characters, their relationships with one another and the eventual ‘downfall’ of Hetty Sorrel, that from suffering and pain there could be lessons learned and some good could be gained from an otherwise completely bad situation. It was also Eliot’s aim to express that ‘commonplace life is heroic’ [xvi] as Beer remarks, her huge concentration on Hetty Sorrel’s socially taboo story is significantly representative of Eliot’s desire to convey the ‘realism’ of human nature and the power of emotional force, it is this coupled with her attention to detail that marks her distinctive approach to realism. Eliot’s pen name was a conscious decision to popularize her fiction in the world of the male writer, therefore the masculine voice that she adopted within Adam Bede was consistent with her awareness of the patriarchal ordered society that she lived in. It was this awareness that lead to her condemnation of Hetty Sorrel’s vanity, however, it can be discerned that it is the characters around Hetty who have provided her with the notion that she is exceptionally beautiful and that it is her most powerful attribute, it is not surprising that she feels a sense of entitlement and when Donnithorne begins to pay her attention and it is not so odd to believe that she would envision a future as his lady wife, with her at the centre receiving sole admiration from him. Though it is not inconceivable that Hetty could have married Donnithorne, an aristocratic young man from the class that she so desperately wishes to belong to, what she does fail to realise is that his principles are completely different to her own, each being bound by the values of their own class. Though Arthur displays some sadness of Hetty’s situation and his part in it, and uses his connections to request a partial pardon of Hetty’s death sentence to transportation he seems to act more out of wishing to save his own conscience. If Arthur had merely flirted with Hetty and simply damaged her ego he may have upset her for a short time but not permanently as he does by seducing her. Hetty is seventeen years old and is not yet a woman with a woman’s life experience, however, she is judged as a woman despite her obvious lack of understanding of sexual and class moralities. Although her heart is conveyed as being hard as she is only interested in herself, this could be indicative of the less than supportive influence of the Poysers and does not mean that she is a potential murderer, and though some critics have pointed to Hetty’s resentment of her role in Totty’s care as somehow leading to the eventual desertion of her own baby, it should be remembered that Totty is Aunt Poysers baby and not Hettys. Hetty is guilty not of murdering her child but of temporary abandonment as she does return to the wood where she buried the baby as she ‘could hear it crying at every step’, (515) thus imagining the cries of the baby. Hetty is not given the chance to save the child as it is already dead, nor is she given the opportunity to put right her selfish ways and mature morally. She seems only to serve as to secure the future of her counterparts, as her story eventually gives way to the marriage of Adam Bede and Dinah Morris.
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