Summary: Chapter 17

The narrator pauses in the story to justify Mr. Irwine’s character. The characters in this novel, the narrator claims, are true to life and not the more sophisticated, better educated, more moralistic characters that her lady readers might want. Mr. Irwine is well loved in Hayslope, the narrator says, and is more loved than his successor, who was a better preacher and more severe teacher. The narrator claims to have gotten this knowledge from conversations with Adam several years after the action of the novel. The narrator urges readers to love their neighbors as they find them and not to demand more beauty, intelligence, or wit than they find in them.

Summary: Chapter 18

The Poysers go to church to celebrate the Sunday Mass and the funeral service for Thias Bede. On the way, the Poysers talk about Hetty, Dinah, and the Methodists. Mr. Poyser meditates on how pleased he is with Mrs. Poyser’s ability to run the farm. Hetty dresses herself especially, hoping to see Captain Donnithorne there. Captain Donnithorne, however, does not show up to the service because, as she learns from his gardener, he has gone off fishing. Lisbeth feels that the service puts her more at ease with the death of Thias Bede because it is the last duty she owes him and will help him to heaven. Seth hopes his father had one last moment of reconciliation with God. Adam regrets his hardness toward his father, reflecting that he was motivated by pride when completing his father’s work earlier. He resolves he should have been gentler with his father. Adam also watches Hetty, and he misinterprets her sadness over the absence of Captain Donnithorne as sympathy for the death of his father.

Summary: Chapter 19

Adam walks to work and thinks about Hetty. With the death of Thias Bede, Adam has a better chance of making some money to marry. He decides that he and Seth should start making high-quality furniture in their spare time to make some extra money. He also decides that he will go to Hall Farm that evening after work to see Hetty and fix Mrs. Poyser’s spinning wheel. In the workshop, Adam is at ease and in his element, and he softly hums hymns while he performs his work.

Summary: Chapter 20

Adam dresses in his Sunday best and heads out for Hall Farm. Lisbeth chases after him, harassing him about why he is wearing his good clothes, and Adam tells her that he will do what he wants with respect to Hetty. Adam goes to Mrs. Poyser in the dairy because the rest of the household is outside gathering the hay to take advantage of the good weather. Mrs. Poyser sends Adam out to the garden to see Hetty, who is picking currants and is supposed to be watching Totty. Adam finds Totty playing near the cherry tree and eating cherries, and he sends her in to Mrs. Poyser. Then he joins Hetty and helps her gather the remaining currants. When Hetty sees Adam, she starts and blushes because she has been thinking of Captain Donnithorne. Adam, however, misinterprets her blush as an indication that she is finally falling in love with him. Adam talks to Hetty about Captain Donnithorne’s offer to help finance his own business, and Hetty eagerly listens to any news about Captain Donnithorne. Again, Adam assumes she is showing an increased attention to him and his affairs. Adam gives Hetty a rose, which she coquettishly puts in her hair, and Adam chastises her that a beautiful woman needs no adornment but will look beautiful in even the plainest clothes. When they go in the house for dinner, Hetty goes upstairs and comes down dressed in Dinah’s frock and hat, claiming that she has dressed in this way to please Adam. Meanwhile, Mrs. Poyser scolds the maid, who breaks several mugs of beer because she has carried too many at once. Mrs. Poyser then drops her own pitcher and claims it must have been bewitched. After Adam says good night, Mr. Poyser tells Hetty she would be lucky to marry Adam, but Hetty just scoffs.

Summary: Chapter 21

Adam goes to visit Bartle Massey, the schoolmaster. Massey teaches several of the adults in the community how to read, and he is gentlest with those for whom the reading is the hardest. After class is over, Adam and Massey chat, and Massey excoriates Adam on his wanting to marry because, Massey says, women are nothing but a hassle. Massey tells Adam that Squire Donnithorne’s old timber manager has had a stroke and that people are speculating that Adam might be appointed to replace him. Adam says he thinks not, however, because of a quarrel he and the Squire had a few years back. Adam had made a frame for the Squire’s daughter, Miss Lydia, but the Squire refused to pay the price Adam asked for it and insulted Adam’s carpentry. Adam refused all payment rather than take less than he asked and instead offered to make the frame a gift. The Squire’s wife secretly slipped Adam the full price he had requested, but Adam and the Squire had been on bad terms ever since.

Analysis: Chapters 17–21

The narrator’s interlude and justification of Mr. Irwine demonstrates Eliot’s humanistic view of the inherent good in everyday people. Mr. Irwine doesn’t comport with Victorian moralistic views of what a preacher should be. He is, instead, a good person who has his failings but is generally motivated by love and his desire to do what is best for others. In this way, Mr. Irwine is typical of most of the characters in the novel. In comparison, Adam and Dinah are clearly both set up as characters worthy of emulation, and together they are the positive moral force of the book. Nevertheless, Adam suffers from his pride, which leads him, for example, to be too hard on his father, and Dinah has her failings in her stubborn refusal to seek personal happiness for herself. Unlike Mr. Irwine, Adam, and Dinah, Hetty and Captain Donnithorne are the two characters that most resemble villains in Adam Bede, but both have redeeming qualities and commit acts in the novel that lead to positive outcomes for other characters. Eliot’s view of human nature, then, is a complex one. She does not preach, and she does not offer flat characters with whom it is impossible to sympathize. Instead, she offers real characters, whose motivations are sympathetic even when those motivations are impure.

Eliot portrays Adam’s sense of industry and his proficiency as a carpenter in this section as qualities that distinguish him from others in Hayslope and set him above those who are lazy. Adam’s desire to better his lot becomes clear in this section in several ways. First, Adam plans to do extra carpentry after work to earn some pocket money so that he can set up a home and marry Hetty. Adam’s willingness to visit the Poysers and fix Mrs. Poyser’s spinning wheel is an act that brings him closer to Hetty’s family. Unlike Captain Donnithorne, who uses Totty as a way of getting closer to Hetty, Adam plans to lend the Poysers a hand while visiting Hetty. Adam also displays an eagerness to learn by attending night school, where Bartle Massey has taught him to read and do arithmetic. Adam’s industry is openly admired by several characters in the book as evidence of his good character. It contrasts with the villagers who drink at the tavern and with Hetty, who never puts her mind to her work, even while she is doing it. This compulsion to work is one of the few characteristics Adam, the hero of the novel, and Dinah, its heroine, share.

One of the few flaws in Adam’s character is his pride, although this failing is mitigated to some extent by his own awareness of the weakness. But the story about the quarrel between Adam and the Squire provides evidence of this pride, as this disagreement with the Squire proves that Adam will not allow superiority to stand in the way of what he thinks he deserves. Although Adam is ordinarily very respectful of authority, his pride in his work supersedes his natural goodwill when the Squire tries to pay him less than he feels his work is worth. His pride manifests also toward his father, in his hardness and willingness to work to ameliorate the shame his father brought on the family rather than to be kind to his father. Adam’s pride is tested when he is later led to judge someone whom he respects and considers a friend. This judgment against another person’s actions is exactly what the whole novel aims at condemning. Throughout the novel, Adam is tested through a number of tragedies that will affect his pride and cause him to question how to act. Because he becomes aware of his own pride and is able to overcome it, he remains a person to emulate in the novel. Unlike the villains in the novel, whose lack of self-scrutiny makes them unable to correct their faults, Adam is able to see his own failings and correct them.

Eliot contrasts inner and outer beauty through Mr. and Mrs. Poyser’s conversation about Hetty and Dinah. When Mr. Poyser states that men would still prefer Hetty over Dinah even if Dinah didn’t wear her Methodist cap, it suggests that external beauty is more recognized and preferred to inner beauty. Despite Hetty’s lack of inner beauty, she is the more physically beautiful of the two, and those around her are often fooled and blinded by her appealing looks. At this point, the only character who knows Hetty’s true personality is Mrs. Poyser. In fact, Mrs. Poyser for a moment forgets Hetty’s inner ugliness after she sees Hetty walk down the stairs in her Sunday best, and she has to turn away to keep from smiling and speaking. Adam falls blind to Hetty’s beauty when he mistakes her sadness at the funeral and later when he discusses Captain Donnithorne’s offer to help with his business. Adam thinks he loves Hetty, but he really is infatuated with her, based on her beauty. He assumes she is a good person but only draws this conclusion because of her appearance. However, unlike Adam, Seth’s feelings for Dinah are more real because he is drawn not only to her beauty but also to her inner character.