Hetty is only seventeen and has apparently received little or no formal education. She is thus unformed and instinctual. She does not analyze situations because she has neither the intelligence nor the training to do so; she floats like a bubble on the surface of life, never thinking or feeling anything very deeply. Like many young people, Hetty is highly imaginative and tends to live in a world of dreams. Her grasp of reality is slight, and she is in basic need of protection and guidance from others.
These qualities can be very charming in a girl since they are traditionally thought of as feminine, and Hetty is certainly charming. There is something appealingly childlike about her, and both Adam and Arthur react to this quality. Her helplessness, her sensitivity to physical or mental pain, stimulate their protective urges and soften the reader’s disapproval of her actions. Her youth and softness are most apparent in her lonely wandering, and she seems less like a criminal than a victim — a victim of the fact that Arthur took advantage of her weakness and of the circumstance that Arthur is not at Windsor.
But Hetty’s childishness also has its negative side. Like a child, she always seeks her own advantage; Hetty is profoundly and eternally selfish. The dream world she lives in is one in which she is the central figure, and no realistic considerations interfere with her imaginings. She gives herself to Arthur even though she does not love him because she sees the opportunity to make her egotistical dreams come true. When it becomes clear that Arthur will not make her a “great lady,” she immediately switches her loyalty to Adam; her affections are controlled completely by her own desires. Finally, she kills her own baby in order to avoid disgrace and social ostracism.
Because Hetty’s feelings are so superficial, she is very materialistic. A pair of earrings can send her into raptures, and she judges herself and others in terms of externals — beauty, money, social success, and prestige. Her relationships with others are therefore shallow. She does not seek to know and be known, but only to be admired, and she is very deceitful and evasive, avoiding any contact which could make her face the unreality of her dreams.
Bad experience only has the effect of making Hetty withdraw into herself even more; during her trial, she refuses to speak to anyone. But Dinah gets her to confess, and this symbolic act breaks down the walls which her egomania had erected. She takes responsibility for her actions and admits to the world in general that she has been at fault. She faces reality, abandons her selfish dreams, and reveals herself as a weak and helpless child. At the last moment, Hetty summons the courage to forgive and to love, and is “saved” through the acceptance of human contact.