In the middle of August, Adam performs twice as much work as before. He has begun his work on the Captain's estate, but he also has remained with Mr. Burge until Mr. Burge can find a replacement. His hopes about Hetty are high, because she has behaved more nicely than usual to him after the ball. One evening she goes to Treddleston to buy some things, so Adam is quite surprised to see her walking home out of her way near the Chase, but she explains that she wanted to remain outside a little longer. He walks her home, and she invites him in for a conversation with her family.
He arrives at the Chase Farm late one evening and is occupied with making plans for a new farmhouse until late, so he decides to walk home by cutting through the grove. He thinks about Arthur's good qualities, which he enjoys partly because he has not read widely enough--so Adam must choose his heroes from among the people he knows. He stops to contemplate a beautiful beech at the turnoff to the Hermitage, and he sees Arthur kissing Hetty. Gyp barks, the couple see him, and Hetty hurries off. Arthur, who has had too much wine to drink, confronts Adam, red-faced. Adam understands the locket, everything, in a flash. Arthur tries to pass off the kiss as a casual encounter, but Adam says that he knows that it is not the first time. Adam calls him a scoundrel and will not let the point pass, saying that he has loved Hetty for many years and that Arthur is doing him a disservice by making love to her. Arthur has never been criticized before and does not like the feeling of it. They get in a fistfight. Adam is stronger, and he knocks Arthur to the ground. Adam waits in vain for Arthur to rise. He looks at Arthur's face and sees no sign of life. Adam feels the vanity of his own rage in that it has not solved anything or changed the past.
After a few minutes, Arthur sits up and says that he fainted. Adam tends to him, putting water on his forehead. They walk to the Hermitage to get Arthur some brandy so that he can stand the walk home. It is a surprise to Adam that the Hermitage has become so well equipped as a hideaway for Arthur. Arthur revives himself by drinking brandy with water.
Adam apologizes for perhaps being too hasty, especially because Arthur had no way of knowing about Adam's secret feelings for Hetty. Arthur wants to shake hands and say no more about the matter, but Adam will not agree to do so unless Arthur ends his relationship with Hetty. Arthur says that he is leaving on Saturday, which should be enough, but Adam insists that he must write a specific letter. Adam says that he will deliver the letter himself, and Arthur somewhat reluctantly agrees to have him pick it up the next day at five. Arthur promises that he will never see Hetty again.
Arthur wakes up in the morning and decides to go for a ride on his horse. He hates to witness pain. Once he gave a gardener his favorite pencil case because he kicked over the man's supper of broth. If Arthur could gain back Adam's self-confidence with gifts, then he would try to do so, but he knows that he cannot.
He also feels bad for Hetty, who, upon learning that he was going away, asked if she could come as his wife. He resolves to make everything up to her with future benefits. He takes a ride on his horse to try to ascertain whether he should write the letter after all, because in his room he is having the mad thought of carrying her away. Once on horseback, he decides to write it after all. When Adam arrives at five, the butler gives him a letter addressed to Adam. He opens it, and enclosed is a letter to Hetty. Arthur wrote that this is what Adam wanted, and he has left to Adam the decision whether to give the letter to Hetty or not. Adam hesitates. He decides to feel out what sort of state of mind Hetty is in before giving her the letter.
The next Sunday Adam joins the Poysers on their way to church with the letter in his pocket. He hopes to find a moment to talk to Hetty alone. After church, Adam asks to speak to her alone. Hetty is relieved, because she knows that Adam must have seen her kiss the Captain and feels sure that they would not have talked about it, but has been afraid that he would tell her aunt and uncle.
Hetty and Adam walk out alone that night, and Adam remembers having his hopes raised in this very garden. Adam says that he must be worried, because he has seen her being courted by a man who will never marry her. She says that he does not really know that she loves Arthur and is being trifled with. Adam says that he does know, otherwise she would not let him kiss her, and she is indeed letting herself be played with. Angrily, Hetty says that she knows that the Captain is serious about her. Adam realizes that he must give her the letter. He does, saying that he has not read it, and Hetty gains some hope again that it might not contain what he thinks.
They go back into the house, Adam swinging Totty up onto his shoulders, and Hetty has no time to read the letter alone yet. Adam tries to carry the conversation with her aunt and uncle, and he is surprised at the amount of self-control that Hetty shows. As he leaves, he squeezes her hand, trying to tell her that she can always take refuge in his love. Adam reflects that she is spoiled for normal men like himself now that she has had an affair with a gentleman. He thinks that he does not have much happiness in his life.
Adam runs into Seth on the way home and asks if he has heard from Dinah recently. Adam apologizes for being a bit short with him lately. Seth replies that everything is always all right between brothers. He adds that Dinah has written him a letter that he would like Adam to read. The letter is full of greetings for their mother, and it brings the news that she is moving to Leeds to preach. Adam says that she would be a great match for Seth, and it is almost like hearing her speak to read the letter. Adam says that the match would work out well and is convenient because their mother likes her so much. Adam does not reply.
Hetty reads the letter from Arthur in her bedchamber. It is not easy for her to read the fancy handwriting, although Arthur has tried to write plainly. He says that he loves her and will always remember their love, but it would have been better had they not had it in the first place. He says that even if he married her, she would end up very unhappy, and that she would be happiest marrying someone of her own station. He says that if she ever has any misfortunes, he will try to help her in any way that he can. He tells her not to write him back unless she is in true distress, because they must try to forget about one another. Hetty cries, thinking Arthur cruel to write and cruel not to marry her. The candle goes out, and she throws herself on her bed without undressing.
She wakes up at dawn, remembers her misery, reads the letter again, and fingers the trinkets that Arthur has given her. She thinks miserably that she must hide her sadness from her family. She at first thinks of running away, but that seems too difficult, so she plans on becoming a lady's maid. She asks her uncle for permission, but he says that farming is better for her health and that she is more likely to find a husband that way. The elder Mr. Poyser says that Hetty takes after her good-for-nothing mother. Mr. Poyser hints that she could marry Adam Bede, and Hetty begins to cry. After she goes to her room, the Poysers conclude that even the maid has more family feeling than she does. Hetty, in her room, considers why she should not marry Adam--after all, she does want a change in her life.
Mr. Casson sees the stranger in top-boots ride by again. He says good morning to ascertain the man's accent, and he says that it is foreign and cannot compare to his own refined accent. Bartle makes fun of him, saying that despite the fact that he has worked with gentlefolks, his accent is still terrible.
The old Squire visits the Poysers, a rare event. He looks at the dairy and says that he has a new tenant coming in who would like more space for his farm. He proposes a trade of some of the Poysers' farmland for some more dairy land and the exclusive right to sell butter, cream, and cheese to his family. Mrs. Poyser says that she will not consent to do more dairy work. The old Squire offers to have his servants help her with the fetching and carrying, but she refuses, saying that they would only make trouble with the girls. The old Squire changes tactics and threatens not to renew their lease in a year when it is up, because he is sure that Thurtle, his new tenant, would be happy to enlarge his farm. Despite the fact that the Squire addresses himself to Mr. Poyser, Mrs. Poyser continues to answer, following the Squire out the door as she tells him that few tenants would live with no repairs as she and Mr. Poyser have done, and she adds that everyone in the village hates him. He will do little to save his soul if he does not help his tenants. All of the Squire's own servants listen, grinning.
Mr. Poyser is both worried and amused by his wife's outspokenness. She says that she could not have continued bottling it up inside of her for the rest of her life. He says that she will not be so happy when they have to move at Michaelmas when their rent is up, but Mrs. Poyser says that a lot could happen before then. Mr. Poyser says that they would be like a plant that left their roots behind them if they moved. They would never be able to thrive again.
The barley crop is in, and it is already Michaelmas. Mr. Thurle did not come to the Chase, so the old Squire was obliged to find a steward. The whole town knows that this is because Mrs. Poyser refused to be put upon. Mrs. Irwine approves highly, and she wishes that she were rich enough to give the lady a pension.
Hetty's attitude toward her work improves, and she does not complain when her aunt puts a stop to her lessons at the Chase. Adam begins to be hopeful because she looks happy when she sees him. Eliot observes that it is not the weakness in Adam that is attracted to Hetty, but rather his strength. It is no more shameful to be attracted to a beautiful woman than to be moved by beautiful music. The appearance of a change in Hetty's affections has made Adam more inclined to be less hard on Arthur. It looks like Adam's fortunes are on the upswing in every way now that Mr. Burge, despairing of ever having Adam as a son-in-law, has made him his partner anyway because he is irreplaceable. Now his prospects allow him to marry very soon and perhaps to build a house away from his mother's. His mother might be reconciled to this circumstance if Seth married Dinah. He is excited to tell the Poysers the news.
On the second of November, Mrs. Poyser does not go to church because she has a serious cold. Mr. Poyser decides to keep her company. Adam walks Hetty home from church and tells her that he has been made partners with Mr. Burge. Hetty thinks that this goes together with him marrying Mary Burge, and that Adam is doing so because of what he saw between her and Arthur. She starts to cry, thinking of Arthur, and Adam hopefully thinks that she is crying because she is jealous that he will probably marry Mary Burge. Adam sweeps all caution away and asks her to marry him. She does not speak, but she presses her cheek against his. She agrees that he may tell her uncle and aunt.
Adam and Hetty tell the aunt and uncle, who agree to help with some furniture and a dowry. Adam kisses Hetty goodnight, and there is some discussion of what house he will move to. Mr. Poyser worries that he will be turned out of his own house, but Mrs. Poyser says that the Captain will come home and make everything all right with the Squire.
It is a busy time for Adam, but one that he enjoys, because it takes him closer to March, when he will at last be married to Hetty. It was decided that Adam and Hetty should live with Lisbeth and Seth, as Hetty had agreed. Also, Seth comes back from visiting Dinah and says that her mind is not turned toward marrying at all. Adam worries that Hetty looks unhappy sometimes, but she assures him that she is not-she is only tired because she has to do more work now that her aunt has a cold.
Hetty goes to buy something in Treddleston and takes the long way home so that nobody will see her unhappy face. She sees a cold lake and considers jumping into it, but she worries that those left behind might guess the reason for an action as desperate as this. She had trusted that something would come to save her from her misery, but her marriage is almost upon her and nothing has come to the rescue.
When she gets home she sees a letter from Dinah congratulating her on her engagement. Her uncle encourages her to pick up Dinah from Snowfield, but Hetty argues that it is too far off. She thinks for a bit, however, and decides to undertake the journey so that instead of seeing Dinah she can throw herself at Arthur's mercy at Windsor.
The first chapter of Book Fourth is crucial. Matters come to a head in Chapter Twenty-Seven when Adam finds out Arthur's and Hetty's secret. Moreover, despite the fact that they are isolated in the woods, class differences come to bear on the friendship between Arthur and Adam once again. When Arthur at first refuses to fight Adam, Adam worries that Arthur thinks that he does not have to pay for the wrong that he has done to Adam because he is of a nobler rank. When the two men do fight, the fact that Adam is a laborer gives him the decisive advantage in strength against Arthur, against whom he is in other respects well-matched.
Class would also become an issue if, as Adam suspects, Arthur dies. To kill any man would be a large problem in their small community, but to kill the only heir of his landlord would be a crisis for Adam Bede.
There is a decided role reversal in terms of class structure in Chapter Twenty-Eight. In previous parts of the book, Adam was all too glad to shake Arthur's hand, especially because the Captain did not deign to shake the hands of his other tenants. Now, however, Adam is in the moral right in this chapter, and he thus is in a position to refuse his social superior's condescension.
Eliot illustrates her contention that even in their society, it is not the social hierarchy but the moral hierarchy that matters after all. Arthur is sufficiently penitent to realize that he has made a particularly damaging mistake, so he will agree to whatever Adam asks him to do as a result of the mistake, despite the fact that the social order dictates that it is he who should be telling Adam what to do, not the other way around.
In Chapter Twenty-Nine, Eliot uses the common literary device of a misplaced or misdirected letter. This device is famous in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and has long roots in literature. In Shakespeare's play, both lovers die because of the crucial misplacement of a letter. It is not a good sign, therefore, that Adam is second-guessing whether he should deliver the letter or not. When a communication goes awry, terrible results can ensue.
Arthur's character is looking still less appealing in this chapter. He cannot face reproaches to himself comfortably. He tries to place some of the blame on Adam, and he ends up placing the burden of whether to hurt Hetty by giving her the letter or not also squarely on Adam's shoulders. This is unfair because it puts two of Adam's best characteristics in opposition to one another: his love of truth, and his desire to protect those whom he loves.
Chapter Thirty reminds readers that besides the socioeconomic aspects of marriage, there is a stricly social aspect to it as well. The Bede boys need not think only of whether a potential marriage partner is within their socio-economic reach, but also they must consider who will fit well in their existing family. While class plays a role in social acceptance, it is important that their future wives will get along with their mother in more fundamental ways, because they all will live in the same house together.
Hetty is the only character in the novel who does not seem to be old enough or perceptive enough to understand the obvious workings of the class structure in her society. In Chapter Thirty-One, she thinks that Arthur is being cruel in refusing to marry her, rather than pragmatic. She is also not wise enough to know that whatever choices she will make now will continue to affect her for a very long time. She is desperately unhappy, so she wants a change quickly, but she does not understand that a choice to run away, to become a lady's maid, or to marry Adam will have far-reaching, perhaps lifelong, effects.
By Chapter Thirty-Two, Mrs. Poyser has been planning her diatribe against the old Squire for a long time, but she has never been able to muster the courage to tell him what she thinks until this very moment. She is incensed by his arbitrary use of his powers over the family, and she is sufficiently angry to cross class lines in venting this anger.
Eliot engages an interesting point of view about privacy in this novel. Adam Bede focuses so much on the community that it does not seem that any feeling or action can remain private for very long. Hetty's locket bursts out of her dress, where she tried to keep it secret, just as the words burst out of Mrs. Poyser's mouth. Mrs. Poyser thinks that it is unhealthy to avoid giving vent to her feelings. This strong community and lack of privacy has also been reflected in Adam's assumption that Hetty could have no lover he did not know about because she scarcely ever leaves the farm and because he knows all of her acquaintances.
By Chapter Thirty-Three, Adam's life, which has been rather hard throughout the course of the novel, finally begins to look easier. Eliot interposes her own voice yet again in defense of Adam's sentimentality in continuing to love Hetty despite what she has done in the past. Eliot claims that it is a positive feature of Adam's personality that he can be played upon by Hetty's delicate beauty; this virtue seems to correspond to Adam's artistic, rather than his peasant qualities. Recall that Eliot ditinguished such qualities in a previous chapter. The fact that Hetty's outer beauty does not correspond to her inner beauty is something that Eliot seems to propose that Adam has no way of knowing, although one ought to be able to infer moral beauty from one's external words and actions. Adam's inability to see Hetty's flaws clearly is likely to give him great trouble in the future.
Chapter Thirty-Four contains a great deal of dramatic irony, a literary device in which readers have more knowledge about a situation than the characters themselves and can appreciate seeing the drama play itself out. Adam is extremely happy with his engagement, little knowing, as the reader does, that he is completely misinterpreting Hetty's feelings. His misunderstanding seems to work out for the best however, because it emboldens Adam to ask Hetty to marry him, something that the entire novel has led up to.
Hetty's suicidal thoughts at the pond, in Chapter Thirty-Five, recall the suicidal attempt of another famous literary heroine from the 18th century: Richardson's Pamela. In Richardson's novel, he depicts the struggles of a virtuous servant girl to fend off the sexual attempts of her handsome gentleman master. The aristocrat kidnaps the young girl, shutting her up in a country estate. Rather than give in to his advances, the young heroine attempts to drown herself in a small pond on the estate, but her religious convictions are too strong to allow her to do so. It is the knowledge of this suicide attempt which reforms the master, making him repent of his advances to her. Eventually the two marry and are quite happy, despite their difference in class.
Henry Fielding published a satirical response to Pamela (1740), called Shamela (1741). Purportedly told from Pamela's own point of view, it is the tale of how a sexually voracious servant girl entraps her master by acting innocent. The episode of the suicide is a cleverly engineered prank on Shamela's part, designed to make her master think that she has religious sentiments.
Hetty's suicidal attempts lie strangely between these two extremes. Unlike Pamela, she has not fended off the sexual attempts of her social superior with the greatest of success. As will be shown by her later contemplation of suicide, it is not religious sentiments that keep her from taking the plunge. Still, she is not at the extreme of Shamela; she has no sexual relationship with other members of the small town, and she does not think that a mock suicide on her part would bring Arthur running back to her side.