Proper Feminine Beauty in George Eliot's Adam Bede

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Proper Feminine Beauty in George Eliot's Adam Bede

Victorian women lived according to strict social conventions, which dictated their actions, emotions, and beliefs. These conventions were often presented in antithetical pairs: private versus public spheres, the angel in the house versus the fallen woman. One of the most complex paradoxes for women to master was that of beauty versus vanity. Society’s rules required a young lady to be attractive, but not provocative; diligent about her appearance, but not overly so; aware of her beauty, and simultaneously unconscious of it. Balancing these meticulous distinctions, then, became an almost unattainable feat, but a crucial one, as success or failure directly translated into a woman’s moral status. In Adam Bede, George Eliot contrasts the idealized preacher Dinah with the fallible dairymaid Hetty by illustrating two very different examples of feminine beauty. Eliot directly addresses the complicated understanding of “moral” Victorian beauty through her physical presentation of these women and their actions throughout the story.

Physical descriptions of Dinah and Hetty establish their moral character almost immediately, and also foreshadow what will happen to each woman through the course of the novel. Dinah appears as the physical embodiment of purity and devotion, while Hetty is the physical embodiment of lust and vanity. This distinction leads the women on their separate paths to mirror another Victorian contradictory pair: the angel in the house and the fallen woman.

Dinah’s piety generates a pure and idealized feminine beauty. Eliot often describes Dinah’s beauty with spiritual language, such as Lisbeth’s first impression of Dinah as “nothing at fi...

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...f a character defined by her body. Eliot’s tragic character remains a haunting image of the consequences of physical beauty untempered by a firm sense of morality and fed by consuming vanity.

Eliot’s comparison clearly illustrates “proper” feminine beauty. Dinah’s beauty leads to marriage and motherhood; Hetty’s, to moral transgression, murder, and eventual death. However, Dinah is so idealized that she loses the level of realism that Eliot so deftly created within many of her other characters, and the reader is not without sympathy for Hetty, whose fall appears to be precipitated by a common enough form of young feminine vanity. These examples speak volumes toward the practicality of conventions that demanded feminine perfection in both appearance and action. Victorian ideals were just that, and most women could not achieve everything asked of them.
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