Eighteen months have passed since Adam and Captain Donnithorne talked in the Hermitage. Dinah and Mrs. Poyser quarrel because Dinah says she must go back to Snowfield to help the people there, and Mrs. Poyser wants her to stay. Adam arrives and asks Dinah to come home with him to visit Lisbeth, who is ailing and asks see her. Upon learning of Dinah’s plans to leave, Adam is saddened but says he is confident that Dinah will always do what is right. Dinah blushes at his attentions and then starts to cry. She rushes off to get her bonnet, but Totty follows her and comes back announcing that Dinah is crying and praying. Adam and Mr. Poyser talk about Adam’s business, which is going very well, and about his prospects of becoming sole owner now that Mr. Burge is getting older and feebler.
Adam and Dinah walk to the Bedes together. On the way, Adam tells Dinah that he wishes she would stay and marry Seth, but he apologizes when Dinah becomes very agitated. Dinah instead asks after Captain Donnithorne, and Adam reports that Mr. Irwine read him part of a letter from him. Captain Donnithorne is very sad and has decided not to come home just yet. When they reach the Bedes, Lisbeth and Seth both notice that Dinah is upset, but neither of them knows why. The brothers retreat to the workshop, where Adam works and Seth daydreams. Adam does not chastise his brother. Since the sorrow of Hetty’s disgraceful trial, he has grown gentler toward everyone. In the morning, Dinah tidies up the cottage before breakfast, and Adam comes down. When they both clean up his workshop, Dinah becomes very flustered when he is near her.
Dinah takes her leave of Lisbeth. After bidding farewell, Lisbeth goes into the workshop where Seth is working on a box for Dinah, and she begins to berate him because Dinah is going away. Ignoring Seth’s feelings for Dinah, she says she knows Dinah would stay if only Adam would marry her. Seth is appalled at the idea and feels confident that Adam does not love Dinah. Lisbeth accuses Seth of jealousy, and he is hurt. On Sunday, Lisbeth approaches Adam and suggests that he propose to Dinah. Adam is suddenly struck by the idea but does not trust his mother’s belief that Dinah loves him. Puzzled, he goes out to meet Seth and asks him what he thinks. Seth does not think Dinah wants to marry anyone but assures Adam that it would be wonderful to have Dinah as a sister-in-law and that he would not be jealous. Seth also suggests that Adam might as well ask Dinah. She took no offense, after all, when Seth asked her, even though her answer was no.
Adam goes to Hall Farm while the others are at church so he can see Dinah alone. After he confesses his love for her, she admits that she loves him too. When he proposes, however, she says that she cannot marry him because she does not think it is God’s will. Her fear is that if she lives with him, she will cease to feel compassion for the poor and will not be able to help those in need. Adam argues that she will be able to help others better because she will be more filled with love, just as a worker can do better work with more knowledge. They agree that she will go back to Snowfield for a time to see whether God’s will becomes clearer to her. Adam and Dinah walk out together in the fields, and they encounter the Poysers. Mr. Poyser tells Mrs. Poyser that he believes Adam loves Dinah. Mrs. Poyser claims to have known this all along but says she does not believe Dinah will marry him. Everyone urges Adam to come to the Harvest Supper and Dinah to stay at least that long. Adam promises to come, but Dinah does not promise to stay.
Seth’s lack of jealousy toward his brother reflects his genuine love for both Dinah and Adam, and his intense desire that they should both be happy. He also places Adam and Dinah’s happiness over his feelings for Dinah because he knows she does not reciprocate his feelings and even admits to Adam that he’s given up hope that Dinah will be his wife. Seth’s character is unlike any other in Adam Bede. Although Lisbeth rebukes him and he is always compared unfavorably to Adam, Seth maintains a happy disposition and a gentle touch through it all. Seth is motivated by his religious feelings and his love of his family. Although he proposed to Dinah at the beginning of the novel, Seth does not let his feelings interfere with Adam’s because he will do anything for his brother. When Adam approaches him and asks what he thinks about him proposing to Dinah, Seth does not even question whether Adam loves her. Seth’s presence in the novel, then, may be intended as an indication that there are other good men in the world besides Adam and that goodness does not always manifest itself in the same way. After all, Adam and Seth are very different. Whereas Adam is exceptionally industrious, Seth is a constant dreamer. Whereas Adam is strong-minded and quick with numbers, Seth is easily swayed in most things and slower than his brother. Perhaps most important, although Adam’s pride is easily offended, at least in the beginning of the novel, Seth is patient and extremely humble throughout. Seth is a reminder that although Adam’s particular qualities make him a good man, there are other combinations of qualities that make equally good men.
Adam and Dinah, instead of being separated by the love they each felt for Hetty, are influenced by it. It may seem a little odd that Adam is able to fall in love with Dinah so quickly after the disappointment of his marriage hopes with Hetty and his near total collapse at her trial. Yet Dinah is not separate from his feelings for Hetty. Instead, she was a crucial part of Hetty’s last days in England. She bolstered Hetty’s spirits after the trial, and by helping Hetty, she won Adam’s affection. For Dinah, the conversion of Hetty is likewise important, and Adam was a major part of that chapter of her life. Adam acquitted himself admirably during the trial and ultimately showed himself to be compassionate and gentle when he spoke to Hetty at the jail. Dinah can love these qualities in him without being jealous or spiteful about his previous love of Hetty. Mutual sorrow brings Adam and Dinah together because it has changed the way they both see the world and allowed them to see the best in each other.
Dinah’s resistance to Adam’s marriage proposal raises an unresolved question about giving up her freedom to be with Adam. Dinah’s life up until her marriage is not beholden to anyone. She does as she pleases, although she does not choose to live a hedonistic existence but rather to follow the will of God. She loves everyone in the world equally, and she does not show preference to any one person. The decision to allow her life to be governed by her affection for one man is a huge change in Dinah’s personality and is not one to be taken lightly. Although Dinah’s decision to marry Adam does lead to her happiness at the end of the novel, Eliot’s willingness to take seriously the notion that a woman might not be so eager to marry and give up her life, even for a man so wonderful as Adam, suggests a streak of early feminism in her that is way ahead of her time. Despite her sarcastic derision of women in the novel, especially of her lady reader, Eliot’s presentation of women is complex and textured. She does not resolve the issues about Dinah’s abdication of her freedom but rather leaves readers to decide them for themselves.