Silas Marner By George Eliot Summary and Analysis Part 1: Chapters 3-4

Summary

Raveloe lies far off from busy industries. The old-fashioned country ways still hold, although prices are high and the farmers well-off. The winter feasts are times of great merrymaking. Although the finest of these may be at Mr. Osgood's, possibly the greatest abundance is to be found at the Red House, home of Squire Cass, the greatest man of Raveloe.

The Squire's wife is long dead, and his sons have turned out rather ill. The second son, Dunstan, is "a spiteful jeering fellow," but Godfrey; the eldest, is well thought of. However, there is talk that if he goes on as he has been, he may lose the hand of Nancy Lammeter.

These two sons of the Squire are talking together in the parlor of the Red House. Godfrey has collected some rent money from a tenant and turned it over to Dunstan. Now the Squire is threatening the tenant, and Godfrey must have the money. However, Dunstan is not inclined to repay it and says that he may have to tell the Squire that Godfrey has secretly married and now will not live with his "drunken wife." When Godfrey says that he must have the money, Dunstan suggests he sell his horse, Wildfire. There is a hunt the next day at which there may be some buyers. Godfrey does not care to go, for he is looking forward to seeing Nancy at Mrs. Osgood's birthday dance the next day; and in any case he does not want to sell his horse. However, he sees there is no other way, and at last he agrees to let Dunstan take the horse and sell it for him. With that, Dunstan leaves Godfrey to ruminate on the bitterness of his life.

For years, Godfrey has wooed Nancy Lammeter, but in a moment of passion he had let himself be deluded into the marriage that is a blight on his life. Now he lives in fear that the marriage will be revealed to his father, who will surely disinherit him. The worst effect would be to separate him from Nancy, whose presence is his only joy.

The next morning, Dunstan sets off for the hunt. As he passes Marner's cottage by the Stone Pit, he wonders why he has never thought to "persuade the old fellow" into lending his money. He almost turns back to discuss this with Godfrey, but then his inclination to vex his brother persuades him to go on and sell the horse.

At the hunt, a man named Bryce buys the horse readily. However, instead of taking the horse in at once, Dunstan decides to follow the hunt. He takes one jump too many and kills the animal on a stake.

Dunstan is unharmed, but he does not relish the embarrassment of being caught walking. Since no one has seen him fall, he leaves the horse and sets out for home. Because walking is so abnormal to him, he carries his whip to keep his sense of reality. The whip is Godfrey's, but Dunstan has brought it because it makes a better show than his own.

It is becoming dark and misty as Dunstan nears Raveloe. Near the Stone Pits, he again comes on Marner's cottage. He is reminded of the miser's money, and he decides to stop in and borrow a lantern and perhaps discuss this money question. He finds the cottage door open and goes in. A bit of meat is cooking over the fire, so the weaver has not gone far. Dunstan wonders whether the old man is dead. If so, no one would need his money. With that, Dunstan forgets that the weaver may not be dead. He quickly discovers the money in its hiding place under the brick hearth. He replaces the bricks and carries the bags out the door, closing it behind him and stepping off into the darkness.

Analysis

The people of Raveloe hold by their own scale of values, for they have never had the opportunity to compare themselves to the rest of the world. Squire Cass is a great man because he has "a tenant or two." Antiquity included all that time beyond the memory of living persons; therefore Mr. Osgood's family is considered to be "of timeless origin." Custom is set and immovable, and anything strange is suspect. Raveloe is "aloof from the currents of industrial energy and Puritan earnestness." This statement is another notice of the strangeness of Silas Marner, who is a refugee from Puritan earnestness and who represents industry of a sort common then.

As in the preceding chapters, the general background serves as an introduction for specific characters. The members of the Cass family are viewed swiftly, and their particular problems are mentioned in a conversational way, as the subject of Raveloe gossip. The implied contrast between Eliot's view and that expressed by Raveloe gives an ironic evaluation of this family whose greatness seems to consist of "a monument in the church and tankards older than King George." This may be greatness by Raveloe's standards, but the implication is that the standards are somewhat narrow.

The scene is further narrowed to Godfrey and Dunstan. In the course of their discussion, they furnish the reader with the news of Godfrey's marriage. This information gives the reader a further advantage over the inhabitants of Raveloe: it allows Eliot to control the reader's attitude toward Godfrey from this time on through the ironic contrast between the appearance he maintains and the truth of his situation. Eliot gives her own estimate of Godfrey's character — "natural irresolution and moral cowardice" — but she modifies it by revealing his thoughts and emotions. These show that he is at least kindhearted and uneasy in his conscience. His dilemma is presented so clearly that some sympathy is necessary.

The facts of Godfrey's marriage are never given. We know only that "it was an ugly story of low passion, delusion, and waking from delusion." Eliot excuses Godfrey to a certain extent by revealing that "the delusion was partly due to a trap laid for him by Dunstan." This, along with the pain his position brings him and, later, his real care for Nancy, keeps Godfrey from ever seeming evil. He is made to look even better by introducing him at the same time as Dunstan, for Dunstan lacks all of Godfrey's redeeming features.

Unlike his brother, Dunstan is a person with real evil in him. It is not an all-pervasive evil, but more a by-product of his arrogance. He enjoys hurting Godfrey. He takes "delight in lying, grandly independent of utility." But most of all, it is simple egoism that makes Dunstan so easy to dislike. A long passage is presented entirely from his point of view, and his own thoughts are the surest way to expose his arrogance. He has little good to think of anyone but himself, whom he considers "a lucky fellow," both "daring and cunning."

Dunstan's self-esteem, however, rises from no certainty of his own worth. He takes care that he should look important because he fears the opinion of others. When he stakes Wildfire, he feels "a satisfaction at the absence of witnesses to a position which no swaggering could make enviable." He is afraid to be seen walking because "he might meet some acquaintance in whose eyes he would cut a pitiable figure." There is an ironic contrast of Eliot's simple statement of Dunstan's situation and his exaggerated reaction to it: to Dunstan, walking is "a remarkable feat of bodily exertion."

When Dunstan goes to the hunt, he carries Godfrey's whip since it gives a better appearance than his own. When he covers the name, no one can see that it is Godfrey's. Dunstan cares only for appearances. The inner reality, the covered name, is nothing to him, which is also the case with his theft of Marner's gold: Dunstan does not call it theft. He goes from the idea of borrowing to the idea that Marner may be dead. Reality escapes his consideration.

In contrast to this, Godfrey is always painfully aware of the truth of his situation, even though he keeps up a false front.

Godfrey's whip serves a double function here. Dunstan takes it because it is impressive — thus the act of taking it is an indication of his character. But the whip is closely connected with Godfrey himself because it bears his name. It may be symbolic that this whip is of value, whereas Dunstan's own is not.

Eliot never strays far from sympathy with her characters, whatever their condition, but she is well aware of the men whose lives are a round of drink, hunts, and stagnant thoughts. One of the things said in Godfrey's favor is that he is struggling to stay above that. However, his family environment pulls him down. The importance of the family in shaping lives is recognized in the contrast between the Lammeter and Cass households, a contrast that is carried on through the book. Here the "neatness, purity, and liberal orderliness" of the Lammeters is set against the Cass household, which has "more profusion than finished excellence" in provisions and more idleness than moral strength in its sons. Even after their marriage, it is Nancy who will provide the order in Godfrey's household, which is one thing that Godfrey longs for: he has dreamed that Nancy "would be his wife and would make home lovely to him, as his father's home had never been." There is a contrast, too, with Godfrey's present marriage, which offers no order, no home, and no happiness.

Some minor points should be noted for future reference. The future is foreshadowed in Dunstan's advice to Godfrey to get in Nancy's graces, as "it 'ud be saving time if Molly should happen to take a drop too much laudanum some day and make a widower of you. Miss Nancy wouldn't mind being a second, if she didn't know it." He is also ironically accurate in speaking of his luck: "whenever I fall I'm warranted to fall on my legs." Some important symbolism is introduced in connection with Dunstan. Notice that Silas' door opens to Dunstan's touch, although it appeared to be locked. When Dunstan becomes afraid that he is lost, he feels the ground before him, for he knows there are pits in the area. Once he has taken the gold, he becomes fearful and closes the door behind him "that he might shut in the stream of light." He steps forward "into the darkness." Whatever the immediate subject, Silas' life is never far from Eliot's consideration, and a chance thought of Dunstan's serves as a reminder and an index of the suspicion and scorn in which Silas is held in Raveloe: Dunstan recalls that "people always said he lived on mouldy bread, on purpose to check his appetite."

Nature images continue to be used as an aid to characterization. Here Godfrey is referred to as "an uprooted tree," which, in context, applies to the possibility of his being disinherited, and the image lends reality to his helplessness in such a situation. But Godfrey is like an uprooted tree in other ways: his marriage has cut him off from Nancy, who is the source of "the sap of affection" in him. His marriage is compared to disease in a plant — it is "a blight on his life."

"That glorious wartime" refers to the Napoleonic wars on the continent of Europe. The war "was felt to be a peculiar favour of Providence towards the landed interest" because England was short of food and no grain could come in from the continent, which Napoleon had closed off. Therefore, grain prices were high and even bad farmers prospered.

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