by George Eliot
As our runner-up for protagonist, Godfrey has a lot going on. In some ways, he's the most interesting character in the book, because, more than any other character, he has the potential to become either good or bad. Our very first introduction to him, the narrator, in the voice of the villagers, tells us that he's "a fine, open-faced, good-natured young man" (1.1.3), but he's in danger of following his brother's bad example.
Godfrey's problem is that his outside doesn't always match his inside. He has a "big muscular frame," but that only helps him when his problems can be "knocked down" or "throttled." Important moral decisions are totally beyond him, thanks to his "natural irresolution and moral cowardice" (1.3.25). Godfrey is manipulated into marrying Molly, freed by her untimely death, released of moral responsibility for Eppie by Silas's action, and then finally forced into confessing to Nancy because, of all things, Dunstan's body finally comes to light. Nancy is even the one who insists that they have to adopt Eppie (although, to be fair, Godfrey did try earlier).
Basically, Godfrey makes not one solitary decision throughout the entire book. He doesn't even make the one big decision that Silas makes—to adopt Eppie. He's pushed around by character after character. This basic instability means that he risks a negative character arc. As the narrator tells us, "the good-humoured, affectionate-hearted Godfrey Cass was fast becoming a bitter man, visited by cruel wishes, that seemed to enter, and depart, and enter again, like demons who had found in him a ready-garnished home" (1.3.39).
One of the most common characteristics of protagonists in Victorian novels is their frankness and openness. The natural ability and desire to be open, trusting, and honest is a big clue to Godfrey's essential goodness. In fact, his secret-keeping hurts him more than his shameful first marriage does.
Eliot doesn't give us too much information about what caused him to go back in the first place. All we learn is that it was a "movement of compunction" that urged him into the marriage—an "ugly story of low passion, delusion, and waking from delusion" that was partly thanks to Dunstan's influence (1.3.38). Most likely, Eliot is implying that Godfrey got Molly pregnant, and the "movement of compunction" means that Godfrey married Molly out of guilt and, maybe, a sense of needing to do the right thing.
Godfrey's marriage to Molly is another clue to his essential good nature. We already know that he's open and honest by nature, and now we learn that—poor decision-making aside—he's a decent, honorable guy. These contradictions make him a more compelling and more rounded character than Silas.
Unfortunately, he's just not very admirable. Take his reaction to seeing his dead wife: "He cast only one glance at the dead face on the pillow" (1.13.35). As for his daughter? He looks at her with a "half-jealous yearning," feeling both "regret and joy" that the little girl doesn't recognize him. You can't hate Godfrey—he give Silas money for the child, and part of him wants to acknowledge her—but you can't really respect him, either. He's just too… real.
While Silas's story is a neat little fairytale, Godfrey's is much more subtle. He isn't a great hero, and he's not even very likeable. Flawed characters are typical of mid-19th-century realism—and we're not talking fatal flaws, like a Greek hero, but everyday sort of character defects, like indecision and a bad temper. You can admire hubris; you can't really admire whininess.
Godfrey's plot isn't about overcoming some great obstacle. Instead, it's about trying to get him to a basic level of adulthood, where he can accept responsibility for his actions. He doesn't quite get all the way—note that after Eppie rejects his offer of adoption, he leaves abruptly, "unable to say more" (2.19.58), leaving Nancy, of course, to clean up his mess. And he can't even bring himself to attend Eppie's wedding, leaving Nancy, again, to buy Eppie a dress.
Still, Godfrey's plot is a rebirth of sorts. Even though Eppie doesn't redeem him—she's too busy redeeming Silas—Godfrey is saved by a woman. As he says near the end of the novel, in his final speech, "I got you, Nancy, in spite of all; and yet I've been grumbling and uneasy because I hadn't something else—as if I deserved it" (2.20.18). This speech, along with his decision to be open and honest for the rest of his life, and the narrator's point that he is now speaking with "a keen decisiveness of tone, in contrast with his usually careless and unemphatic speech" (2.20.5), suggests that Godfrey is redeemed. From now on, his better nature will triumph: "perhaps it isn't too late to mend a bit there," he says (2.20.20).
It's not as heartwarming as Silas's story, or as allegorical—but it might be more realistic. Godfrey keeps Silas Marner from being a simple tale about a miser and a manic pixie orphan. On the other hand, Silas Marner keeps Silas Marner from being a depressing and somewhat boring story about a weak-willed young man who doesn't want to grow up. The two characters complement each other, even though their only shared scene takes place near the very end of the book.Godrey Cass's Timeline