The first paragraph of Adam Bede in itself is enough to mark the novel as a pre-modern-century product. With few exceptions, modern authors accept Henry James’ notion that a novel should create a world unto itself; a novelist should not take the pose of someone “telling a story” to a group of listeners but should simply present a self-contained, complete imitation of reality and let it stand on its own merits.
In Eliot’s time, the “dear reader” technique was widely used. The method derives from the earlier popular conception that fiction, since it was literally “untrue,” was a base deception and morally unhealthy. Eighteenth-century authors, especially Defoe, took pains to insist that their novels were really accounts of true happenings, and, although the nineteenth century gradually came to accept fiction as fiction, the custom of speaking directly to the reader, as the editor of a journal or the author of a set of memoirs would do, persisted. Probably the most celebrated example of the use of the technique is Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, where the author refers to his characters as “puppets” and admits almost shyly that he created an artificial world. The impulse to separate truth from fiction was still alive; it took the novel about another forty years to take its place as a serious art form which did not apologize for its own existence.
The technique, then, is first of all a convention. Eliot pretends throughout that Adam Bede is a true story. She takes the pose of one who is merely recording events which she has heard recounted. She says in Chapter 17, for example: “But I gathered from Adam Bede, to whom I talked of these matters in his old age,” and goes on to report a conversation which had supposedly taken place years after the events presented in the novel were things of the past. This, at one and the same time, has the effect of both destroying and supporting the illusion of reality which the novel as a whole creates. It destroys that illusion because the events described no longer seem immediate and present; it supports it by making us believe that we are reading an extremely detailed history of real people and things. Thus the novel hangs rather uncomfortably in the balance between fiction and reality; we know the events described are not real, but we are asked to believe that they are. The modern novelist does this too, but in a different way; he asks us to freely become absorbed in his fictional world rather than insisting that we assimilate the fictional world into the real one.
The “dear reader” technique also serves some practical functions. Because the author pretends to be “outside” her own story, she is free to comment in her own voice upon the characters and events she creates. A very large part of the character analysis in Adam Bede is handled from this viewpoint; in Chapter 5, for instance, we find the following: “On the other hand, I must plead, for I have an affectionate partiality towards the Rector’s memory, that he was not vindictive.”
Eliot also uses the method to ask for the reader’s sympathy and understanding, to guide his reactions to her story. In Chapter 3, she begs us to use our historical imaginations to visualize what Methodism was like in 1799, and, in Chapter 17, she asks us to appreciate her realistic approach.
These two functions work hand in band. Eliot is very careful to make us see the point of her story, and so she constantly analyzes the people and issues involved in it with an eye to controlling our intellectual and emotional reactions to them. This somewhat insecure way of proceeding indicates once again that Eliot was self-consciously writing a revolutionary novel; afraid that her readers won’t know what to think of her unusual plot, she tells them plainly what to think.