Silas Marner By George Eliot Summary and Analysis Part 2: Chapters 17-18

Summary

Priscilla and her father have gone home from church with Nancy and Godfrey. Nancy is trying to persuade them to stay for tea, but Priscilla thinks they must be getting home to look after the management of the farm. Her father now leaves everything to her management. Priscilla recommends that Nancy start a dairy to keep herself busy. Nancy says that that would not make up to Godfrey; but when Priscilla says that men want too much, Nancy defends her husband's disappointment at not having children.

After Priscilla leaves, Godfrey goes out to look at the draining of the Stone Pits, and Nancy sits alone and thinks over the years of their marriage. She asks herself whether she is to blame for Godfrey's disappointment. Their one child died in infancy, and when Godfrey had suggested that they adopt a child, she refused, saying that if they were meant to have a child one would have been granted them. Godfrey had wanted to adopt Eppie and had pointed out that she seemed to have turned out well enough for Marner, but Nancy had pointed out that Marner didn't seek out the child. She was given to him. Nancy has always tried to make up to Godfrey in other ways his failure to have a family.

Godfrey has always specified that it should be Eppie whom they might adopt, but he has never been able to tell his wife why. He fears that she would feel only repulsion for him if she learned the truth. His childlessness has come to seem a retribution to him. It has never occurred to him that Marner might refuse to give up Eppie in any case, for his impressions of the feelings of laboring people are not very distinct.

Nancy's maid comes in with tea and reports that there is something strange going on outside. People are hurrying all one way on the road. Nancy begins to feel an uncertain fear. She goes to the window to look for Godfrey, just as he enters at the other end of the room. He appears pale and shaken. He has her sit down before he tells her that Dunstan's skeleton has been found in the pits.

Nancy is somewhat surprised that Godfrey is so shaken by the death of a brother he cared little about. She thinks she understands his shame when he says that Dunstan was the one who had robbed Silas. The money was found with him. Godfrey is not through, however. He says that the truth must come out sometime, and he tells her that Eppie is his own child. Nancy shows only regret when she replies that if he had told her that before, they could have done part of their duty to the child. Godfrey asks her forgiveness, but she says the wrong is not to her but to the child. Godfrey says that they may take the child now, then. They plan to go that evening to Marner's cottage.

Analysis

The beginning of Chapter 16 was a general view that included all the major characters. It then narrowed to Silas and brought his life up to date. Now the scene shifts to a comparable view of Godfrey and his family.

Changes may be noted here, but again they are changes of character that rise naturally from the personalities that were presented before and the events that have come between.

Priscilla was mannish before and is even more so now that she has carried out a man's job for many years. She talks like a man: she takes pleasure in "conquering the butter," if nothing greater; yet she has the characteristics of a woman and also fulfills a woman's part in caring for her father.

Mr. Lammeter is one of the few purely functional characters in the book. Unlike Squire Cass or Macey, he has no personality of his own, other than what local gossip has ascribed to him — pride and principle, mostly. He is a perpetual old man who serves as the father of Priscilla and Nancy, and that is all that is required.

Once again, background information is quickly filled in. From Nancy's conversation with Priscilla, we learn that she and Godfrey are childless. This information also prepares us to examine both of their reactions to that fact. Nancy says that "another man 'ud hanker more than he does." Hence we know that Godfrey does want children, and that Nancy cares enough for him to defend him. This episode serves as an introduction to the examination of their marriage.

Godfrey and Nancy are related through their thoughts and a remembered conversation — related more closely than anyone has been except Silas and Eppie. These pages revolve around their mixed reactions to their childlessness. The movement is from Nancy's "Sunday thoughts" into a dramatic portrayal of a past scene (being remembered by her), through Godfrey's thoughts (as though Nancy were remembering them, too), and so back into Nancy's mind and then out into a portrayal of the present. This movement is complex but in no way confusing, and it explores thoroughly the exact nature of their marriage now.

Eliot partly explains Nancy's character and partly lets it be shown through her reminiscences. Basically Nancy has not changed. "The spirit of rectitude and the sense of responsibility for the effect of her conduct on others" are the center of her behavior, but a comparison of this reminiscence with her reactions in the past (for example, those at the New Year's dance) shows how much she has matured. This is shown even more clearly when we see that she is willing to bend a principle if she finds sympathy more important — as she does when Godfrey confesses that Eppie is his child. Nancy is more generous than Godfrey expects. Her sympathy for him is a measure of her maturity: Nancy as the young girl at the dance would never have been so generous. It is probably true that she wouldn't have married Godfrey if he had told her then.

We see that Godfrey has changed even less. Marriage with Nancy has strengthened his backbone but not to the point that he feels able to voluntarily risk his happiness on a confession. He can easily find reasons for having what he wants. He is not unkind, but he still cannot imagine that anyone else has conflicting desires. However, a shock comes that changes even Godfrey somewhat, and Eliot prepares to make the most of it. She shows that "it seemed to him impossible that he should ever confess to her the truth about Eppie; she would never recover from the repulsion." Knowing what he thinks he risks, it is more of a triumph that Godfrey finally is brought to confess. But he still lacks understanding. Once he has nothing further to hide, he is willing to face his duty but eager to talk about "rights." He assumes that he has a "right" to Eppie and that she and Silas will automatically agree.

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