This book begins from Hetty’s point of view. Her journey to Windsor, where she thinks Arthur is, is much longer than she, in her ignorance, thought it might be. She finally arrives with no money left only to find that Arthur’s regiment has moved. She dreads being taken to the parish (“the dread of bodily hardship mingled with the dread of shame; for Hetty had the luxurious nature of a round soft-coated pet animal” — ch. 37). She gives up her jewelry for some money to pay for her lodging and buy food. She decides to drown herself when she runs out of food and money — here where no one will recognize her. She keeps delaying the actual deed, however.
During Hetty’s vacillating, George Eliot makes a distinction between true faith and outward religion. Hetty “was one of those numerous people who have had godfathers and godmothers, learned their catechism, been confirmed, and gone to church every Sunday, and yet, for any practical result of strength in life, or trust in death, have never appropriated a single Christian idea or Christian feeling.” (Ch. 37).
Back at home, Hetty has been missed. She should have been back already, so Adam goes to look for her. When he finds that she has not been to see Dinah at all, he immediately fears she has gone to Arthur. Then Mr. Irwine receives word that Hetty is on trial for the murder of her child. At first he suspects Adam to be the father and is relieved when some unwitting words of Adam’s clear him, but his relief is short-lived, for Adam came to tell of Arthur’s involvement with Hetty. This is a horrible blow to Mr. Irwine. As great a blow to Adam is the news of Hetty’s situation.
Adam completely blames Arthur for Hetty’s trouble. He enticed her, he taught her to deceive — she, a child. Adam thinks that Arthur should be the one to suffer, not Hetty. Besides which, he doesn’t believe Hetty to be guilty of murdering her child. In his responses to Adam, Mr. Irwine shows himself to be a wise man.
But suppose the worst: you have no right to say that the guilt of her crime lies with him, and that he ought to bear the punishment. … We find it impossible to avoid mistakes even in determining who has committed a single criminal act, and the problem how far a man is to be held responsible for the unforeseen consequences of his own deed is one that might well make us tremble to look into it. … Don’t suppose I can’t enter into the anguish that drives you into this state of revengeful hatred. But think of this: if you were to obey your passion — for it is passion, and you deceive yourself in calling it justice — it might be with you precisely as it has been with Arthur; nay, worse; your passion might lead you yourself into a horrible crime. (Ch. 41)
Adam protests that he would rather do a wrong that he alone would suffer for than to cause her to do wrong and then watch as she is punished for it. So what if Arthur didn’t know what would happen, he knew enough and is, in Adam’s estimation, a selfish coward. Mr. Irwine tells him,
I feel the terrible extent of suffering this sin of Arthur’s has caused to others; but so does every sin cause suffering to others besides those who commit it. An act of vengeance on your part against Arthur would simply be another evil … you could not bear the punishment alone; you would entail the worst sorrows on every one who loves you. … You may tell me that you meditate no fatal act of vengeance, but the feeling in your mind is what gives birth to such actions, and as long as you indulge it, as long as you do not see that to fix your mind on Arthur’s punishment is revenge, and not justice, you are in danger of being led on to the commission of some great wrong. Remember what you told me about your feelings after you had given that blow to Arthur in the Grove. (Ch. 41)
That’s probably more moralizing than is necessary here, but Mr. Irwine is my favorite character, so I’m including it anyway. The reference to his past violence silences Adam.
The trial goes against Hetty. She not only completely denies having done anything, but also that she had a child or that she is even Hetty Sorrel. At first, Adam decides not to attend Hetty’s trial. Then he decides to go for the second half, to stand by her. When he sees her, he wonders why he was told that she was much changed.
Others thought she looked as if some demon had cast a blighting glance upon her, withered up the woman’s soul in her, and left only a hard despairing obstinacy. But the mother’s yearning, that completest type of the life in another life which is the essence of real human love, feels the presence of the cherished child even in the debased, degraded man; and to Adam, this pale, hard-looking culprit was the Hetty who had smiled at him in the garden under the apple-tree boughs (Ch. 43, italics mine)
The metaphor of a mother’s love was interesting considering what Hetty was on trial for.
Hetty is found guilty and sentenced to death. Then Dinah comes to her. Dinah spends no time trying to make Hetty feel better by minimizing her crime, blaming someone else, or even assuring her that we are all sinners. She simply acknowledges that Hetty is a sinner in need of a Saviour and goes to work convincing Hetty of her sin and the willingness of the Saviour to forgive her, that she might be saved.
I thought that the different reactions of Adam and Dinah to suffering were interesting. Adam, if there had been anything at all that he could have done to save Hetty, would have done it no matter how difficult. But, faced with his powerlessness, he can merely suffer, finding vent only in thoughts of revenge against Arthur. Dinah, on the other hand, when she hears of Hetty’s plight, goes to her, seeking to save her soul though she cannot save her body. She brings hope, comfort, and strength. Where Adam is helpless, Dinah is powerful.
Under Dinah’s influence, Hetty is softened. She asks Adam’s forgiveness for the way she treated him. This is significant, considering that, before Dinah came, Hetty had at no time ever even considered the pain she might cause Adam by her actions. She also entrusts Adam with a message of forgiveness for Arthur.
Dinah stays with Hetty all the way to the gallows. Hetty does not die, however, for Arthur arrives with a “hard-won release from death” (ch. 47). Mr. Irwine had left a letter for Arthur who was already on his way home having received word of his grandfather’s death. All the way home he was filled with visions of the good he would do everyone now he is squire. When he reads the horrible news, he mounts a horse and leaves “like a hunted man” (ch. 44). He is able to change Hetty’s sentence from death to transportation, but no more.
The book ends with another meeting of Adam and Arthur in the same place where Adam had discovered Arthur and Hetty together. Adam is still angry with Arthur. Arthur tells him, “Perhaps you’ve never done anything you’ve had bitterly to repent of in your life, Adam; if you had, you would be more generous. You would know then that it’s worse for me than for you. … don’t you think you would suffer more if you’d been in fault?” (ch. 48). Adam is softened, remembering his own regrets: he feels he was too harsh to his father, now dead and beyond reparation. Arthur suffers greatly, for he loved Hetty and now must carry the thought of her suffering about with him always, without being able to help her in any way. He determines to leave his home that the Poysers and Adam might stay (they had determined to leave rather than to work for him). Seeing Arthur’s sorrow and repentance, Adam finally forgives him. “The hands were clasped once more, and Adam left … feeling that sorrow was more bearable now hatred was gone” (ch. 48).
Illustration by Percy Tarrant: “Hetty, it’s Dinah”.