Hetty has been kinder to Adam, making him believe that perhaps she is coming to love him. Adam is overseeing work for the Squire, and he must travel to the Squire’s residence, where Captain Donnithorne is staying. One evening, the day before Captain Donnithorne is to leave to meet up with his regiment, Adam encounters Captain Donnithorne and Hetty kissing in the woods. Hetty runs off, and Captain Donnithorne walks by Adam. He stops to say that he ran into Hetty, walked her partway home, and asked her for a kiss for his effort. Adam is not fooled and says that he knows Captain Donnithorne has kissed Hetty more than once. Then Adam reveals that he himself loves her, and Captain Donnithorne is horrified for a moment. Adam tells Captain Donnithorne that he is a scoundrel, and Captain Donnithorne punches him. Adam is the stronger of the two, and he knocks Captain Donnithorne down. Adam immediately feels remorse and reaches down to help Captain Donnithorne up, but Adam believes that he is dead.
A few minutes later, Captain Donnithorne regains consciousness, and Adam is so relieved that he rushes to help him. Together, they go back to the Hermitage. While Adam runs to get brandy from the main house, Captain Donnithorne picks up Hetty’s handkerchief and shoves it into a trashcan, underneath the trash. When Adam returns, the two talk. Captain Donnithorne feels that he has no choice but to lie to Adam about the extent of his affair with Hetty. Adam forces him to promise to write a letter to Hetty explaining that their relationship was never anything more than flirtation, that they can never be married, and that Captain Donnithorne is going away. Captain Donnithorne resists writing the letter, but Adam tells him either to write or to admit to Adam the extent of their relationship. Captain Donnithorne chooses to write to her rather than to tell Adam the truth.
Captain Donnithorne wakes the next morning and contemplates the events of the night before. He does not want to write the letter to Hetty because he does not want to hurt her. However, he convinces himself that he will do good for her in the future and that she will come to owe him for his good deeds and forgive him the harm he has done her by seducing her. Captain Donnithorne writes the letter and has his servant give it to Adam. In the letter, he includes a warning to Adam that the letter will hurt Hetty and that it might be better not to give it to her. Adam, who is deeply saddened that his benefactor has turned out to be a seducer, decides that he will be able to give up his thoughts of revenge against Captain Donnithorne, but he will never be able to feel the same way about him again.
Hetty worries about whether Adam will tell the Poysers about her affair with Captain Donnithorne. She is relieved when he says that he wants to see her alone. Adam tells her that Captain Donnithorne has told him that he never cared for her, but she does not believe him. He gives her the letter from Captain Donnithorne, and Hetty does not read it immediately but convinces herself that it must say something different from what Adam says. On his way home, Adam encounters Seth and apologizes for being gruff with him. Seth gives Adam a letter from Dinah in which Dinah ruminates on the importance of having sorrow in our lives so that we can feel what the rest of the world is feeling. Adam tells Seth that he hopes Dinah will come to love him and encourages Seth to go see her in Snowfield.
Hetty reads the letter from Captain Donnithorne. In it, he tells her that she will never be his wife, assures her that she would have been unhappy because of their class distinctions anyway, and promises her that he will always do for her what he can. Hetty hates him for his letter and believes that her peasant life will never be anything but bitter to her again. Hetty longs for change and asks Mr. Poyser to allow her to become a lady’s maid. He refuses. Mrs. Poyser is angered by the lack of gratitude reflected in the request. Hetty decides that maybe the only avenue to change is to marry Adam.
Hetty’s decision to marry Adam, as strange as it may seem, coming on the heels of her disappointment about Captain Donnithorne, reflects the true nature of Hetty’s feelings toward Captain Donnithorne and Hetty’s incapacity to love. To Hetty, love and marriage are merely means to an end, and that end is being physically comfort. Hetty’s only concern, even in her love affairs, is a selfish desire to be happy and taken care of. Hetty’s decision to marry Adam is a central fact of the book because it requires the reader to see Hetty for what she is rather than considering her to be a naïve, young girl who was victimized by an older man in a position of power. Although it is true that Hetty is young and simple and that she was seduced, her inherently selfish nature shines through at this moment. She is at her least sympathetic when deciding that because she cannot become a lady’s maid, she might as well marry a decent, hard-working man. This decision magnifies the hardness of heart Hetty demonstrated when she rejected Dinah’s attempts to love her and give her advice, and it prepares the reader for Hetty’s actions later in the novel. It also demonstrates the fact that Hetty simply cannot love but can only act in her own self-interest.
Adam’s momentary belief that he has killed Captain Donnithorne marks a turning point for Adam, in which he begins to see that evil, especially evil that cannot be undone, is useless no matter what prompted it. After this moment, Adam will not be able to act on his passions again, even when extreme hardship comes his way. The Adam Bede the reader knows in the first part of the novel, up until the fight with Captain Donnithorne, is a good man who is basically untested. He has faced hardship, but he has not faced a true crisis of conscience. Even the death of his father caused in Adam only a momentary reflection that he should be less proud. For the most part, Adam acts on his instincts. His instincts are toward the good, and so his life up until this point has been marked by helping others and doing good work. But Adam has never been forced to examine his own actions and his own motivations. He knows that he is a proud man, but he has never had to face the consequences of that pride. When he knocks down Captain Donnithorne and believes briefly that he has killed him, all that changes. He sees that his pride does not bring anything positive. From the moment Adam renders the captain unconscious, the reader is able to reflect on how Adam’s pride has overcome him and question whether he will confront his own motivations and the motivations of others in the upcoming scenes of the story.
Captain Donnithorne’s decision to write the letter to Hetty, and especially the decision to include a warning to Adam, shows how deep his cowardice runs and how far he will go to preserve his image as a good man. Captain Donnithorne writes a letter to Hetty that he knows to be largely false just to preserve Adam’s image of him, even though the letter will break Hetty’s heart. Moreover, his self-delusion is so deep that he convinces himself that Adam has forced him to write the letter by confronting him and that it is somehow Adam’s fault that Hetty’s heart will be broken. The note to Adam on the letter, warning him that it may be better not to give the letter to Hetty at all, especially demonstrates how eager and willing he is to pass the buck from himself to anyone at all. He wants to believe that he is a good man, and he will go to great lengths to avoid facing the consequences of his own dishonorable actions. This characteristic is what causes him to be offended when Adam beats him at a fight he started and over an issue for which he certainly deserves a beating. After the fight, the captain retreats to his sense of superiority over Adam rather than own up to the depths of his transgressions with Hetty. Captain Donnithorne becomes a weak man in a position of power after the fight scene, and this weakness carries consequences throughout the remainder of the novel.