In the village of Hayslope at the close of the eighteenth century, there lives a young carpenter named Adam Bede. Tall and muscular, Adam is respected by everyone as a good worker and an honest and upright man. Even the young squire, Captain Arthur Donnithorne, knows Adam and likes him, and Adam in turn regards the squire as his best friend.
Adam is, in fact, so good a worker that his employer, Jonathan Burge, the builder, would welcome him as his son-in-law and partner. Adam, however, has no eyes for Mary Burge; his only thoughts are of distractingly pretty Hetty Sorrel, niece of Mrs. Poyser, whose husband, Martin, runs Hall Farm. Hetty, however, cares nothing for Adam. She is interested only in Donnithorne, whom she met one day at her aunt’s dairy.
No one in Hayslope thinks Hetty would make a good wife for Adam, least of all Adam’s mother, Lisbeth, who will disapprove of any girl who threatens to take her favorite son away from her. Her feelings of dependence upon Adam are intensified after her husband, Matthias Bede, drowns in Willow Brook while on his way home from the village inn.
Adam’s brother, Seth, has fallen in love with the young Methodist preacher, Dinah Morris. Dinah is another niece of Mrs. Poyser, as unlike her cousin Hetty as Adam is unlike Seth. Hetty is as soft and helpless as a kitten, but Dinah is firm and serious in all things. One evening, while Dinah and Seth are walking home together from the village green, he proposes marriage. Dinah sadly declines, saying she has dedicated her life to preaching the gospel.
When funeral services for Matthias Bede are held in Hayslope Church on the following Sunday, the thoughts of the congregation are on many events other than the solemn occasion they are attending. Adam’s thoughts of Hetty blend with memories of his father. Hetty’s thoughts are all of Donnithorne, who has promised to make his appearance. She is disappointed, however, for Donnithorne has already departed with his regiment.
When Donnithorne returns on leave, the young squire celebrates his twenty-first birthday with a great feast to which nearly all of Hayslope is invited. Adam is singled out as a special guest to sit at Donnithorne’s table, which makes Adam’s mother both proud and jealous, since her son seems to be getting more and more out of her reach.
One August night, three weeks after the Donnithorne party, Adam is returning home from his work on the Donnithorne estate when he sees Donnithorne and Hetty in close embrace. When Adam’s dog barks, Hetty hurries away. Donnithorne, embarrassed, tries to explain that he had met the girl by chance and had stolen a kiss. Adam calls his friend a scoundrel and a coward. They come to blows, and Donnithorne is knocked senseless. Adam, frightened that he might have killed the young squire, revives him and helps him to a nearby summerhouse. There he demands that Donnithorne write a letter to Hetty telling her that he will not see her again.
The next day, Donnithorne sends the letter to Hetty in Adam’s care, thus placing the responsibility for its possible effect on Adam himself. Adam gives Hetty the letter while they are walking the following Sunday. When she reads the letter in the privacy of her bedchamber, Hetty is in despair. Her dreams shattered, she thinks only of finding some way out of her misery.
In November, Adam is offered a partnership in Mr. Burge’s business, and he proposes to Hetty. Mr. and Mrs. Poyser are delighted to find that their niece is...
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to marry the man they so much admire. The wedding has to be delayed, however, until two new rooms can be added to the Bede house. In February, Hetty tells her aunt that she is going to visit Dinah at Snowfield. Though at this point she is engaged to Adam, Hetty is frantic at the knowledge that she is pregnant with Donnithorne’s child and runs from everything she knows as she struggles to deal with the consequences of her affair with the squire. As a result, she is determined to find Donnithorne.
When Hetty arrives at Windsor, where Donnithorne is supposed to be stationed, she finds that his regiment has been transferred to Ireland. In complete despair, Hetty roams about, ending up in a strange village in the house of a widow named Sarah Stone, where her child by Donnithorne is born. Confused and frightened, Hetty wanders on, leaving her baby to die in the woods. Later, tortured by her conscience, she returns to find the child gone.
When his grandfather dies, Donnithorne returns to Hayslope to discover that Hetty is in prison, charged with the murder of her child. He does everything in his power to free her. Dinah arrives at her prison cell and prays with her to open up her heart and tell the truth. Finally, poor Hetty breaks down and confesses everything that has happened since she left Hayslope. She had not intended to kill her baby; in fact, she had not directly killed the child. She had, instead, considered taking her own life. Two days later, Donnithorne, filled with shame and remorse, brings a reprieve. Hetty’s sentence is commuted to deportation. A few years later, she dies on her way home. Donnithorne suffers from a grave illness and almost dies.
Dinah stays with the Poysers more often after Hetty’s exile. Gradually, she and Adam are drawn to each other, but Dinah’s heart is still set on her preaching. She leaves Hall Farm and goes back to Snowfield. Adam finds his only satisfaction in toiling at his workbench.
One day, Adam’s mother again mentions Dinah and her gentle ways, leading Adam to try to find her. Adam and Dinah eventually marry, have two children, and settle with their children and a doting Uncle Seth.