Literature Study GuidesSilas MarnerPart 1 Chapter 12 Summary

Silas Marner | Study Guide

George Eliot

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Silas Marner | Part 1, Chapter 12 | Summary

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Summary

While the New Year's Eve dance is going on at the Red House, Godfrey Cass's wife is on her way there. She plans to take revenge on her husband for her own misery by turning up on their doorstep in rags with her child, who resembles Godfrey, and revealing their marriage to the squire. It has been snowing, and Molly Farren is cold and tired. Unaware how close she is to Raveloe, she drains her last swallow of opium and walks on, carrying her child. Now the snow has been replaced by an icy wind. The need to sleep overwhelms her, and she lies down in the snow, still clutching the sleeping child in her arms. After a while, her body relaxes, her arms let go, and the child rolls into the snow as Molly's body slides to the side. The child's attention, though, is caught by a moving light reflected on the snow, and she reaches for it. Looking up, she sees "a very bright place," pushes herself up, and "toddle[s] on to the open door of Silas Marner's cottage, and right up to the warm hearth," where she makes herself at home on his old sack before the fire. Soon she falls asleep.

Since the loss of his money, Silas often left his door open in the evenings. He looks out "not with hope, but with mere yearning and unrest." This morning, his neighbors told him it was New Year's Eve and that sitting up to hear the new year "rung in" would bring him good luck, so he feels particularly restless tonight. He has just come in after "gaz[ing around] for a long while ... and the stillness and the wide trackless snow seemed to narrow his solitude, and touched his yearning with the chill of despair," He is about to shut the door when a cataleptic fit overtakes him. He stands "with wide but sightless eyes, holding open his door, powerless to resist either the good or the evil that might enter there." When he comes to, he doesn't realize time has passed. He sits in his chair by the hearth and is bending to tend the fire when he sees a blurry heap of gold on the floor in front of it. But when he touches it, "his fingers encounter ... soft warm curls." He wonders if his little sister, who died when he was a child, has come back to him, or if he is dreaming. Feelings of tenderness and "of awe at the presentiment of some Power presiding over his life" stir in him for the first time since coming to Raveloe.

The child wakes up, crying "mammy," and Silas picks her up and murmurs to her as he holds her. Then he warms up a bit of porridge and feeds her. He watches her toddle about for a while, then helps her get her wet boots off. In doing so, he realizes she must have walked to his cottage. He picks her up, opens the door, and sees her footprints in the snow. Following them, he reaches some bushes. The child leans towards them, crying, "mammy"; that's when he realizes there's a human body laying among the bushes, half covered with snow.

Analysis

The three paragraphs in Chapter 12 that explore Molly's feelings and intentions are the only ones in which she appears in Silas Marner. Nevertheless, Molly is a significant presence throughout the book—before her death because her marriage to Godfrey prevents him from standing up to Dunstan or proposing to Nancy and after it because her daughter transforms Silas and his relationship with the Raveloe community.

In these three paragraphs, Eliot manages to give a strong portrait of Godfrey's unwanted wife. She was a barmaid and "as handsome as the best." Since readers know Godfrey sometimes drinks too much, it is likely he met her while drinking—perhaps even in Dunsey's company—and married while under the influence of her beauty as well as the alcohol. He has never lived with her but has paid her money as regularly as possible to help support her and their child. She knows he has supported her and that her addiction is to blame for "her dingy rags" but still feels resentful. After all, he married and then rejected her. Her bitterness and desire for vengeance is easy to understand. The only bright spot in her life is her child. The narrator says Molly "refused to give [Godfrey] her hungry child," which indicates he offered to recognize the child as his own and raise her. From what is known of Godfrey, it is likely he made this offer out of a sense of duty rather than affection for the child and was glad when Molly did not agree.

Readers should not think of Molly's drug addiction as a criminal act. Although today the use of opiates is illegal without a prescription, this was not the case in 19th century England. In fact, laudanum—a mixture of opium, spices for flavoring, and either wine or water—was as common then as aspirin is today and like aspirin could be bought at the drug store without a prescription. It was used as a painkiller and a sleep aid and prescribed for a wide range of illnesses. George Eliot herself used laudanum. People were aware of the opiate's addictive qualities, and doctors urged their patients to stick to the prescribed doses. Nevertheless, many people in all classes and occupations became addicted.

For Silas the child's appearance is initially just as inexplicable as his money's disappearance was. In both cases, he has a sense that a supernatural power has reached into his life and made a huge change. When he first sees her golden hair shining in the firelight with his extremely nearsighted eyes, he thinks his gold guineas have returned to him. But when he touches them and finds out they are actually a child's blonde head, if anything, his joy increases: "Silas fell on his knees and bent his head low to examine the marvel," says the narrator. Despite appearances Silas has never been a miser, and the presence of child immediately accomplishes what nothing else has before now: It reawakens in him stirrings of the great love and generosity that characterized the Silas Marner of Lantern Yard.

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