George Eliot offers a very rich portrait of nineteenth century rural life in Silas Marner. A key part of the picture focuses on the female characters of Raveloe, the village in which the plot of Silas Marner unfolds. Both in terms of character, social standing, and everyday experiences, two of the principle female characters, Nancy Lammeter Cass and Dolly Winthorp are very different in terms of their social standing and experiences, yet they are both caring and good-hearted women in their own respect.
Of the two women, Nancy is the more physically attractive of the two. Her status determines that she in gentile and quite well-born within the rural community. Her family is wealthy by Raveloe standards and, although there is little evidence that Nancy is either well-educated or cultured, she is somewhat sophisticated in terms of her moral code.
Dolly Winthorp is the wife of a wheelwright, which determines that she is working class and, certainly in comparison to Nancy, decidedly poor. Unlike Nancy, Dolly is also a mother, not only to Aaron, but in essence, to Eppie as well. Whereas Nancy provides for herself and, eventually, for her husband a strict code of values in an effort to achieve goodness, Dolly helps Silas Marner to raise Eppie in addition to caring for her own family. While Nancy’s moral code forbids her to adopt a child that is not her own, Dolly not only adopts Eppie in practice, becoming a sort of surrogate mother, she also lends Silas the emotional support of a co-parent and spouse in the context of his efforts to raise Eppie.
While Silas Marner is distrustful and reclusive towards the beginning of the novel, prior to Eppie’s arrival, Dolly Winthorp is the essential epitomy of faith. She provides instinctive faiths that contrast’s Silas’ own distrust of God and mankind. More than Nancy, however, Dolly not only maintains a strong faith and follows a code of living that makes her a good person, she serves the community and actively cares for others.
Nancy, when she initially appears in the novel, is both immature and misguided in her principles. Her introduction reveals as much about her character but also suggests what is to be her salvation. In chapter three, for example, it is revealed that Godfrey “a fine open-faced, good-natured young man who was to come into the land some day” (Chapter 3, p. 2), may lose Nancy’s affection if he behaves in the same way as his brother; “for it was well known that she had looked very shyly on him ever since last Whitsuntide twelvemonth” (Chapter 3, p. 2). What this extract also tells of Nancy is that she inherits from her family a very strict code to living: the Lammeters are “brought up in that way that they never suffered a pinch of salt to be wasted, and yet everybody in their household had of the best, according to his place”. It is also said that Nancy would be “a saving to the old Squire, if she never brought a penny to her fortune; for it was to be feared that, notwithstanding his incomings, there were more holes in his pocket than the one where he put his own hand” (Chapter 3, p. 3).
In chapter ten there is a portrait of Dolly Winthrop that truly demonstrates her difference from Nancy. She is described as being “in all respects a woman of scrupulous conscience” and unlike Nancy, “so eager for duties that life seemed to offer them too scantily unless she rose at half-past four, though this threw a scarcity of work over the more advanced hours of the morning, which it was a constant problem with her to remove” (Chapter 10, p. 4). She is also described as “very mild” and “patient” and “comfortable woman”.
While Nancy and Dolly are both formidable women and, in their own ways, both caring and devout, Dolly manifests her caring and faith in actions designed to help others; Nancy, until she forgives her husband and shows him sympathy regarding Eppie and his earlier indiscretions, is rather grave and exacting to the point of being supercilious.
Ultimately, George Eliot shows the power of actions and the significance of sympathy and forgiveness throughout Silas Marner. In her presentation of Nancy Lammeter Cass and Dolly Winthrop, these themes continue to be presented.