Summary and Analysis
As evening comes on after the trial, Dinah appears outside the prison. She encounters the gentleman who had watched her from horseback on the day she preached at Hayslope and through him gains admittance to see Hetty.
She finds the girl huddled up in a heap. Hetty rises, takes a step forward; Dinah embraces the poor creature, and the two girls sit silently together for a long time. Finally Dinah begins to speak, trying to bring Hetty to confess and unburden her soul. At first Hetty, sunk in despair, can think only of the horror of her imminent death, but slowly she softens and, in response to Dinah's earnest prayers, at last bursts out in confession. She says she abandoned the baby because she could think of nothing else to do; it seemed like the only way out of her dreadful situation. Unencumbered, she could go back home, make up an excuse to explain her absence, and life could go on as before. But, she continues, the baby's crying had haunted her after she left it in the woods, and, drawn by an irresistible impulse, she had gone back. The emotional dam is burst and Hetty sobs hysterically. She asks God's forgiveness, and the two women pray together.
Things take a noticeable turn for the better when Dinah arrives. Even though Adam has abandoned his pride, he and everyone else connected with the trial are still miserable; the picture is totally black. But Dinah brings a ray of hope by speaking of God and the afterlife, and suddenly there is a source of comfort which is more positive and satisfying than Mr. Irwine's philosophical wisdom and practical sympathy. Dinah is clearly the "heroine" of the novel in that she improves whatever she touches and always has a good effect on the other characters, healing their physical and spiritual ills. Here we have the most dramatic example of her function in Adam Bede; it is clear that the essence of her characterization is that she loves humbly and that her love is effective on a practical level.
Eliot makes the point by contrasting Hetty's earlier behavior in prison with her behavior under Dinah's influence. At various points in the preceding few chapters, she indicates that Hetty has refused to speak with anyone. Here we are told the reason: Hetty, never a very strong figure, has been virtually paralyzed by fear and shame and has considered everyone her enemy. As is characteristic of her, Hetty has been reacting as though she were the only person in the world — withdrawing from all human contact. But Dinah, through love, breaks down Hetty's resistance. She brings the girl to a confession of her crime, something which Hetty, with the great value she puts on other people's opinions of her, had been unwilling to do. Hetty is freed from the prison her ego had constructed; her pent-up feelings rush forth, she accepts help from another person, she takes the responsibility for her own acts, and she humbly begs God for pardon. She is no longer selfish and alone.
Dinah accomplishes the task through sincerity, concern, and sympathy. She makes Hetty feel that she cares for her and that God cares for her; it is basically the same method she used to comfort Lisbeth in Chapter 10. Note how often Eliot uses the word "love" here and how she emphasizes Dinah's gentleness and fervor. Dinah's love is effective because she can communicate it; by drawing people to herself, she draws them out of themselves.
Eliot handles this highly emotional confrontation with great skill. There are two great crises of feeling in the chapter, the first when Dinah enters the cell and the second when she persuades Hetty to confess. In both cases, Eliot makes Hetty hesitate before giving in; she builds up tension until it reaches the breaking point, and Hetty's submission seems natural. This technique not only makes the scene more dramatic, it also puts great emphasis upon the power of Dinah's personality. We can almost feel Dinah's influence working upon Hetty.
The causes of Hetty's crime are twofold. The first, of course, is the unwanted pregnancy, a consequence of the love affair which leads to another consequence — the murder itself. The other cause is Hetty's character. If she were not so selfish and so fearful of people's opinions, she would not have abandoned Adam and gotten herself into such desperate straits. If she were not incredibly selfish, she would not have abandoned her child. In Hetty, Eliot shows us a human being whose pride and self-centeredness bring disaster upon herself and great pain upon others; even though she is somewhat sympathetically drawn, she is Eliot's typical "bad" character. As this chapter graphically demonstrates, her personality is the exact opposite of Dinah's.
We have said on various occasions that Dinah and Mr. Irwine both act as moral standards. It should be clear by this point that these figures do not stand for exactly the same thing; Dinah is profoundly religious while Mr. Irwine is more secularly and philosophically oriented. But the difference fades into insignificance if the characters' attitudes are looked at in a certain way. Mr. Irwine and Dinah both recognize the existence of powers beyond their control, and this recognition makes them basically humble. It makes no difference to Eliot whether one calls this power "God" or "the nature of reality"; simple belief in its existence will have the desired effect.
Since Mr. Irwine and Dinah are humble, neither of them is selfish, and both are dedicated to living lives of Christian charity and benevolence; since they are humble, they accept the existence of evil and of unavoidable human suffering and combat both as much as possible. Thus they are not blind idealists but practical people, people who recognize reality for what it is and try to do good, to improve the lot of those in trouble, whenever possible. Mr. Irwine and Dinah are categorically "good people" to Eliot because they work to make the world a better place to live in, to establish the "community of man." In order to make this point as emphatically as possible, she not only sets them up as the dispensers of advice in the novel but also shows how the other major characters eventually adopt their attitude.
Mr. Irwine is an intellectual moralist while the uneducated Dinah works primarily on feeling. The rector is the spokesman for Eliot's theory; he explains it while he practices it. Dinah acts on the same principles but at a different level; she is "inspired," she pleads, she prays. The difference corresponds to the religious difference discussed in the Analysis to Chapter 1; the Anglicans emphasized rationality while the Methodists emphasized emotion and spirituality. By creating two good characters, one an Anglican and one a Methodist, Eliot implies that both denominations have value, that both, indeed, simply take different approaches to the same goal, the living of a good life. Ideally, she seems to feel, spirituality (respect for the unknown) and rationality (foresight, moral realism, practical benevolence) should be joined to form a proper orientation. The question of whether or not this orientation should take the form of participation in any particular organized religion is left open; Eliot herself was an agnostic but not (as the characterization of Dinah so clearly shows) anti-religious.