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Literature Study GuidesAdam BedeBook 2 Chapters 20 21 Summary

Adam Bede | Study Guide

George Eliot

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Adam Bede | Book 2, Chapters 20–21 | Summary



Chapter 20: Adam Visits the Hall Farm

Lisbeth indirectly criticizes Adam for courting Hetty when she sees him wearing his good clothes on his way to visit at the Hall Farm. When Adam gets to the Poysers' home, Mrs. Poyser kindly sends him to the garden to fetch Totty, knowing he has come to see Hetty, who is there with the child. Hetty is picking currants while Totty is making a meal of the cherries. Adam sends the child inside, and startles Hetty. She blushes, a sign Adam interprets as interest in him as a suitor. Hetty is actually blushing because she has been thinking of Captain Donnithorne, but she behaves gently toward Adam, knowing he will not aggressively advance his cause. As Adam interacts with Hetty, he imagines "the long years of his future life stretching before him, blest with the right to call Hetty his own." Adam and Hetty return to the house, and he has supper with the Poyser family.

Chapter 21: The Night School and the Schoolmaster

After leaving the Poysers, Adam visits his former schoolteacher, Bartle Massey, who is teaching night school. Massey's students are grown workingmen learning to read. Massey, a cantankerous but kind taskmaster, is also a bachelor and talks a strong misogynist streak. He has recently rescued a female dog that has had puppies. Bartle tells Adam, his former star pupil, that Arthur Donnithorne would like to hire Adam to manage the woods, although Adam is doubtful of the prospect because of an incident years ago. The old Squire's daughter, Miss Lydia, once commissioned Adam to make a frame, and when he delivered a fine piece of work, the old man said he'd charged too much. Rather than take less than the agreed-on price, Adam made the work a present to Miss Lydia. The next day the Donnithornes' footman delivered Adam's fee, and since then the old man has had a grudge against him.


There is more than one thread of misogyny in Adam Bede. Hetty is hardly viewed as a woman in the novel, compared by the narrator to a kitten, a baby in her roundness, and a downy peach, which people may bite into without thinking about the stone. In Chapter 16 Captain Donnithorne indirectly associates Hetty with cherries when he says men "may determine not to gather any cherries and keep our hands sturdily in our pockets, but we can't prevent our mouths from watering." Now, in Chapter 20, Adam finds Hetty outside among the currants and the cherries, and Totty is stuffing herself with cherries. Mrs. Poyser later compares Hetty to a cherry (Chapter 31), soft on the outside and hard on the inside. Cherries are associated with Hetty, who on the symbolic level is forbidden fruit, a luscious item to be consumed, a sexualized object that is the stuff of men's fantasies. Even Adam, the hero of the story and the best of men, cannot see her as she is and simply projects his own fantasy of goodness on the hard-hearted young woman.

The heterosexual male narrator perhaps has more in common with Bartle Massey than might appear at first glance. Bartle says he has no use for women and calls his dog Vixen a woman, not seeing much difference between the promiscuous canine and females of the human species. Much later in the novel there is a hint Bartle was unlucky in love, which may account for his bitterness. The only woman who has the narrator's full approval is Dinah Morris, who shows no hint of sexuality until the end of the story. After she succumbs to love and passion, marrying Adam and producing children, readers hear little from her, and she, along with other women preachers, is officially silenced by her Methodist church.

It is hard to know what to make of these threads and whether George Eliot consciously wove them in. Perhaps in her first novel she is trying to represent the everyman of a certain era as realistically as possible. But for the modern reader there appears to be dramatic irony in George Eliot telling the story through a male narrator's eyes, since his own prejudices clearly reveal the subjugation of women and his belief in the rightness of gender inequality. Nonetheless, he is a creation of a brilliant female novelist who becomes more and more willing to tackle gender oppression as she developed as a writer. Men, as represented by the narrator of Adam Bede, impose false narratives on women as a matter of course. Whether George Eliot created this dramatic irony consciously or not, it clearly exists. The narrator's position is not mitigated anywhere in the text, but a subtext does exist in the novel—one that shows how Hetty Sorrel, the least among her gender and already marginalized, is certainly more than a luscious piece of fruit

She breaks out the stereotypical narrative of getting married and happily having children when she kills her infant—a horrific act, to be sure, but one that may not be entirely unexpected, given the lack of choices that could be made by women in the world of the novel.

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