Adam is the imperfect hero of the novel. At the outset of the novel, he is a proud man who considers himself a good carpenter and a hard worker. But he is judgmental toward his father, whose death causes him to examine his heart. Adam has a soft spot for all helpless creatures, including his dog, Gyp, and his brother, Seth. However, he has no tolerance for evil because he cannot understand temptation. Adam believes that when a man decides that something is wrong, it is easy to avoid that action. Obsessed with Hetty Sorrel, Adam only sees the best in her. Blinded by her physical beauty, he cannot see that she is really a shallow, vain young girl. Upon finding out about the affair between Hetty and Captain Donnithorne, Adam blames Captain Donnithorne and continues to believe only the best about Hetty, even to the point of proposing to her in spite of her tarnished honor. But Hetty’s arrest for murder nearly crushes Adam, especially as he comes to realize that Hetty actually did kill her infant, a crime he considers to be completely against all human and female intuition and nature. He struggles with the irreparable nature of the crime she has committed and the evil that has been committed against her. After he recovers from the shock of Hetty’s crime, however, Adam’s character is mellowed by the experience. His pride is largely humbled, and he is less judgmental of others.
A woman who lives for others, Dinah is unable to take anything from life for herself until the conclusion of the novel. Dinah works tirelessly for anything she believes will benefit others. Like Adam, she sees the best in people but is also able to see their imperfections and to urge them toward a better life and toward God. She preaches, but she is never preachy, and because of her simplicity and gentleness, she is able to convert even the hardest of hearts. Dinah is never judgmental toward others. When Dinah falls in love with Adam, she finally wants something from life for herself—specifically, to be with Adam. Even then, Dinah cannot accept a life of happiness for herself until she believes that it is God’s will, but she comes to trust her own heart when it comes to her desires. By marrying Adam, Dinah gives up her independence and freedom, a change that is difficult for her to make.
Hetty never changes through the book, even after her religious conversion in the jail, and she remains a vain and selfish creature. Hetty only wants what is best for herself. Throughout the novel, Hetty has no concern for how her actions will affect others. Yet because her desires and fears are childlike, it is hard to condemn her. Hetty’s defining moment in the novel comes when she kills her child. Feeling no love for the child, she acts out of self-preservation and fear of shame. Her fear of condemnation after death drives her to forgive Captain Donnithorne after Dinah tells her that God will not forgive her if she does not forgive Captain Donnithorne. But Hetty never expresses any regret for the loss of the child, and she never demonstrates any maternal instinct. The lack of feeling toward those who love her comes as a result of two factors. First, she is a child, who needs coddling and admiration. Second, she is consumed by her pride and vanity to the point of being unable to reach out for help even when she desperately needs it. Hetty is a tragic figure.
Captain Donnithorne is a weak, rich, self-absorbed man. The captain is obsessed with his own self-image, which he gleans from his perceived image among the villagers. A snob, he views all those socially beneath him, even Adam, whom he claims to respect, as children. It is uncertain whether Captain Donnithorne is actually changed by his experience with Hetty. When he goes away from Hayslope, there is no question that Captain Donnithorne is uncomfortable, but it is not apparent whether he was motivated by a genuine desire to help the Poysers and Adam or by a desire not to be seen as the villain. Captain Donnithorne does not foresee the consequences of his actions, which partly mitigates his culpability, and he does his best to help Hetty when he finds out about her plight.