Silas Marner | Study Guide

George Eliot

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Silas Marner | Part 2, Chapter 17 | Summary

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Summary

Priscilla Lammeter and Mr. Lammeter have had Sunday lunch with Godfrey Cass and Nancy, and Nancy wants them to stay for tea. She and Godfrey have been married for 15 years, and the house is clean, orderly, and scented with lavender and rose. Priscilla now manages her father's farm and insists on getting back to make sure all is well in the dairy. Godfrey has made a land exchange with "cousin Osgood" in order to start a dairy. Priscilla tells Nancy she's glad of this because "you'll never be low when you've got a dairy." Nancy reassures her sister she's "contented with the blessings we have" and wishes that Godfrey could also be content. He isn't, though, because he wanted children.

Godfrey sets out for his Sunday afternoon walk, intending to have a look at the quarry to see how the draining is progressing. While he's gone, Nancy sits with an annotated Bible open in front of her. But she is not so much reading as meditating on her married life and her perception that Godfrey was suffering from their childlessness. Nancy has "a drawer filled with the neat work of her hands, all unworn and untouched, just as she had arranged it there fourteen years ago." One dress is missing from the drawer; their dead child was buried in it. Nancy has convinced herself that women can cope with childlessness better than men and worries that she hasn't done "everything in her power to lighten Godfrey's privation." Several times Godfrey had suggested adopting Eppie, but Nancy had refused. To Nancy, "to adopt a child, because children of your own had been denied you, was to try and choose your lot in spite of Providence." Despite her concern for Godfrey, she believes she did the right thing.

Godfrey has never told Nancy about his marriage or that Eppie is his daughter. He feels sure she would feel "repulsion" if she knew. He loves Nancy still and cannot bear to do anything that would threaten their relationship. Yet he wishes they had had children; that they haven't feels like "retribution" for his refusal to claim Eppie after Molly Farren's death.

A servant, Jane, comes into the parlor with the tea things and tells Nancy there are "folks making haste all one way, afore the front window." She wonders why. Nancy think's the neighbor's bull must have escaped again. Nancy gets up and looks out the window, but everyone has gone. All she sees is the churchyard with its gravestones; she feels "a vague fear" and wishes Godfrey would return.

Analysis

Having learned about the happy life of Silas and Eppie, readers now catch up on what has been going on at the Red House. As suggested by their exit from church in the preceding chapter, Nancy and Godfrey have lost a child and had no others. This makes both unhappy but in different ways. Nancy had prepared for children by making clothes for them; now she can't bear to look in the drawer where the clothes are stored. It was traditionally thought of as the wife's fault if a marriage did not produce children, and it would be understandable if she felt some guilt. But she represses her own feelings and focuses on the pain she assumes Godfrey feels, working hard to make up for his lack of children. What Nancy doesn't know is that Godfrey blames himself, not her, for their childlessness.

The child Godfrey has several times suggested adopting is Eppie. He assumed that Silas would be glad to give her up if Eppie were going to a better situation. This may be selfish and lack understanding of human emotion, but it is not callous. Godfrey shares the opinion of many of his class "that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means." There was a common upper-class assumption that the working class did not love their children as their "betters" did. After all, the poorer the parents, the harder it was to provide for children. So Godfrey and others like him found it easy to convince themselves that they would be doing the poor a favor by taking their children off their hands. The case Nancy mentions of a child who was adopted and ended up being transported (shipped to another country as punishment for a crime) might be explained by wrenching the child away from his or her family and then expecting him or her to thrive in a vastly different setting.

Godfrey has gone to check on the draining of the quarry and is late returning. A crowd of villagers have been observed running toward something. Nancy feels "a vague fear." From these clues, readers may guess that at long last the mystery of Dunsey's whereabouts—and the whereabouts of Silas's gold—has been solved.

Just as in Chapter 16 the narrator mentions the decrease in demand for weaving, in this chapter it is stated briefly that Godfrey and his father-in-law are talking about "the increasing poor-rate and the ruinous times." The time period in the second part of the book is the 1830s, when huge numbers of people crowded the cities for low-paid work in factories, child labor was commonplace, and crime—especially in the cities—was high. Victorian readers would have been aware of these conditions and a mention would have been all Eliot needed to remind them.

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