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 the Poysers.
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.