Hetty’s journey to Windsor is a difficult one; ignorant of traveling, driven by fear, worn by fatigue and hunger, she presses on for seven days, finally arriving at Windsor both physically and mentally exhausted. Here she is befriended by a kindly innkeeper and his wife who immediately note her condition and take pity on her. She tells them she is looking for her brother and mentions Arthur’s name, only to learn that Arthur’s regiment has gone to Ireland. Hetty faints at the news.
Hetty remains ill through the rest of that day. She feels utterly lost and hopeless; there seems to be nowhere left to turn. When she wakes the next morning, she tries to form some plans. She can’t bring herself to go back home, admit her problem, and face the shame attached to it; at the same time, she dreads the thought of beggary or of bodily hardship. She decides to sell the jewels Arthur has given her in order to get a little money. But what then? She remembers Dinah’s words on that night in her bedroom and decides to go to her, if she has not the courage to commit suicide.
She sells the earrings and her locket to the landlord and sets out again for the north. Completely in despair, she goes to Stratford-on-Avon and wanders into the fields outside the town. She looks for a pool in which to drown herself, finds one, but falls asleep beside it. When she awakes, it is the dead of night, and she turns away from her suicide plan. Wandering into the next field, she finds a shepherd’s hovel and falls asleep in it. She is discovered the next morning by the shepherd, who sends her on her way. She moves vaguely towards Snowfield and Dinah.
These chapters are entitled “The Journey in Rope” and “The Journey in Despair”; in both Hetty is running away, desperately seeking relief. First she runs from the shame which would come upon her if her friends and relatives learned she was pregnant. After she fails to find Arthur, she runs from life itself. Eliot shows us a young woman who is pushed to the very brink of suicide, who is, indeed, only prevented from drowning herself by a lack of courage. By the time Chapter 37 ends, Hetty has been brought so low that she hardly sees even a glimmer of hope. As she sets out for Snowfield after leaving the shepherd, she is as afraid of life as of death; no human contact, except perhaps with Dinah, seems to offer any comfort.
The purpose of bringing Hetty into such utterly desperate straits is twofold. Hetty’s night beneath the “leaden sky” beside the “wintry” pool creates sympathy in the reader for her. As we have noted earlier, Eliot’s purpose is not to condemn Hetty, but to show what gross mistakes human beings can make. And secondly, Hetty’s degeneration serves to illustrate Eliot’s philosophy; from a reasonably happy and comfortable farm girl, Hetty has become so wretched a figure that the shepherd can rightfully accuse her of looking like a madwoman.
The degeneration, though it is quick, is handled with skill and subtlety. Eliot faces a difficult task in these chapters; she must punish the novel’s “bad girl” while at the same time arousing sympathy for her, and she must do it in a very few pages. In order to accomplish these ends, she emphasizes those qualities in Hetty’s character which both stimulate pity and emphasize the girl’s inability to cope with unpleasant situations: her childishness and helplessness. Both these traits have been mentioned earlier; Hetty has shown herself to be thoughtless, as when she refuses to listen to Dinah’s words in the bedroom (Chapter 15), and subject to panic, as when she loses her locket (Chapter 26) and when Arthur announces his intention of leaving (Chapter 29). Eliot simply brings them to the forefront here and de-emphasizes traits less evocative of pity, telling us all the while how she herself feels about the pitiful figure. She shows Hetty being thrown into a fit of terror by the coachman’s innocent joke, fainting when she hears that Arthur is not at Windsor, and wandering about in great confusion. Eliot mentions Hetty’s homesickness and makes her long for the placid life she has thrown away. Hetty endures a number of very nasty experiences, and Eliot shifts the characterization just enough to make us believe that Hetty must sink under the weight of her troubles. If she had emphasized Hetty’s hardness as in earlier chapters, the girl’s abrupt degeneration would seem somewhat implausible. As it is, it seems quite natural.
There is a certain implausibility, on the other hand, in Hetty’s alleged ability to hide her pregnancy from the people at Hayslope. As appears later, she is about eight months pregnant when she leaves home, and even allowing for the considerable bulk of eighteenth-century fashions, it seems unlikely that the sharp eye of Mrs. Poyser would fail to notice Hetty’s condition. Eliot attempts to redeem herself at one point; when the innkeeper’s wife detects the pregnancy, Eliot comments: “the stranger’s eye detects what the familiar unsuspecting eye leaves unnoticed.” But this is rather flimsy. The hidden pregnancy is a plot device leading to the child-murder, something which would not have come about if Hetty’s relatives had noticed her condition. It is a structural flaw, a link which binds events together while bending the laws of probability.
Blind circumstance is rather obviously at work here. If Hetty had known Arthur was not at Windsor, she would probably have taken some other course of action. In any case, she would not have sunk so low as she has at this point in the novel. It seems strange that Eliot would insert the element of chance in so pronounced a way at this stage since it diminishes the force of the implacable operation of “consequences.” According to the theory of ethical determinism, Hetty’s misery should result directly from her rash act, but Arthur’s absence from Windsor cannot be connected in any logical way with the love affair. It seems that Eliot is allowing herself some philosophical latitude here.