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Adam Bede, carpenter and all-around awesome guy, is finishing up another day of work when the book begins. His brother Seth (also a carpenter) is going to hit on… er… listen to a Methodist preacher named Dinah Morris. But Adam heads home to rest, only to find that his father Thias has been out drinking. Again. Thias is a boozehound.
Next morning Thias turns up—drowned. News spreads, first to a local clergyman named Mr. Irwine. Then it reaches the Hall Farm, where the Poyser family lives. With them lives Hetty Sorrel, a vain dairymaid. Adam wants to marry her. But Hetty? Well, she dreams of wealth and privilege, and fantasizes about marrying a local aristocrat named Arthur Donnithorne.
But Dinah (the preacher) senses that Hetty may run into trouble in life, and offers her aid. And Arthur, afraid of where his own attraction to Hetty might lead, wants to get it all off his chest. He tries to explain his anxieties to Mr. Irwine, and clams up.
Then Eliot's narrator pops out of nowhere and offers a bunch of comments on the art of fiction. Maybe it's just Eliot taking pity on us for having introduced so many characters. Got 'em all straight? Good. Onwards!
Next, we're given a guided tour of Adam's community. Here's Adam in church, then repairing an old house, then at the Hall Farm, then at night school. Finally the book ends our tour de Adam, and Eliot describes Arthur's "coming of age" feast. All the locals are there, mostly having a good time. But Hetty's love for Arthur, and Adam's pursuit of Hetty, creates a lot of quiet tension.
Adam seems to be getting ahead in the carpentry business, and is convinced that Hetty will soon be his. But then he sees Hetty and Arthur locking lips. Ouch. Adam approaches Arthur, they have some harsh words, fists fly, and Arthur hits the ground. Adam regrets this violence, sure. But he also forces Arthur to break it off with Hetty.
Shortly after, Hetty receives a very long "let's be friends" letter from Arthur. Channeling her inner Justin Timberlake, she cries Arthur a river. Then, channeling her inner Roxette, she listens to heart and decides to accept Adam after all.
But Hetty's employers, the Poysers, haven't been doing too great lately, at least not since Mrs. Poyser picked a fight with her landlord. But the Poysers are delighted with the match. They don't bat an eye when, one day, Hetty decides to go on a journey. Something marriage-related… or so they think.
In reality, Hetty is pregnant. Back then, this, of course, was a huge no-no. She's confused and scared and she initially thought of suicide. But now she has decided to find Arthur. Her journey leaves her broke, ashamed, alone, and still very pregnant.
Adam sets out to find Hetty. He finds nothing. Only Mr. Irwine knows the horrible truth—that Hetty is in jail for murdering her newborn child. Adam sets out to help her through the upcoming trial.
And he's not alone. Dinah Morris—just returned from a new spate of preaching—visits Hetty in prison and helps Hetty to acknowledge her guilt. Practically, though, that doesn't get anybody anywhere. Hetty is sentenced to death. The only thing that saves her is (wait for it…) Arthur Donnithorne, back from a journey of his own, a pardon in his hand.
Of course, the Poysers and Bedes are going to need a lot of time to heal. But Arthur has convinced them to stay in town. Instead, he'll shoulder the blame for Hettygate and move on out. Adam throws himself into his carpentry. But there is a distraction—Dinah Morris, back to shower love and care and good old-fashioned Methodism on the locals. She and Adam are starting to fall for one another. Hard.
Both the Bedes and the Poysers love the idea of this match. Dinah, however, thinks marriage will interfere with her religious mission. She leaves Hayslope. Adam tries to be social, tries to enjoy himself at the harvest supper, but he only thinks of Dinah. So he follows her to one of her preaching gigs and arranges to "bump into" her afterwards. Is he turning into a Methodist groupie?
But it works. The two declare their love, get married, and raise a happy family. Sure, Hetty is sent into exile and dies on her way home, and Arthur spends seven years away—and returns a sadder man. Still, the community is pulling itself forward, and our titular (snicker) hero finally gets his girl.