Adam Bede is set in the ‘Eden-like peace and loveliness’ of Hayslope in Loamshire. Adam, a sturdy, honest carpenter, blindly loves Hetty Sorrel, who works as a dairymaid on the farm of her aunt and uncle Poyser. But the pretty, self-centred Hetty prefers the dashing regimental captain Arthur Donnithorne, and, unknown to Adam, she allows Arthur to seduce her. Adam violently persuades Arthur to end the relationship, but Hetty finds she is pregnant, and, failing to find Arthur, kills her baby. Discovered, she is sentenced to hang. Dinah Morris, a Methodist preacher, spends a night with Hetty, bringing her to confession and inner peace. On the scaffold Arthur saves Hetty, bringing a reprieve, but she is deported and dies in exile. Adam marries the saintly Dinah, while the desolated Arthur goes abroad seeking atonement.
The novel draws on George Eliot's warm childhood memories of Warwickshire. Adam is based on her worthy estate manager father. Her aunt Elizabeth Evans, a Methodist preacher, in 1802 consoled a condemned murderer, as did Dinah. The novel contains Eliot's declaration of interest in the dense detail she admired in Dutch painting, and the writing creates the glowing world, at once sensuous and unsentimental, of a community based on physical labour, closeness to nature and simple faith. This contrasts with the grim neighbourhood of Stonyshire and the mining town of Snowfield. Much recent criticism has focused on Hetty Sorrel, whose potential as a character appears to be abandoned by George Eliot once she has fallen into temptation. Raising questions of narrative structure, realism and moral point of view, the novel, which launched Eliot's career, has been the subject of critical debate since its original publication.