The scene shifts to Stoniton on the eve of the trial. Adam and Bartle are lodged in a small room. Adam has changed greatly; he looks like a man who has just passed through a serious illness. Mr. Irwine comes in and reports that Hetty refuses to see Adam; indeed, since her arrest, she has refused to see or speak to anyone but just sits and stares, quiet and sullen. Adam asks if Arthur has come back yet. Mr. Irwine says he has not, and Adam delivers another tirade against Arthur, insisting that all the guilt for Hetty’s crime lies on Arthur’s head. Mr. Irwine tries to calm him; Arthur will suffer too, he says, and he urges Adam to give up any desire for revenge. Any act of vengeance on Adam’s part will not solve anything and will just make a bad situation worse. Adam is silent for a moment, then wonders out loud if Dinah could have helped Hetty. But no one knows where Dinah is.
On the day of the trial, Adam sits in his room weighed down with despair. Bartle comes back from the court and tells him that things are going badly; conviction seems certain. He tells Adam how frightened Hetty looked, and that she will admit nothing, not even the proven fact that she has borne a child. Under the pressure of this news, Adam has a change of heart and decides not to stay away from the trial any longer. Immediately “he stood upright again, and looked more like the Adam Bede of former days.”
Since the novel is, in one way, the story of Adam Bede’s journey to maturity, the importance of these short chapters cannot be overemphasized. Although Mr. Irwine and Bartle appear, Eliot clearly concentrates upon Adam here; we see everything that happens in its relation to him and follow the turnings of his mind. In these chapters, Adam reaches his low point and begins to emerge from his difficulties a changed man.
The physical description of Adam emphasizes the crisis which is going on within; the reader mentally compares the strong, healthy Adam to this young man with his “sunken eyes” and “heavy black hair.” His behavior has also changed. He is irresolute, inattentive, given to sporadic outbursts of feeling; his normal calm has become sullenness.
These changes reflect a fact of the first importance. Adam is faced with the utter destruction of his moral world. Eliot states the case with admirable precision in a single sentence: “This brave active man, who would have hastened towards any danger or toil to rescue Hetty from an apprehended wrong or misfortune, felt himself powerless to contemplate irremediable evil and suffering.” The recognition of irremediable evil is a new experience for Adam; he had always felt that by acting he could correct any situation. Recall, for example, his reaction to his father’s death, an event which represented irremediable evil to Lisbeth. Adam reacted by turning to his work. Eliot now, in a striking parallel, places him in a position from which no amount of work can set him free. Hetty’s crime cannot be reversed, and there is no way in which Adam can avert or alleviate her punishment. He cannot even take revenge on Arthur since in doing so he would only be making a bad situation worse.
Adam’s active, aggressive way of solving problems is completely nullified, and he must seek for some other way out. The only viable alternative is humility; Adam must learn to accept what he cannot control or set straight, to accept limitations and live with them. Eliot thus makes the point we have already anticipated in connection with other events: Since man is not in control of his environment, he must humbly make the best of things. To Eliot, pride conflicts with the nature of reality and will prevent one from leading a good life.
Adam does overcome his pride, and the author signals the change by using traditional religious terms to indicate its moral significance: “Deep, unspeakable suffering may well be called a baptism, a regeneration, the initiation into a new state.” When he decides to go to the courtroom, he has accepted his situation as it is and, instead of worrying passively about his own problems, has decided to lend what small comfort he can to Hetty. He speaks of mercy and vows, “I’ll never be hard again.” The reader should compare the description of Adam at the beginning of Chapter 41 with that which ends Chapter 42; Eliot indicates by this contrast that a new life has indeed begun for Adam.
Eliot keeps the reader focused on the proper moral reference points in these chapters by having Mr. Irwine enlighten Adam further on the nature of his position and by making Adam wonder whether Dinah will come. The latter reference also serves to foreshadow Dinah’s arrival, much like lines in a play can lead the audience to look forward to the appearance of the hero.