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Literature Study GuidesAdam BedeBook 2 Chapters 17 19 Summary

Adam Bede | Study Guide

George Eliot

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Adam Bede | Book 2, Chapters 17–19 | Summary



Chapter 17: In Which the Story Pauses a Little

In Chapter 17, addressed to the reader, the narrator digresses sharply from the story to defend the goodness of the clergyman Mr. Irwine and asks readers to accept him with his faults, one of them being, perhaps, that he is not "spiritual" enough and didn't steer Arthur Donnithorne away from his dalliance with Hetty. Indeed, Eliot is saying, through the narrator, that characters, like real people, have flaws, and others must "tolerate, pity, and love" them—or hate them—rather than reject them for the perfection they lack. As an author, Eliot takes the opportunity—through the narrator—to challenge readers to find beauty in reality rather than in the ideal.

The narrator then defends his telling of a simple story full of common folk. He thanks God "human feeling is like the mighty rivers that bless the earth: it does not wait for beauty—it flows with resistless force and brings beauty with it." While all should revere the beauty of form, they should not forget "that other beauty too, which lies ... in the secret of deep human sympathy."

Finally, the narrator contrastingly recalls Mr. Irwine's successor—Mr. Ryde—with a stricter adherence to doctrine and less of a practical view of life and problem solving. He may have preached loftier and more learned sermons, but he was of little use in people's daily lives.

Chapter 18: Church

Thias Bede's funeral takes place on Sunday. Hetty, in her pink Sunday dress, looks as if she were "made of roses." Mrs. Poyser scolds her both for being late and for wearing pink to the funeral. On the way to church the Poysers gossip about other dairy farmers and then discuss the possible futures of Hetty and Dinah. Scolding Hetty, once again, this time for letting the boys lag behind and get into mischief, Mrs. Poyser tells her to run back for them. Much of the town is assembled for the funeral service in the church, and there is talk of war with the French and other subjects that are narrated in the local folkloric ways of speech. Captain Donnithorne does not attend, however, and Hetty discreetly cries a few tears of frustration. Readers learn from Mr. Craig, the gardener, that Arthur has gone fishing in Eagledale, but Hetty has not given up her hopes. Meanwhile, Adam is thinking about Hetty and feeling regret about having been too hard on his father while he was alive.

Chapter 19: Adam on a Working Day

The next day, as he works, Adam is thinking about how Hetty greeted him with sadness, and he thinks she felt sympathy with his family trouble. The narrator, however, notes, "We look at the one little woman's face we love, as we look at the face of our mother earth, and see all sorts of answers to our own yearnings." Adam believes he must increase his prosperity before thinking of marrying Hetty, and he has in mind to begin a side business with Seth, taking pride in his skills in cabinetry. The narrator describes and praises Adam as an example of an upstanding and strong character.


Chapter 17 provides the clearest indication that George Eliot intended Mr. Irwine to be the moral compass of the novel. The narrator emerges from behind his storytelling curtain, anticipating the reader's criticism of Mr. Irwine for not giving Arthur Donnithorne better spiritual advice. But the narrator says readers would have liked Mr. Irwine less if he had "improved the facts" (since the narrator maintains the fiction he is providing is a true mirrored history). No one would have liked a "tasteless, indiscreet, methodistical man," and rarely do the "facts hit that nice medium required by our enlightened opinion and refined taste!" Mr. Irwine is a mere mortal, after all, and readers must take him as he comes. He is much better than the man who succeeds him, Mr. Ryde, who "insisted strongly on the doctrines of the Reformation" and who visited people in their homes and "rubuk[ed] the aberrations of the flesh." But few clergymen are "less successful in winning the hearts of their parishioners." As Adam Bede once said to the narrator, "Religion's something else besides notions. It isn't notions sets people doing the right thing—it's feelings." Indeed the characterization of Mr. Irwine explains Eliot's view of psychologically complex characters: like real people, they may be inconsistent, contradictory, and, above all, imperfect, as they neglect to do things or do them in excess. Presenting them in all their imperfections is her purpose, and readers are invited to react as they would to a real person. Rather than ideals and abstracts, the emphasis must be on the actual and familiar in which human nature reveals itself.

In his old age, Adam remembers that Mr. Irwine never set himself above his parishioners and that no one had a word to say against him. Adam allows there is something called deep spirituality: "[y]ou can't make much out wi' talking about it, but you feel it." Although Mr. Irwine didn't address this phenomenon, he preached "short moral sermons ... [and] acted pretty much up to what he said." He said only what was good and what people would be wiser for remembering without "making a clatter about what I could never understand," says the old Adam Bede. Thus, the narrator basically endorses the religion of Mr. Irwine for its everyday practicality above the Methodism of Dinah, which has a tinge of mysticism to it. He doesn't deny her deep spirituality, but, for practical purposes, Mr. Irwine is the author's preferred leader of a Christian flock.

Chapters 18 and 19 pick up the story as the community gathers for the elder Bede's funeral. The narrator follows the Poyser family from their home to the church, and Hetty's role as servant is highlighted, as is Mrs. Poyser's habit of haranguing and criticizing her. While it is understandable for her to criticize Hetty for wearing pink, she unfairly scolds her for not being ready on time, when she has to get the youngest ready, and then again because the boys lag behind because they "could no more refrain from stopping and peeping than if they had been a couple of spaniels and terriers." Yet Hetty must get the blame. Her isolation from everyone is made clearer when the narrator relates her inner thoughts in being disappointed because of Arthur Donnithorne's absence. She is a cipher, unable to confide in anyone, an island unto herself. No one can see her beyond her outward appearance.

Adam foolishly thinks Hetty's melancholy is in sympathy with his sorrow. Upon his father's death he begins to realize for the first time that perhaps he is too hard on people and wishes he had been kinder to his father. This is a change for Adam, who, up until now, believes he is right in all things. The narrator also shows how Adam is in error in his pursuit of Hetty, already planning his marriage to her now that his financial situation has improved. The narrator alludes to the fact that Adam has only begun learning his life lessons, in which the "heartstrings [are] bound around the weak and erring, so that he must share not only the outward consequence of their error, but their inward suffering." His love for Hetty will eventually take him on that inward journey toward compassion.

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