The narrator takes the reader to the home of Mr. Aldophous Irwine, the rector of Broxton, where Hayslope is located. Mr. Irwine is playing chess with his mother, Mrs. Irwine, a socialite. Mr. Irwine is a bachelor because he has chosen to take care of his mother and two unmarried sisters, one of whom is chronically ill, rather than have his own family. Joshua Rann, the cobbler and parish clerk of Hayslope, comes to see Mr. Irwine to complain about the Methodists and Dinah. In particular, Mr. Rann complains about the wheelwright, Will Maskery, who is a Methodist and has made disparaging remarks about Mr. Irwine and Rann. Mr. Irwine laughs off the insults and tells Rann to leave Maskery to his own business. As Rann is leaving, Captain Arthur Donnithorne arrives to ask Mr. Irwine to go riding with him. Captain Donnithorne is the grandson and heir of the local landlord, Squire Donnithorne. Known throughout the village as “the young squire,” he is a dashing man who is staying at the Squire’s estate to recover from an injury in the army. Rann tells both Mr. Irwine and Captain Donnithorne about the death of Thias Bede, Adam’s father.
Dinah repairs linens at her aunt’s home, called Hall Farm. Mrs. Poyser, Dinah’s aunt, scolds the maid for being lazy, even though the maid has been very industrious all day. She laughs when reminiscing about how much Dinah looks like the aunt who raised her after her mother died. Mr. Irwine and Captain Donnithorne arrive, and Captain Donnithorne asks Mrs. Poyser to show him her dairy.
Captain Donnithorne and Mrs. Poyser go to the dairy, where Captain Donnithorne first lays eyes on Hetty. A beautiful young girl, Hetty is the seventeen-year-old niece of Mr. Poyser. The Poysers took her in after she was orphaned, and she lives with them at Hall Farm and helps Mrs. Poyser with household chores. Captain Donnithorne flirts with Hetty, even going so far as to ask Mrs. Poyser to go get her small daughter, Totty, in order to have a few moments alone with Hetty. Hetty responds coquettishly to his advances. Captain Donnithorne asks Hetty when she will next be at the Chase, where Captain Donnithorne lives, and Hetty reveals her plans to visit a housekeeper at the estate the next day.
While the others are in the dairy, Mr. Irwine chats with Dinah and asks her how she became a preacher. Dinah explains that she was once going to a nearby village with a preacher when that preacher fell ill. Because she felt moved by God, she stood in for him and has been a preacher even since. She explains that she chooses to live in the rougher country around Snowfield because she is called to alleviate the suffering of those who live there. Dinah also reveals that she works in the mill in Snowfield. Mr. Irwine does not chastise Dinah for her beliefs but treats her gently. When Mr. Irwine tells Dinah about the death of Thias Bede, she tells Mrs. Poyser and Hetty. Hetty is unaffected by the news, but Dinah resolves to go visit Lisbeth to try to comfort her.
Chapters 7 and 8 display Hetty as Dinah’s foil by the way they each interact with men. The conversation between Captain Donnithorne and Hetty in chapter 7 directly contrasts with the conversation between Mr. Irwine and Dinah in chapter 8. Where Captain Donnithorne and Hetty speak of nothing in particular and yet intend another meaning entirely, Mr. Irwine and Dinah speak of very personal things and are straightforward and unflinching. From the very beginning, then, Dinah and Hetty are set in opposition. Dinah focuses on others, and she is serious and calm. Hetty focuses entirely on herself and is flirtatious and capricious. Her lack of concern on learning of Thias’s death, when she should care more than Dinah because she is at least friends with Adam and knows he loves her, suggests in Hetty a deep selfishness that contrasts with Dinah’s desire to help others. Dinah and Hetty also share several similarities, which heighten the contrast between the two of them. Both are intensely beautiful women who were orphaned and raised by an aunt. They are of similar ages and class, and both are single. Both will come to have a very important role in the life of Adam Bede, although how they feel toward him will be different. The differences in the characters of Hetty and Dinah lead to their different ends and make Hetty the closest thing the novel has to a villain, whereas Dinah is its heroine.
Mr. Irwine and Captain Donnithorne are also in contrast with each other, despite superficial similarities. Both men are single, but Mr. Irwine behaves chastely and with propriety toward Dinah, a beautiful woman, whereas Captain Donnithorne flirts shamelessly with Hetty. They are from the upper class, but both are poor because the Squire does not give them more money. Mr. Irwine takes a genuine interest in the villagers, however, whereas Captain Donnithorne thinks of them more like amusing children. Both men seek to do good for others, but there is a critical difference in their attempts at charity. Where Captain Donnithorne desires to be thought of as one who does good, Mr. Irwine actually just does good wherever he can, regardless of the recognition involved. Mr. Irwine cares for his ailing spinster sister when no one else does. Captain Donnithorne largely ignores his spinster aunt. The presence of both Captain Donnithorne and Mr. Irwine in the novel is important because without Mr. Irwine, the novel might merely be a critique of the upper class. With Mr. Irwine’s presence, however, Eliot makes it clear that good and bad are found in the upper classes of society.
The characters in Adam Bede speak with the peculiar dialect of the region at that time, but each of their accents also reflects their class and their self-perception. Adam, for example, speaks clear and strong English when he is in the presence of Captain Donnithorne, Mr. Irwine, or most of the villagers. At home, however, his speech lapses into “peasant speech,” which is more heavily accented and less grammatically proper. This shift reflects his desire to please his mother, as the narrator tells the reader, but it also reflects the fundamental fact about Adam: although he was raised a peasant, and the marks of poverty and a simple country upbringing are always on him, he has largely outpaced his more simple-minded family. He belongs both to the world of the lower class, in terms of his morality and his beliefs, and to the world of the upper class, in terms of his intellect and sophistication. Mr. Massey, the schoolteacher, speaks relatively clear English, but he says everything twice. This idiosyncrasy may stem from his life as a teacher of poor students. In his professional career, he must always repeat everything he says. Mrs. Poyser has the thickest accent in the novel, and her wisdom matches her homespun knowledge. Her idioms are usually original, and their insight is profound. Her character, like her accent, represents the wisdom of the country peasant in the novel. Eliot’s representation of the accent is phonetic, so that any difficulties the readers many have with the accents can be resolved by sounding out the words. The different accents are important because they reflect the characters’ true natures.