The author promises to recreate a vision of the past for the reader — a picture of Jonathan Burge’s carpentry workshop as it existed in the town of Hayslope in Loamshire, England, in 1799. After mentioning the shop itself, she focuses on a tall, sturdy young workman, Adam Bede. Several other men, including Adam’s brother Seth, are also introduced. The novel’s first bit of dialogue concerns a mistake which Seth, an absent-minded dreamer, has made on a door he is finishing; Adam defends his brother against the others’ mockery. Seth is a Methodist, and the talk shifts to a female Methodist preacher who intends to speak on the village green that evening; her name is Dinah Morris, and Seth is in love with her. Some general discussion of religion follows.
The hour for quitting work strikes, and all the workers but Adam drop their tools immediately. Adam berates the others for not being interested in their trade, but they ignore him. The men disperse, Seth going to the prayer meeting to hear Dinah, and Adam heading home. A horseman pauses to admire the stalwart young man as he strides out of town, singing a popular hymn.
The first chapter establishes the locale and to a certain extent the atmosphere for the whole novel. As in most of George Eliot’s works, the scene is laid in the English countryside. Hayslope is a quiet town, isolated from contact with or even knowledge of the great events of the day. It is inhabited mostly by merchants, illiterate farmers, and workers who spend their whole lives in the area of the town and who concern themselves with such pragmatic subjects as barns, harvests, the weather, and neighborhood gossip.
Hayslope is not idyllic; plenty of rough, crude people live here. Although Eliot tends to sentimentalize rural folk to some extent in her novels, she is careful to remain well within the bounds of probability. She is concerned with writing a realistic novel and builds up her setting as a believable representation of eighteenth-century country life in England.
This is evident when we examine the characters introduced in this chapter. None of them resemble very closely the humble and virtuous country lads who often appear as stock characters in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English fiction. Wiry Ben is no saint; neither, for that matter, is Adam Bede himself. They are typical workers in a typical workshop, quite capable of piety on the one hand and of rough joking on the other.
In the same way, there is nothing extraordinary about the town itself, except for its name. Both “Hayslope” and “Loamshire” are significant names which suggest good soil, sunny weather, rich harvests; they are contrasted in the novel against “Snowfield” and “Stonyshire,” which suggest the opposite qualities. These fictitious place-names — there are no such towns and counties in England — indicate that the physical setting of Adam Bede has a symbolic, as well as a realistic, aspect.
It will become obvious later in the novel that the characters presented here fall into distinct groups. While Adam and Seth will be characterized at some length, their fellow workmen, like many others presented in the course of the book, will remain mere sketches. These background characters form part of the novel’s atmosphere, its milieu, and help provide a realistic context for the adventures of the principal figures. They are mere props in a sense; they appear in the novel, but their words and actions have no real bearing on the plot.
All the characters in the book, with the exception of the wealthy and well-educated, speak in dialect. This device serves two obvious functions. First, it is realistic and thus contributes to the illusion the author strives to create. Second, to Eliot’s English audience, dialect was a source of humor, just as strong dialect has been a source of humor in much American writing — Mark Twain’s, say. Statements of Wiry Ben’s like “y’ are a downright good-hearted chap, panels or no panels; an’ ye donna set up your bristles at every bit o’ fun, like some o’ your kin, as is mayhap cliverer” were as effective with a nineteenth-century British audience as Pap Finn’s fulminations were for an American one.
Note that the strength of the dialect, its divergence from standard English usage, varies from character to character. In this chapter, for example, Adam and Seth speak a less extreme form of dialect than does Wiry Ben; neither of the Bede brothers uses such pronunciations as “aloon” or “agoo” or “lave.” Eliot distinguishes her characters according to education with a precision which many writers of dialogue do not observe.
The religious attitudes which Seth and Adam display are of interest because they relate to the moral discussion which plays so great a part in the novel. Adam, an Anglican, is practical and matter-of-fact in religious matters; he holds that if a man “builds a oven for’s wife to save her from going to the bakehouse,” he is doing something as essentially religious as going to church. His basic attitude is “this-worldly”; he is concerned with serving God in his everyday actions. Seth’s attitude, on the other hand, is “other-worldly”; he feels that specifically religious actions — praying, hearing sermons — should form the center of one’s life. Eliot sets up this distinction with a view to reconciling it later on in the service of her theme; in the character of Dinah Morris, the practical and purely spiritual aspects of religion merge.
Another factor in the novel which relates to this moral dialogue is the religious controversy which forms part of the novel’s background. About 1739, John and Charles Wesley founded the Methodist Society, and sometime afterwards the group split with the established Anglican Church. In practice the two denominations came to stand for opposed viewpoints. Anglicanism in the late eighteenth century favored rationality, tolerance, an easy-going and practical approach towards matters of the spirit. As the established church, it held the loyalty of most of the “settled” people of England — the upper and middle classes and the tradition-bound agricultural workers — and tended to support the social and economic status quo. Methodism, on the other hand, was “enthusiastic,” to use the eighteenth-century term; it emphasized the emotional side of religion and attempted to make religion the focal point in the lives of men. Because the Methodists concentrated upon aiding and converting the poor, they were often looked upon as agitators by the social establishment.
As in the case of Adam and Seth, the author uses this distinction between viewpoints to get across her own moral orientation. The moral standards in Adam Bede are Mr. Irwine and Dinah Morris, one an Anglican, the other a Methodist. Eliot implies that no matter what one’s church is, the balance of spiritual and practical is essential to true religious feeling.