About a month passes, Arthur's twenty-first birthday dawns clear and warm, and all the tenants of the estate prepare for a day of celebration: the heir has come of age. At the Hall Farm, Hetty is dressing for the party. We discover that she has received some pearl and garnet earrings from Arthur and that she thinks Arthur loves her.
The whole family proceeds to the Chase, where the tenants from all over the estate are gathering. Arthur is walking about with Mr. Irwine, surveying the scene with obvious satisfaction; he is the hero of the day. He mentions some of his plans for making himself popular on the estate when he becomes the owner of it and adds that he has succeeded in persuading his grandfather to take Adam on as master of the Chase woods. Adam has accepted the position and Arthur is to announce the news today. Mr. Irwine teases Arthur about setting up the situation so as to draw favorable attention to himself, and Arthur blushes, tacitly admitting the charge.
Adam has been asked to eat with the "large tenants" (holders of sizeable farms) rather than with the village workmen, and he goes up with Bartle Massey. He is welcomed openly there, and some good-humored banter passes. Hetty is at the next table and smiles at him, a smile which to her is mere flirtation but to Adam is a sign of favor.
In Chapter 24, Arthur and Mr. Irwine, who are making the rounds of all the guests, come in, and a number of impromptu speeches and toasts are made. Arthur feels uneasy about accepting the praise because of his secret affair with Hetty, but he suppresses his sense of guilt quickly. He announces Adam's appointment as master of the woods, and Adam makes an acceptance speech, expressing his gratitude and his resolution to handle the job responsibly.
Chapter 25 describes the games held in the afternoon. The gentry, from whose viewpoint the chapter is mostly written, comment on the various guests and distribute prizes to the winners of the different events. We learn that Arthur plans to give Hetty up.
At the ball that night, the romantic entanglements among Adam, Hetty, and Arthur become more confused. Arthur treats Hetty coldly at first, which frightens her. Adam goes to claim Hetty's hand for a dance, and as they talk, a locket which she has been wearing out of sight accidentally falls to the floor. It is clearly a lover's token, containing two entwined locks of hair. Adam is shocked that Hetty would have such a thing, and he leaves the dance feeling that she must be in love with another man. But he soon convinces himself that this could not be the case and forgets about it. Meanwhile, Arthur has made an appointment to meet Hetty in the wood in two days' time; he has definitely resolved to break off the romance.
The crisis which Books I and II have prepared for remains latent in Book III. We learn only one fact of primary importance for the plot: The relationship between Hetty and Arthur has become much more intense, turning, indeed, into a true love affair. The section centers upon the confusion which exists in the minds of the principal characters about their own goals and the emotional dispositions of the others. It also — and this is probably its major function — serves to build suspense. The author spends a great deal of space developing local color as a sort of delaying tactic; while we watch the games going forward in Chapter 25, the plot is actually at a standstill, and our curiosity about the fates of the members of the triangle is temporarily frustrated. Eliot, on the other hand, gives enough attention to Arthur, Adam, and Hetty to keep that curiosity alive; we watch the three drifting closer and closer to the inevitable disaster. Book III is the calm before the storm.
The contrast between the growing tension and the background against which it grows is ironic indeed. All of Book III concerns a celebration; on the surface all is peace and happiness, but below the surface an undercurrent is stirring which will cause immense pain to many of the celebrants.
Eliot gives the irony greater point by making Arthur's party the high-water mark for all three members of the triangle. Arthur himself is truly in his glory; it is his day, and he savors the tribute which he receives from all sides. Arthur's great dream had always been to become a loved and respected country gentleman. Although he is not yet master of the estate, Arthur seems to have "arrived." He is the center of attention, and he has the respectful affection of all the tenants. Mr. Poyser's toast emphasizes this. He says that all the tenants believe Arthur will be a good, honest landlord and will live up to his noble name. Arthur feels "a twinge of conscience" during the speech, but he brushes his guilt aside; today he is the popular young landlord and is on top of the world.
Adam, too, has reached a peak. He has been given a job which moves him out of the ranks of the simple laborers and opens the door to a comfortable, financially secure life. His good qualities have won him social and material advancement, and he receives the laudatory recognition of his peers. Adam also feels that he is making progress in winning Hetty's heart, and this adds to his happiness. In Chapter 26, he has some doubts about the state of Hetty's affections, particularly when he sees her locket, but on the whole the day is as much a triumph for him as it is for Arthur.
Hetty, with her inclination towards luxury and high society, is naturally in fine fettle. She is ever so careful in dressing and looks forward with great pleasure to going to a ball where she is not only the prettiest girl but also the apple of the hero's eye. For her, as for the others, there is a disturbing shadow; when Arthur ignores her during the day, her spirits sink, but when he sets up another meeting in the wood, Hetty's joy and confidence are restored and she goes home happy.
Book III is, then, an extensive exercise in the contrast of appearance and reality. The overriding structure of the section, the celebration which masks a tension-packed situation, is an obvious manifestation of it. Eliot's constant references to negative elements which mar the three principal characters' happiness carry out the same theme on a more subtle level. Each of the three thinks he has good reason to be happy, but the reader, from a detached viewpoint, can see that the web of pride which Hetty and Arthur have woven will trap them and, indirectly, the relatively innocent Adam.
By the use of this double viewpoint, the author seeks to convince her readers that it is dangerous to judge by appearances and that it is equally dangerous to base one's hopes for the future on ill-considered actions in the present. Mr. Irwine has said that "our deeds carry their terrible consequences," and in Book III, Eliot, by planting small details here and there (for example, the fact that Arthur has "gone a bit far" with Hetty), prepares us for the consequences which are to come. Pride — irresponsible action — consequence: this is the pattern which creates the moral dilemma in Adam Bede.
The modern reader might be confused by the extremely indirect way in which George Eliot handles the love affair; it is indeed a far cry from the bluntness with which sex is discussed in modern literature. But the clues are plain enough if one looks for them. Arthur has apparently given Hetty some expensive presents, she is convinced he will marry her, and Arthur mentally admits that he has gone too far with her. This would be more than enough to alert a Victorian audience that the relationship was sexual. It is a matter of convention. In 1859, it was strictly taboo to refer even indirectly to sex in a novel. Consequently, the information that Arthur's interest in Hetty is primarily physical and that his behavior has not been honorable, when coupled with the other facts mentioned above, would be shocking in itself and would make the reader think that something illicit was going on. What for us is indirect and subtle would be blunt and obvious to a Victorian reader.