Summary of Chapter 43: The Verdict
Adam Bede’s tall figure entering the courtroom is striking. Even Mr. Irwine is surprised by the signs of suffering and grief about him. He goes to sit by Hetty’s side, but she does not see him, for she stands with her head down, looking at her hands. Adam is looking to see whether she is different, but she is not to him. She still is the pretty sweet girl he fell in love with.
The first witness is Sarah Stone, a widowed shopkeeper in Stoniton. She tells how Hetty came to her door one night and out of pity, she took her in. That night, the baby was born, and she herself dressed it in clothes she had made. She took care of the baby and mother and offered to send for Hetty’s friends, but Hetty refused. When the woman went out for a while, Hetty ran away with the baby.
At this point, Adam is moved and thinks that Hetty couldn’t have killed her baby. She must have loved it, but the next witness is the man who found the baby, John Olding, an old peasant man. He was crossing the fields and saw Hetty there. She looked frightened when he came towards her and walked on. He thought she looked crazy. In the field he kept hearing cries but thinking it some animal, he ignored it until it stopped. An hour later he went to where the cries were and found a baby’s body. It was cold. He took it to his wife who said it was dead. Then they sent for the constable and began looking for Hetty. They found her the next day, sitting near the place where she had left the baby, apparently in shock, for she did not move until they took her away.
Adam’s agony is supreme when he realizes what Hetty has done, and he hides his face on his arm and calls to God for help. The jury quickly finds her guilty, but there is no recommendation for mercy, and when the judge hands out the death sentence, Adam reaches out to her, but Hetty screams and faints.
Commentary on Chapter 43
The narrator tells us that Hetty did not receive the mercy of the court, despite all the testimony to her virtuous upbringing by relatives and Mr. Irwine, because of her coldness and hardness. She does not respond, confess, or seem repentant or sorry. It appears to be cold-blooded murder, but from the testimony one gathers Hetty was not completely sane and that furthermore, she was not able to leave the scene, even to save her own life, because of shock or guilt. Though we have been told more details during the court case, there is still the mystery of what happened to make Hetty do this. We have not yet heard her side of it, though the facts seem to warrant the verdict.
Eliot’s story was timely for her readers because though it was set in an earlier period, infanticide was a common crime in Victorian England and reached crisis proportions by the 1860s. The newspapers were full of cases, and one of the more famous remarks on such a newspaper account was made by writer Matthew Arnold (The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, 1864). He was disturbed by the cold impersonality and indifference of the press stories. The facts were given and then the phrase that Arnold found inhumane: “Wragg (the workhouse girl’s name) is in custody.” Arnold felt that English society needed to come up with some response a bit more insightful to infanticide other than “Wragg is in custody,” as though that solved the problem. Why was Wragg in custody? Who was she? Why was she forced into doing this? What about all the other Wraggs?
Eliot takes the bare facts of such a case and takes us inside the heads of the characters to show us how such a heinous crime can be committed by people who are no better or worse than the general population. Eliot chooses the psychological investigation of such an act, but a sociological analysis would show such a high rate of infanticide resulted from the severe pressures and restrictions on women for sexual misconduct, especially of the lower and middle classes, and for having a baby out of wedlock. Hetty goes through the alternatives in her mind. She had few options, unless there were some sympathetic relative. Dinah is a possibility, but Hetty could not hide her shame there or live a normal life afterwards. Hetty knows her uncle’s family will not take her back because she dishonors them. Arthur is too far away.
Most women had no money of their own or means to get it. Abortion was illegal, difficult, and very dangerous, often killing or maiming the woman. With an illegitimate child, a woman could not get work, a place to live, or get married. She was an outcast and would not be received by decent people. A pregnant servant was thrown into the street or sent to the poorhouse, a place little more than a jail. Prostitution was one avenue chosen by poor women with unwanted infants. A woman in poverty might kill her child to save it from suffering starvation. Infants were regularly abandoned or given to baby farms that, for a fee, would starve the unwanted babies. Upper class women had more choices; with money, they could go to the country, have the child and give it away. These conditions are hard to imagine in the world today where there are many single working mothers and little censure for having a child out of wedlock.
Adam’s remark that the man should be guilty too and made to pay was especially relevant for a Victorian audience, since the amended Poor Law of 1834 cast all the guilt on the woman alone for support of a bastard child. A man was not legally responsible. Many orphanages refused illegitimate children.