The Captain's birthday is at the end of July. Hetty prepares herself in her room, looking at a lovely pair of garnet and pearl earrings that the Captain has given her, which she knows she cannot wear yet. She wears a locket with locks of hair in it hidden in her bosom. Everyone walks towards the Chase, where the great party is to be held. The oldest people all come in a wagon together. The great house was from the time of Queen Anne, but it was attached to the remnant of an old Abbey at one end. Hetty is sad that she has not seen Arthur (the Captain) yet.
The Captain, preparing for dinner, thanks the vicar for his advice: only giving his tenants dinner and doing it earlier in the day, so that his house will not become a riot scene. He says that since Adam is handing out the alcohol, the party will not get out of hand. The Captain confides in the vicar that his grandfather has come around to having Adam manage the estate, although the Captain says that he still does not get along with his grandfather. Adam will dine with the large tenants, and the Captain will announce his new position at dinner.
Adam is called to dine with the large tenants and feels uncomfortable leaving his family downstairs, but Seth encourages him to go. He walks up with Bartle. There was a small argument about who was to sit at the top of the table, because the butler felt strongly that the elder Mr. Poyser should. Bartle settles the matter with a joke: the broadest should sit at the head and the second-broadest at the foot. Thus, Mr. Poyser (the younger) gets the head and Mr. Casson gets the foot. This has put Adam next to Mr. Casson, who thinks that he is too uppity. He asks if it is the first time that Adam has dined at this table. Adam says yes and that he hopes that it is agreeable to the others at the table. A few people say that of course it is.
Adam is pleased, anyway, with his seat, because he can see Hetty. Hetty is preoccupied with scolding Totty for putting her feet up on the bench because she might get dust marks on her dress. Adam cannot see the cause of her vexation, but he thinks that she looks sweet, although the moment of anger would not have looked very good on someone less pretty. Mary Burge sees Adam looking at Hetty and is glad that he has seen her out of humor because he might like her less. Hetty, knowing that Mary Burge and Adam are both looking at her, looks up at Adam and smiles brightly.
Everyone stands when Arthur enters, and he enjoys the sign of respect. Mr. Poyser makes a short speech thanking Arthur and calls for a toast to his health. The Captain feels only a small twinge of conscience for having feelings for Mr. Poyser's daughter and for acting on them. The Captain thanks his tenants for teaching him so much about farming and hopes that when he is in control, he can make their lives better. Arthur also proposes a toast to his grandfather, and the tenants are forced to drink it.
The Captain also praises Adam, announces him as the new manager of the woods, and proposes a toast to him and the vicar together. The vicar makes a speech, saying that the townspeople's high hopes for the Captain as a landlord will certainly be fulfilled, and that Adam is worthy of his honor. The Captain toasts Adam by saying, "may he live to have sons as faithful and clever as himself!"
Adam feels moved and says that he is taken by surprise by the public tribute. He makes a small speech saying that the townspeople must not be wrong if they have such a high opinion of him, though he has only done his duty. He says that rather than thanking the Captain now, he will try to do so in a lifetime of work for him. Some of the women think that this is a proud speech, but the men like it because it is straightforward.
Arthur says hello to Mrs. Poyser and compliments her on her husband's speech. She says that it was good, especially because men are usually so tongue-tied. He cannot greet Hetty specially, and she feels neglected. He seems as far away "as the hero of a great procession is separated from a small outsider in the crowd."
The official dancing does not begin until eight, but there is plenty of music around for the eager. There are contests including races and greased-pole-climbing, the prizes for which are handed out by the vicar's mother, who presides from under a marquee. The Captain talks to his godmother, who encourages him to get married--but to someone handsome and sensible. She asks who the young man helping his mother is, and the Captain says that he is Seth Bede, who may be sad because his father died in such a terrible way, although he has also heard that he was turned down by Dinah. Mrs. Irwine bows to Mrs. Poyser and asks who Hetty is. She says that it is a pity that she will be spoiled on a farmer husband who would not know the difference between her and a coarser woman, but the vicar says that the farmers do know the difference.
Chad's Bess approaches the marquee, having just won the women's race. Her love of finery is similar to Hetty's, and she thinks that the prize will be a nice piece of clothing, but it is a staid flannel dress. Chad's Bess goes under a tree and cries. She is approached by a cousin, an older woman also named Bess, who tells her not to make a fool of herself and asks her if she can have some of the material to make clothes for her boys, and Chad's Bess gives it all to her.
Wiry Ben decides to dance a hornpipe, accompanied by Joshua Rann on the fiddle, although Adam Bede tells him not to make a fool of himself. Despite the fact that many laugh at his dance, the Captain cries "Bravo!" and Mr. Poyser admires the dancing. Mrs. Poyser says that Wiry Ben must be quite light in his brain to be able to dance so well.
The ball is held in the grand entrance room to the Chase. Lisbeth Bede objects to Adam being invited to the dancing because it causes him to leave his family, but when Adam says that he could apologize to the Captain and explain that his mother did not want him to attend, she says that he should go after all. Seth is happy to leave the party because all of the women in their finery remind him too strongly of Dinah, who never wears any ornaments at all.
He finds the Poyser party, and Mr. Poyser encourages him to dance with Hetty. Adam, who had thought that he was not going to dance, engages her for the fourth dance, and he takes out Mary Burge for the first. The old Squire makes the rounds of the hall to say hello to his tenants, all of whom hate him. The Captain leads out Mrs. Poyser for the first dance, while Miss Lydia leads out Mr. Poyser. When he takes her to dance, Arthur squeezes Hetty's hand, which makes her pale with emotion. He imagines that she will look this way again when he breaks it off for good.
Adam thinks that Hetty looks more serious and beautiful than ever and imagines marrying her. He goes to talk to her and collects the sleeping Totty from her arms. Totty wakes up and lashes out her arms, breaking the brown beads around Hetty's neck and popping the golden locket out of her dress. Adam picks it up from the floor, sees the two locks of hair, and becomes confused. As he dances with Hetty he realizes that they must have been given by some other, established, rich lover. He runs from the dance. As he walks home, he surmises that there could be nobody in her life whom he has not known about, so he concludes that she bought it with her own money and was ashamed of her vanity. Meanwhile, As Arthur dances with Hetty, he arranges to meet with her again.
In Chapter Twenty-Two, the Captain's behavior towards his tenants is interestingly old-fashioned. He seems to take an almost feudal responsibility for them, a fact enhanced by the setting of the tenants' dinner in a room in the old Abbey. The Captain in no way questions the established social order of his society, but he wants to be--and to appear--as benevolent a master as possible. He is constantly concerned about his image in the eyes of his tenants, and he uses a possible dip in their feelings toward him as a reason that he should not continue to see Hetty (although the gift of the earrings makes it clear that he has not managed to keep this resolution).
The new position for Adam shakes up the established order of the book in the same way that his father's death did. It makes him somewhat more able to marry Hetty. This new development not only frees him economically, but also it increases his social status, bringing him level with large tenants like the Poysers.
Chapter Twenty-Three shows the differences in character between Hetty and Adam once again, suggesting that they might not make a very good couple. Adam's humility is highlighted at the beginning of the chapter, showing that he does not want to be elevated above his family. One moral center in this novel concerns family values, and the fact that Adam does not want to move upward socially without bringing the rest of his family with him is an extremely positive quality in the context of the novel. Eliot has already remarked, however, that if Hetty were invited to make a great social leap, she would do so without a backward glance.
Two of Hetty's most negative characteristics are highlighted at the end of this chapter. Her vanity, the most obvious of her sins, is irritated when Totty innocently does something that might spoil Hetty's careful toilette. Her groundless flirtation is also emphasized here; she smiles winningly at Adam not because she loves him, but because she knows that a competitor is watching. She wants to retain her hold over Adam even if she does not want him for herself.
In Chapter Twenty-Four, all of the people in the village put on a good, happy, and unanimous face, while they are divided by social barriers and generally feel conflicted about their own troubles. The Captain is worried that if others learn about his relationship with Hetty, they will think less of him. Hetty is worried that he does not love her anymore. Adam is worried that he is letting down his family by moving into a new social sphere. There are several other worries here. What Eliot is trying to demonstrate is that, unlike natural events, social events can lend themselves to theatricality, leading people to play their expected roles instead of interacting and responding as they might do in a more natural way. The speeches of the men are weighed and judged, and despite the fact that all of the villagers know that Adam means well, some still judge his speech negatively.
Chapter Twenty-Five steps back from the story of the love problems among the Bedes and Poyser nieces to view the community as a whole. Rather than use the narrator to comment, Eliot brings in Mrs. Irwine as an outsider who rather impartially surveys the community. The result of this outsider perspective is a more even distribution of praise where praise is deserved. For example, she notices Seth Bede's particularity, though he is usually overshadowed by his more charismatic older brother.
The short episode of Chad's Bess's disappointment is almost more like a fable than a novel. Chad's Bess is persuaded to do something that she knows she should not be doing--heating herself up too much by racing--in pursuit of some sort of finery as a prize. She is quite disappointed when she ends up with a prize that is not to her taste. This fable might do well to instruct Hetty, who is carrying on a relationship that she knows she should not in pursuit of luxury and finery herself. Chad's Bess's disappointment may foreshadow her own.
Formal dancing is used in Chapter Twenty-Six in a similar way compared with dancing in Victorian fiction. That is, it is a proxy for, or a prelude to, sexual relations. Certain rules regulate the way that balls, even those as informal as the country dance, are held. Men must ask women to dance, and people may survey their possible prizes with all of the leisure of someone shopping for vegetables in a market. Men must not dance too often with the same partner, or else it will be expected that he has serious designs on her and may even be ready to marry her. For this reason, neither Adam nor the Captain dances with Hetty more than once.
The fact that Adam sees the locket, which is obviously so fine as to be a gift from the Captain, suggests that Hetty's secret cannot remain a secret for very much longer. Even though she tries to hide the signs of her love, and though she is fairly successful at making others believe that her emotions are linked to men other than the Captain, she ultimately will be unsuccessful at hiding such a big secret.