Hetty journeys to Windsor, where she expects to find Captain Donnithorne. Although she does not dare write to him, she feels that he will help her when he learns of her predicament. After a short time in the coach, Hetty realizes that her money and valuables will not be enough to carry her to Windsor. She is forced to walk and to catch rides in carts. Hetty is terrified that she will become a beggar woman. Along the way, a farmer picks her up, just as he has picked up a stray dog he found on the road some weeks earlier. When she reaches Windsor, the coachman asks for a tip, but Hetty has so little left, she asks for change, and he tells her never mind. An innkeeper overhears her and takes her in. After learning Hetty’s destination, he tells her the address she’s going to is all closed up and that the regiment left for Ireland some weeks before. Hetty faints at the news. The innkeeper’s wife remarks on what she thinks is the truth of the situation—that Hetty and Captain Donnithorne were lovers and now Hetty is pregnant with his child. She says Hetty would have been better served to be less pretty and more well-behaved.
Hetty’s return journey is miserable. She gives the innkeeper and his wife the earrings Captain Donnithorne gave her in exchange for a little money. Then she heads in the direction of home, although she does not really intend to go there. On the way, she thinks of going to see Dinah, but she cannot make up her mind to let anyone who knows her see her in this state of shame. Instead, she decides to kill herself. Hetty takes care of her money and eats along the way to where she intends to kill herself because she still clings to life. After finding a pool where she thinks she will drown herself, she is unable to throw herself in. She climbs into a small shelter in a sheep pen, and a shepherd discovers her there in the morning and sends her on her way. In her desperation, she continues on the road toward Dinah, although she is still not sure that that is where she is going.
Adam and the Poysers begin to worry about Hetty because she has been gone for so long. Adam decides to go to Snowfield to fetch her and hopefully bring Dinah back with them. He sets out in great spirits, but when he gets to Snowfield, the old woman with whom Dinah lives informs him that Dinah has been on a journey to Leeds and that she has not seen Hetty. Frantic, Adam tries desperately to find some trace of Hetty. After tracking her part of the way to Windsor, Adam loses her and goes back to Hayslope. When he gets home, Adam sits in his workshop until Seth finds him. Uncharacteristically, Adam bursts into tears, but he does not tell Seth the whole truth. Adam believes Captain Donnithorne must have written to Hetty and urged her to come to him. Adam thinks Hetty must not want to marry him and must be running away. Careful not to reveal what he knows about Captain Donnithorne’s affair with Hetty, Adam tells Mr. Poyser that he thinks Hetty wants to get away from the marriage. On the brink of leaving for Ireland, where he knows Captain Donnithorne to be, Adam decides he must have some help in finding Hetty and decides to tell Mr. Irwine the whole story.
When Adam arrives at Mr. Irwine’s, there is a visitor with Mr. Irwine. Adam goes in to see him after the visitor leaves and notices that Mr. Irwine is exceptionally agitated. After Adam tells him about the affair and that Hetty is now missing, Mr. Irwine reveals that the visitor has told him that Hetty is in prison for murdering her baby. Mr. Irwine also says that Captain Donnithorne is on his way home because the Squire sent for him ten days earlier. Adam reacts violently, blaming Captain Donnithorne and swearing revenge. Mr. Irwine makes him promise to try to help while there is anything to be done, and they agree to go together to Stoniton, where Hetty is being held and will be tried the following week.
By omitting certain critical scenes from the narration, Eliot focuses the novel on the reactions of the characters to the main events, rather than on the main events themselves. Two of the most important acts in the book occur outside the narration—the consummation of the affair between Captain Donnithorne and Hetty, and the death of Hetty’s baby. In part, Eliot’s choice not to include those scenes may be a choice of discretion. In other words, she may not wish to include a graphic sex scene and may not wish to describe the messy affair of childbirth and the murder of the baby. In both cases, she inserts the events into the novel through Adam. It is Adam who discovers Hetty and Captain Donnithorne in the woods, and it is to Adam that Mr. Irwine breaks the news of Hetty’s imprisonment. By narrating the events in this way, Eliot leaves to the reader’s imagination the exact nature of Hetty’s seduction by Captain Donnithorne and the exact level of Hetty’s culpability in the death of her child. Eliot also centers the novel on the destruction of Adam’s life, choosing to focus on the collateral consequences of these acts rather than on the acts themselves. Although Adam is not directly the victim of either of the two main acts of the novel, he is the only character who feels their repercussions. The focus on Adam, then, encourages the reader to think of evil in terms of what it does to others. Evil becomes more than an abstract concept, and the reader can experience it as a real event. The morality of the novel strives for good behavior not for one’s own sake, or even for religious reasons, but rather because it is a social duty. In short, Eliot warns that selfish behavior can hurt others like is has Adam.
Looking back, it is clear that Adam’s repeated misunderstanding of Hetty’s tears shows just how deep his infatuation with her really is and how wrong he has been about her character. Throughout their courtship, Adam consistently sees in Hetty the exact opposite of her real nature, in part because of his nature and in part because of her efforts. There is no question that Hetty makes others think the best of her, even when she is at her most petty and most peevish. Adam falls for her deception over and over. Equally important, however, is that Adam himself chooses to ignore signs that Hetty is not who he thinks she is and allows himself to believe that she is and will be the good woman he wants to marry. The narrator suggests that Adam’s foolishness should be totally excused because Adam has fallen for Hetty’s youth and beauty. That is probably only half the story, though. Adam sees the best in Hetty because Adam sees the best in everyone, and it is inconceivable to him that a young girl could practice that level of iniquity. Adam underestimates Hetty as much as he overestimates her. He underestimates her ability to be cunning, her intelligence, and her pride while he overestimates her moral fiber. Both misconceptions are important because they both reflect back on Adam. He does not believe a young woman could be so cunning and so pretty at the same time, an idea that becomes especially important when he marries Dinah, who is very intelligent and very pretty. His blindness about Hetty, then, is a balanced blindness, highlighting both the positive and the negative aspects of Adam’s character.
The tension Eliot builds before she reveals the real meaning of the meeting between Adam and Mr. Irwine makes this section possibly the most intense in the novel. Just as Hetty reaches her breaking point, after her failed suicide attempt and before she knows what she will do, Eliot cuts out of narrating about her and swings the story to Adam. Just as Adam reaches his limit, unable to find Hetty and about to set off on a journey, Eliot swings the action to Mr. Irwine, who is obviously extraordinarily agitated. These changes in the narration keep the reader completely in the dark about what has happened to Hetty and raise the level of the suspense. By jumping around, Eliot avoids telling the reader directly what happened at a time when the characters’ lives are in disarray. The technique makes this section of the novel read like a thriller.