Squire Cass is the richest man in Raveloe and the only noble in the village. Godfrey, his older son, is a big, muscular youth and a moral coward. He spends much of his time dwelling on mistakes he has made in the past, hesitating about what to do next, or drinking to momentarily forget his troubles. His brother Dunstan is the polar opposite of his brother in conviction, self-confidence, and swagger. He, too, is the drinking, partying sort, but unlike Godfrey he has absolutely no compunction about his lifestyle. Consequently, Dunstan gets Godfrey to do just about anything he wants, through whatever convenient combination of blackmail and temptation.
Some weeks ago, Dunstan convinced Godfrey to embezzle rent from Mr. Fowler, one of Squire Cass's tenants. Of course, Dunstan soon spent all the money and has no intention of replacing it. Now Squire Cass is threatening to evict Mr. Fowler if the money is not paid by the end of the week. Dunstan's idea for raising the money is to sell Godfrey's horse, Wildfire, which Godfrey resists at first.
But Dunstan has the upper hand, as usual. This is because he knows about Godfrey's secret marriage to a young drunkard named Molly Farren, who lives in Batherly. This marriage, Eliot hints, is a story of "low passion, delusion, and waking from delusion, which needs not be dragged from the privacy of Godfrey's bitter memory." By this we can infer that Godfrey got Molly pregnant, and due to his soft, pensive nature (and maybe because, deep down, Godfrey is actually a decent guy) he was convinced to take Molly for his wife to avoid a scandal on her part-only to risk one in his own town.
Meanwhile, Godfrey is in love with a respectable, beautiful young woman in Raveloe, Miss Nancy Lammeter. Nancy represents all that Godfrey lacks: an orderly household, a pure lifestyle, "industry, sobriety and peace." Godfrey dreads, more than anything else, losing the opportunity for peace that Nancy represents.
Thus, using the leverage of his knowledge, Dunstan convinces Godfrey to sell Wildfire at a hunt the following morning. So that Godfrey can attend a dance with Nancy the next evening, Dunstan will sell the horse, which is an opportunity to show off that he relishes.
The next morning Dunstan sets off for the hunt. As he passes Marner's house, he hears the loom rattling away and recalls the village gossip that Marner has a great deal of money hidden somewhere. It occurs to Dunstan that Marner might be the solution to Godfrey's financial woes (he never thinks of such problems as his own, always as his brother's). Dunstan continues on to sell his brother's beloved horse anyway, content with the thought that he can later set Godfrey after Marner's money. At the hunt, Dunstan meets Bryce and Keating, two friends. After some bidding, Bryce buys Wildfire for one hundred twenty pounds, to be paid upon delivery of the horse.
Dunstan decides in his triumph to take Wildfire out for one last hunt. He pushes Wildfire far too hard and impales the horse on a hedge-stake. Dunstan escapes the ensuing fall without a scratch. Dunstan walks back toward Raveloe, brandishing his brother's handsome horse whip and hoping desperately that he will not come across anyone for whom he might appear a figure of fun or pity. His mind is fixed on the thought of Marner's gold, and as he comes nearer and nearer to the stone-pits, he decides to forget about sending Godfrey after the miser's money later. He might as well strike up a rapport with Marner tonight, right now, under the pretense of asking to borrow a lantern.
When he sees that Marner is not at home, Dunstan thinks, Why borrow Marner's money when he could just take it? Dunstan finds the loose brick beside Marner's loom and removes the two leather bags filled with Marner's guineas. After replacing the brick, Dunstan rushes out of Marner's cottage and steps out into the darkness of the night, carrying one of Marner's bags in each hand and still managing, with great difficulty, to brandish his brother's whip.
Marner, it turns out, had just stepped out of his cottage to walk down to the village for a piece of twine he needed to complete a commission. Those who live lives as monotonous as Marner's cannot imagine that anything really bad will happen to them in the course of their routine, so he leaves his door unlocked. Marner reenters his room without noticing anything unusual; the cottage is warm from the fire, with meat hanging on its thread over the fire. He decides to sup with his gold coins heaped on the table before him, like friends come to share his meal.
When Marner finds his gold missing, he at first is spellbound. In a desperate panic he glances around the room, thinking that maybe, for some reason, he placed his coins elsewhere. After believing with all his might that his coins must be somewhere, he finally acquiesces to the irrevocable truth of their absence and lets out "a wild ringing scream" of desolate despair.
His first, instinctive refuge-as in the case of his betrayal by William-is the loom, at which Marner begins working desperately as his only available assurance of reality. While he gathers his thread, Marner gathers his thoughts, and for the first time the notion of a thief comes to him. Because a thief can be caught, Marner clings to this thought avidly. He accuses Jem Rodney in his mind, simply because Jem had spent more time with him than anyone else had. Marner rushes out into the rainy night and makes for the Rainbow, thinking that he will find help there from Raveloe's more important inhabitants.
In Chapter Three, the themes are reformulated. No longer, for the moment, is the book about the trials of solitude. Rather, it becomes an account of the problems of society. The Casses, in status and privilege, could not be more different than Silas. Yet the social life of Lantern Yard is refigured in the life of the Casses; this social life, too, can create alienation, perpetuate ignorance, and lead to a decline in moral values.
In the opening pages of Chapter 3, the narrator notes that "It was still that glorious war-time which was felt to be a peculiar favour of Providence towards the landed interest, and the fall of prices had not yet come to carry the race of small squires and yeomen down that road to ruin for which extravagant habits and bad husbandry were plentifully anointing their wheels." Eliot suggests that although the Casses think that they will go on accruing profits and accumulating debts forever, their lifestyle of lazy, unearned plenitude is ultimately doomed. Soon, all of their triumphs and sufferings will become irrelevant in the sweep of history.
Like Marner's, the Casses' lives are filled with artificial pleasures. Marner's happiness rests in his pile of unspent coins; Dunstan's rests in the difficulties he can create for others, especially his brother; Godfrey's rests in an impossible and shallow vision of future happiness with an idealized vision of Nancy. While Marner's existence is extremely solitary, and the Casses' is extremely social, all of their lives are hollow and fleeting.
Dunstan and Godfrey's Cain-and-Abel rivalry now appears more like the pattern of betrayals of Esau by his brother Jacob later in Genesis. That is, Dunstan's jealousy of Godfrey does not lead to a definite act of betrayal-like Cain's betrayal of Abel, or William's betrayal of Silas. Rather, Dunstan spins a web of blackmail that allows for a continual process of betrayal. These examples of brotherly love gone horribly wrong show how Eliot reworks the broad patterns of Biblical morality narratives for the particular deceit-ridden conflicts of her novel's time. The apparently clean "moralism" of Silas Marner consistently covers a more complicated pattern of betrayal, indebtedness and jealousy.
Chapter Four contains more exciting action. It focuses on the corrupt character of Dunstan Cass, proceeding almost completely from his perspective. Eliot explores a mind at once quite aware of itself and yet wholly flawed. Dunstan, who at first seems to be little more than a selfish, spoiled brat, invites the reader to consider serious questions of self-knowledge, deceit and insecurity, as well as the ironic roles of fate and luck in people's lives.
First of all, Eliot's style in the chapter captures Dunstan's own inner narrative. His phrases and beliefs bleed into the narrator's authoritative voice. For instance, early in Chapter 4 Eliot writes: "Bryce and Keating were there, as Dunstan was quite sure they would be-he was such a lucky fellow." Dunstan is so pleased with himself, Eliot suggests, that even the mere appearance of his two bartering partners causes a thrill of self-satisfaction. The same smugness can be detected in Dunstan's style of bartering. Dunstan does not care whether anyone knows he is lying or not-his lying is "grandly independent of utility"-so long as he retains the pleasure of lying. Nothing seems to bother Dunstan, so long as he remains in his position of power-so long, in other words, as it is up to him to lie and strut and barter and pity others, not to be pitied and made fun of himself.
Dunstan's position of power, however, is quite superficial, except in his persuasive power over his brother. The riding whip he brandishes so flamboyantly symbolizes this superficiality. Dunstan's fine, gold-handled whip is actually his brother's, with "Godfrey Cass" even engraved on the handle. At the end of Chapter 4, when he is toting away Marner's two heavy bags of gold, Dunstan remembers to keep one hand around the whip handle-both to retain the status that the fine whip lends his character, and to keep Godfrey's name hidden. Through all of this posing, Dunstan knows that he himself has little social power as the second-born son. Godfrey has the true power, even though he has all but squandered his birthright over Molly Farren. Yet, Dunstan wields Godfrey's name and whip as though the status they bestow is rightfully his-all the while knowing that he is deceiving the world, if not also himself. This is the spiral of the weak man: Dunstan's sense of his own inadequacy reinforces his need to hide his inadequacy and ironically focuses his attention on the very thing he does not want to acknowledge.
Dunstan's "hiding" of the gold inscription on his brother's whip reflects Marner's hiding away of his own gold. Both acts defy would-be robbers, and both are ultimately empty attempts to short circuit the world of human values and social status. Both Marner and Dunstan prefer instead to dwell on proxies for true stability-Marner fondles his coins, and Dunstan appropriates his brother's title and possessions.
To this point, Dunstan has been an exceptionally "lucky" man, it seems. Everything tends to go according to his plan-or at least in a way that allows Dunstan to improvise, even if others may suffer (and, from Dunstan's sadistic perspective, all the better if they do). This antagonistic luck-orchestrating it against-stands in sharp contrast to the kind of luck that increases blessings through the natural course of things, such as Eppie's miraculous arrival into Marner's life.
Dunstan's easy manipulation of the truth, such as when he pretends he does not actually want to sell the horse, invites a comparison between his fictionalizing and Eliot's. Both he and the author invent their own versions of reality. They are fond of being storytellers, loving to play with fate, language, and understanding. They both toy with the happiness of the characters in the novel. After all, the misfortunes of Marner and Godfrey and the whole lot are ultimately the result of Eliot's plot choices.
Chapter Five returns to the perspective of Silas Marner in the traumatic experience of having lost his gold. This loss is like his previous bout of desolation after betrayal by William. Indeed Marner's despair at this new loss is even more violent. He again turns instinctively to his loom for meaning, solice, and control. And he again sets off on a desperate appeal to his community to help him in his anguish. This appeal will not cause further alienation but will turn out differently.
The themes that have become most associated with Marner-his insect-like nature, his nearsightedness, the "hard isolation" of his love-are present again in Chapter Five. Eliot expresses the deep monotony of his life: his activity at the loom "confirmed more and more the monotonous craving for its monotonous response." Marner is caught, fittingly enough for a weaver, in a perpetual, seemingly eternal, self-propelling web. In Homer's Odyssey, Penelope maintained the status quo by endlessly weaving and unweaving the same material. The more Marner clings to his loom and his gold for stability, the more he is dependent upon those things-and only those things-for his sanity. Although Marner does not go mad at the loss of his gold (compare the loss of Dr. Manette's shoemaking habit in Tale of Two Cities--for both of them the habit can be broken), his initial desperation at not finding the gold is akin to madness. Marner loses, to a great extent, his sense of reality when he loses his gold, but the remnant of community feeling he has retained leads him to the tavern for help.
Psychoanalytic critics of the novel see sexual imagery in Marner's panic at having lost his gold: "The sight of the empty hole made [Marner's] heart leap violently.... He passed his trembling hand all about the hole ... then he held the candle in the hole and examined it curiously, trembling more and more. At last he shook so violently that he let fall the candle, and lifted his hands to his head, trying to steady himself, that he might think." Inserting the candle into the hole can serve as more than an attempt to bring light to a dark place;it could be a (phallic) reassertion of his power after the loss of the one thing that gave him worth. Besides, if the catharsis of accepting his lost gold is a symbol of conception, we might then note that Marner's lost spread of gold is ultimately restored in the form of a golden-haired child. (Readers should beware of taking this kind of reading too far.)
Marner not only starts to restore his social ties at this moment; he also begins to restore his spiritual understanding. He has the idea that a thief has taken the gold (which means that other villagers could help him), and he also has the idea that a power higher than that of a human being may be responsible for his loss: "Was it a cruel power that no hands could reach which had delighted in making him a second time desolate?" This "vaguer dread" does not seem very inspiring in the context of Chapter Five, yet this reintroduction of the possibility of a greater power, even a malevolent one, represents Marner's first necessary step toward a state of religious redemption. Thus the seeds of Marner's double rescue-the restoration of his faith and of his humanity-are planted just as his idolatrous worship of gold is frustrated.