When Adam arrives at the parsonage, Mr. Irwine is in conference with a strange man. After a few minutes Adam is admitted; he tells his story and then Mr. Irwine tells Adam that the strange man is a constable; he has brought a letter from Stoniton reporting that a girl answering Hetty's description is in prison there for the murder of her own child. Adam at first refuses to believe, then he launches into a tirade against Arthur for deceiving the innocent young girl. He says he forgives Hetty and determines to go in search of Arthur. But Mr. Irwine tells him that Arthur is already on his way home and asks Adam to go with him to Stoniton to confirm that the girl being held is really Hetty. Adam agrees to go.
When Mr. Irwine returns from Stoniton the next day — the girl in prison is Hetty, and Adam has decided to stay near her — he learns that the old Squire had died suddenly; Arthur is now master of the estate. He tells his sad story to the Bedes and the Poysers and the news is soon all over town. The Poysers react violently; they feel disgraced and talk of leaving the estate. They send a letter to Leeds, asking Dinah to come to them.
That evening, Bartle Massey comes to the rectory to ask about Adam. Mr. Irwine tells him that Adam's mental condition is bad and that, though Adam doesn't know it yet, Hetty is almost certainly guilty. Bartle offers to go stay with him at Stoniton. Mr. Irwine agrees to the plan.
Even though the reader has been subtly prepared for some dramatic turn of events by Eliot's description of Hetty's desperation and fear, the facts set forth in Chapter 39 still come as a shock. The murder of Hetty's child is clearly the worst consequence of the love affair, and Eliot manipulates it for maximum effect. Note how carefully the early chapters of Book V are arranged. Eliot separates Adam and Hetty so that we can follow only one of them at a time. She then shows us Hetty pushed almost to utter despair, seeking hopelessly for a way out of her difficulties. She then shifts our attention to Adam, leaving Hetty's story hanging. And finally she tells what solution Hetty has adopted for her problems. By switching perspectives in this way, Eliot builds suspense to a much greater pitch than if she had followed Hetty through to the child-murder; instead of a steady, plausible progression, we are given a series of swift, sharp breaks. By proceeding this way, she also creates the opportunity for setting up another appearance-reality contrast (Adam's ignorance of Hetty's true condition, and his resultant false happiness). And, finally, she focuses our attention on Adam's reaction to the murder; we are as shocked as he. The development of Adam's personality is her primary interest, and this structure enables her to concentrate upon that interest while giving the reader necessary plot information.
The workings of the element of suspense are clearly evident on a smaller scale in Chapter 39. Adam at first must wait to see Mr. Irwine, and the presence of the stranger arouses curiosity. Then, in the conversation itself, Eliot switches back and forth from Adam to the rector; we are aware early that the stranger has brought bad news because of Mr. Irwine's reactions, but the final revelation is carefully delayed. Both these chapters focus upon the effect of the news about Hetty on various characters. The title of Chapter 40, "The Bitter Waters Spread," indicates the primary purpose of this material: Eliot is demonstrating how the consequences of the rash love affair extend themselves far beyond the lives of the two principals. The suffering the Poysers endure because of Hetty and the suffering Lisbeth and Baffle endure in sympathy with Adam form part of the chain of events which have their source in the original imprudent act.
The individual reactions themselves are interesting as devices for characterization. Martin Poyser and his father react selfishly; they think first and last of what effect Hetty's crime will have on their reputations. Eliot explains that they are greatly influenced by traditional ideas. Mrs. Poyser's response is more humane; she pities Hetty and inveighs against people who would condemn her out of hand. Bartle Massey reviles Hetty and sympathizes with Adam. Lisbeth and Seth pity Adam, while the townspeople are curious and gossip-hungry. Each of the characters reacts according to his special viewpoint, interpreting the incident in the light of his own set ideas. Their responses are individually typical and somewhat narrow.
Most emphasis is laid on Adam's reaction and that of Mr. Irwine, and a meaningful contrast is set up. Like most of the other characters, Adam reacts blindly within the context of his own personality. Following patterns we have observed before, he condemns Arthur rather viciously and refuses to believe in Hetty's guilt. He expresses himself violently, as he is wont to do in pressure situations, and has an impulse to rush right off to Ireland, to take matters into his own hands.
But Eliot has constructed this episode in such a way that Adam cannot handle it in his usual pragmatic fashion. This is deliberate and is done for reasons which we shall attend to later. Arthur is already on his way home, and Adam cannot get Hetty out of prison, so all he can do is wait. Eliot emphasizes Adam's unusual situation by referring once again to his work, the symbol of his confident, forthright attitude towards life. Adam decides to stay at Stoniton, he tells Mr. Irwine, because he can't work while Hetty is in prison.
Mr. Irwine's reaction to the news of Hetty's crime should be carefully noted. We said earlier that he acts as one of the moral standards in the novel, and in this chapter his influence begins to make itself felt in the plot in a major way. Mr. Irwine is as deeply hurt as Adam is; Eliot stresses the fact that he feels a paternal affection for Arthur. But he does not become angry; he does not view the tragedy in the context of his personal interests. Instead he buries his grief and pities all three of the young people involved. He acts, as Bartle points out, as "everybody's friend." Mr. Irwine is the only character besides Dinah who has enough Christian charity and enough moral courage to deal with an unpleasant situation in a completely unselfish way. He accepts the situation and tries to improve it through understanding, gentleness, and benevolence.
Note that both the Poysers' and the Bedes' first instinct in time of trouble is to send for Dinah. This is a pattern in the book; Hetty had thought of Dinah in her misery and Lisbeth asks for her when she is ill. Through this device, Eliot carries out her characterization of Dinah as benevolent, sympathetic, and helpful. In Chapter 40, she also associates Dinah with Mr. Irwine; both are sources of strength and comfort. Thus Eliot implicitly identifies her as the other standard of right human conduct in the novel.