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Adam Bede | Study Guide

George Eliot

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Adam Bede | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Book 1

The novel opens in Jonathan Burge's workshop in the village of Hayslope, where the protagonist, Adam Bede, a handsome and highly skilled carpenter of about 26, works with his brother Seth. Adam is characterized as an honest craftsman who takes pride in his work but tends toward severity and self-righteousness. He defends his brother a little too vigorously against another man who teases Seth about forgetting to put panels on the door he is working on. Seth is a Methodist in love with Dinah Morris, a female Methodist preacher introduced in Chapter 2. Dinah gives a powerful sermon in which she speaks about the compassion as well as the judgment of Jesus. There is love in Dinah's eloquent preaching as well as the threat of hellfire.

Seth walks Dinah back to her aunt's (Mrs. Poyser's) house, where she is visiting. Dinah herself lives, works, and preaches in another district, Stonyshire, and lives in Snowfield, a mill town. Seth is deeply in love with Dinah, but she tells him she can never marry him because she is committed to her spiritual work. Also introduced in these first chapters is Adam and Seth's nagging mother, Lisbeth Bede, who favors her elder son, and Thias (Matthias) Bede, her husband, a chronic drunk who turns up dead in a nearby brook.

Also introduced is the Reverend Adolphus Irwine, the Anglican clergyman. He is more relaxed about his religion than Dinah and far more worldly and educated. The rector, or leader, of the parish of Broxton and vicar, or administrative deputy, of Hayslope and Blythe, he believes people are basically good and espouses a "live and let live" attitude toward life. Although he is not a model of piety, he has sacrificed the possibility of marriage to care for his mother and maiden sisters, one of whom is an invalid. For generations Dinah's aunt Poyser's family has leased the Hall Farm, which previously was the residence of the county's aristocrats. The hated old Squire Donnithorne leases out all the tenant land, and people are waiting for the old man to die so his grandson Arthur will improve his holdings and treat the working people with more kindness and respect. Mrs. Poyser is the matriarch of the Poysers now residing at the Hall Farm. She and her husband have three children and are also raising Mr. Poyser's niece, Hetty Sorrel, an exceptionally beautiful if empty-headed, vain, and hard-hearted girl of 17, who would like to rise above her station in life but for the moment must put up with what she has.

Admired and respected by everyone, Adam Bede is considered a highly eligible bachelor. He is in love with Hetty, who has no interest in him. Instead she has been dreaming of Arthur Donnithorne, the old Squire's heir, who has lately shown her attention. Arthur is strongly attracted to flirtatious Hetty and thinks to confide in Mr. Irwine, his former tutor and mentor, about the danger he is in, but in the end he declines to do so. Arthur has, in fact, begun to carry on a secret flirtation with Hetty that can only end badly because of their disparate stations in life.

Book 2

Book 2 opens with an authorial digression and defense of Mr. Irwine's religion and then picks up the story with Thias Bede's funeral. Since Arthur has been attempting to stay away from Hetty, she is sad, although Adam misinterprets her sadness as feeling for the death of his father. Mrs. Bede does not like to imagine Adam getting married, and she is particularly critical of Hetty, thinking she would make a poor wife, unlike Dinah whom she thinks is unselfish and kind.

In Chapter 21 Adam visits his old schoolmaster, Bartle Massey, a good friend but definitely a misogynist. He tells his former pupil that the old Squire needs a new land manager, and Adam is likely to get the position.

Book 3

Arthur has been unable to stay away from Hetty nor she from him. During the summer he has given her presents of earrings and a locket, and she fancies herself in love with him and wants to marry him. At a large birthday feast for Arthur, who is turning 21, it is announced Adam has been given the job of managing the Donnithorne woodlands. At the festivities Hetty is about to dance with Adam when the Poysers' toddler, Totty, pulls at Hetty's necklace, on which Hetty is hiding the locket beneath her clothes. The locket flies off, and Adam retrieves it, noticing two locks of hair intertwined. He convinces himself the locket, which looks expensive, may be something Hetty actually bought herself, and the hair entwined with hers belongs to one of her parents who died when she was a child.

Book 4

Book 4 begins with Adam's crisis. A short while after the birthday celebration, he is walking through the Grove and sees Arthur kissing Hetty. He confronts Arthur and fights with him. Overpowering Arthur, Adam gets Arthur to promise to write Hetty a letter in which he admits he will never marry her. Arthur is about to leave for his regiment and has the sealed letter delivered to Adam, leaving it up to him whether to deliver the harsh news. Until this argument, Arthur and Adam have been good friends. Arthur's hope has been for Hetty to forget about him after he leaves town because he does not want to face the serious implications of what has become a fully consummated affair. He has lied to Adam about the extent of the relationship, saying it was never more than a flirtation. Adam does visit Hetty and gives her the letter as the strong medicine she needs to cure her unrealistic dream of marrying Arthur.

Hetty becomes depressed as a result of Arthur's rejection and at first thinks she will leave the farm. However, she gradually resigns herself to the idea of marrying Adam as an alternative. When they become engaged, Adam is ecstatic. He is now working for the Donnithorne family while continuing to manage Mr. Burge's carpentry workshop and earning a good living. But Hetty now must hide what she realizes is her pregnancy, and a few weeks before the wedding runs off on the pretext of visiting her cousin Dinah. She plans to go to Windsor where Arthur is stationed, thinking he will do something to save her.

Book 5

When Hetty arrives in Windsor, she learns Arthur's regiment has left for Ireland. She is temporarily taken in by a couple who run an inn. By this time Hetty has spent all the money she took with her, and the couple agree to loan her—to their considerable advantage—three guineas (the amount she had when she left home) in exchange for her expensive earrings and locket. Hetty's first plan is to return home. Then she seriously considers killing herself and finally resolves to go straight to Dinah.

Hetty has been gone from Hayslope for about two weeks, days longer than anticipated, and a worried Adam sets out to retrieve her and Dinah. But when he gets to the house where Dinah boards, he learns she is out of town preaching and Hetty never arrived. He guesses Hetty went off to Ireland to be with Arthur and plans to continue looking for her, but first he comes home to confide the news to Mr. Irwine, along with information about Arthur's previous bad behavior toward Hetty.

But the rector has his own unfortunate news: Hetty is in prison for child murder. Horrified, Adam directs all his anger at Arthur, who is expected back in Hayslope because his grandfather is dying. Thinking it best to get Adam out of town, the rector and Adam travel together to visit Hetty. That night Mr. Irwine returns to Broxton and learns the old Squire has died and Arthur is on his way home. Adam remains in Stoniton where Hetty is imprisoned, but he does not try to see her face to face. Devastated by Hetty's situation, the Poysers simultaneously write to Dinah and determine to leave the Hall Farm. Although the Poysers have worked the farm for generations they will not remain tenants of the Donnithornes after what Arthur has done. In the meantime Adam's old teacher and friend, Bartle Massey, heads to Stoniton to provide Adam with moral support.

Mr. Irwine returns to Stoniton and visits Hetty, who still does not wish to see Adam. Bartle Massey returns to Adam, who is staying in a rented room in Stoniton, after the first day of the trial and reports the doctor has found irrefutable evidence Hetty had been pregnant. The next day Adam goes to court and sits near Hetty during the trial. He learns that a widow who runs a shop in Stoniton took Hetty in. Hetty subsequently gave birth to a child and later left with her child while the widow was out of the house. A laborer has testified he heard a child crying. Because he was in a hurry, he looked about quickly and didn't see anything. When he passed through again along the same route, he found Hetty's dead child buried under a pile of turf and timber chips. Mr. Irwine testifies to Hetty's good character, hoping for a lenient punishment. Hetty, however, has refused to admit her guilt or show remorse, thus alienating her from the jury. The verdict comes back guilty, with no recommendation of mercy, and Hetty is sentenced to hang.

When Arthur gets back home, he first learns Hetty is on trial and leaves immediately for Stoniton. After the verdict is read, Hetty returns to prison to await her hanging in a few days. By now, Dinah, having been away preaching in Leeds, has received the news and goes to the prison to keep watch with and comfort Hetty as well as to persuade her to repent and pray for forgiveness. With Dinah's soothing presence, Hetty finally breaks down and confesses her crime, which until now she has denied. She tells Dinah she buried the baby under the pile of chips and turf, half hoping someone would find it. When she came back the next day, the baby was gone. Hetty is haunted by the infant's crying and asks Dinah whether it will stop. Feeling calmer and more at peace, Hetty agrees to see Adam to say goodbye and ask for his forgiveness, which he gives without hesitation.

On the morning of her hanging, Arthur Donnithorne rides in at the last moment with official paperwork announcing a reduced sentence, in which Hetty will serve prison time overseas. That evening, back in Hayslope, both Adam and Arthur are by chance walking again in the Grove, where Adam first saw Arthur and Hetty together. Arthur begs Adam not to leave town and asks him to persuade the Poysers to stay as well. He wishes to minimize further damage and disruption arising from his bad actions. Arthur plans to make a career of military service and give up his dream of being a country squire. This choice will put him out of the picture for good and allow everyone else to pick up the pieces of their lives. Adam agrees to do his part to heal the community, and the men shake hands and part.

Book 6

Book 6 picks up 18 months after Arthur and Adam have parted. The Poysers have stayed, and they have had Dinah for company. But now she wishes to leave again because she feels herself strongly attracted to Adam and believes such a love will take her away from her religious calling. Adam's mother sees Dinah is in love with Adam, and she finally tells him point-blank so he can see it too. By now Dinah and Adam have become good friends, but it hasn't occurred to Adam that Dinah might love him. His mother's remarks have the effect of awakening his own feelings, which he has not realized. Seth, who is resigned to the idea that Dinah will never love him, gives Adam his blessing to pursue Dinah. Adam declares his love to Dinah, who responds in kind but says she cannot marry him until she knows whether it is the will of God. For this reason she leaves town again. After several weeks pass, Adam seeks out Dinah in Snowfield. When she sees him there, she realizes she is meant to be with him and tells him she is ready to marry.

In the epilogue, seven years have passed since the beginning of the story. Adam and Dinah have two children. Lisbeth Bede died during the time elapsed, and Hetty dies, still in exile, at the end of her sentence. Arthur returns and is accepted back into the community.

Adam Bede Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Dinah Morris preaches in Hayslope.

Rising Action

2 Thias Bede dies after falling drunkenly into a brook.

3 Mr. Irwine warns Arthur Donnithorne to stay away from Hetty Sorrel.

4 Adam Bede sees Arthur Donnithorne kiss Hetty Sorrel in the Grove.

5 Arthur Donnithorne leaves Hayslope for the army.

6 Adam Bede delivers Arthur Donnithorne's break-up letter.

7 Adam Bede begins courting a disappointed Hetty Sorrel.

8 Hetty Sorrel and Adam Bede become engaged.

9 Hetty Sorrel, now pregnant, runs off in search of Arthur Donnithorne.

10 Adam Bede goes to Snowfield to find Hetty Sorrel, who hasn't returned.


11 Hetty Sorrel leaves her baby to die under a woodchip pile.

Falling Action

12 Hetty Sorrel is convicted of murder and sentenced to hang.

13 Arthur Donnithorne announces Hetty Sorrel's sentence is reduced to exile.

14 Adam Bede and Dinah Morris marry after realizing they love each other.


15 Arthur Donnithorne returns to Hayslope after Hetty Sorrel's death.

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