Adam is an intelligent but not well-educated rural carpenter who feels that he understands “the natur o’ things.” For him, life is very simple; he believes that the world operates according to certain rather mechanistic principles which never change and that, likewise, one’s life should be lived according to certain principles of right conduct. He has a stoic philosophy in that he feels that one should always do one’s duty, no matter what the circumstances. For this reason, he is a sober young man, totally dedicated to his work; he rarely does things for his own pleasure but strives to do the right thing in every situation.
This orientation gives rise to many fine qualities. Adam’s is a very strong nature; he is brave and aggressive, and he does not give way under pressure. Because he thinks he knows what “right” is, he is very self-confident, and he expresses himself honestly. His dedication to duty makes him strong-willed and persevering; it also leads him to approach problems in a very practical, forward-looking way. All in all, Adam is a very optimistic young man when the novel opens. He feels that he can handle any situation through positive action; he feels that he is in control of himself and the course of his own life.
Adam is somewhat immature though; his rather strict view of life has not been tempered by experience. As his reactions to his father show, he lacks sympathy for other people’s weaknesses; he is dedicated to duty himself and he expects everyone else to have the same orientation. He is thus self-righteous and somewhat intolerant. His basic aggressiveness finds expression in a tendency towards violence; sometimes, as in his encounter with Wiry Ben, he seems to feel that violence is the honest and practical way to solve problems. Because he feels in control of his situation, Adam is a proud and self-centered man, one who tends to cling to his own opinion and to insist on getting his own way.
The negative traits in his personality emerge most clearly in his first reactions to Arthur when he learns of the love affair between Arthur and Hetty. His passions get out of hand and he tries to solve his problem in the most direct way possible: by taking physical revenge on Arthur and by forcing him to write to Hetty, terminating the relationship. At this point, his pride has perverted even his good qualities; his strength of will, for example, becomes intransigence and he refuses to forgive Arthur.
The regret that Adam feels for having knocked Arthur down is the first step on his journey towards maturity; he realizes that he has done something rash which serves no useful end and which cannot be retracted. From this point on, under the influence of Dinah, Mr. Irwine, and his own experiences, he begins to soften. He becomes acquainted with “irremediable evil” at Hetty’s trial; it is the sort of situation which he cannot control or set right. This places him in a dilemma, and he solves it by accepting the imperfect situation and by extending sympathy to Hetty and eventually to Arthur. In short, Adam becomes humble; instead of judging people’s behavior by his own standards, he treats them well in spite of their faults. His self-righteousness and intolerance fall away, and he realizes that “doing right” implies acting in a loving way whether people measure up to his notions of proper conduct or not. The pride which had isolated him from others vanishes, and he accepts his own and his acquaintances’ limitations. After a great struggle, he is able to put others’ happiness before his own, even to forgive the man he had considered his enemy.
Adam’s personality is consistent throughout the novel. His values simply shift as he grows more mature and realistic. At the end, he is still strong but his strength is founded on an acceptance of the world as it is, not on abstract principles. He has come to see that it is more important to love than to be technically “right” in any given situation. Adam is thus Eliot’s primary illustration of the way in which a man can develop what is, according to her standards, a proper orientation; he becomes moral instead of moralistic and evolves a gentleness and a humility which are essentially, rather than dogmatically, Christian.