A Serial Reading of George Eliot’s Adam Bede

Registration is now closed. A Newberry Library Adult Education Seminar (7 sessions, June 15 to July 27, 2023).
Registration begins May 24, 2023.

This seminar presents George Eliot’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.

Materials List
Adam Bede, by George Eliot. Oxford World Classics, edited by Carol A. Martin. 2008. This edition is highly recommended for all participants, since referring to the same edition helps us locate specific passages easily during lecture and discussion. (In addition, passages will also be indicated by chapter number, which are the same for any edition.)
– 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—we will read a specific portion of the novel, then stop to discuss it, and then follow with another portion, and so on, as indicated in the schedule below. Serial reading invites us to to explore the literary, cultural, and philosophical dimensions of a very full, very provocative, and I think, very satisfying novel. 

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 follow the lead of the book and chapter divisions of the novel itself.

The novel’s title character, we will 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 radiant forces of good and ill that merge any individual’s life with the lives of others.

Each week we will also view and discuss illustrations, paintings, and film clips offering historical, artistic, and other cultural backgrounds and references, creating a kind of “annotated novel” experience. As we work through the novel, 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 as-yet largely unknown authorship of Adam Bede was actually claimed by another person, leading to Eliot’s full disclosure that “George Eliot” was the pen name of Marian Evans Lewes.

Each seminar session will also include spoiler-free excerpts from critical works on Eliot, discussion of where we think the story is going, and weekly handouts with tips for what to look for in subsequent installments. These tips include suggestions for noting particular plot points, character changes, and specific “must-read” sections, among other hints for active reading.

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 us to benefit from our insights early in the process and make use of them when it counts—while reading. 

Session One: 6/15/23
To be read ahead of time: Chapter 1
Please do not read Carol A. Martin’s introduction yet.

Session Two: 6/22/23
Chapters 2-7

Session Three: 6/29/23
Chapters 8-17

Session Four: 7/6/23
Chapters 18-26

Session Five: 7/13/23
Chapters 27-35

Session Six: 7/20/23
Chapters 36-48

Session Seven: 7/27/23

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