Chapter 27: A Crisis
Three weeks after Arthur’s party, just before harvest, as the apples are falling in the orchards, the crisis that has been building erupts. Adam’s hopes have been buoyed again, and he is working double, for the squire and Jonathan Burge. Hetty seems more serious and mature to Adam these days. She is still getting her sewing lessons, and on the night she is coming home through the wood, Adam is taking a short cut through there after having done repairs on the Chase Farm. He hears that Arthur is leaving in two days to join his regiment.
Just as the sun is setting he sees two figures in the wood, and he freezes. They are kissing and saying goodbye. Gyp barks, and the figures break apart. One figure (Hetty) rushes out the gate to the fields, while the other comes towards Adam in the wood. It is Arthur, slightly drunk, swaggering and trying to bluff with Adam about the incident. He thinks Adam is the best person to have caught him and Hetty together, for he can be trusted not to tell anyone. He mentions casually that he just gave Hetty a kiss after walking with her, and he tries to pass by Adam, as if no harm had been done. It was just a bit of flirting, he says.
Adam tells him to wait, and accuses him of being two-faced, for Hetty could have loved him if Arthur, whom he thought his friend, hadn’t ruined it. Arthur is shocked that Adam loves Hetty, and begins to see the whole affair as much more serious than he imagined. Adam’s blood is up, and he taunts Arthur until he fights. The two begin a furious fist fight until Adam knocks Arthur down, and he does not get up. Adam is terrified of his own strength, afraid that he has killed Arthur.
Commentary on Chapter 27
After much buildup and suspense, the secret bursts out, and it is fatal for Arthur that it is Adam who sees him with Hetty, though at first he thinks Adam will understand and cover for him. This misunderstanding shows the difference between Adam and Arthur both in character and in class expectations. Arthur’s class of gentlemen takes it as nothing unusual to have affairs with servant girls. If worst comes to worst with such a fling, a rich man can always pay his way out of the trouble, for he would never be expected by his peers to marry or be made uncomfortable by any complications. Arthur expects Adam to have such a cavalier attitude as well. He passes the incident off as not serious.
His casual manner incenses Adam in two ways; first, because Hetty is the woman he loves; second, even if she weren’t, Arthur puts a blot on Hetty’s reputation and life, and that is not a mere trifle for the servant girl. Adam’s working class on the whole expects courting to end in marriage, so if one does not have that intention, then one is acting dishonorably. Adam’s illusions crash because he has believed in the superiority of rank and has believed in Arthur personally. Arthur’s bubble is burst too: he is suddenly shocked by feeling the first hatred he has ever encountered in his life, and from one of the people whose opinion mattered to him. He realizes from the way Adam talks, however, that he believes it is a flirtation and nothing more. He sticks to this lie, then, as his only way out of the mess.
Fiction in 1859 did not discuss explicit sexual encounters, but these hints by the characters and narrator are enough to confirm in a round-about way that Hetty and Arthur are definitely having a sexual affair, though Adam has bought Arthur’s lie that it is only a flirtation. Even a servant found kissing a gentleman could be turned away from employment, and certainly would have a difficult time marrying, for the worst would be assumed. In a small town like Hayslope, one mistake like this can ruin a person’s life. Adam knows Hetty will be destroyed if it is found out, but he himself is too good a man to think that the affair is that far along, that either Hetty or Arthur could have stooped so low. He is a bit naïve about the weaknesses of others, and Arthur takes advantage of this.
Adam’s strength is also his weakness. He holds himself back by sheer will power in the beginning, knowing he is a strong man and that violence is wrong. It has been mentioned that he stopped fighting when he injured a man a few years ago, and he cautions himself not to do it now. If Arthur had humbled himself or spoken truthfully, there might have been some other way to work out their differences, but since Arthur takes a casual and cocky attitude, Adam’s anger is thoroughly aroused at the “scoundrel” (p. 299). When Arthur does not get up, Adam realizes his mistake. He solved nothing, and he might have killed a man.
This chapter functions as the moment of the fall does in Paradise Lost. Before this scene, the idyllic world of the valley was established in the rising action. All the characters had hopes and plans for a bright future. After this climax, that innocent green world is shattered, and all the tragic consequences of the actions are played out. The lives of the main characters change forever. As Adam observed of his father’s tragic end: “There’s no slipping up hill again, and no standing still when once you’ve begun to slip down” (p. 50). The reader expects to watch the tumbling down now.