Part Two of Silas Marner returns to the village after sixteen years, just as a Sunday service is ending. Godfrey Cass looks fuller in the flesh but still handsome, and his wife, Nancy, has lost the bloom of youth and looks somewhat vexed, though she is still quite beautiful and visibly firm in her principles. Silas Marner is much older now, though his large brown eyes seem capable of longer vision, and they strike one with more force than their former vagueness. Beside Marner, Eppie is blond, dimpled and ravishing, with untamed curly auburn hair. A young man seated behind Marner and Eppie, Aaron Winthrop, is especially attentive to the young lady, and he rushes out to meet them and walk them back to their cottage by the stone-pits.
Eppie, Marner and Aaron decide, at Eppie's request, to build a garden by Marner's cottage. Aaron promises to return with Mrs. Winthrop later to begin planning, and Marner and Eppie continue on to their stone cottage, which is much changed since sixteen years ago. Life is everywhere, featuring a limping donkey, a wildly yapping terrier, and a pair of sleepy cats. The cottage is immaculately clean and charming, and it has been outfitted with splendid furnishings donated by Godfrey Cass, who has done his superficial part in assisting the old weaver in raising Eppie. The villagers, for their part, see Marner as well deserving of assistance, since he has done a wonderful job raising a happy, pretty, courteous young woman. Old Mr. Macey, now a veritable ancient of eighty-six years, predicts that Marner deserves and one day will indeed recover his long-lost gold.
Marner has grown close to Mrs. Winthrop. He has shared his history with her, and in a series of talks they both decided that though it is certainly a mystery that Marner was found guilty of theft, it was wrong of Marner to abandon faith and society. There is a power working for their betterment, they agree, which one must always trust, even in the face of miserable times.
As they plan their new garden, Eppie suggests that they build a stone fence to keep the animals out. Aaron is strong enough to carry the stones, she says, and she and Marner can help. Marner turns their conversation toward marriage, and Eppie says that Aaron has proposed to her. She accepts him on the condition that Marner and she always remain together.
While Eppie and Marner plan their new garden, Godfrey Cass and his wife, Nancy, host the still-unmarried Priscilla and Mr. Lammeter at the Red House. The manor is no longer the bachelor's castle that it was under the Squire's rule. Now, evidence of femininity is everywhere, although there is no evidence of children. Godfrey and Nancy have had no children in their years of marriage together, which is a point of great regret especially for Godfrey and is a source of sadness between them.
Priscilla and her father, whom she takes care of in his old age, leave for their own manor at the Warrens, and Nancy and Godfrey settle in for a typical Sunday afternoon. Godfrey decides to walk over to the stone-pits in order to check the progress of his latest project: the draining of some land for a new dairy.
With her husband and her family gone, Nancy sits down with her Bible to read, but her thoughts stray from the page and she finds herself contemplating her marriage. Godfrey, apparently, had been very eager to have children with her, but all they had been able to produce together was one child who died in infancy. Godfrey was so desperate to have a child of his own that he suggested that they adopt a child together, namely Eppie. Always firm in her principles, Nancy believed that to adopt a child would be to defy fate, so she refused, still unaware that Godfrey is Eppie's father by blood.
As Nancy ponders this unhappy history, Jane, servant to the Casses, bursts into Nancy's sitting room with a tea tray. There has been a happening in the village; Jane has seen much of the town rushing in one direction. Nancy wishes her husband would hurry back.
Chapter 16 updates readers on the development of the Marner household since we last saw them, about fifteen years before. Basically, the situation could not be happier. Eppie has grown up to be an absolute delight: a young woman who loves life, animals, the cottage by the stone-pits, and--most of all--her adopted father.
Eliot makes a few clear allusions to the symbols of Marner's past in the first paragraph of the chapter. For instance, she begins the chapter with Marner and Eppie in attendance at church, and she later notes that over the years Marner has been able to understand the sympathies of his old Puritan upbringing with the Anglican religion of Raveloe. She also mentions the church bells, which contrast Marner's newfound happiness with his old lonely misery. Marner was waiting for the New Year's Eve bell when he froze in his doorway, allowing Eppie to enter his life sixteen years before, and there were no bells in Lantern Yard. Eliot also alludes to Marner's eyes, which are no longer the near-sighted, blurry, huge orbs of his past; now they are longer-visioned and sharper, showing purpose rather than vagueness. In every case Marner is portrayed as more articulate, understanding, sociable and happy.
Meanwhile, Godfrey has held to his resolution to do what he could for Eppie. He has donated furniture and other nice things to their abode. But Marner and Eppie would probably be just as happy without Godfrey's charity, which is strictly oriented around artifice and appearance, while their love and happiness transcends such things. Godfrey's aid has been almost thoroughly artificial. Mainly his fulfillment of fatherly virtue is overshadowed by the motive of quelling his own conscience. He has not been an important influence on Eppie's development.
Mrs. Winthrop, on the other hand, has been everywhere in Marner's thoughts, and her influence has been very good for him. Together, they have tried to make sense of Marner's past. This coming to terms with the unknowable is another gesture toward Job (building on Chapter 9). Dolly and Marner arrive at the Jobian conclusion that although Marner's misery was generally unjust, a guiding hand of ultimate justice redeemed it all. Marner's friend gets it right as Job's friends did not. Thus, Eliot suggests a kind of divine justice that becomes apparent through human communication and sociality.
One thing Dolly and Marner do not discuss is the loss of Marner's gold. He has come to regard that whole miserly episode of his life as a mere distraction, following from the crushing of his faith at Lantern Yard. Through his parenting of Eppie and his friendship with Mrs. Winthrop, Marner has been able to develop his memory and his self-understanding to the point that he recognizes that the true turning points in his life have been his loss of faith at Lantern Yard and his gaining of Eppie at Raveloe. His intermittent love affair with gold, and the attendant shriveling of his soul, is no longer significant to Marner, except to remind him how forgetful and dreary a man he had become.
Eppie, for her part, has a rich and mysterious relationship with her past. Marner has told her again and again the story of her coming to him on the snowy night, of her mother lying dead against the bush. This story reads like a fairy-tale or a fable. Marner has saved her mother's wedding ring as a symbol of Epee's mysterious origin, and for Eppie, the ring provides a link to her unknown father, a shadowy man who must have existed once but on whom she spares little thought. More significantly, it stands for her future marriage with Aaron, and she imagines using it in her own wedding. Readers know, however, that her father is not so uninterested in her as she imagines.
In basic function, Chapter 17 is almost an exact mirror image of Chapter 16. Whereas the earlier chapter brought us up to date on the history of the Marner household since Part One, Chapter 17 performs the same function for the Casses. Surely things are not all bad for them; Nancy and Godfrey have proved to be quite compatible. But while the presence of a child in Marner's life has made him perhaps the happiest, most contented man in Raveloe, the absence of children in Godfrey's life has made him one of the most regretful men there.
The key difference between Marner's story and that of the Casses is that Marner's character has evolved enormously over the sixteen years, while the Casses are essentially the same people they were in Chapter 15. They look older and are saddened by their disappointment, but inwardly they are the same. Godfrey has continued to live with his secret, creating alienation not unlike Silas Marner's when his only joy was gold. Marner, too, in his dark days, was a man without a past. Eliot stresses powerfully here that burying one's failures is a very unsuccessful way of moving forward.
Godfrey's attempt to adopt Eppie is particularly telling. He does not yet realize that it is not enough to "have" a child. One must develop with a child and learn with her in order to achieve the lasting happiness that Silas Marner has experienced. Godfrey seems to think that he can once again short-circuit the logic of fate and retribution by simply adopting a child who is biologically his. This is a glimpse into Godfrey's intense privacy: he believes that it is enough that he knows he is Eppie's father and that no one else ever needs to know his dirty secret. He is not trying to recover the past in adopting Epee so much as he is trying to keep her identity a secret while he fulfills his present needs.
Nancy, too, is the same woman as before. She is still virtuous and fiercely honest. Unlike Godfrey, whose key characteristic is to shirk the moral principles that would force difficult sacrifices upon him, Nancy is constitutionally unable to forget her principles, even for a minute and even they lead to tensions in her life. She accepts sacrifice as her due and strives to be the best, most selfless woman she can be, while still holding true to her principles. Selflessness and sacrifice are probably Nancy's chief values. Yet Nancy's adherence to principles has made her rigid and judgmental, and not in an entirely good way. Eliot reminds us of her insistence, sixteen years earlier, of wearing the same dress as her sister in a show of solidarity, apparently unaware that her sister would look hideous in the dress while she would look ravishing. This is an example of Nancy's unjust tenacity: she gets a notion (sometimes a trivial one, as in the instance of the dress, sometimes profound, as in her superstitious abhorrence of adoption) and, whatever the consequences, she adheres to it utterly.
Nancy's selfless devotion to her husband leads to some other problems for Nancy. Nancy says that she is unhappy because Godfrey is unhappy, expressing the fact that her happiness and unhappiness are bound to those of her husband. Yet her identity, as described above, is not primarily dependent on her husband's. She does not adopt a child with him, despite his strong desire to do so.
Priscilla is still unmarried and still espousing subversive opinions about men. Although her continued solitude lends bittersweetness to her opinions, Priscilla's primary role is to provide a stronger critique than Nancy's version of good wifely duties. Nancy's continuing friendship with Priscilla, and her participation in conversations with Priscilla, speaks to Nancy's openness to a more complex vision of marriage than what she normally expresses. Priscilla's relationship to her father, by the way, echoes Eppie's taking care of Silas; both are a joy to their fathers, without whom the elderly gentlemen would be quite at a loss.
The decline of the Casses as forecast in Chapters 3 and 9 has become a reality. Meanwhile, the Napoleonic Wars, which provided much of the wealth and stature of the landed classes, have ended, and with them history has moved forward to a new age of middle-class supremacy (contemporary with Eliot). The failure of the Casses to adapt along with history reflects their inadequacy to the changes going on elsewhere. Ultimately, Chapter 17 is a bitter account of the Casses' fortune and the fortune of others of their class.