Eliot anticipates that her reader will be shocked by the dullness of the vicar, perhaps hoping that the vicar would be given a fine sermon to offer. She reminds the reader that her goal, however, is a faithful reprint of life as it actually is. Eliot does not want to represent people as more clearly good and evil than is the norm in real life. She admires the Dutch painters who are realists more than those who paint angels. She believes in beauty of form, but she also thinks that realism has its own type of beauty and that there are so few true heroes and heroines in the world that it would be a waste of time to devote too much written material to them.
Besides, it does not matter so much that the vicar is sound in terms of his doctrine (as Mr. Ryde will be) as that he is loved (as Mr. Ryde will not be). So the vicar is better, although he is not a very good preacher. Eliot observes that heroes are often not what they are built up to be.
Mrs. Poyser criticizes Hetty for being late to Thias Bede's funeral, but she then sees how pretty she looks in her Sunday dress. The Poysers set off with Hetty, Totty, and their nine- and seven-year-old boys, Marty and Tommy. The grandfather stands by, and Mrs. Poyser remarks that the elderly are like babies, content with merely watching.
As they walk to church, Mrs. Poyser comments on the quality of the cows, and Mr. Poyser delights in her knowledge and experience. They speculate about which side of the family Totty will look like, and then Mrs. Poyser says that if Dinah got some color in her cheeks and did not wear a Methodist's cap, people would think her as pretty as Hetty. But she cannot understand why her niece will not eat more and will not stop giving her money away. Mr. Poyser says that he dislikes Methodists; only tradespeople turn Methodist, never farmers.
Mrs. Poyser notices that the boys are lagging behind, but she forgives them after Marty says that he has found a speckled turkey's nest. Mr. Poyser notices the fine weather and almost wishes that he could harvest his hay, but he knows that it is a Sabbath day. At the funeral the townspeople talk as much about local affairs as about the man to be buried. Hetty is crushed to see that the Captain is absent from the church, although she overhears that he is away at Eagledale, fishing.
As Adam walks along the farming lanes to work at a country house about three miles away, he hears the joyful sounds of the hay makers, which seem from a distance to be a part of the natural world. People work better to song, Eliot writes, though they do not move as smoothly as birds. Meanwhile, Jonathan Burge has gone ahead on horseback.
Adam also enjoys the charming weather as he walks and thinks; "it was summer morning in his heart, and he saw Hetty in the sunshine." He remembers that when he touched her hand a day ago outside the church, there was a new melancholy kindness in her face. Although she was melancholy for other reasons, to him this is a sign that she has felt sympathy with his family trouble--and that marriage is now a better prospect. Besides, Adam feels confident in his future success and ability to maintain a family, perhaps in just a year. Still, he realizes that there will be obstacles including other suitors and his mother, and she must love him if she is going to wait for him to be successful.
Adam enjoys thinking about his future until he realizes how much work is ahead. He is building a house before he has set the foundation. Moreover, he needs to become more sympathetic about human weakness and error in order to share and understand the human suffering that moderates one's goals. Clearly, he does not yet have enough money, and he needs to make serious plans for success, such as adding a little business with Seth in making furniture. The extra money would help him raise himself up. Adam starts calculating what would be done, and he again turns to dreams and hopes.
Adam nears the work site and feels the energy of the laborers. He supervises and works with the laborers with the splendid energy of industry. The laborers do not know much beyond their physical reality, while Adam knows some things "over and above the secrets of his handicraft." He has been learning well in night school, can write fairly well, and has read a few books in addition to the entire Bible, including John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac. He also tends to remain busy with calculations and extra carpentry. He has "strong conscience and ... strong sense, ... blended susceptibility and self-command." He is an honest workman with some of the virtues of the true gentleman.
Adam wears his Sunday clothes the Monday after, and Lisbeth is upset because she guesses correctly that he is dressed up to visit Hetty. When he reaches the Poysers' farm, Mrs. Poyser asks him to go out where Hetty is picking currants with Totty and to fetch Totty in, because she is probably eating too many currants. Adam walks out and, when Hetty hears him approach, she imagines that it might be the Captain. She blushes deeply. Adam mistakes this blushing as her first sign of love for him.
On the way back to the house, Hetty questions Adam about how far Eagledale is, and she is pleased to learn that the Captain could come back quickly if he wanted to. Adam is happy that she is asking him questions, and he picks a rose to give to her. She puts it in her hair. This displeases him slightly, knowing that Hetty's vanity could irritate his mother, and the flower in her hair reminds him slightly of the accessories of a prostitute. He mentions that Dinah looks very nice without adornment, and Hetty takes the flower out of her hair.
Hetty puts on Dinah's Methodist cap when she gets back to the farm. Adam thinks that she looks nice, but Mrs. Poyser scolds her for making fun of Dinah, who has only just left. Her uncle makes her take off the cap.
Adam lightens the mood at dinner by complimenting the homemade ale, and then he goes to fix the family's broken spinning wheel. Adam discusses his plans of setting up his own business and designing a movable kitchen cupboard which he would sell. He leaves to go to night school, saying that he only stays up late to work extra, not to eat and drink extra. After he leaves, Hetty's family comments that she should try to catch him as a husband, because one day she might ride in her own cart. But Hetty thinks that this would be a miserable fate given her new aspirations.
Adam reaches Bartle Massey's house thirty minutes later, just in time to catch the end of night school. The schoolmaster was helping Bill learn to read. The man has a double motivation to get up to speed--his cousin can read, as can a young boy who works in his stonecutter's shop. Another beginner is a bricklayer, previously notorious, now Methodist, who wants to learn to read so that he can better understand religion. The third beginner is a dyer who wants to improve his business.
The schoolmaster is less patient with sixteen-year-olds who are not learning their sums well. The lesson finishes, and Adam helps the schoolmaster clean up. He checks on the two pups of his dog, Vixen. The two men have a supper of bread, cheese, and ale. Bartle says that he likes the Poysers, but that there are too many women there, and he argues that a man can keep his house as comfortably as a woman can. He is better at baking and the like because he knows to measure the ingredients and has figured out that the hotter the oven, the shorter the time to bake. It is a mystery whether Bartle has ever been married, because previous to living in Hayslope he lived in the South.
Bartle says that he has some news for Adam, namely that the Squire has had a stroke. Bartle thinks that if he dies, Adam is likely to be appointed steward of the forest. Adam says that the Squire is not likely to hire him in any case because he made an intricate screen for Miss Lydia once, and the Squire begrudged him the price that he asked for it and told Lydia to pay less. Adam then made a present of it, because to be paid less would imply that he had asked an unreasonable amount. The Squire sent him the money afterward, but he hated him thereafter.
Chapter Seventeen is crucial to the literary philosophy of the book. Eliot steps back to explain why she has chosen the subject matter that she has. This chapter could be referred to as meta-literary, because it does not advance the plot at all but instead airs the author's literary theories.
The style of writing that Eliot supports is a sort of working-class realism. The most famous line in the novel is in this chapter: "And I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up early in the morning to do our daily work." Eliot holds that literary integrity stems from an exact replication of real life. The Dutch masters whose paintings she so appreciates almost undoubtedly mean people including Rembrandt and Van Eyck, who took peasants as their subjects.
In Chapter Eighteen, it is interesting that Eliot often puts her comments on human nature in the mouths of various characters, considering that she has already given herself a strong narrative voice in the novel. The characters who most often seem to hold Eliot's points of view are the female characters, especially Mrs. Poyser, whose commentary on old age seems to come straight from the author. This can be chalked up to the fact that while Adam Bede is a novel, it is also a treatise on both literary style and human nature.
In Chapter Nineteen, Eliot gives Adam a healthy variety of virtues. On the one hand he is a strong and noble laborer, sure of his craft, able to imagine perfection, able to give advice to others. On the other hand he has the moral strength of an honest artisan who makes the most of his potential each day, almost to the awe of those who can appreciate his hardworking character.
Moreover, Adam has risen above the virtue of the simple worker. He has advanced himself through schooling and through reading good books. He can think thoughts that the average laborer cannot think. Even so, during his three-mile walk, he chooses to think dreamily about the future and how he will be able to become a success in order to be worthy of marrying Hetty, rather than about the ideas he might have found in the writings of Bunyan or Franklin. Also, it is not clear that these virtues are given merely from Adam's own perspective of self-esteem rather than from the narrator's honest assessment of his character.
Eliot observes in Chapter Twenty that often men mistake the signs that a woman is in love with someone else as the signs that she is in love with him. While she claims to be a realist, opinions such as these occasionally cause Eliot to come off as more of a cynic. She also writes that Adam has no way of knowing this general truth because he has not had the opportunity to read many novels and see how women act when they are in love. This is an unsubtle self-promotion of her own work, in that she claims that her novel is not only entertaining but also educational.
The theme of costuming arises in this chapter, with Hetty's quick switch from wearing a flower behind her ear to wearing Dinah's Methodist cap. She makes the switch when she sees that Adam is displeased with her vanity; although she is not in love with him, she cannot bear to lose the attentions of any man. As transgressive as wearing a flower in her hair is, being reminiscent of prostitution, wearing Dinah's cap as mere adornment is even more transgressive because it has definite religious implications.
A lot of Eliot's novel is taken up with sorting the young Bedes and the relatives of the Poysers into various possible matches. Dinah could marry Seth or possibly Adam; Hetty could marry Adam or possibly the Captain. Chapter Twenty-One, therefore, pulls short the notion that such alliances are necessary or even advisable. By showing a bachelor whose home functions at least as well or better than that of a married man, Eliot hints at the possibility that none of the matches might work out in the end.
But even her depiction of a happy unmarried man has some flaws. First, there is the possibility that Bartle was married at some point in his life before, leaving the question of whether it is more likely to reach a happy bachelorhood only after having been married. Second, he is now in possession of a family of his own, whether he likes it or not. His female dog has given birth to pups, and because he calls her a "woman," he does have some elements of a family after all.