The “Aye” of George Eliot’s Adam Bede: Christian Ethics Without God

The greatest recent event — that “God is dead,” that the belief in the Christian God has ceased to be believable — is… cast[ing] its shadows over Europe. For the few, at lease, whose eyes….are strong and sensitive enough for this spectacle… What must collapse now that this belief has been undermined… [is] our whole European morality.–Nietzsche, from The Gay Science: Book V (1887)Dr. Richard Niebuhr writes, in his introduction to Eliot’s translation of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, that Eliot “sought to retain the ethos of Christianity without its faith, its humanism without its theism.” In her first full novel, Adam Bede, Eliot succeeds at doing this. By replacing God’s all-seeing eye with a plethora of human eyes, Eliot depicts characters in the close-knit community of Hayslope who don’t need God to be good Christians, who can hold their standards without their faith.Eliot begins with the simplistically Christian notion that God can see everything. Adam, our title hero, sings a tune in chapter one that refers to “God’s all-seeing eye,” (Eliot 24). Meanwhile, Bessy, a local Hayslope country girl, feels that “Jesus [is] close by looking at her, though she cannot see him” (Eliot 40). According to this model, a person must act morally otherwise God will know through sight and he will punish her. But, Eliot abandons these sorts of references to an all-seeing God by chapter four in favor of a structure that does not require God’s eye. On the most basic level, Eliot is continually describing the physical eyes of her characters, and reminding us of their presence, although she gives up talking about God’s eye. Adam’s eyes, for instance, are “keen and dark,” we are told over and over. Likewise, Hetty’s eyes are “dark,” Lisbeth’s eyes are “dim,” Mrs. Poyser’s are an “arctic blue-gray,” Arthur Donnithorne’s are notably adjective-less, Seth’s are “confiding and pale,” and Dinah’s are always “gray,” and usually “mild.” Hetty is blatantly contrasted with Dinah through the look of their eyes (Eliot 222) just as Adam is with his brother, Seth (Eliot 18). Hardly a page passes in the entire novel where an eye is not mentioned. We are constantly reminded of the characters’ perpetual watchfulness.Furthermore, Eliot undermines the necessity of God’s authority by directly replacing it with earthly authorities. “The eye of Mrs. Poyser” (Eliot 172, 496) is one of these physical enforcers of Christian ethics. Mrs. Poyser notes that her servants “want somebody’s eye on ’em constant if they’re to be kept to their work” (Eliot 450). The human eye is what keeps them set on the work that their alleged God wants them to do. Bartle Massey is another authority as a teacher “whose eyes had been glaring at [his students] ominously through his spectacles for a few minutes” (Eliot 229). One supposes he has the same influence on them as Poyser on her underlings. The society as a whole is yet a third of these earthly authorities steadfastly passing judgment and keeping control with its “all eyes.” The society show its capacity to do this at every public event, including Arthur’s birthday celebration, church, the trial, the execution, and the wedding. Eliot’s characters are, as it were, within the confines of Foucault’s “panopticon.” Everyone has the responsibility to watch everyone else in order to keep the society morally (or at least ethically) intact.Dinah, the novel’s central heroine, a female Methodist preacher, has a presence which is exactly human, although she, and others, associate her with “God.” Trying to convince Dinah not to leave Hayslope, her aunt, Mrs. Poyser, tells her that Bessy, a girl Dinah turned against vanity, will “no more go on in her new ways without you than a dog ‘ull stand on its hind-legs when there’s nobody looking” (Eliot 449). Although it is Dinah’s stated goal to help her fellows to accept God’s ever-present gaze, all she succeeds at doing is getting them to cower to her authority or the community’s approval. Even when Dinah convinces Hetty to confess to her crime of baby killing to “Jesus,” Hetty is actually responding to Dinah alone. “Hetty kept her eyes on Dinah’s face” and “Dinah felt a deep joy in the first sign that her love was welcomed by the wretched lost one” (Eliot 424, emphasis added). God’s eye is not present, but Dinah’s human eyes are, and they alone are the catalysts for human repentance and change.Intense eyes follow the transgressive love affair between Arthur and Hetty as well. Hetty feels that Arthur’s “eyes… seemed to touch her” (Eliot 106) When trying to avoid falling in love with Hetty, Arthur reasons to himself that “he must not see her alone again” (Eliot 135), and then, recanting, says that he “must see her again” (Eliot 136). Here the eyes reveal themselves as active participants, not just passive on-lookers. They have the capacity in and of themselves to transgress physical boundaries and set love in motion. Similarly, they can control behavior and dictate ethical propriety. Eliot also takes advantage of her audience’s attentive eyes in relation to her fictional world. She pulls her reader into the active role of the watcher by prefacing her work with Wordsworth’s verse, “So that ye may have / Clear images before your gladdened eyes” (Eliot 7). On the same note, she begins the novel itself, saying that she will “show” her readers “visions” (Eliot 17). Immediately, she forces her reader into the omniscient position of God, the one who will know all the text from there until the happy ending. Seemingly as a reminder of this important purpose, the reader is told that while Hetty is peering narcissitically into her mirror, she feels she is being watched by an “invisible spectator” (Eliot 151). Most superficially, this invisible figure is Hetty’s ill-suited suitor, Arthur. However, on a more concrete level, she is actually being watched by the reader, who is in the bedroom with her on some level. Most powerfully, Eliot directly addresses her reader with the responsibilities she has in a sort of manifesto on literature, which she lays out in chapter 17, “In Which the Story Pauses a Little.” “You,” she writes, addressing her reader dead on, “would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye… on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference… who can be cheered and helped onward by your… brave justice” (Eliot 175-6). Her characters, she claims, are reliant on the reader much like a Christian is reliant on Jesus’ mercy and fairness. Again, the religious is replaced by the secular. Eliot brings her audience into the watching-game, and thereby she morally affects us. If these characters are always watching each other, and we are always watching them, we feel, then, that there is perhaps someone always watching us and that we should behave properly. She imbues her reader with a paranoia that, if the story’s moral sticks, will remain. Scenes wherein that which is not supposed to be seen is seen bolsters this feeling that we cannot hide from acting morally (as opposed to being moral) despite the possible absence of the divine. The most forthright example of this is when Adam inadvertently witnesses Arthur kissing Hetty in the woods. Adam watches Arthur approach him from the kiss “with eyes in which amazement was fast turning to fierceness” (Eliot 286). Although Arthur is successfully avoiding God, he cannot hide from humanity. Adam’s eyes absorb and judge the event, and then punish him for it with a beating. Little Totty partakes in such an activity alongside Adam a little earlier in the text when she “opened her eyes… and with her right [arm] caught at the string of brown beads round Hetty’s neck” (Eliot 276). With the act of opening her eyes, Hetty begins the process of revealing to Adam Hetty’s dishonorable state. Totty’s eyes essentially penetrate Hetty’s dress in spite of Hetty’s attempt to hide her locket within it. Eliot depicts human eyes seeing within the human breast; a place it seems that only the privileged God should be able to access. The reader, too, is made a spy at the Hall Farm, seeing that which the players don’t know she can see. “By putting our eyes to the rusty bars of the gate,” Eliot secretly tells her reader, “we can see the house well enough, and all but the very corners of the grassy enclosure” (Eliot 78). The eyes invade space they have not been invited onto, without being seen themselves. They “trespass,” as Eliot says. This furthers in us the feeling that everything is being watched by judgmental human eyes, whether we know it or not. We “integrate” ourselves into the story we are reading, says John Goode in his essay on Adam Bede, “through the provision of a moral absolute” (Goode 35). That is to say, we provide for each other and ourselves the foundation on which socially acceptable behavior, otherwise known as “moral” behavior, rests.Eliot goes so far as to make quite definite connections between the eyes’ gaze and doing right. Arthur’s eyes are not described with adjectives because he is wishy-washy, and doesn’t particularly enforce any moral code on himself when it is necessary. In fact, Eliot describes him “resolutely turn[ing] his eyes away from any bad consequence” (Eliot 301). Likewise, in the church setting, Eliot points us to the “black-eyed youngsters” (Eliot 185). They are “black-eyed” because they haven’t yet absorbed the Christian morality into their vision and therefore don’t yet perpetuate the moral system within which they live. Eliot’s two primary heroes, Adam and Dinah, the ones who receive the novel’s awkwardly happy ending, come together ultimately on a hilltop. Adam “chose this spot… because it was away from all eyes” (Eliot 500), and yet the other reason, which he does not give, must be that his eyes and hers are the only ones that can see from there, and they can probably see a good deal of the space below. Eliot places them at a superior vantage point thereby representing their superior moral positions. These righteous humans are sitting ‘on high’ instead of God. But, it is no Tower of Babble, it is right, for humans must take on the omniscient eye in order to support Eliot’s notion that, as Niebuhr puts it, she can maintain “the ethos of Christianity without its faith.”Hetty internalizes the moral import of the eyes by experiencing the curse of seeing “Nothing but the place in the wood where I’d buried the baby…,” she cries to Dinah, “I see it now!” (Eliot 431). The whole community then turns their damning eyes onto Hetty both in the courthouse as she stands “like a statue of dull despair” (Eliot 413), and as she is being carted out for hanging, they “gaze” (Eliot 437). It is her own vision, and that of her community, that condemns her. There is no need for God’s classically omniscient eye to intervene.Eliot tells us even more bluntly at one point that she is a proponent of human-divine interchangability. When hearing a “human sob,” this narrator claims it is “no wonder man’s religion has so much sorrow in it: no wonder he needs a suffering God” (Eliot 348). Here human emotions are equated with the invention of religion. Humans created a suffering God so they would feel better. Eliot simply reverses the process in Adam Bede by giving humans’ their moral eye back. The way Eppie replaces the gold in Silas Marner, so too humans replace God in Bede. The system remains generally the same, only the object/subject shifts. Along the same line, Eliot (let’s assume she is the narrator) comically steps away from her tale for a moment and says, “One begins to suspect at length that there is no direct correlation between eyelashes and morals” (Eliot 154). The fact that this statement is in precise opposition to what I am arguing, and the fact that Eliot says it at all, suggests that it is an admission in negative terms. In Eliot’s fiction, she is basically admitting, the two can be equated.All these eyes, seeing through the traditional, unquestioned prism of Christianity’s morals, reinforce that same morality without the need for an actual belief in the all-powerful omniscient eye of God. Essentially, Eliot pulls the cloth (of God) from under the outgrowth of Christian ethical codes with such dexterity that she does not disrupt the system itself.As the author Eliot moves her fictional community seamlessly from theism to agnosticism, so too does she value such a replacement in her own life as Marian. In 1856, just three years before publishing Adam Bede, she speaks of Goethe as “eminently the man who helps us to rise to a lofty point of observation, so that we may see things in their relative proportions.” Here, we see her maintaining moral absolutism by referring to objectively defined “proportions.” Eliot replaces the god figure, classically sitting at the “lofty point of observation,” with people. She doesn’t explicitly place Goethe there at all, she says instead that he helps us (humans, that is) to arrive there together. It seems that in Adam Bede she is trying to accomplish the same feat. This is not an essay about perspective, it is an essay about objectivism and absolutism as defined by the collective human eye as opposed to the single omniscient and divine eye.Of course, this analysis leaves me with a glaring question. Why does Eliot hold onto the morality defined by Christianity after surrendering its God? Why doesn’t she re-evaluate that structure as well, rather than holding onto it by transferring authority? Why bother dismissing God if the visible fabric remains static? Perhaps she’s being pragmatic — perhaps she fears anarchy in the wake of a passing God.BibliographyDickens, Charles. “Letter to George Eliot on 10 July 1859,” in Ed. David Carroll, The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, (1971).Eliot, George. Adam Bede. England: Cox and Wyman, 1994.Ferris, Ina, “Realism and the Discord of Ending: The Example of Thackeray,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, 38/3 (1983), 289-303.Goode, John. “Adam Bede: A Critical Essay,” in Ed. Barbara Hardy, Critical Essays on George Eliot, (1970).