Summary and Analysis
Nancy Lammeter, having made it clear to Godfrey Cass that she will not marry him, is quite pained to be met by him at the door when she comes to the Red House for the dance. When Squire Cass comes out to greet Nancy’s father, she escapes to the bedroom where ladies are changing into their gowns. Nancy greets her aunt, Mrs. Osgood, and is introduced to the two Miss Gunns, daughters of a wine merchant from a neighboring town. The Miss Gunns, although they themselves frequent a higher society, are very taken with the beauty and natural charm of Nancy Lammeter. They think it a pity, however, that her hands should be coarse from housework and that her speech show traces of rustic dialect.
Nancy's sister Priscilla enters as Nancy is changing. Priscilla and Nancy dress alike through Nancy's insistence, although Priscilla is plain-looking and unsuited to Nancy's styles. She is resigned to spinsterhood, however, and she is cheerful about the matter. Her directness is unsettling to the Miss Gunns, who are also plain but are less inclined to be told so.
At dinner, Nancy is seated between Godfrey and the rector, Mr. Crackenthorp, while Priscilla accompanies her father. The rector's remarks on Nancy's beauty are an embarrassment to Godfrey, and furthermore they provoke sallies from Squire Cass and Dr. Kimble on the same subject. Godfrey fears that these may lead to an uncomfortable end.
Solomon Macey, the fiddler, soon arrives and leads the company into the parlor to open the dancing. A few of the more privileged villagers are allowed in as spectators as the dance is led off by the Squire with Mrs. Crackenthorp and the rector with Mrs. Osgood. Godfrey soon joins in with Nancy, but they quickly leave the dance again. Although the spectators assume there are romantic reasons, the truth is that Nancy has torn some stitches in her dress and is in need of repairs. The two of them wait in a side parlor for Priscilla to come. Against his intentions, Godfrey is led to ask Nancy to forgive his past coldness and declares that one dance with her matters more to him than all the world. Priscilla's entrance ends the conversation.
Eliot opens this chapter, like several preceding ones, with a general statement followed by an example. Previously the method has been used to put across points important to the meaning of the novel. Here it has a lighter purpose, the introduction of Nancy Lammeter.
Nancy is certainly as beautiful as Godfrey's musings have indicated. The point is reinforced by showing how the Miss Gunns react to her. The Miss Gunns are strangers, rather plain young women but members of a more fashionable set. They are the sort of people who have no reason to admire Nancy and every reason not to. Therefore their pleasure in her leaves the reader with the certainty that Nancy is charming as well as beautiful. The Miss Gunns can see nothing to criticize except her hands, "which bore the traces of butter-making, cheese-crushing, and even still coarser work." They pity her ignorance, for she says "’appen" for "perhaps," and "oss" for "horse." They themselves, it is noted with fine irony, "habitually said 'orse, even in domestic privacy and only said 'appen on the right occasions." Thus the Miss Gunns themselves judge by a standard that author and reader find crude. But Eliot displays sympathy and understanding once again: she addresses the reader directly to point out that while Nancy is uneducated, "yet she had the essential attributes of a lady — high veracity, delicate honour in her dealings, deference to others, and refined personal habits — and lest these should not suffice to convince grammatical fair ones that her feelings can at all resemble theirs, I will add that she was slightly proud and exacting, and as constant in her affection towards a baseless opinion as towards an erring lover." This last bit of irony is aimed directly at the reader and serves once again to bring the reader's world into that of the book.
There is considerable complexity to Nancy's character. At the moment, her attitude toward her erring lover is of prime importance. She does not know how badly Godfrey has erred, but she has clearly convinced herself that he has erred too greatly to be attractive to her. It is equally clear that he is still attractive to her. Nancy here shows a tendency to dramatize her emotions. She "declared to herself that not the most dazzling rank should induce her to marry a man whose conduct showed him careless of his character." Yet this dramatization does not hide the core of real principle that she has in herself and expects in others. The strength of principle will last when her youthful sentimentality has gone or mellowed into mature understanding.
Now that they are seen together, Godfrey is set in strong contrast to Nancy. He has no self-restraint. He struggles with himself, but in the end he gives up the struggle, falling back on his old determination "to get as much of this joy as he could tonight, and think nothing of the morrow."
Priscilla Lammeter shows more self-awareness and less selfishness than any other character. Priscilla is strongly characterized. As with Macey and Squire Cass, this characterization is done mainly through her speech, yet she is not at all like them. Where Macey's "humor" is almost always at the expense of someone else, Priscilla is cheerfully blunt at her own expense. When she is ready for the dance, she claims to be "as ready as a mawkin can be — there's nothing a-wanting to frighten the crows, now I've got my ear-droppers in." Priscilla knows herself in a way that Nancy does not: she knows she is unlikely to marry and has prepared herself to live with her father. In contrast, Nancy talks of not intending to marry, and thinks she means it, but it is evident that she is the sort of person who must marry, and no sentimental vow will help her. Priscilla's humor conceals a seriousness deeper than the outer seriousness Nancy displays.
The gathering at the Red House is the upper-class equivalent of the company at the Rainbow. It forms a second chorus that continues to fill in the background of life in Raveloe and to comment on the action. In this case, the comment is mostly on the second main plot division, the romance of Godfrey and Nancy. The talk again follows a traditional pattern, with "safe, well-tested personalities" providing the humor for the company. There is no great difference between the "high society" seen here and the "low society" of the Rainbow; even such differences as exist are partly submerged when the dancing begins and the villagers are let in as spectators. This setting provides a cross-current of comment in which lower-class opinion is freely given on the doings of the great, and especially on Nancy and Godfrey.
A sort of community point of view is used to give the villagers' ideas about this festivity. Their ideas reflect the desirability of custom and ceremony. It is felt to be a social duty "to be merry at appropriate times" and pay each other "old-established compliments in sound traditional phrases." Custom is rigorously followed. Squire Cass leads off the dance, "and the charter of Raveloe seemed to be renewed by the ceremony." Custom and ceremony, like religion, maintain the stability of society by renewing the old traditions and truths. The dance at the Red House is analogous to the Christmas religious service — it brings a sense of well-being in the community, as the latter brought a sense of personal well-being.
Notice should be taken of the ironic statement that Nancy's thoughts were "much occupied with love struggles, but hardly so as to be insensible to a disorder in the general framework of things." The disorder referred to is in the stitches of Nancy's dress, but she is certainly insensible to the nature of the disorder in Godfrey's life. His broken marriage is truly a disorder "in the general framework of things." The reference may be carried a step further, to the disorder that Silas feels in the whole framework of a world that has betrayed him. Note, too, the next statement, an indication perhaps of Nancy's attitude of life: "Nancy . . . completed her duty in the figure they were dancing." This restates the contrast between Nancy and Godfrey, her partner in the figure — Nancy is always careful to do her duty. If she is not always sensible of disorder, she is careful not to create any.