Happily Ever After?

Happily Ever After?


Marriage in George Eliot’s Adam Bede and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton

Dinah Morris and Mary Barton—the fictional heroines of George Eliot’s Adam Bede and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, respectively—seem at first to present a myriad of differences pertaining to their personalities, motivations, and lifestyles. Dinah is a Methodist preacher who dedicates her entire existence to spreading God’s messages, going so far as to deny herself romantic connections and excess of any kind. Mary is a working young woman who finds herself not only in a complicated love triangle, but also in the middle of a murder-mystery which blurs the lines of her social and familial life. By the end of each novel, Dinah and Mary have both overcome obstacles and helped other people in ways that neither themselves nor readers could have expected considering the dire circumstances of their stories, and they do so in environments that are anything but conducive to the societal progress and transgression of women. However, despite the strategy and resilience they both exhibit, they face a disappointingly similar ending, situated as a wife and mother running their households, stripped of their former occupations, and wholly dedicated to their husbands. The final chapters of Adam Bede and Mary Barton elucidate that marriage and the adoption of the role of housewife is the ultimate achievement the women of those novels can look forward to, no matter the amount of growth and dynamism they showcase throughout the courses of their character development. 

The strikingly similar last chapters of Adam Bede and Mary Barton provide more insight into the futures of Dinah and Mary, as well as to the outside worlds of their authors, than one might expect considering the comfortable and concise natures of each of their final pages. The narrators of both novels aim to illustrate a nostalgic, heartwarming mirage of the families in the present-day, after the conflicts and events of their stories have been resolved. Both Dinah and Mary are described as coming to the front doors of their homes accompanied by their children, which have been birthed only in the implied time space between the second to last chapter and final chapter of both novels. They then look out into the distance for their husbands; Dinah spotting Adam’s broad shoulders over the rolling hills of Hayslope, and Mary “looking towards the town,”1 eagerly awaiting Jem’s return. Both husbands are returning from some sort of business. Adam has just finished meeting with Arthur Donnithorne for the first time since the dramatic events that occurred at the end of the main plot of their story, and Jem was in town retrieving letters from England after a full day of work. Dinah and Mary are not alone awaiting the returns of their husbands, though, as Dinah is accompanied by her son, daughter, and Seth Bede, Adam’s brother, and Mary is accompanied by her son and Jane Wilson, Jem’s mother. While Adam Bede arguably ends with a more somber tone than Mary Barton, both endings can be understandably critiqued for their simplicity of “wrapping up” the narrative in a near-perfect ending, something common in Victorian literature, a genre in which these two novels fall. The Victorian tradition of leaving readers with a pleasant ending, even at the expense of plot continuity, was rooted in the desire on the part of both publishers and writers to appease their audiences by distancing the story from the harsh realities of real life in 19th century Europe. Scholar Maryanne C. Ward aptly stated, “Even if marriage as a method of closure for many novels had become inadequate or artificial, it was at least a signal which readers both expected and understood.”2

The importance of these final chapters extends beyond the fictional environments of Dinah and Mary, but their importance within the bounds of the novels must be understood before a broader interpretation can be reached. Beginning with Dinah, the juxtaposition between her status and accomplishments before and after her final chapter is dramatic and can be argued to be both unsatisfying and narratively unlikely considering her consistent trajectory from chapters I-LV. She is one of the first characters introduced in Adam Bede, and the entire second chapter is dedicated to an in-depth, highly emotional, and physically long narration of her first preaching to the people of Hayslope. The controversial nature of her occupation as a female preacher, especially for the Methodist religion, which was an equally controversial group to identify with, was made explicit during the conversation between Mr. Casson and the mysterious stranger on the horse. After hearing about the unprecedented female preaching, the stranger asks what their parson says, “to a young woman preaching just under his nose?”3

This question is raised throughout the novel from the musings of various characters, though Dinah’s conspicuously transgressive role as a female Methodist preacher is never actively challenged by them. Rather, she and the people close to her upheld it with conviction. Her talent, complete dedication, and deep-rooted passion for being a Methodist preacher and messenger is arguably the most reliable characterization of any of the characters written by Eliot, and this is what makes Dinah’s ultimate position so unexpected. 

In the final chapter, Dinah has given up preaching altogether in order to mother her children and take care of the Bede family home. During a conversation between Dinah, Adam, and Seth, the following is said, beginning with Adam:

“‘…[the] Conference has forbid the women preaching, and [Dinah’s] given it up, all but talking to the people a bit in their houses.’

‘Ah,’ said Seth… ‘and a sore pity it was o’ Conference; and if Dinah had seen as I did, we’d ha’ left the Wesleyans and joined a body that ‘ud put no bonds on Christian liberty.’

‘Nay, lad, nay,’ said Adam, “she was right and thee wast wrong…Most o’ the women do more harm nor good with their preaching–they’ve not got Dinah’s gift nor her sperrit; and she’s seen that, and she thought it right to set th’ example o’ submitting, for she’s not held from other sorts o’ teaching. And I agree with her, and approve o’ what she did.’”4

While Dinah’s achievements will never be able to be stripped from her reputation, and while her legacy will forever be remembered as something great (as she is already being remembered by characters while she is still alive and well), the gender constrictions that she had evaded throughout the entire novel seem to have caught up to her in this final moment. Dinah’s discomfort follows this disagreement between Adam and Seth, and Dinah changes the subject at once. Her evasiveness surrounding her own life and future in the words of the men she is surrounded by further solidifies the station she has been relegated to in the final moments of Adam Bede.

Mary Barton is also no stranger to defying odds in her community, only to be met with the fate of a conventional, indoor life. Mary deserves the title of “heroine” in the truest sense of the word as she overcomes the pains of grief after losing her mother and brother at a young age, helps to support her small family by learning a trade and working long hours at a dressmaking shop, and in a surprising turn of events, is the foremost reason an unfair murder trial reaches a correct verdict. Gaskell’s novel is one that was written for the purpose of painting a shockingly realistic, unromanticized picture of what it was like to live as a member of the working class in an industrialized town in nineteenth century England. The proximity to death its inhabitants had to live with, the brutal living conditions they had no choice but to endure even in the harshest times of year, and the complete inequality they faced in a society governed by the upper class all highlight the distinction of Mary’s bravery and abilities. She is no stranger to making mistakes, as Gaskell wrote her as a flawed character who achieves deep levels of growth as her story progresses. This only serves to highlight Mary’s dynamism as a person and her ability to learn through experience; something that unfortunately makes her ending all the more injurious to her prior characterization. 

Socioeconomic strife is the main thematic device Gaskell employs throughout her novel to drive the actions of her characters and it is the driving force behind John Barton’s decision to carry out the murder of Harry Carson. Wrongfully convicted, Jem is detained as the murderer, and Mary is placed amid the moral dilemma of choosing to protect Jem, her romantic interest, or John, her father, all while reconciling her need to do the right thing in the name of the law. The narrator draws focus to the development Mary experiences during this test of her resilience and perspicacity in a direct address to the reader:

And you must remember, too, that never was so young a girl so friendless, or so penniless, as Mary was at this time. But the lion accompanied Una through the wilderness and the danger; and so will a high, resolved purpose of right-doing ever guard and accompany the helpless.5

Mary initially focuses on proving Jem’s innocence, which readers know is the most morally correct decision to make, and through this process, the audience witnesses Mary take on the ambitious responsibility of doing so alone. She educates herself on legal terms and processes, she leaves her hometown for the first time—riding on an unfamiliar train amongst people gossiping about the very trial she is attempting to set right—and she willingly puts herself in physical danger when she gets on a sailboat with sailors she doesn’t know, literally chasing after Will Wilson who is the only proof she can hope for in proving Jem’s alibi. 

The amount of outdoor excursions Mary takes on and the amount of physical effort she exerts contrasts the indoor life she has been confined to in the last chapter, where we see her inside of her house with the children, watching for Jem’s presence, which is outside of the home. This is a complete role reversal, as before, Jem was the one physically locked away inside while Mary was braving the outside world. Coupled with the mental exertion Mary pushes herself to achieve in order to set the record straight with the trial, Mary’s ultimate position as a housewife after the exciting experiences she set out to accomplish is rather a disappointing end. She also falls ill after these experiences, almost reaching the point of death, and Jem must help take care of her. Potentially a plot device to transition Mary’s character back into the realm of the indoors, Gaskell made the decision to leave Mary’s character in a state of tradition, reversing the progress she had made prior in the storyline.

As readers, we are then left with a picture of our heroines that may leave for something wanting in the futures of those promising women. The insinuation that Dinah and Mary are reliant on their husbands in the final chapters of Adam Bede and Mary Barton is not an isolated case, though, as they are not the only women in these two novels to be narratively caged in by the device of marriage and motherhood. The humorous and outspoken mothers and widows of Adam Bede and Mary Barton are also afflicted to similar fates, and a conversation regarding them sheds further insight on the limits women faced in Victorian worlds. Lisbeth Bede is Adam’s mother in Adam Bede. She is a woman characterized by her extremely nervous tendencies, her favoritism towards Adam that borders on worship, and her emotional reliance on him following the death of her husband. Jane Wilson, Jem’s mother in Mary Barton, is similarly characterized. She is nervous, though to a lesser degree than Lisbeth, outspoken, emotionally attached to her son, and completely devastated following the death of her husband. Although Lisbeth is not physically present as a live-in member of the Bede household in the final chapter of Adam Bede as Jane is seen in Mary Barton, it is a recurrent point of conversation on the part of Adam as to what should be done regarding Lisbeth’s living arrangements once Adam is to be married. It is suggested that she lives with Adam, Dinah, and Seth once Adam marries Dinah, and Jane is brought with Jem and Mary all the way to Canada to continue living with them once they are married. 

The level of grief the two mothers experience following the extremely sorrowful deaths of their husbands is notable, and the precariousness of their situations once left as lone widows has a stake in the conversation of the role of marriage in the two novels. Lisbeth and Jane are conspicuously strong women, able to take care of others, juggle multiple household tasks in sometimes chaotic environments, and exemplify passion, outspokenness, and large capacities for love for themselves and others. Their reliance on their husbands while they are alive and the shift to a reliance on their sons after their deaths, then, serves to highlight how the women of these novels have an obligation to fulfill in terms of the role of the wife, matron, and caretaker of the home, no matter the strength of their inner faculties. The anxiety Lisbeth and Jane experience and their distinctive manners of behavior are routinely used as a point of humor in the novels, thus downplaying the sadness of their situations. Their outspokenness can indeed be a source of comic relief at certain points, but it is nonetheless an added support to the disheartening idea that the female characters of Adam Bede, Mary Barton, and other Victorian novels at large will only ever be able to hope for a life as a wife and mother, regardless of her own distinctions.

Through Dinah Morris, Mary Barton, Lisbeth Bede, and Jane Wilson, readers can discern how marriage is a ruling foundational institution in the world of the nineteenth century novel, serving to confine the dynamic women they portray despite their impressive exploits. The accomplishments of these women never have to be forgotten, though. Despite the literary and social confines women faced in the 1800s, especially working-class women who had to worry about practical issues of survival in a harrowing, modernizing society, their achievements are obvious to any reader of the present and will live on forever on the pages of their author’s creations and in the minds of their audiences. The societal limits Dinah, Mary, Lisbeth, and Jane faced also were ones their authors and the women of the real-world prior, during, and even after the Victorian age faced when they were written. Thus, I am able to find a compassionate lens into the final chapters of Adam Bede and Mary Barton considering marriage was largely all that could be hoped for in a society conducive to the physical and mental flourishing of men rather than women. In moments of uncertainty, heartbreak, fear, or loneliness that we may feel in a world that is changing just as much as it was in the Victorian age, historical solidarity with women like Dinah and Mary is what is needed for us to go against societal rules that no longer serve the greater good and have empathy for those who carry the burden of them. The inspirational accomplishments of Dinah and Mary, written through the creative minds of Eliot and Gaskell, thus serve as a guiding force for the transgression of gendered boundaries through the actions of their readers even two centuries after their creation.

  1. Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (Penguin Classics, 1997), 392.
  2. Ward, Maryanne C. “Romancing the Ending: Adaptations in Nineteenth-Century Closure.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 29, no. 1 (1996): 15–31. https://doi.org/10.2307/1315255.
  3. George Eliot, Adam Bede (Penguin Classics, 2008), 19.
  4. Eliot, Adam Bede, 589.
  5. Gaskell, Mary Barton, 245.
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