Adam Bede is a very interesting novel. Each character is well developed. Arthur’s struggles with himself are especially compelling. But on the whole it has been a quiet story, nothing exciting happening. With the fourth book, that changed. The first chapter is called “A Crisis” (chapter 27) and that would be a good title for the entire book. It is nearly three weeks after the birthday feast. “The eighteenth of August was one of these days when the sunshine looked brighter in all eyes for the gloom that went before.” The peacefulness, however, is shattered for Adam when, walking home, he comes across Arthur and Hetty together, kissing. It was a farewell meeting, as Arthur is preparing to join his regiment. All the sudden Adam understands many little things which had puzzled him before — Hetty’s locket among them. Seeing Adam, Hetty runs away and Arthur tries to laugh it off as just a bit of trifling. But Adam refuses to be brushed off: “at this moment [he] could only feel that he had been robbed of Hetty — robbed treacherously by the man in whom he had trusted” and he rebukes Arthur sharply. That Adam was in love with Hetty comes as a shock to Arthur. He realizes that the wrong he has done has more far-reaching consequences than he had dreamed.
The words of hatred and contempt — the first he had ever heard in his life — seemed like scorching missiles that were making ineffaceable scars on him. … he stood face to face with the first great irrevocable evil he had ever committed. (Ch. 27)
Adam is determined to fight with Arthur and finally goads him into doing so. They struggle, but Adam fells Arthur with a well-planted blow. He waits for Arthur to get back up, but he doesn’t. Adam is horrified by what he has done. Violence doesn’t fix anything.
The blow had been given now, towards which he had been straining all the force of nerve and muscle — and what was the good of it? What had he done by fighting? Only satisfied his own passion, only wreaked his own vengeance. He had not rescued Hetty, nor changed the past — there it was, just as it had been, and he sickened at the vanity of his own rage. (Ch. 27)
Arthur comes to finally, and Adam’s rage revives with him. He helps Arthur into the Hermitage — a place where Arthur and Hetty have met. He runs to get some brandy for the weakened Arthur, who takes advantage of his absence to remove any traces of Hetty’s presence. When Adam returns, he refuses to let Arthur go until he has promised to write to Hetty and admit that he has no serious intentions towards her. The next morning, Arthur writes the letter after much distressing thought. He thinks he can be of use to Hetty later and make up to her all the sorrow he is causing her now. “But Adam could receive no amends …. He stood like … an embodiment of what Arthur most shrank from believing in — the irrevocableness of his own wrongdoing” (ch. 29).
The repeated use of the word “irrevocable” is telling. Arthur is a kindly young man who doesn’t wish to harm anyone. When he does, he prides himself on making it up to the person — perhaps making them better off than if it hadn’t happened. But some wrongs done simply cannot be erased, they are irrevocable. Even considering future help for Hetty doesn’t cover the wrong done to her. What if she does “something violent in her grief; and close upon that dread came another, which deepened the shadow.” But, then, why take such a gloomy view? He hadn’t meant to do anything bad, so why should things turn out darkly? Perhaps Hetty might fall in love with Adam anyway.
To be sure, Adam was deceived — deceived in a way that Arthur would have resented as a deep wrong if it had been practised on himself. That was a reflection that marred the consoling prospect. Arthur’s cheeks even burned in mingled shame and irritation at the thought. …. What a miserable fool he was to have brought himself into such a dilemma; and yet, if ever a man had excuses, he had. (Pity that consequences are determined not by excuses but by actions!) (Ch. 29)
Hetty is devastated by Arthur’s letter. Even her trinkets which she had looked on “as the earnest of her future paradise of finery” (ch. 31) cannot console her. But she must hide her grief. Longing for a change, she begs her uncle to allow her to become a maid. Denied this, she begins to think of marrying Adam instead and eventually, on the 2nd of November, they are engaged. This does not cure Hetty’s heartache, however. Nor does it eliminate another “great dread” (ch. 35), for that other dread of Arthur’s is realized. Hetty is pregnant. She began to suspect as much some weeks after her betrothal to Adam, by which time she has to have been more than three months pregnant.
Arthur had left his address with Hetty in case she should need his help, but she doesn’t want him to provide for her here in her home. She dreads the shame of her friends knowing. She considers drowning herself, but has not the courage for it. Besides, people might find out why she did it. In early February, in desperation, she decides to run away to Arthur. Taking all her money, she leaves under the pretext of going to visit Dinah.
In other news, Hetty’s aunt, Mrs. Poyser, has spoken out her mind to their stingy landlord, the old squire. Naturally, the family concludes that they’ll be turned out as soon as their lease is up. Mrs. Poyser, “inclined to take an unusually hopeful view of an embarrassment which had been brought about by her own merit and not by other people’s fault” (ch. 32), comforts herself with thinking that maybe Arthur will be master by that time. Not that she would be looking forward to that if she knew about Arthur’s relationship to Hetty.
Illustration by Percy Tarrant: “His eyes fell on two figures about twenty yards before him”.