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Dinah Morris, a Methodist preacher, arrives in Hayslope,
a small village in England, in 1799. She
stays with her aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Poyser, although she
plans to return soon to Snowfield, where she normally lives. Seth
Bede, a local carpenter, loves her and is learning to live with
her rejection of his marriage proposal. Seth’s brother, Adam Bede,
also lives in Hayslope and works as the foreman at the carpentry
shop where he and his brother work. Adam loves a seventeen-year-old
village beauty named Hetty Sorrel. Hetty, who is Mr. Poyser’s niece,
lives with the Poysers and helps with the chores.
Thias Bede, the father of Seth and Adam, drowns in the
river near their house after a drinking binge. Their mother, Lisbeth,
is distraught. Dinah goes to comfort Lisbeth, and she is able to
soothe her where no one else can. Lisbeth wishes that Dinah could
be her daughter-in-law.
The local landlord, Squire Donnithorne, rules the parish
with an iron fist. His grandson and heir, Captain Donnithorne, who
is a member of the regimental army, has broken his arm and is living with
the Squire. The villagers all respect and adore Captain Donnithorne,
who considers himself a gallant man. Captain Donnithorne flirts
secretively with Hetty after first meeting her at the Poysers. He
asks her when she will next be visiting the Squire’s residence and
arranges to meet her alone in the woods when she passes through.
When Captain Donnithorne meets up with Hetty in the woods, they
are alone for the first time and both are bashful. Captain Donnithorne
teases Hetty about her many suitors, and she cries. He puts his
arms around her, but he then immediately panics at the inappropriateness
of his advances and runs off. Later Captain Donnithorne meditates
on what he has done and decides he needs to see Hetty to clear up
what happened. He meets her on her way back through the woods, and
they kiss. This encounter begins a summer-long affair, which only
ends when Captain Donnithorne leaves to rejoin his regiment. Hetty
believes that Captain Donnithorne will marry her and make her into
the great socialite she dreams of being. Although she does not exactly
love him, she loves the wealth and privilege he represents.
Captain Donnithorne throws a coming-of-age party for himself to
which he invites all the members in the parish. Everyone comes and
has a wonderful time with a feast, dancing, and games. Adam discovers
that Hetty is wearing a locket that Captain Donnithorne gave her.
He becomes suspicious that she might have a secret lover but concludes
that it would not be possible for her to conceal such a thing from
On the last night Captain Donnithorne is in town, Adam
catches him kissing Hetty in the woods. Adam and he have a fight,
which Adam wins. Captain Donnithorne lies to Adam that the affair
was no more than a little flirtation. At his response, Adam tells
him he must write a letter to Hetty letting her know that the affair
is over. Captain Donnithorne does so, and Adam delivers the letter.
Hetty is crushed, but after some time she resolves to marry Adam
as a way out of her current life. Adam proposes, and Hetty accepts.
By the time Captain Donnithorne leaves, Hetty is pregnant, although
neither of them knows it. She resolves to go out to find Captain
Donnithorne because she cannot bear to have those who know her find out
about her shame. She believes that Captain Donnithorne will help
her, even though she feels he can never erase her shame.
Hetty sets out to locate Captain Donnithorne. At the end
of an arduous journey, she learns that he has gone to Ireland. She
heads in the direction of home, more or less intending to visit
Dinah, who she believes will help her without judging her. Along
the way, she gives birth to her child. Distraught, she takes the
child into the woods and buries it under a tree. Hetty goes away,
but she cannot escape the sound of the child’s cry. She returns
to where she left the baby. A farm laborer and the Stoniton constable
discover her, and the constable takes her into custody for the murder
of her child.
Adam is distraught when he cannot find Hetty and concludes that
Captain Donnithorne must have lured her away from their upcoming
marriage. Before traveling to Ireland to find him, he first goes
to Mr. Irwine to inform him of his plan. Mr. Irwine tells Adam that
Hetty is in jail for murder. Adam goes to her trial, even though the
situation troubles him. Dinah arrives and is able to reach Hetty through
her depression and convince her that she must repent to save her
soul. Hetty is convicted and sentenced to die.
At the last possible moment, Captain Donnithorne arrives
with a stay of execution. Hetty is transported, meaning that she
is sent away from England for her crimes. She dies just before she
is set to return to Hayslope. Captain Donnithorne goes away for
a few years because of the shame he has brought on the Poysers and
Adam. Adam realizes that he is in love with Dinah. He proposes,
but she rejects him until she comes to realize that it is God’s
will that she marry Adam. They are married, and they have two children.
Seth lives with them and does not marry. Captain Donnithorne ultimately
returns to Hayslope, and he and Adam meet one last time at the conclusion
of the novel. They are able to stay friends despite all that has
come between them.