Captain Donnithorne’s coming-of-age party begins. As she gets ready, Hetty tries on the earrings Captain Donnithorne has given her and wears the locket with his hair in it that he has given her but keeps it under her dress. People from the parish, including the Poysers, begin to arrive, and the Chase, the Squire’s home, is consumed in a fairlike atmosphere. Captain Donnithorne and Mr. Irwine survey the dinner arrangements and discuss Adam. The Squire has agreed to hire Adam to look after his timber. Captain Donnithorne complains about how little money the Squire has given him for the party, but Mr. Irwine tells him that a quieter party will be more appreciated than a more raucous event would have been.
The tenants come in to dinner, and they argue over who is to sit at the head of the table. Adam sits with the tenants, even though, as a craftsman (because of his new position tending the timber), he would normally sit at the lower table. He sees Hetty, who flirts with him because she knows Mary Burge, who loves Adam, is watching them.
Captain Donnithorne comes in to the dinner, and Mr. Poyser delivers a speech thanking him for all he has done for the tenants and hoping that he will soon come into his inheritance. Captain Donnithorne gives an acceptance speech and then toasts the Squire and Adam. In his toast to Adam, he announces that Adam will be working for the Squire, even though Adam has so far kept this information a secret because he has not yet had a chance to tell Mr. Burge, his employer. Adam gives a proud acceptance speech. Captain Donnithorne walks around the table, greeting the tenants. He does not dare to look at Hetty, who feels slighted.
Captain Donnithorne, Mr. Irwine, the Squire, Miss Lydia, and Mrs. Irwine, along with the Irwine sisters, take up their place on a raised dais near where the games are being played. Mrs. Irwine admires the party, the last she says she will likely live to see unless Captain Donnithorne soon marries. She tells him that if he does not marry a beautiful woman she will never forgive him. Mrs. Irwine has selected the prizes for the women winners. She gives the women only practical gifts because, she says, she does not want to encourage vanity in women of the lower class. Captain Donnithorne has selected the prizes for the men and gives them splendid gifts. After the games, Wiry Ben dances for the crowd, and the nobles laugh at him while Mr. Poyser and others look on with genuine admiration for his skill.
Adam stays for the dance at the request of Captain Donnithorne, even though Lisbeth urges him to come home with her. He only wants to dance with Hetty, who only wants to dance with Captain Donnithorne. When Adam goes to Hetty to claim her for the dance she has promised him, she is holding Totty. When they transfer Totty to the maid, Totty grabs the string of beads on which Hetty’s locket is strung, and it breaks, scattering all over the floor and sending the locket flying. Adam picks up the locket and notices the two different colors of hair inside. He gives it to Hetty, who is extremely agitated and embarrassed. Adam is miserable at the thought that she might have a secret lover, but he rationalizes on the way home that she probably bought the locket for herself and put pieces of her dead parents’ hair inside with a piece of her own. On their way home, Mr. Poyser remarks to Mrs. Poyser that Hetty will one day be able to tell her children that she danced with a nobleman in his military dress.
Although little seems to happen in the third book, these chapters actually serve as the central turning point in the novel. Captain Donnithorne’s coming-of age-party is important for two reasons. First, the party brings into sharp focus the class issues that pervade life in Hayslope. By bringing together all the characters in the novel, the third book allows the minor characters to take center stage, especially during Wiry Ben’s dance, when Wiry Ben and other members of the lower class become more important than at almost any other time in the novel. A similar celebration comes almost at the end of the novel, in the Harvest Feast. Although it is not as complete a roster of the characters of the novel, at the Feast, the reader gets a chance to see some villagers of Hayslope after the affair of Hetty Sorrel. Second, the party also displays the main characters in their last moments of innocence: Adam believes Hetty may love him, although the incident with the locket raises his suspicions. Similarly, up to this point the Poysers have believed that Hetty’s worst faults are in her reluctance to do her chores, and everyone, especially Mr. Irwine, has believed in Captain Donnithorne’s good character. All of that is about to change, and the narrator spends a good deal of time describing some of the villagers’ impressions of Hetty so that the reader understands just how profoundly Hetty’s downfall will rock the world of Hayslope. The third book occurs during one half of one day and depicts the last time the characters are all together before the major events of the novel unfold, which largely take place between the action of the fourth and fifth books.
The contrast between Adam’s and Captain Donnithorne’s acceptance speeches emphasizes the differences in their characters. While the others at the table criticize Adam’s pride, everyone lauds Captain Donnithorne’s self-effacement. The narrator, however, takes the opposite view: Adam’s speech, proud though it may be, is an honest assessment of his own abilities. Captain Donnithorne’s speech, by contrast, is punctuated by his own guilt about Hetty and characterized by falseness. Captain Donnithorne wants to seem modest, so he gives a modest speech. Adam is proud of his workmanship and the respect of his peers, so he speaks frankly and proudly. The difference between them contributes largely to the difference between their fates at the end of the novel: Adam will overcome his weaknesses, but Captain Donnithorne will succumb to his, and as a result Adam will remain among his friends while Captain Donnithorne will have to flee the parish in disgrace.
Eliot continually discredits those members of the nobility who deride the simple pleasures of the lower classes. The party is a microcosm of everything distasteful about class prejudice. At the party, the nobility are set apart, and the women neglect even to join the lower classes for dinner. They sit on a raised platform and do not participate in the simple games of the peasants. They make fun of Wiry Ben’s dance, even though, as the reader learns from the reaction of Mr. Poyser, Wiry Ben is, in fact, a very talented dancer. The narrator has no patience with this snobbery, making clear over and over that the empathy in the novel lies with the poorer people. Mrs. Irwine, who embodies the worst of the snobs, is drawn as a single-minded, haughty woman whose condescension only serves to make people unhappy. For example, her selection of practical gifts for the young women, so as not to encourage vanity in the lower classes, undercuts the spirit of fun and frivolity of the afternoon. Her so-called gifts only make the recipients unhappy. The narrator encourages readers instead to enjoy life’s simpler pleasures and not to turn their noses up at characters or people just because they are of a lower class.