A Serial Reading of Adam Bede

This Newberry Seminar is now concluded. It was held in the fall of 2018. 

To celebrate George Eliot’s bicentennial year, this seminar presents the author’s first full-length novel in manageable weekly installments for serial reading and discussion—no spoilers. Published in 1859 (twelve years before her celebrated Middlemarch) and widely acclaimed in its time, Adam Bede explores challenging issues of maturity, hypocrisy, sexuality, and the need for a humanistic view of religion, all performed in Eliot’s virtuosic prose. Weekly discussions will be supplemented with slides and film clips. Seven sessions.

Materials List

Adam Bede, by George Eliot. Oxford World Classics, edited by Carol A. Martin. 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0199203475.
– Other materials will be made available online and brought to the seminar sessions.
– For the first session, please read only Chapter 1. Please do not read the book’s introduction.

Seminar Description

This seminar employs the format of serial reading in order to explore the literary, cultural, and philosophical dimensions of a novel typically read too quickly or too carelessly. George Eliot had initially planned to publish Adam Bede as a serial, and while it was ultimately published instead in three volumes, our seminar sessions will tackle readings of approximately 70-100 pages each week. The first session begins with a very brief portion of the novel (a single chapter) along with lecture and discussion regarding Eliot’s prose and expectations. Subsequent “installments” will reflect the book and chapter divisions of the novel itself.

The novel’s title character, we soon discover, is not actually the novel’s central concern. Rather, Adam Bede revolves around the lives of two women, Hetty and Dinah, who, despite all their differences, must each face similar challenges to their livelihoods, emotions, and futures. Their stories, interwoven with the stories of the other characters (including of course Adam and his family) allow readers to consider many of the circumstances of early adulthood that will shape a person’s entire life. Such circumstances, along with the choices each character makes in response, become for Eliot the rippling forces of good and ill that merge any individual’s life with the lives of others.

Each week I will also show and discuss slides and film clips offering historical, artistic, and other cultural backgrounds and references, creating a kind of “annotated novel” experience. Our discussions will also consider the biographical aspects of Adam Bede, which have been central to the novel’s interpretation since it was first published. Particularly of interest is the Liggins Affair, in which the identity of “George Eliot” (very few knew that the author was Marian Evans) was actually claimed by another person, leading to Eliot’s full disclosure of her identity. 

Each seminar session will also include discussion of where we think the story is going—and why. This invites readers to consider not only where the plot is going but how the novelist enlists plot and character to make statements and ask questions about human nature. A particular character’s fate, for example, not only reflects what would happen to a “real person,” but also begins to be seen in light of the novel’s developing themes. In concluding each session, I will offer suggestions (while avoiding spoilers) for upcoming plot points and issues that readers should keep an eye on. I will also indicate specific “must-read” portions of each installment in case a seminar participant is pressed for time but still wants to keep up and appreciate the flow of the novel.

It is hoped that this serial reading will invite more consideration and commentary on specific issues, recurring images, opinions that evolve over the course of reading. Moreover, since all good novels actually teach readers how to read them, installment-reading allows readers to benefit from their experiences early and make use of the teaching when it counts—while reading. 


Week 1
To be read ahead of time: Chapter 1 (5-12) 
Please do not read Carol A. Martin’s introduction yet.

Week 2
Chapters 2-7 (12-80) 

Week 3
Chapters 8-17 (80-167)

Week 4
Chapters 18-26 (167-262)

Week 5
Chapters 27-35 (263-331)

Week 6
Chapters 36-48 (331-422)

Week 7
49-epilogue (423-482)
Read appendix one, “History of Adam Bede.
Read Carol A. Martin’s introduction (if interested).

Image: “Dinah Morris Preaching on the Common,” by Edward Henry Corbould (1861, detail).