Summary: Chapter 1

The narrator promises to show the reader a workshop as it was in Hayslope on June 18, 1799. Inside the workshop, Adam Bede; his brother, Seth Bede; Wiry Ben; and two other carpenters chat as they complete their work for the day. Seth finishes a door he has been working on, but he forgets to put panels in the door, because his mind is occupied with Dinah Morris, a Methodist preacher. Dinah will preach on the village lawn that evening, and Seth plans to see her. When he encourages the others to come with him to the preaching, they tease him about Dinah and about the inappropriateness of a woman’s preaching. They also have a discussion about religion, which Seth defends as the most important thing in the world. Adam claims that doing practical good in the world, such as tending to a garden or building an oven, is as important as religion. After the workday is over, Adam heads home with his dog, Gyp.

Summary: Chapter 2

In the village, people gather to hear Dinah’s preaching. The tavern manager, Mr. Casson, comes outside to see what the commotion is, and he meets a stranger on a horse. He and the stranger have a discussion about Dinah, and Mr. Casson says he believes it is inappropriate for a woman to preach on the village green. As Dinah begins to preach, she draws in the villagers with her soft, loving voice, and the stranger stays to listen to her despite his reservations about a woman preacher. Dinah’s sermon tells about the love Jesus has for the poor and encourages the townspeople to give up their sins and do good in the world. The villagers accept her slowly, and by the time she concludes her preaching, many of them are moved to tears.

Summary: Chapter 3

Seth walks Dinah home after her preaching. Dinah plans to go back to Snowfield to take care of an ailing old woman and regrets that she cannot stay in Hayslope to be with her aunt and to look after Hetty Sorrel, for whom she says she has been praying. Seth remarks that it is too bad Adam is in love with Hetty. Dinah says she cannot stay in Hayslope because God has told her that her place is in Snowfield. Arguing that together they can better serve God, Seth proposes marriage to Dinah. Declining, she says that God has destined that she should not marry or have children, even though she would like to do both. Dinah knows God’s will because she has prayed for guidance and has opened up the Bible and the first line she sees supports her belief that her calling is to help others. Although crying on the way home, Seth accepts Dinah’s rejection. The narrator defends Seth’s love for Dinah and says that although they are poor, unsophisticated Methodists, Seth and Dinah may have sublime feelings and should not be disregarded.

Summary: Chapter 4

Adam and Gyp arrive home, where Adam’s mother, Lisbeth, waits for them. Adam discovers that his father, who is a drunkard, has gone out without building the coffin he had promised to build for a family in town. After railing against his father, Adam stays up all night to finish the coffin, despite Seth’s offer of help and Lisbeth’s attempts to make him eat. Lisbeth and Seth talk while Adam eats dinner, and they both lament that Adam is in love with Hetty. Lisbeth becomes hysterical at the idea of Adam’s leaving her. While Adam works, he hears a rap on the door twice, a sound he recalls his mother often referring to as an omen of death. The next morning, Adam and Seth take the coffin to town and, on their way home, find their father drowned in the stream by their house. Adam immediately feels guilty for the harshness with which he has treated his wayward father.

Analysis: Chapters 1–4

The village of Hayslope and the villagers who live there form a running and richly textured commentary to the main action of the novel, which will involve only a few characters. Eliot takes care to describe even the most incidental characters with great attention to detail, and her depth of description suggests the importance of even the most minor views in the novel. Through their dialogue, Eliot exposes important themes and plot points that the main characters might have missed. The other villagers are important because they fill in gaps in the main characters’ knowledge and sensibilities. For example, in the carpenter’s shop, although only Adam and Seth will be continuing main characters, the others each express an opinion about religion, about Seth’s love for Dinah, and about the propriety of a woman’s preaching. Seth has not told Adam about his love for Dinah, and Adam has not been paying enough attention to Seth to really take note of his infatuation. The teasing of the fellow carpenters, however, introduces the information to the reader in a subtle way while still leaving Adam’s character with his limited knowledge.

Dinah’s conversion of the villagers shows how simplicity, kindness, and love can affect great change in her peers where flashiness and preachiness would fail. Dinah’s preaching is direct and understated, and it moves the villagers to tears and touches their hearts for precisely this reason. Dinah’s gentle touch mirrors Eliot’s own view of love of neighbor. Specifically, it reflects the idea that love is best used on those closest, and too much attachment to ideals only breeds discontent. Dinah’s foil to this characteristic will be Hetty, whose attachment to the idea of becoming a rich lady will only bring her unhappiness.

Eliot’s treatment of the unknown and unseen, as they direct the actions of the characters, reveals sympathy with the idea that there are forces in the world no one can control. Although the narrator repeatedly suggests that readers would be too sophisticated to indulge in a belief in the unknown and might even scoff at it, the characters who believe are treated gently and are generally directed by those forces for the better. First, Dinah’s belief in God’s will pushes her to leave Hayslope and, as the reader later learns, was the reason she became a preacher in the first place. Eliot does not mock Dinah for her belief that God is speaking to her but rather treats it as a part of her fundamental good nature. Similarly, Adam’s sense of foreboding at the knocking on the door is fulfilled in the drowning of his father. Although his superstition marks Adam as a peasant without sophisticated opinions and cynical worldviews, the fulfillment of that superstition suggests that Adam’s rural sensibilities are more relevant than they might appear.

The narrator tells the story of Adam Bede in two ways. Most of the time, the narrator seems to stand apart from the characters and report only what is seen, not necessarily the characters’ thoughts. But as a person telling the story, the narrator also makes judgments and leaves scenes and details out. Here, as a character, the narrator seems to participate in the story but does not know the details behind these scenes and is therefore only able to narrate through the other character’s personal accounts. These untold scenes allow the reader to imagine or elaborate on what happened (mostly those scenes surrounding Hetty). The narrator explains these scenes through other characters’ accounts or by Adam’s and Captain Donnithorne’s reactions to the unfolding events. The narrator also sometimes knows and reports on what the other characters are thinking. A couple of examples are when Captain Donnithorne tries to fight his feelings for Hetty, and when Hetty chooses to leave Hayslope to find the captain. By portraying the narrator as a character, Eliot presents a moral perspective because the narrator is a real person who is judgmental throughout the story.