Summary and Analysis
Book I: Chapters 6-9
For the most part, Chapter 6 describes daily life at the Hall Farm. The house itself is an old manor converted into a farmhouse in which Mr. and Mrs. Poyser, their three children, Mr. Poyser's niece Hetty Sorrel, and a couple of domestic servants live. It is the best run farm on the estate; Mr. Poyser is a very good farmer and Mrs. Poyser an excellent housewife and dairy manager.
The scene is busy as Arthur and the rector ride toward the farm; there is a conference going on in the barn, and Mrs. Poyser is indulging in her favorite occupation, scolding one of the maids. Mrs. Poyser's three-year-old daughter Totty, her mother's adored favorite, is playing, and Dinah, who is Mrs. Poyser's niece, is mending the household linen. Mrs. Poyser indicates that though she loves Dinah, she considers her hopelessly impractical, a religious dreamer. Arthur and Mr. Irwine arrive, and Mr. Irwine talks to Dinah while Mrs. Poyser complains to Arthur about the condition of the farm; Arthur's grandfather, Squire Donnithorne, is a stingy landlord and will not pay for improvements on his tenants' places.
Arthur asks to see the dairy and Mrs. Poyser leads him in. Hetty Sorrel, "a distractingly pretty girl of seventeen," is making butter; Arthur had noticed her beauty before and, indeed, had wanted to visit the dairy primarily to get an opportunity to talk with her. He flatters the girl, asking for two dances with her at the ball celebrating his coming of age. Hetty is overwhelmed by the rich gentleman's attentions. Arthur, who is kind to all his tenants and is justifiably popular among them, gives a present to the child Totty and then goes in search of Mr. Irwine.
Meanwhile, Mr. Irwine has been discussing Dinah's preaching with her. He asks about her background — Dinah is from a bleak mill town called Snowfield — and about her vocation as a preacher. Dinah describes the first time she felt the "call" to preach, and Mr. Irwine is favorably impressed with her sincerity. She says that all her life she has been led to help the poor both materially and spiritually. Mr. Irwine then mentions that Adam Bede's father has died, and Dinah, touched with pity for the widow, decides to visit her and try to comfort her. At this point, Arthur emerges from the dairy with Mrs. Poyser, and Mr. Irwine rises to leave.
When the two men are gone, Mrs. Poyser questions Dinah about the rector's reaction to her preaching and makes her eat something before setting out for the Bedes' cottage. Hetty comes in and Mrs. Poyser tells her of Thias Bede's death. Unlike Dinah, she is almost indifferent to it.
Hetty returns to the dairy and indulges herself in pleasant thoughts about Arthur. Although she does not take Arthur's attention very seriously, she can't help losing herself in romantic dreams about the handsome, rich young squire. She knows that her aunt and uncle would like her to return the affection which Adam Bede has for her, but he strikes her as cutting an inconsequential figure beside the exciting Arthur.
After describing Hetty's state of mind, the author resumes her plot line. Arthur and Mr. Irwine ride away from the farm and Arthur indicates that he admires Hetty's beauty. Mr. Irwine warns him not to feed her vanity by paying attention to her. Arthur implies that he has no intention of doing so.
Mrs. Poyser is always pointed out as one of the more successful comic characters in modern English fiction. An extremely vital figure, she dominates most of the scenes in which she appears and constantly delights the reader with her wit and energy. Mrs. Poyser is a larger-than-life figure, more vivid and more colorful than most people or even most literary characters. She stands out, for example, even more clearly than Adam does, though her role in the novel is smaller. This quality derives partially from the fact that she is characterized more simply than Adam is; she possesses the clarity of a figure drawn in bold outlines with the distracting details left out.
But her vividness derives equally, if not more, from her dramatic and highly individual style of speaking. Mrs. Poyser rarely discusses anything calmly; she deals in exaggeration and oversimplification as a habit. For example, she informs Arthur that farming is "putting money into your pocket wi' your right hand and fetching it out wi' your left," and she announces Thias Bede's death to Hetty by saying "but Adam Bede and all his kin might be drownded for what you'd care."
Her most typical utterances are based upon similes drawn from nature and the domestic scene, and this imagery reinforces her characteristic exaggerations: "As I say to Poyser, [looking at Mr. Irwine] is like looking at a full crop o' wheat, or a pasture with a fine dairy o' cows in it; it makes you think the world's comfortable-like. But as for such creatures as you Methodisses run after, I'd as soon go to look at a lot o' bare-ribbed runts [for example, cattle] on a common."
Like Lisbeth, Mrs. Poyser functions to a great extent as a background character; she plays no great part in the development of the plot. But she is nevertheless a very real figure, and the student interested in the creation of character in fiction can learn a great deal by analyzing the mood changes, the sentiments, and especially the speech patterns of the redoubtable Mrs. Poyser.
The picture we get of Hetty in these chapters is, paradoxically, not a pretty one. Although she appears shy and sweet and pretty at first, Eliot soon convinces us that Hetty is self-centered and childishly vain. The author accomplishes this by reporting what goes on in Hetty's mind. Chapter 9 consists almost entirely of a description of the girl's past and present thoughts on the subjects of men and her own attractiveness. This device is used with great frequency and sometimes at great length in Adam Bede as a method of characterization. The omniscient point of view is used not only to describe the words and actions of the characters, but the inner reality of their minds — their thoughts, moods, and emotional attitudes — as well.
It appears from Hetty's thoughts in Chapter 9 that Adam will not be able to win her love as he hopes. She likes the idea of keeping Adam in her power but feels no inclination at all to marry him. Hetty tends to think of romance in terms of fine clothes and luxuries; she is definitely out for what she can get. As for Adam, she feels that she could have loved him "well enough to marry him" if he had been rich. The irony of this passage convinces us of Hetty's shallowness and serves to build suspense in the plot as the reader recognizes that Adam has made a disastrous romantic choice.
Because Hetty is so interested in material things, she is the perfect dupe for Arthur. He flatters her at this point mostly for the sake of being charming. When Mr. Irwine cautions him not to become too interested in Hetty, he replies that he has no use for such advice; he has no intention of becoming serious about her. But Hetty is already far gone in romantic dreams. She amuses herself by recalling and mulling over any kind gesture Arthur makes towards her. It is a dangerous amusement. The girl is so fascinated by Arthur's wealth and social position — he seems like an "Olympian god" to her — that she cannot help hoping that his interest in her will grow.
The flirtation between Arthur and Hetty, then, begins innocently enough. The dashing young gentleman meets the lovely young farm girl and trifles with her. He is confident of his ability to control himself and never imagines that the situation will get out of hand. She, meanwhile, led on by foolish visions of grandeur, convinces herself that his attentions are serious. Both people, their attitudes influenced by vanity, blindly entangle themselves in a relationship which neither is equipped to control. Eliot carefully constructs a plausible situation which, almost by its very nature, must lead to trouble for both parties involved.
Chapter 8 deals with Mr. Irwine's conversation with Dinah. The reader should note that in this situation, as in various others throughout the novel, Hetty and Dinah are specifically contrasted. While Hetty is flirting with Arthur, Dinah is carrying on a serious religious discussion with a clergyman. Hetty's manner is flighty, immature, worldly; Dinah's is grave, womanly, spiritual. When Mr. Irwine tells Dinah that Thias Bede is dead, her immediate reaction is one of pity for Lisbeth and she offers without hesitation to go to the cottage and help the old woman. But when Mrs. Poyser gives Hetty the same news, she feigns concern but is "not deeply affected." Dinah's humanity and generosity seem even more laudable when played off so directly against Hetty's selfish indifference.
The author emphasizes this contrast even more strongly by giving each of the young women a different sort of beauty. She emphasizes the difference by employing opposed patterns of imagery in describing the girls. Dinah's loveliness is frequently mentioned; her face is said to be like a lily, and Lisbeth in several places compares her to an angel. But her beauty has a pure, spiritual quality about it which makes men not lustful, but respectful. When Mr. Irwine asks Dinah if men bother her when she is preaching, she says that although she has spoken before some "very hard and wild" men, they have always treated her with kindness and civility.
Hetty's beauty, on the other hand, is described as being soft and "kittenish"; she appeals to everyone, even other women. There is something very warm and inviting about Hetty's sort of prettiness, something healthy, natural, and earthy.
Throughout the novel, George Eliot toys with the contrast between appearance and reality; things very often are not what they seem. The physical comparison of Dinah and Hetty marks the first major manifestation of the theme. Both girls appear beautiful, but only Dinah is so. Hetty's beauty is superficial; it masks a vain, selfish spirit, while Dinah's physical beauty truly reflects the beauty of her soul. The reader should be attentive to these appearance-reality contrasts in the novel, particularly with respect to Adam and Arthur, and Hetty and Dinah; the contrasts form one of the most significant patterns in Adam Bede.