While Godfrey Cass carries on his tentative flirtation with Nancy, his wife, Molly Farren, slowly makes her way towards the Red House, walking through the snow in rags with their baby girl in her arms. Molly has been planning for a long time to surprise Godfrey and the assembled society on the night of the Red House dance with the sight of their child. Molly is an opium addict, and that drug has taken nearly all her hope away. Her only remaining spark of love is reserved for her sleeping child, whom she cradles as she walks.
Molly set out from her town early in the morning with vengeance foremost in her mind, but a snowstorm caused her to take cover for much of the day, so she lost a lot of time. Unused to the vicinity of Raveloe, Molly does not realize how close she is to the dance. When she is near the stone-pit, a need for comfort grips her, and she removes from her rags a vial of laudanum. She hesitates for a moment at the thought of her child, then drinks the vial and slips into an opium stupor, wanting nothing more than to lie down and sleep. As she slips into a dream, unaware of the cold that is killing her, her child wakes up.
The toddler sees a brightness in the distance and moves toward it, curious. She comes to Silas Marner's cottage, which is standing with a full fire and the door wide open, and she continues right up to the warm hearth, dragging her ragged bonnet behind her. The weaver has set a coat in front of the fire to dry, and the baby, who is accustomed to finding her own way even at her young age, takes it for a blanket, wraps herself within it and falls asleep.
Silas Marner, meanwhile, stands in a cataleptic fit by the door. When he awakes, he notices that the fire has gone somewhat cold. As he stoops to rekindle the flame, his myopic eyes see a patch of gold on the hearth in front of him. Thrilled, he reaches down to touch his returned gold, but instead of the hardness of metal he feels the softness of a baby's curls. He looks closer and sees that it is not gold on his hearth, but a baby child.
He first thinks about the baby sister whom he lost when a youth in Lantern Yard, and with this thought a flood of memory and emotion returns to him for the first time since he came to Raveloe. Tenderness mounts within him as the child awakes, crying softly for "mammy." Marner comforts and feeds the child, realizing only after a while that the child came in from the snow. Marner follows her footprints out away from his door and comes to a huddled body in the snow.
The festivities at the Red House come to a sudden halt with the dreadful appearance of Silas Marner, who has slipped in through the servant's entrance carrying a baby. Although Godfrey has not seen the baby girl for some months, he is sure that the child is his. The Squire rudely asks Marner what business he has barging in on them, and Marner says that there is need for a doctor near his cabin. He has found a body.
Dr. Kimble, much irritated at the interruption, readies himself to go out. When Mrs. Kimble moves to relieve Marner of the child, Marner resists, saying he will never part from the child until someone with a better right to her comes along and asserts a claim. The fierceness of his tie to the child surprises everyone, including Marner himself.
Godfrey decides that the best way to deal with the agony of suspense is to go see the body. He volunteers to fetch Mrs. Winthrop, who is always first on everyone's mind in such circumstances, and rushes out in a panic without changing out of his dancing shoes. By the time he and Mrs. Winthrop arrive at the stone-pit, the doctor has already pronounced Molly dead.
Godfrey gives Marner a half-crown to buy the toddler some new clothes and returns to the dance. Privately, Godfrey resolves to take this incredible change of fortune as a sign that he is worthy of a life with Nancy after all, and he vows to do what he can to aid in the welfare of his child, even as he passes for childless.
Molly Farrell is given a pauper's burial in Raveloe. She was such an unfortunate soul that no one much pays attention to her passing, let alone investigates the circumstances of her passing through Raveloe. Godfrey is thus, due to the town's laxity in such matters, free from scrutiny.
The villagers are eager to give Marner advice about raising his foundling child, but Marner solicits help only from Mrs. Dolly Winthrop, who offers her experience "without any show of bustling instruction." She gives Marner her son Aaron's old baby clothes and teaches Marner how to wash and dress the child. Dolly also helps Marner consider the question of how he is going to watch after the child, since he spends most of the day weaving. Marner decides the best way would be to tie a long piece of linen around her waist and connect it to the leg of his loom.
On Dolly's advice, Marner agrees to have his child baptized in the Raveloe church. He chooses his mother's name, Hephzibah, which was also the name of his sister, and when Dolly suggests that the name doesn't seem Christian, Marner tells her the name is Biblical. They can use the nickname Eppie anyway.
With Eppie in his life Marner returns to his mother's art of herbs, exploring the woods and fields with Eppie. His love for the child grows vast and articulate. As Eppie grows older (around the age of three), she begins to develop a taste for mischief, so Dolly warns Marner that will have to learn how to punish Eppie. After one half-hearted attempt to punish Eppie after she runs away, Marner decides to raise his child without punishment.
Indeed, Marner loves Eppie completely. He thinks of everything in relation to her, and he wants nothing but the best for her life. He knows full well that her appearance in his life means redemption, and that for all that she owes him, he owes her the rescue of his very soul.
Godfrey Cass watches Marner raise Eppie with special attention, of course. He is glad that his child is being cared for, but he realizes that to satisfy his conscience he will have to find discreet ways to provide for her, fulfilling his fatherly duty.
The death of Godfrey's wife and the introduction of Marner as Eppie's caretaker has made Godfrey feel "like a man of firmness." Dunstan, still missing, has been given up entirely. Godfrey does not worry about the shadowy power of his brother. He envisions himself as a married man-to Nancy, of course-playing with the children around his own hearth.
The novel's themes begin to reach fulfillment in Chapter 12, the first appearance of the bond between Marner and the child who is the key to his redemption. The chapter opens with the most miserable character in the novel, Molly Farren. Her addiction is depicted in surprisingly frank terms, as a need that asserts itself despite her instinctual love for her child.
Chapter 12 also provides a first pass at the child's character. She is attracted to light, motion and life. She sees Marner's light and comes toward it not because she wants to come in out of the cold, but because "That bright living thing must be caught." She embodies the spirit of animation and change, whereas Marner embodies that of death and monotony. Eppie is much like the fire she is drawn to-fiery, shifting, alive, warm. And her salubrious effect on Marner is immediate, sparking within him the restorative forces of love, faith, and sweet memories. He is instantly tender toward the girl, he finally recalls the feeling of trusting a power greater than himself, and he remembers his lost sister, which triggers a return to the world of meaning he left behind in Lantern Yard.
Eppie's arrival in Marner's life is remarkably similar to Dunstan's, even as the effect of her arrival is the exact opposite. Dunstan, too, was drawn to the light, enjoyed the warmth of Marner's fire, and came in unannounced during the very brief moment when such an arrival was possible. Marner's opinion of the whole series of events, that he does not know how the gold left or how the child arrived, underlines the odd echo of the two trespasses. Eppie's golden hair is the new form of his lost gold. The new gold is soft and yielding, whereas his gold was hard and cold. This gold is living and growing whereas his lost gold was inert.
Marner's nearsightedness blossoms as a major theme in this chapter as well. In earlier chapters, it stood for the narrowness of his life, his lack of a broader vista of meaning and purpose. But in this chapter Marner's nearsightedness reflects that fact that he has been unable to see the positive change building in his life since the loss of his gold. In earlier chapters, Marner insensibly began to regain his soul.
Eppie's appearance at Christmastime is a sort of virgin birth. It is also a spiritual rebirth for Marner (another theme strongly associated with Christianity). Marner's redemption is fully underway in Chapter 12.
In Chapter 13 Marner learns the depth of his love for the child he has encountered. His fierce declarations that he will not give the baby up surprise him. His tenderness is still inarticulate. Toward the end of the chapter, though, Marner shows his first signs of a renewed eloquence when he speaks of the baby in his arms, explaining why he wants to keep her: "It's a lone thing-and I'm a lone thing. My money's gone, I don't know where-and this is come from I don't know where. I know nothing-I'm partly mazed." When Marner refers to the baby as "it," he shows that he still lacks the full power of expression. Eliot is careful to show us the development of Marner's language posterior to the development of his feelings, just as his tenderness precedes his ability to recognize that tenderness. Though he speaks of Eppie as "it" perhaps as though she is his money, this issue too will be resolved with time.
For Godfrey, Chapter 13 fulfills his desperate prayer for an intervention by Favourable Chance. He is overjoyed at being disburdened of his wife even while he feels the horror of his conscience at the death of his wife. Godfrey is not likely to learn the moral courage he needs, however, after a stroke of "good" fortune in the death of his own wife. His conscience repairs itself as best it can, and he is off to pursue Nancy. Godfrey, however, is not yet living a clean life. He has not yet made an honest man of himself, and there is no doubt, however kind Fortunate Chance has been to him in his moment of immediate need, that a more complex fate than "happily ever after" is in store for him.
In Chapter 14 Eppie both inspires Marner's memory for the things he loved about his own upbringing at Lantern Yard and challenges Marner to learn new things and engage with the world even as a child himself. Eliot's epigraph to the novel, drawing from Wordsworth, clearly expresses Eppie's effect: "A child, more than all other gifts / That earth can offer to declining man, / Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts." Eppie inspires both forward-looking and backward-looking hope. Her name recalls Marner's deceased mother and sister and his faith from earlier times.
The Biblical Hephzibah was the wife of Hezekiah and the mother of King Mannaseh (2 Kings 21). The name is also used in Isaiah as a symbolic name for Zion, representing God's favor. It literally means "my delight is in her," which is fully apt from Marner's perspective.
Through Eppie's influence, Marner returns to the nurturing ways his own mother taught him long ago. Marner learned about herbs from his mother but abandoned his knowledge after his herbalism was mistaken for knowledge of the occult by the people of Raveloe. Before, Marner's past alienated him, but his past now helps bind him to the present. The herbs now represent the art of cultivating life-raising a child. Eppie herself is compared to the herbs when Mrs. Winthrop says that she will "grow like grass i' May," and when she offers Marner her son Aaron's old clothes, which are "clean and neat as freshsprung herbs."
The villagers surprisingly reason that Marner is more suited to raising a child than most other men are. They consider his trade, weaving, a feminine pursuit. Thus weaving, like herb-gathering, becomes a metaphor for Marner's maternal impulses-at least in the eyes of the villagers. Marner's fastidiousness at the wheel is expanded in his care and attentiveness to Eppie's development. No longer is weaving a symbol of repetition and misery; it is an expansive, narrative action, like the weaving of a tapestry.
Marner's transformation from miser to nurturer is not yet completely achieved in Chapter 14. He is still too possessive about Eppie: "She'll be my little un ... nobody else's." Still somewhat confused about the apparent transformation of his gold into a little girl, he clings to her somewhat greedily. Still, in clinging to another human being, Marner expands his love. He even comes to realize that Eppie's importance involves both his love for her and her love for him. His gold was never reciprocal like the love of a child.
Dolly Winthrop serves as an ideal friend for Marner. With her patient, non-patronizing guidance, she provides child-raising advice as well as simple and sincere exhortations to join the faithful of Raveloe in church.
By far the shortest chapter in Silas Marner, Chapter 15 is a bridge to Part Two of the book. Godfrey Cass, having narrowly escaped complete disaster, seems quite firm, resolute, sober and happy. Certainly Nancy will marry him, given his about-face, and certainly all will be well, he imagines. But Godfrey has not yet sacrificed a thing. He is still his normally dishonest, cowardly soul. Circumstances have changed--his wife has died, his child is being taken care of, Dunstan has disappeared again--but nothing substantial has changed in Godfrey's character. He is still susceptible to his old weaknesses. In Part Two, Godfrey finally will have to face up to his cowardice.