Summary of Chapter 24: The Health-Drinking
Arthur and Mr. Irwine enter the cloister dining hall, and all the tenants stand up. Mr. Poyser makes his speech, saying that everyone is of one opinion about Arthur: “You speak fair an’ y’act fair” (p. 264). Arthur feels a slight twinge, but thinks he deserves the praise as being basically a good person. He knows that nothing bad will happen with Hetty, for next time he will tell her it’s over. Arthur pledges in return to be a good landlord and then announces the appointment of Adam Bede and introduces Mr. Irwine. Mr. Irwine drinks to Arthur saying that “I share your high hopes concerning him” (p. 268) and then goes on to praise Adam Bede as an important person, though he is not of high rank. All drink to Adam, who replies that a man does his duty, and he believes Arthur to be one of those who leaves the world a better place than he found it.
Mr. Irwine asks Mrs. Poyser if she liked her husband’s speech, and she replies that he did well enough, but she finds men are “tongue-tied” like “the dumb creatures” (p. 270). She, on the other hand, thanks God, that she has no trouble with words.
Commentary on Chapter 24
There are important thoughts in this chapter, as well as comic and tragic wit. The tragic irony of Arthur getting the praise he has always wanted without deserving it is taken in by the reader, but no one else. Arthur may feel a bit of conscience, but Eliot shows how the person who takes a wrong turn begins to become more and more deaf to his own conscience, as we see happening with Arthur. At first he took days agonizing over every encounter with Hetty. He left on a fishing trip to forget her, and yet, as soon as he got back, he bought her the earrings and locket. Now, he is able to play the hypocrite in front of her uncle with hardly a twinge. The three most honorable men in his world, Mr. Irwine, Mr. Poyser, and Adam, have praised him for his honesty and friendship to the community. A few months earlier he would have been embarrassed, but though he continues to do wrong, he continues to have the intention to do right in the future, and somehow thinks that is good enough.
It is noteworthy that Irwine, however, merely praises Arthur’s potential, while he praises Adam’s achievement. He is more eloquent about Adam, for Irwine is not blind to Arthur’s faults. Adam’s comment about a man’s duty being to use the spirit and gifts given to him for the benefit of all is one of the important ethics Eliot wants to teach.
Irwine also makes a speech in this chapter and the next on behalf of the common man. He says that a man like Adam is not noticed like a man in high station, but the quality of his life and work is just as important. In this stroke, Irwine essentially levels the playing field and contradicts Arthur’s notions of his own importance. Together Irwine’s speech and Adam’s speech represent the duty of every human being to improve life for the good of all. They remind Arthur once more of his sacred trust as a squire and as a man.
Mrs. Poyser as usual gets the last word. Eliot has a Shakespearian touch with her country comic wits, and Mrs. Poyser is a gem. Her epigrams sum up the plain truth of every character and situation. Though the men have spoken fine words, she calls them tongue-tied, for they are not direct enough to her taste. Mrs. Poyser sees though everyone, but she has not yet seen through Arthur because he has been doing everything behind people’s backs.
Finally, Arthur’s party is a cross-section of the local life with its class distinctions. Each group eats separately, and later, they have their own ballrooms for separate dances. The gentry will have a party with their own kind on the following day, but even with the lower classes there are distinctions between the large farm families and the workers and cottagers.