Adam Bede by George Eliot: Summary & Overview

Instructor: Debbie Notari
In this lesson, we will learn the story of 'Adam Bede,' written by George Eliot. This story was George Eliot's first published novel, and it explores the love and loss of a young man in the 1800s.

Character Survey

Before we get into the plot of the story, here is a brief description of the main characters in the story, Adam Bede.

1. Adam Bede: Adam is a good man, very hard working, and he holds a strong work ethic. He is admired by others in his village and is a carpenter. Adam loves Hetty Sorrel.

2. Hetty Sorrel: Hetty is a 17-year-old orphan, raised by the Poyser couple, her aunt and uncle. She is immature and self-centered. Although Adam Bede loves her, she flirts with Captain Donnithorne and eventually becomes pregnant with his child.

3. Captain Donnithorne: Captain (Arthur) is the grandson of the local squire. He is good-natured, but lacks the commitment to show Hetty the respect she deserves as a woman. He flirts and sleeps with Hetty.

4. Dinah Morris: A lovely Methodist minister who cares for everyone in her life. She is the niece of the Poysers and is temporarily staying with them.

5. Seth Bede: Adam's brother, also a carpenter, who loves Dinah although she does not return his affections.

Book One

The novel is divided into six 'books,' or sections. We will take each section and summarize it, bit by bit. Book One introduces the story. The setting is the village of Hayslope. We first see Adam and his brother Seth working in their carpentry shop. Adam believes strongly in the value of hard work. A Methodist minister, Dinah, comes to town and preaches in such a way that she touches the hearts of the villagers. Seth falls in love with her, but Dinah lets him know that her calling is to be single and serve others.

Also, in Book One, Adam and Seth's father, Thias, dies in a stream from a drinking accident. Captain Donnithorne meets Hetty, and the two begin to flirt. Hetty is more concerned with living a wealthy life than truly loving someone, so she is not interested in Adam, who is of a modest income. Although she doesn't really love Captain Donnithorne, either, she is attracted to the life he might provide for her, and naively believes that he would marry someone who is 'beneath' him in social status. At first, Donnithorne tries to be careful about not encouraging Hetty too much, but he soon begins to pursue her.

Book Two

In the previous section, Captain Donnithorne begins flirting with Hetty, but he feels badly about it at first. Hetty begins imagining herself as Mrs. Donnithorne. However, Adam begins to pursue Hetty. He comes to visit her, and mistakes the blush he sees in her cheeks as an indication of her love for him. Hetty is not interested in Adam at all, but he doesn't see it.

Book Three

Captain Donnithorne gives gifts to Hetty, such as earrings and a necklace. He is beginning to like her more than he admits. Hetty wears these to his 'coming out' party. Immaturely, Hetty pretends to like Adam at the party just to make another girl, Mary Burge, jealous. She is aware that Mary loves Adam. The party continues with games and dancing. Awkwardly, Hetty's necklace is broken by her small cousin, Totty, and her locket falls to the ground. When Adam retrieves it, he notices that there are two colors of hair tucked into the locket. He begins to fear that Hetty has another lover.

Book Four

On the night before Captain Donnithorne is supposed to leave to join his regiment, Adam catches Captain and Hetty kissing in the woods. Donnithorne lies and tries to brush it off as merely a goodbye kiss, but Adam knows better. Adam tells Donnithorne that he loves Hetty, and the two fight. Adam knocks Captain Donnithorne out with his blows. The two men are friends, but Hetty has definitely come between them. Rather than admit the depth of his relationship with Hetty, Donnithorne lies and tells Adam that it is simply a fling. Adam tells him to write a letter to Hetty telling her that their relationship was just a sham, and that he is leaving. Reluctantly, Donnithorne does so.

Hetty reads the letter, and in it Donnithorne tells her he can never marry her due to their class distinctions. Hetty is angry, but decides to marry Adam because he can take care of her.

Hetty seems to be more interested in Adam, but she is incapable of loving anyone more than herself. Adam proposes, and she accepts. Soon after, Hetty realizes that she is pregnant, and, although she claims to be leaving on a trip to see Dinah, who has returned to her hometown, she is really seeking Captain Donnithorne to see if he will help her.

Book Five

Hetty does not have enough money to get her to Windsor, where Captain Donnithorne is said to be stationed. She receives help from strangers, but upon reaching her destination, she realizes that Captain Donnethorne's regiment has left for Ireland. Destitute, she decides to see Dinah and ask for help. But on the way, she changes her mind and wants to kill herself. She lacks the courage. It seems she is much farther along in her pregnancy than it seemed at first, and she actually delivers her child at a home in the country, but then buries the newborn in the woods. She is then arrested and imprisoned.

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