Adam Bede: Chapter 21

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Summary of Chapter 21: The Night-School and the Schoolmaster

 

Bartle Massey is the old schoolteacher whose house is on the edge of the common. He is teaching reading to some adult learners who are not very bright. Adam watches, remembering the years he has been here. Bartle is gentle and patient with the men, who are learning to read to help them advance in their work or to read the Bible. Bartle is both gentle and stern, insisting that the men do their homework, for he wants no slackers in his school.

 

Bartle has one leg shorter than the other and is a sharp-tongued man who lives alone except for his dog, Vixen, and her puppies. He complains about Vixen’s becoming a mother, as a symbol of all women; they can’t be trusted.

 

Bartle tells Adam some good news. The squire’s steward Satchell is sick, and he intends on putting in a good word for Adam to get the job of managing the woods on the Donnithorne estate. Adam says it is no use, for he had a run-in with the squire two years earlier. Bartle warns Adam against being proud, and Adam agrees to be open to the possibility.

 

Commentary on Chapter 21

 

Bartle is a father-figure to Adam, as Mr. Irwine is to Arthur. He has helped to educate Adam and is proud of the young man. He tries to help him advance by recommending him for the job of managing the woods. Adam tells him about the argument he had with the old squire who wouldn’t pay him what he asked for a screen he made for his daughter. The squire acted as though Adam were overpricing the screen. Adam refused payment, telling the squire that he only charged what was fair and then walked away. The squire sent the correct  payment to Adam later. Adam explains that he won’t let a man insult his honor. He will not work for a man who doesn’t understand honor and what’s in his own interest. He would work for Arthur but not the squire.

 

Bartle’s warning that he needs to “deal with the odd and even in life” and not to “set your teeth against folks that don’t square to your notions” (p. 244) is good advice that Adam needs to hear. On the other hand, Bartle advises Adam against women. His dog’s name bears his opinion of women and the poor dog bears the brunt of his ill-feeling against having a woman in the house. Adam doesn’t accept his opinion of women but he does respect his advice, and accepts the old man’s sharp tongue because of his other excellent qualities.

 

This chapter ends the second book, with the inevitable conflict looming for the romantic triangle of Adam, Hetty, and Arthur. We have been told about Arthur’s upcoming birthday celebration and this promises to bring all the characters together.

 

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