Everyone in Hayslope admires Adam Bede, a trustworthy and highly moral master carpenter. He is handsome, smart, strong, talented as a carpenter and a land manager, loyal, and loving. However, he is sometimes overly harsh and judgmental with others. After he falls in love with Hetty Sorrel, who rejects and then jilts him after they are engaged, he learns to be more compassionate and eventually falls in love with and marries Dinah, a woman of character and depth.
Kind, earnest, and compassionate, Dinah seems to bring peace and calm wherever she goes. All who know her love Dinah, and her eloquent preaching is instrumental in turning more than one heart toward God. However, although she preaches the love of God, she also preaches divine retribution and threatens people with hellfire and eternal damnation. Seth Bede is in love with her, but she ends up falling in love with Adam and marrying him.
Hetty's extraordinary good looks turn heads, and Adam Bede's is one of them. Although Hetty is taken in by the Poysers as an orphan while still a child of seven or eight, she never learns to love the family—nor do they show her much affection—and she cannot love Adam or even Arthur Donnithorne. She is interested only in material things and what she believes her good looks can buy her. Cold-hearted and selfish, she dislikes children and older people and has no tender feelings for infants of any kind—ducklings, kittens, puppies, and humans. She has sexual relations with Donnithorne, who flatters her and gives her presents, thinking he will marry her. Instead, she becomes pregnant and ends up imprisoned for murdering her baby.
Arthur Donnithorne is by nature a good man, generous, friendly, and kind. As heir to his grandfather's property, he intends to make improvements on the farms once he inherits the Donnithorne estate. Although he seeks approval and wants to be well liked, he is used to having what he wants and is careless in his treatment of Hetty, whom he seduces and then abandons, even though he does so as kindly as is possible for him and offers his help should she ever need it. When he learns of Hetty's crime and imminent punishment, he immediately uses his influence to commute her death sentence to a life of servitude.
Mrs. Poyser is a proud, hardworking, and highly capable farm woman. She seems to have no fear of authority and stands up to those who she believes overstep limits or are in the wrong, no matter what their position may be. As a mother figure, she cares for and indulges her own three children and has raised her husband's orphaned niece, Hetty Sorrel. However, her maternal instinct toward Hetty leans more to using the girl as a dairymaid, housemaid, and babysitter. Showing little affection toward her niece, she tries to discourage Hetty's vanity but does encourage her to marry a good man. She is less judgmental about Hetty's fall from grace than readers might expect.
A quietly religious man, Mr. Irwine shows wisdom, tolerance, and empathy toward those with whom he comes in contact. Although he lives a comfortable life, he has forsaken marriage because he lovingly supports his mother and two sisters and couldn't afford to support his own family as well. He is a genuinely good, perceptive man, with no great ambitions or agendas, and he dispenses good, practical advice when it is needed. He likes his comforts but is not in the least snobbish, and he is admired by all in his parish.