I've finished reading Adam Bede.
It isn't without flaws. Chapter 15 is distasteful, for example. Now and then some passages are a bit superfluous, as though the author wants to make something clearer, more obvious, which is unnecessary. George Eliot sometimes wanders, sometimes comments, and very often addresses the reader; I myself don't have a problem with it, generally- if postmodern writers can do that, so could she; though now and then she seems to direct the reader's emotions.
According to wikipedia, critics see Arthur's rescue of Hetty as deus ex machina that "negates the moral lessons learned by the main characters". I'm fine with it. Maybe I've read too many novels and watched too many films in which a woman commits suicide or gets punished after doing something wrong that it gets slightly boring and I yearn for something different. Wikipedia also says that some scholars criticise Adam's marriage to Dinah. Again, I'm fine with it. The realisation and declaration of love can feel a bit abrupt after Hetty's trial, but all the actions and conversations leading up to it make it convincing enough, and I already felt from the early chapters that they would end up together. If I have an issue with anything, it's the fact that there's too little known about Arthur and Hetty in the later part of the novel. The book is titled Adam Bede, so I know they aren't the central characters, but I'd like to know more about them. Arthur Donnithorne isn't Arthur Huntingdon or Henry Crawford- he's thoughtless, weak-willed and selfish, not the cruel type who toys with women's feelings, and he does love Hetty; and Hetty isn't the fatalistic, deceitful, self-destructive type like Emma Bovary, just naive, weak-willed and confused. George Eliot makes us sympathise with them and feel sorry for them and see them as fellow beings who make mistakes rather than hurt anyone deliberately, but after many chapters she draws attention to other characters and hardly thinks of them any more. Or maybe this says more about me than about her.
However, it's a 1st novel, and as such, a very good one. The main strength of Adam Bede is in the characterisation. The characters feel so real, so natural, as though we can see them before our eyes, not only the 4 important characters Adam, Hetty, Dinah and Arthur, but also the others- the mild, accepting Seth, the constantly wailing and complaining Lisbeth Bede, the misogynist Bartle Massey, the sharp-tongued but tender-hearted Mrs Poyser, the patient and understanding Mr Irwine, etc. I know too little to compare George Eliot to Tolstoy, especially when I haven't read her magnum opus Middlemarch, but she resembles him in the way she tries to get into the minds of different characters (and even a dog) and thinks of all with sympathy. As I thought before reading this book, she's intellectual, intelligent and deep; more than that, contrary to my expectations, she can also be witty and funny, and has, for lack of a better phrase, a large heart. I don't mean that these points are criteria of literary merit- but they add more to my admiration for George Eliot and interest in reading her works.
Must read Middlemarch this winter.