Adam Bede & The Scarlet Letter

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

Two masterpieces, side-by-side

When I started reading George Eliot’s Adam Bede, I quickly noticed that a couple of the characters and some of the situations mirrored those of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and this doesn’t seem to be a mistake. Most artists credit other artists as their inspiration, and at times it seems as if parts of Adam Bede are written to reflect on Nathanial Hawthorne's masterpiece.

One of my favorite things to do with literature is to connect it to the world around me. From movies to television to magazine covers, if you read enough, you'll find that novels, short stories, essays, and poetry have touched every other form of art. Similarly, I find it incredibly interesting to connect pieces of literature and analyze the work that other authors draw from. Art is fueled by inspiration, and who better to inspire a great writer than another great writer?

Not only do some of the names in Adam Bede sound exactly like some of the names in The Scarlet Letter, but a few of the situations in the novel mirror those of the 1850 historical fiction piece. One could jokingly say that these two novels are fraternal twins who embody striking similarities as well as vast differences.

One of the striking similarities between Adam Bede and The Scarlet Letter are the names of the characters and the characters’ personalities. Captain Arthur Donnithorne is introduced in Book 1 Chapter 5 of Adam Bede. Readers quickly learn that he is a respected man in town and that he is of the upper class. In The Scarlet Letter, Arthur Dimmesdale is a preacher who is well educated and highly respected. It is obvious to readers that Dimmesdale has little compassion for the lower class, but throughout the novel he continuously rationalizes his lack of compassion and disregard for those who are chastised or of the lower class, particularly Hester Prynn.

This same thing haunts Donnithorne throughout the entire novel. He loves Hetty, but he can not forget about the social barrier that lies between them. He can’t forget their social differences, but he also can’t stop wanting Hetty. After he kisses Hetty for the first time, she cries and he decides to go confess to Mr. Irwine, a luxury that Dimmesdale did not have.

His hypocrisy, which mirrors Dimmesdale’s, gets the best of him and he rationalizes his actions without confessing by saying that he doesn’t think

“a man ought to be blamed so much

if he is betrayed into doing such things in that way,

in spite of his resolutions” (171).

Here, he basically says that having good intentions erases whatever bad thing a man does.

In the beginning of Adam Bede, Donnithorne is recovering from an injury he attained in the army. As The Scarlet Letter progresses, Dimmesdale attains a heart problem that continues to get worse, but in this case it is due to his guilt. Unlike Dimmesdale, Donnithorne’s guilt never takes over his life.

Hetty Sorrel of Adam Bede and Hester Prynn of The Scarlet Letter couldn’t be more different. Hetty is a self-absorbed woman who only wants to raise her class status. Hester is a much stronger woman than Hetty because she constantly deals with chastisement, but her goodness and charity make the women of her town forget about her sin.

Apart from their names, there is one major similarity between the two. Both of them get pregnant out of wedlock and are ridiculed. While Hester holds on to her child to keep herself strong, Hetty contemplates suicide, but she is too self-involved to end her own life, so instead, she kills her baby.

Hetty avoids death when Donnithorne shows up to the hanging with a stay of execution. Hetty ends up being exiled out of England, just like Hester was sent to the outskirts of her town. Donnithorne’s appearance at a crucial time mirrors Dimmesdale showing up at the end of The Scarlet Letter with a confession and public acknowledgement of the fact that Pearl is his daughter.

Readers learn at the end of Adam Bede that Hetty dies overseas just days before her return to England. At the end of The Scarlet Letter, Hester returns to Boston after being overseas, and she remains there until her death. During Donnithorne and Hetty’s love affair, we see in Book 3 Chapter 24 that he never looks at Hetty in public because he’s too afraid of being figured out.

Their love affair takes place in the woods, just like Dimmesdale and Hester’s. Both men are too afraid of what the town will think of them, so they never expose their love in public. The X factor in The Scarlet Letter is Chillingsworth. He drives Dimmesdale to his death by overcoming him with guilt. Readers feel some compassion for Dimmesdale because he eventually repents and Hester is no longer left in the dark. In Adam Bede, Adam seems like he could be the X factor.

Adam never seeks revenge on Donnithorne for what he did to Hetty. On the contrary, there is a peace between them by the end of the novel. Readers of this novel are left with dissatisfaction towards Donnithorne because he is never overcome with guilt. He merely has a few words of lamentation when he expresses that

“there’s a sort of wrong that can never be made up for” (539).

One could argue that this was Eliot’s way of showing that a character like Dimmesdale should never be forgiven because their hearts never truly change. Another argument could be that Eliot did this as an alternate ending of sorts, for readers to analyze and experience a world in which there is no repent and no remorse, but because Hetty isn't as good of a person as Hester, readers end up sympathizing with her a lot less, making Donnithorne's lack of guilt much more bearable than if Dimmesdale had done it.

While Adam Bede and The Scarlet Letter are two very different novels that take two very different turns in the way they each unfold, but both novels have undeniable similarities ranging from character traits, names, and situations. The Scarlet Letter has always been one of my favorite novels, and as we approach the heart of fall and Halloween, I always find myself yearning to read it again during this time of year. Reading Adam Bede is like reading an homage to Hawthorne, and although I have read The Scarlet Letter dozens of times, I seem to understand it more and enjoy it more every time I re-read George Eliot's classic work.

Leaf through a good book this fall :-)