Literature Study GuidesAdam BedeBook 5 Chapters 39 41 Summary

Adam Bede | Study Guide

George Eliot

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Adam Bede | Book 5, Chapters 39–41 | Summary



Chapter 39: The Tidings

When Adam Bede arrives in Broxton to confide in Mr. Irwine, Carroll, the butler, tells him a stranger is speaking with the rector in the house. Carroll fetches the rector, who looks upset and anxious as he greets Adam. Adam recounts the story of Hetty's disappearance and his search for her, and he gets to narrating the part Arthur Donnithorne has played in Hetty's running off, Mr. Irwine grasps Adam's arm in sorrow and pain. But the rector has some bad and shocking news of his own: Hetty is now in prison at Stoniton, having been arrested for child murder.

Adam, at first incredulous, becomes furious, saying they should put Arthur on trial since it is his fault. "I can't bear it ... O God it's too hard to lay upon me—it's too hard to think she's wicked," he says. Adam is possessed with a desire for vengeance, saying he will find Arthur and drag him back, but Mr. Irwine says he has already been called back by his grandfather and persuades Adam to ride with him to Stoniton to help Hetty as much as he can.

Chapter 40: The Bitter Waters Spread

Mr. Irwine comes back from Stoniton that evening and learns old Squire Donnithorne has died. Adam has remained in Stoniton to be near Hetty, although he hasn't worked up the courage to see her. Hetty's trial will be held the next week, and it is likely Hetty's uncle, Martin Poyser, will be called to testify. Both Poysers, father and son, feel "the scorching sense of disgrace." Although willing to "pay any money" to try to get an acquittal, they have decided they never want to see her again and intend to move out of the area because they do not want to stay on Donnithorne land. Both the Poysers and Mrs. Bede hope Dinah Morris will come to comfort them, and they have Seth send a letter to the female preacher Dinah is likely staying with in Leeds.

Bartle Massey visits with the rector and learns the evidence is strong against Hetty despite her denials of having or killing a child. Massey decides to go to Stoniton to be with his old pupil, Adam, the only one who ever had a "head-piece for mathematics." He admits that he has "been a fool myself in my time," so he has an idea what Adam is going through.

Chapter 41: The Eve of the Trial

Mr. Irwine returns to Stoniton, visiting with Adam and Bartle Massey after seeing Hetty in jail. The rector informs Adam that Hetty does not wish to see him. Adam still wants Donnithorne to suffer and can't believe Hetty is guilty of murder. Mr. Irwine counsels Adam that he cannot apportion guilt or retribution to Arthur. "How far a man is to be held responsible for the unforeseen consequences of his own deed, is one that might well make us tremble to look into it," he says. Further, when Adam says he would sooner do something bad that only he would suffer for and not others, Mr. Irwine replies such an act is not possible. Any sort of wrong deed spreads evil like a disease because people's lives are "thoroughly blended." Any act of vengeance against Arthur that Adam might carry out would simply add evil to those who are already suffering.


Both Adam and Mr. Irwine are in similar predicaments in Chapter 39. The hardest thing for both men is the necessity of admitting someone they have idealized has fallen far off the mark. Even their language upon being let down is the same. The rector says, "No Adam, no—don't say it, for God's sake!" when he first realizes he must hear of Arthur Donnithorne's wrongdoing. When Adam hears Hetty is on trial for child murder, he cries, "It can't be! ... Who says it?" Neither wants to blame the person he loves for their actions. Mr. Irwine blames himself for being too "fastidious about intruding on another man's secrets ... it was cruel to think how thin a film had shut out rescue from all this guilt and misery." He thinks that if he had prodded Arthur into confessing his early flirtation with Hetty, he could have talked him out of the rest. But, in fact, the rector did give Arthur the opportunity to come clean, and if he had really wanted to avoid the affair and been stronger and more mature, he would have confessed to his old mentor.

Adam, for his part, blames Captain Donnithorne for Hetty's crime. "Let 'em put him on trial. ... Is he to go free, while they lay all the punishment on her ... so weak and so young?" Adam now has vengeance in his heart, and for this reason the rector convinces him to ride with him to Stoniton so he can avoid running into Arthur, who is on his way back from Ireland, having been summoned by his dying grandfather.

Mr. Irwine shows his ability to minister to the brokenhearted in their time of crisis. He returns to Stoniton to see Hetty and then visits Adam and Bartle, again counseling Adam to avoid keeping a vengeful heart. Mr. Irwine delivers a key point of the novel, which is that no one can judge with certainty the degree to which a person is responsible for a bad act, since those who have not committed the act are always looking at a partial view. Further, an evil act affects a large number of people, not just the person who commits the act—and not just the person who may be its target. "The evil consequences that may lie folded in a single act of self indulgence, is a thought so awful that it ought surely to awaken some feeling less presumptuous than a rash desire to punish," Mr. Irwine says. This idea of interconnection—the web in which all human beings are enmeshed—is a recurring theme in Eliot's novels following Adam Bede. In Middlemarch, for example, the web of interconnection becomes a central metaphor. Eliot insists a widening of imaginative sympathy to comprehend the plight of others produces wisdom and compassion.
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