Silas Marner Summary and Analysis
by George Eliot
Part Two, Chapters 18-20
Godfrey, having returned from his walk, tells Nancy some truly shocking news: Dunstan's remains have been found at the bottom of the drained stone-pits. With Dunstan's body, Marner's gold has been recovered. Godfrey also makes another painful revelation. He finally tells Nancy that the woman found dead in the snow outside of Marner's cottage sixteen years before was his own wife, and that Eppie is his biological child.
Nancy hears this news with surprising calmness. She tells Godfrey that if he had only worked up the courage to tell her this news six years ago, when he was so eager to adopt Eppie, she would have supported him wholeheartedly. Better yet, she could have married him knowing that Godfrey had a daughter, and she could have raised Eppie as her own child. Thus Godfrey finally feels the full weight of his error. In failing to trust his wife, not only did he live without Eppie, he lived without ever knowing the woman he married.
Shaken but with Godfrey's moral quandary finally revealed, they decide that although they cannot raise Eppie as their own child, they can at least take her into their home and provide for her as they feel they ought to. They determine to approach Marner and Eppie about the subject that very evening, after the hubbub has subsided at the stone-pits.
While they sit before his pile of gold, Marner tells Eppie how he once loved it so completely, how his loss of it had been so devastating, and how she had come to replace it in his life. He says that the money has lost its hold upon him. Now Eppie is his life's devotion, and he tells her that if he came to lose her, he might once again feel forsaken by God and lose faith in the world.
Just then the Casses arrive at Marner's cottage. Marner and Eppie are nervous, but they make their guests welcome. Godfrey attempts to broach the subject of adopting Eppie in a number of ways, first saying that his family owes Marner a great debt, and then that Marner seems too old to work at the loom. When these approaches fail, Godfrey states plainly and coarsely that they are offering to take Eppie into their care as their own child. Marner is crushed, but he will not make Eppie's decision for her. Eppie politely but firmly declines the offer.
Godfrey, who had not expected Eppie to refuse, replies by revealing that he is Eppie's true father. Marner, emboldened at Eppie's response to the Casses' offer, becomes quite pointed in his reply, asking why Godfrey has waited sixteen years to take Eppie back. He says, "God gave her to me because you turned your back upon her, and He looks upon her as mine: you've no right to her!" Godfrey tries to explain that he has repented of his error, and Marner replies that this repentance does not make Eppie rightfully his. Eppie reaffirms that she is happy with Marner and mindful of her part in his happiness. She will not leave him. Moreover, she is promised to marry Aaron, a workingman, and she is committed to her future with him and with Marner, the only father she will ever know. Godfrey turns and exits Marner's cottage, flushed and stifled. Nancy covers for his exit with some gentle words as she follows him out.
As Godfrey and Nancy leave Marner's cottage, Godfrey lets out an unexpected sigh of relief. "That's ended," he says. Realizing the rightness of the outcome of the debate in the last chapter, Godfrey agrees that there are debts that cannot be paid as one pays money debts. He cannot reinsert himself into Eppie's life. Because he had tried to appear childless once, he will remain childless forever, against his wish.
After her husband's statements, Nancy asks if he will tell others about his parentage of Eppie. Godfrey says that, eventually, in his will, he will make it known, but until then he will keep the secret, not out of a guilty conscience, but to protect those whom such news would harm. He says that he will not get in the way of Eppie's marriage, and Nancy is relieved that she will not have to explain the whole ordeal to her father and Priscilla.
Despite this setback, Godfrey says that he is glad he still has Nancy. He has spent sixteen years regretting his lack of children, when he really had more than he deserved in his relationship with his wife, and he says that he now realizes this fact. Nancy says that her only trouble would be gone if he truly resigned himself to his lot. Godfrey says that he will try.
In Chapter 18, Eliot concisely balances folktale elements with a very sophisticated study of character. In the same chapter that contains the grisly, fairy-tale revelation of Dunstan's skeleton, Godfrey finally accepts responsibility for his past. Thus a folktale plot twist leads to a profound examination of human social character.
The plot development in Chapter 18 is reminiscent of a ballad, a form of folk music very popular in the English Midlands during the nineteenth century. There were many kinds of ballads, one of which was known as the murder ballad. Typically in a murder ballad, a man would murder his sweetheart, only to have the crime revealed by supernatural forces. A line often used to describe this phenomenon was "Murder will out," meaning that you one cannot keep a crime like murder hidden for long; it will become known somehow. A famous title expressing this theme is that of Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart." In Silas Marner, the robbery of Marner's gold cannot remain a secret forever. It will out. Dunstan's disappearance, too, will out. His famous luck, it seems, ran out sixteen years ago. Poetic justice commands that injustice will not go unpunished, and the same divine force eventually redeems Marner in his innocence after suffering from unjust accusations.
Godfrey Cass's shining moment in the novel is when he understands the principle behind the revelation of his brother's body--and abides by it. Godfrey himself outs his own secret in an act of belated but true courage, even though he expects to lose his wife. For Godfrey, his confession is the deepest if not the first true sacrifice in his life. He has finally adhered to a principle. Thus he extracts a complex, human lesson from a folktale experience.
Nancy's reaction demonstrates wisdom as well. She draws the key, paradoxical lesson that "nothing is worth doing wrong for," because nothing is ever so good as it seems. In other words, even their marriage, which Godfrey once considered perfection, and for which Godfrey justified lying, has not been worth doing wrong for. It has not been as good as it seemed it would be. Godfrey should have adhered to the principle of doing right despite the possible bad consequences, not to his cowardly motivation to do wrong because of the possibility of good consequences.
This is basically the same lesson that Marner and Mrs. Winthrop arrive at. Marner expected too much from William and the people of Lantern Yard. He expected perfection, so when they disappointed him, his despair swallowed up all hope. He did wrong by sheltering himself from humanity-nothing, not even the religious ideal of Lantern Yard, is worth doing wrong for.
Chapter 19 is the climax for Godfrey and Nancy if not for the whole novel. Marner's redemption had already been pretty much a sure thing since he found Eppie at his hearth, and Eppie, too, has had no inclination to change the course of her happy, fairy-tale life with Marner. Godfrey and Nancy, though, are at a turning point. Their claim to Eppie has been rejected. Godfrey's conscience, though it cannot be fully satisfied, is at least fully known, and nothing can be the same for them hereafter.
The chapter begins with Marner meditating on his recovered gold. He had been lost in his devotion to it, but his love for Eppie replaced his love for the gold. He is soon offered the chance to choose gold again: Godfrey suggests that he can provide Marner with more wealth than his table can hold, enough to dwarf the pile he has recovered, if only he will support Godfrey's claim to Eppie. But gold is no longer a primary goal for Marner. He sees it properly as a means for improving the wellbeing of those he loves, Eppie in particular. He would never trade his human bond with Eppie for a return to the cold love of unthinking gold.
Themes of class more broadly inform the argument between Godfrey and Marner over who has a right to call Eppie his own. Godfrey and Nancy both believe very firmly that the bond between a biological parent and his child is inevitably stronger than that of a foster parent with the child. In their view, because Eppie is, by blood, a lady, Eppie is by right a lady, and no weaver, however good he has been to her, can keep her from this destiny. On top of this, both Nancy and Godfrey cannot understand how anyone could refuse the life they have to offer, which is the "finest," the most high-status life, available in the region. Marner and Eppie have a different view. They understand that Eppie's biological origin has nothing to do with her development. She owes her happiness and her personality to Marner's love, to her friendships with Mrs. Winthrop and Aaron, and to her simple upbringing in the natural, secluded setting of the cottage. To suddenly turn from this nurturing past would be as wrong as all the other denials of the past in the novel. Thus it is more important to Eppie to affirm her self-history than to seek conventional improvement through class and status. The identity she has cultivated with Marner places importance not on the facts of one's blood, but upon the un-classed heritage of one's social development.
In Chapter 20, Godfrey has tried to make amends for his past failures, has owned his errors, and has been refused as a father by his own child. Although he must be hurt and somewhat astonished by this turn of events, he finally does not feel the weight of conscience. That part of life is over, he says. Both Dunstan and the pressing horror of his past that Dunstan represented have left his life forever. He can live, now, being true to his memory and principles.
Nancy and Godfrey recognize the harmony of the events that have transpired as though they themselves are readers of the story. Godfrey, who wanted nothing more than to appear childless sixteen years ago, will appear childless for the rest of his life. His faith in Chance has led him to a disappointment that he cannot repair with money or status. Rather, he should have been cultivating a faith in human beings-in his daughter, his wife, his family, his community.
But this is not a wholly sad ending for Godfrey and Nancy. Though he will have no progeny, Godfrey will at last have peace. Like Marner, he has learned that nothing in this world is wholly good or bad. Marner's disappointment in the supposedly righteous and pure Lantern Yard led him to utter misery, while Godfrey's idealized vision of life with Nancy led him to a bittersweet, childless marriage. But even in the depths of his solitary life, Marner has been redeemed. And even though Godfrey's secret appeared to him an unforgivable outrage, his confession leads him to a new honesty with Nancy, and perhaps, at last, he has earned a clean conscience.
Thus with the tidy, close work of a weaver and as the agent of fate, George Eliot has entwined and balanced the destinies of Marner, Eppie, Godfrey and Nancy.
Silas Marner Essays and Related Content
- Silas Marner: Major Themes
- Silas Marner: Essays
- Silas Marner: E-Text
- Silas Marner: Questions
- Silas Marner: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- George Eliot: Biography
- Silas Marner Summary
- About Silas Marner
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Part One, Chapters 1-2
- Summary and Analysis of Part One, Chapters 3-5
- Summary and Analysis of Part One, Chapters 6-8
- Summary and Analysis of Part One, Chapters 9-11
- Summary and Analysis of Part One, Chapters 12-15
- Summary and Analysis of Part Two, Chapters 16-17
- Summary and Analysis of Part Two, Chapters 18-20
- Summary and Analysis of Part Two, Chapter 21 and Conclusion
- Places in Silas Marner
- Related Links on Silas Marner
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources