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Literature Study GuidesAdam BedeBook 1 Chapters 4 6 Summary

Adam Bede | Study Guide

George Eliot

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Adam Bede | Book 1, Chapters 4–6 | Summary



Chapter 4: Home and Its Sorrows

"Patient and complaining, self-renouncing and exacting," brooding and easily moved to tears, as she is described, Lisbeth Bede is shamelessly partial to her elder son, Adam, and treats him with a sense of awe. On returning home, Adam becomes angry because his father, Thias Bede, has gone out drinking when he is supposed to finish making a coffin. Adam immediately sets to work while his mother nags him to eat the food she has lovingly prepared. When Seth arrives home, Lisbeth continues to harangue him while Adam is in the workshop, saying Adam has his heart set on Hetty Sorrel, who will make a bad wife. The reader learns Thias was a fine carpenter who taught his sons the trade until he took to drink when Adam was in his teens. When he was about 18, Adam had thought to run away but stayed to take care of the family. Adam works through the night on the coffin, and in the morning he and Seth carry it to Broxton, about a mile and a half away. On the way back they pass the brook and notice someone in it. Upon closer inspection, they see it is their dead father, who has accidentally drowned himself.

Chapter 5: The Rector

Chapter 5 introduces the Reverend Adolphus Irwine, the rector of Broxton, who also serves as vicar for Hayslope and Blythe, hamlets or villages without their own clergymen. He is playing chess with his mother, with whom he lives along with his two unmarried sisters—one an invalid. The narrator notes that Mr. Irwine has remained a bachelor because his earnings cannot support a family as well as his mother and sisters.

His sexton, Joshua Rann, comes in and complains about Dinah's preaching and about another Methodist, Will Maskery, who has been insulting the rector behind his back. Mr. Irwine counsels Rann to "live and let live." Rann also brings the news of Thias Bede's death.

Mrs. Irwine gets a visit from her godson, young Arthur Donnithorne. Often called the Captain (he is a captain in the Loamshire militia), he is the grandson of old Squire Donnithorne and heir to his estate. Mr. Irwine and Captain Donnithorne discuss Adam Bede, a friend to both of them, highly praising him for his loyalty to his family, his skill, and his reliability. Arthur would like to see Adam managing the Donnithorne woods.

Chapter 6: The Hall Farm

Entering the story are the Poysers, tenant farmers on Squire Donnithorne's land. Mrs. Rachel Poyser runs the busy household and the dairy, working hard herself and scolding those who work for her. She has two young sons and a daughter, a toddler called Totty. Also living with her is her husband's niece Hetty Sorrel. Dinah Morris is Mrs. Poyser's own niece and sister's orphaned child, raised by a third sister, a Methodist named Judith. Since Judith died, Dinah has been on her own, so Mrs. Poyser would like her to come to live on the farm. But Dinah is adamant about her ministry among the less fortunate people in Stonyshire.

Dinah and her Aunt Rachel resemble each other physically, but Rachel Poyser's "keenness and Dinah's seraphic gentleness of expression" reveal the difference in their character. In fact, their eyes are the same color, but Rachel Poyser's glance is a "freezing arctic ray" and her tongue "not less keen than her eye." While the two women talk about Dinah's situation, with Mrs. Poyser encouraging her to live at the Hall Farm and offering to help should she marry, Mr. Irwine enters with Captain Donnithorne, who asks to see the dairy.


Mr. Irwine, the Anglican priest of three parishes, is introduced in Chapter 5, and he is in many ways the opposite of the other important religious figure in the novel—Dinah Morris. Mr. Irwine is a pluralist, meaning he has more than one geographic "living" place, a common practice for clergy until the Anglican Church outlawed it in 1838. Although pluralism greatly enriched some clerics, this is clearly not the case with Mr. Irwine, who makes about 700 pounds a year from the three parishes. Able to keep his mother and two spinster sisters in sufficient middle-class comfort, he could not support a family of his own in addition. This is why he never marries. Yet he takes this sacrifice in stride, if indeed it is a sacrifice since Mr. Irwine seems quite content and does not consider his sisters "uninteresting and superfluous" as others might. Nor does he question or seem to resent his obligation.

The narrator describes Mr. Irwine as big-hearted and kind, with "sufficiently subtle moral fiber to have an unwearying tenderness for obscure and monotonous suffering." The rector is not much for Church doctrine and is tolerant of other viewpoints. He is sufficiently open-minded to feel no threat from the female Methodist preacher and mature enough to disregard Will Maskery's calling him "an idle shepherd," pointing out that before Maskery took up Methodism, he drank and beat his wife. The rector sees the bigger picture: Methodism has improved Maskery's behavior, so, as he tells Joshua Rann, it is worth overlooking the insults.

Although he is neither perfect nor saintly, Mr. Irwine is, in some ways, the moral center of the novel. His very slackness when it comes to Church doctrine is a sign of "saintly moral excellence," according to critic Christopher Herbert. Indeed, Eliot did not sanction the harsh doctrines of Calvinists and evangelical Christians, asserting in an 1855 essay that a religion focused on sin was bound to become inhumane and one-sided. While the character of Dinah is gentle and tender in her personal interactions, her actual theology is not, whereas Mr. Irwine's belief system is humanistic and compassionate.

Mrs. Poyser, matriarch of the Poyser clan, provides comic relief in the novel. She is unafraid to speak her mind to anyone and has an opinion about everything, especially about those in her charge. She is portrayed as an occasionally shrewish but kind-hearted matron, if exacting and intolerant of vanity and indolence. Hetty Sorrel, Mrs. Poyser's niece, is introduced indirectly in Chapter 6 when the narrator says she is fond of "looking at the pleasing reflection of herself in those polished surfaces" of the oak table when her aunt is not paying attention. Much of what the reader learns about Hetty is indirect and thus makes her something of an enigma throughout the novel, though the narrator's first description of her does clearly show her as vain and perhaps sneaky. The narrator and other characters speak negatively about Hetty as the novel progresses, but she, herself, has very little dialogue. When readers encounter Hetty alone, her thoughts and feelings are provided by the narrator, who uses little of the free and more open indirect discourse—third-person narration almost identical with the character's consciousness—for Hetty that he does use frequently for Adam. Thus, the narrator in a sense controls and distances himself from Hetty and distances her from the reader as well.

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