Silas Marner by George Eliot

Silas Marner by George Eliot
Table of Contents
1. Silas Marner: Introduction
2. Silas Marner: George Eliot Biography
3. Silas Marner: Summary
4. Silas Marner: Characters

5. Silas Marner: Themes
6. Silas Marner: Style
7. Silas Marner: Historical Context
8. Silas Marner: Critical Overview
Silas Marner: Criticism
¨ George Eliot
¨ Themes in Eliot's Novel
The Contrast Between the Approach to Religion and the Sect at Lantern Yard and the
Villagers of Raveloe
10. Silas Marner: Compare and Contrast
11. Silas Marner: Topics for Further Study
12. Silas Marner: Media Adaptations
13. Silas Marner: What Do I Read Next?
14. Silas Marner: Bibliography and Further Reading
15. Silas Marner: Pictures
16. Copyright
Silas Marner: Introduction
Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe, by Victorian novelist George Eliot, was first published in 1861. The
idea for the short novel, which she described as “a story of old-fashioned village life,” came upon Eliot
suddenly and interrupted her plans for the writing of another novel, Romola. After the publisher John
Silas Marner 1
Blackwood read some of the manuscript and told her he found it somber, Eliot replied that it was not a sad
story because “it sets in a strong light the remedial influences of pure, natural human relations.”
Silas Marner is a story of loss, alienation, and redemption that combines elements of fairy tale and myth with
realism and humor. Set in the fictional village of Raveloe, it centers on Silas Marner, a weaver who is forced
to leave his hometown in the north after being falsely accused of theft by members of his chapel. His religious
faith gone, for fifteen years Marner isolates himself from the life of the village and becomes a miser. But
when the gold that he cherishes is stolen, and he adopts a child whose mother has just died, his life changes
dramatically for the better.
Silas Marner has always been admired as one of Eliot’s best and most appealing works. Not only is it a
touching story that ends, like the fairy tale, happily ever after, it also presents a realistic portrait of
nineteenth-century life in a traditional English village in which the spirit of kindness and cooperation overrule
petty differences.
Silas Marner: George Eliot Biography
George Eliot, neé Mary Ann Evans, was born on November 22, 1819, in Chilvers Coton, in Warwickshire,
England, the daughter of estate manager Robert Evans and his wife Christiana Pearson. Evans was educated at
home and at various schools, including Mrs. Wallington’s school in Nuneaton, where she became an
Evangelical Christian. When her mother died in 1836, Evans became her father’s housekeeper, while
continuing her education through private tutors. She learned Italian, German, and Latin, and within a few
years also studied Greek and Hebrew.
In 1841, Evans and her father moved to the outskirts of Coventry. There she met the philanthropist Charles
Bray and his wife, Caroline Hennell, as well as Hennell’s family, who introduced her to new political and
religious ideas and under whose influence she rejected Christianity.
Evans translated and published David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus in 1846, and within three years
she had also translated the work of the philosophers Spinoza and Feuerbach. After her father died in 1849, she
moved to London and became assistant editor of the influential journal, Westminster Review. In the London
literary circles in which she now moved, she met the man of letters, essayist and playwright, George Henry
Lewes, and in 1853 she traveled to Germany with him. Lewes was estranged from his wife but was unable to
obtain a divorce, and he and Evans lived together until Lewes’s death in 1878. Their relationship shocked
Victorian society; even Evans’s brother Isaac refused to communicate with her in any way until after
Lewes’s death.
While Evans experienced social isolation because of her relationship with Lewes, she excelled as a novelist.
In 1857, she published her first work of fiction, “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton,” in
Blackwood’s Magazine, under the pseudonym George Eliot, the name she used for all her subsequent works.
The following year, “Amos Burton” was republished as one of Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life, in two
Evans’s first novel, Adam Bede, appeared in 1859, and achieved huge critical and popular success. Evans
continued to maintain her anonymity, going to some lengths to disguise the fact that she was George Eliot.
Over the next dozen years, Evans produced a series of novels that placed her in the front rank of English
novelists. In 1860, after traveling with Lewes to Italy, she published The Mill on the Floss. Silas Marner
followed in 1861, and Romola, a historical romance, was published in serial form in the Cornhill magazine in
1862 and 1863. It appeared in three volumes in 1863. Felix Holt: The Radical appeared in 1866, after which
Evans and Lewes traveled extensively in Europe, visiting Holland, Belgium, Germany, and Spain. These
Silas Marner: Introduction 2
European travels were a regular feature of Evans’s life for the next decade.
Evans began writing her greatest novel, Middlemarch, in 1869. It was published in serial form from 1871 to
1872, and then in three volumes. Evans’s last novel was Daniel Deronda (1876).
In 1880, two years after Lewes’s death, Evans married John Walter Cross, who was twenty years her junior.
She died that year, on December 22.
Silas Marner: Summary
Part 1
Silas Marner begins in the early years of the nineteenth century, near the English village of Raveloe, where
Silas Marner practices his trade as a weaver. He is a solitary man who is regarded as strange by the other
villagers because he does not socialize with them. Marner first arrived in the village fifteen years earlier, from
a large town in northern England. In his hometown he had lived a pious life and was a member of a Dissenting
chapel (that is, a Protestant sect not affiliated to the Church of England) that met at Lantern Yard. But when
Marner was falsely accused of theft by another member of the church, his friend William Dane, he was forced
to leave the town and make his life elsewhere. With his religious faith shattered, Marner turned inward and
made himself hard. Now, fifteen years later, the only thing he loves is his money, which he hoards.
The chief family in Raveloe is that of Squire Cass. Cass has three sons, two of whom are important for the
story. Dunsey, the youngest son is a dishonest ne’er-do-well, while Godfrey, the eldest, is good-natured but
weak. Godfrey made the mistake of marrying secretly to Molly, a girl from a lower class. She became an
opium addict and now threatens to betray his secret to his father. She also has a young child by Godfrey.
Godfrey is terrified that his father will discover his secret and cut him off from his inheritance. He is also
frustrated because he wants to marry Nancy Lammeter, a pretty girl from the village, but cannot do so as long
as he is married to Molly. Dunsey knows his secret and blackmails him. Godfrey agrees to let Dunsey sell
Godfrey’s horse, Wildfire, to raise money, but Dunsey rides the horse foolishly, and it is killed in an accident.
Dunsey walks home, and finding himself near Marner’s cottage, he robs Marner, who has slipped out of his
house on an errand, of all his gold. When Marner discovers the theft, he is distraught. Dunsey disappears, but
no one connects his disappearance to the robbery. In the meantime, Marner’s misfortune makes the villagers
think more kindly of him.
On New Year’s Eve, a dance is held at Red House, the home of Squire Cass. Molly decides to walk there to
reveal the truth about Godfrey, but drugged on opium, she collapses near Marner’s cottage. Her two-year-old
daughter wanders into the cottage, where Marner discovers her asleep. Then Marner finds Molly and rushes to
Red House for assistance, taking the child with him. When Molly is later declared dead, Marner insists on
keeping the child, while Godfrey is relieved that the death of Molly leaves him free to marry Nancy
Lammeter. He also goes out of his way to show kindness to Marner and the child, who is his daughter.
Marner christens the child Eppie and raises her as his own. The presence of the child revives his spirits, and he
becomes once more open to life. The villagers lose their suspicions of him and welcome him whenever he
comes into the village. His long years of isolation are over.
Part 2
Sixteen years have passed since Marner first took in Eppie. Godfrey has married Nancy, and they are
childless. They lost a child in infancy, and Nancy has resisted her husband’s desire to adopt Eppie. Dunsey
has never returned. Eppie has grown into a pretty young woman who is very fond of Marner, whom she
regards as her father, even though he has explained to her the circumstances in which she arrived at his house.
Eppie has a young male admirer named Aaron, and they are contemplating marriage. Marner, now a respected
Silas Marner: George Eliot Biography 3
member of village society, says he will do nothing to prevent her marrying.
One day, the stone-pit near Marner’s cottage goes dry, and the remains of Dunsey are found. Godfrey informs
Nancy that it was Dunsey who robbed Marner, since the money was found in the pit. Godfrey also confesses
that the woman Marner found dead in the snow was his wife and that Eppie is his child. He and Nancy agree
that they will try to adopt her. But when they inform Marner and Eppie of their intentions, Eppie says she
would prefer to stay with Marner. Even Godfrey’s announcement that he is Eppie’s real father does not
change Eppie’s mind, even though Marner says she is free to go if she wishes.
After his money is returned, Marner takes Eppie north to visit the town were he grew up. He wants to find out
if he has ever been cleared of the crime he was falsely accused of, thirty years ago. But the chapel has been
pulled down and a factory built in its place.
The novel ends happily with Eppie’s marriage to Aaron. The young couple plans to live with Marner.
Silas Marner: Characters
Dunstan Cass
Dunstan Cass is Godfrey’s younger brother. He is a disreputable, dishonest, spiteful young man who uses his
knowledge of Godfrey’s secret marriage to blackmail him. Godfrey agrees to let Dunsey sell Godfrey’s
horse, Wildfire, to raise money, but Dunsey rides the horse foolishly and is responsible for the horse’s death.
As he walks home, Dunsey robs Marner of his gold and then disappears. No one is concerned by his absence,
since he has left home for long periods before. His remains are discovered sixteen years later in a stone-pit
that has gone dry. It is concluded that he drowned.
Godfrey Cass
Godfrey Cass is the eldest son of Squire Cass and heir to the estate. He is a good-natured man, but he lacks
strength of character and does not like to face up to difficult situations. In a fit of drunkenness he made the
mistake of marrying beneath his station, and he has kept his wife and child a secret. He lives in fear that his
ill-willed younger brother Dunsey will tell their father about his secret, which would probably result in his
being turned out of the family home and cut off from his inheritance. He is also bitterly frustrated by the fact
that because he is already married, he cannot marry the girl of his choice, Nancy Lammeter. When his wife
dies and Dunsey disappears, Godfrey’s worries appear to be over, and he duly marries Nancy. But he is
tormented by the fact that his unacknowledged daughter Eppie is being raised by Marner. He shows as much
care and concern for her as he can without arousing suspicion, and he tries to persuade Nancy that they should
adopt Eppie. But Nancy refuses. After Dunsey’s remains are found, Godfrey tells Nancy everything about his
past. They try to adopt Eppie, but she refuses to be parted from the man she regards as her father. Godfrey is
forced to accept that he can never publicly acknowledge Eppie as his daughter, a blow for which his happy
marriage is only partial consolation.
Molly Cass
Molly Cass is Godfrey Cass’s first wife, whom he married secretly. She comes from a lower social class than
her husband, and she is addicted to opium. She decides to walk to the Red House on New Year’s Eve to
betray Godfrey’s secret, but she collapses and dies near Marner’s cottage.
Squire Cass
Squire Cass, the father of Dunsey and Godfrey, is the most prominent landowner in Raveloe. A widower of
sixty, he is a bluff, robust, quicktempered man who never questions the superiority of his own family within
the parish. He is a difficult man to deal with. He is indulgent with his tenants for a while and lets them get into
arrears, but then when he gets short of money, he comes down on them hard for rent. Once he has made up his
Silas Marner: Summary 4
mind about something, he does not alter it.
William Dane
William Dane is a treacherous friend of Silas. When they are both young men, they are devout members of a
religious sect that meets at Lantern Yard in a town in northern England. But Dane steals money from the
church and deliberately arranges for Marner to take the blame. He then marries the girl to whom Marner had
been engaged.
See Dunstan Cass
Eppie is the daughter of Godfrey and Molly Cass. Since Godfrey will not acknowledge his marriage, it is left
to Molly to raise the child. But she is unfit to do so, and when she dies of an overdose of opium, the child is
adopted by Marner. He christens her Eppie. Eppie grows up in a loving home and regards Marner as her
father. She is pretty, with golden curly hair. She is content with her position in life and has no interest in being
adopted by Godfrey and Nancy, even when she is informed that Godfrey is her real father. She remains utterly
loyal and devoted to Marner and is happy to be associated with the poor, working people of the village. When
she is eighteen, Eppie marries Aaron, and they live together in Marner’s cottage.
Mr. Kimble
Mr. Kimble is the village farrier (veterinarian), and he also serves as the town doctor. Because of his status he
has a rather high opinion of himself. It is Kimble who takes charge of the situation in the Rainbow tavern after
Marner tells the people he has been robbed.
Nancy Lammeter
Nancy Lammeter is the attractive young woman courted by Godfrey Cass. Nancy is well mannered, sincere,
and always neat; at the New Year’s Eve dance she is perfectly attired, with not a hair out of place. Although
Nancy is a woman of good character, she also lives by some rigid, simple ideas, which she refuses to alter.
She insists that her sister Priscilla dress in exactly the same way as she does, even though this does not set
Priscilla off to best advantage. Nancy also refuses to adopt Eppie, even though Godfrey her husband greatly
desires it, because she believes that Providence has decreed she remain childless. In Nancy’s inflexible mind,
adopting a child would be wrong, and the child would not turn out well. In spite of this fault, however, Nancy
is a good, tender wife to Godfrey, and after he finally confesses his past indiscretions she agrees to try to
adopt Eppie.
Priscilla Lammeter
Priscilla Lammeter is Nancy Lammeter’s sister. Five years older than Nancy, she is not as pretty as her sister
and describes herself as ugly. But she does not seem to mind this disadvantage. She is a cheerful woman, full
of common sense, and she has no wish to marry.
Mr. Macey
Mr. Macey is the old tailor and parish clerk of Raveloe. He often tells stories about village history in the
Rainbow, and the men listen to him with respect.
Silas Marner
Silas Marner is a weaver. As a young man living in a town in northern England, he is a member of a
fundamentalist Christian sect that meets at a place called Lantern Yard. He is highly thought of by the other
members of the sect, and the fact that during prayer meetings he sometimes goes into trances that last as long
as an hour is seen as a sign of some special spiritual gift. But Marner is driven away from the town after his
treacherous friend, William Dane, ensures that Marner is falsely convicted of theft. Marner settles in Raveloe,
Silas Marner: Characters 5
but his faith is shattered, and he isolates himself from the community. The villagers regard him with
suspicion, which is not helped by the fact that Marner has knowledge of the healing properties of herbs. The
superstitious villagers think this kind of knowledge may have something to do with the devil. Marner does not
attend church and knows nothing of the village’s church calendar because it is very different from the sect of
Christianity practiced in Lantern Yard. The only thing he loves is his money. He earns a good income as a
weaver, working alone in his cottage, and he hoards his gold, counting it lovingly. When the gold is stolen he
is shattered. He seeks help from the villagers, and they begin to think more kindly of him. Marner’s life
changes completely when a child whose mother lies dead in the snow near his home finds her way to his
cottage. He insists on raising her himself. The child, christened Eppie, brings out Marner’s latent kindness
and gentleness. Through Eppie he realizes that love is more valuable than money. He is then able to connect
with the life of the community, and he becomes a respected and honored citizen of Raveloe.
Mr. Tookey
Mr. Tookey is the deputy parish clerk and is unpopular with the other men.
Aaron Winthrop
Aaron Winthrop is the son of Dolly Winthrop. He is a steady, good-hearted young man, and he marries Eppie
while promising also to take care of Marner.
Dolly Winthrop
Dolly Winthrop is the mother of Aaron and the wife of Ben, the village wheelwright. She is a mild, patient,
hard-working woman who is always ready to look after the sick and the dying. She is one of the first of the
villagers to take pity on Marner after his gold has been stolen, visiting him with her young son and bringing
lard-cakes. Dolly supports Marner’s decision to adopt Eppie, and she is full of valuable advice and practical
help about how to raise the child.
Silas Marner: Themes
Moral Order
Although there are tragedies in Silas Marner (the death of Molly Cass, for example), the narrative emphasizes
the moral order of the universe. The principal characters get their just desserts. Silas Marner is rewarded for
the love he shows Eppie; Dunsey never lives to profit from his robbery; and Godfrey Cass, because of his
deceitfulness and moral cowardice, can never publicly acknowledge that Eppie is his daughter. This moral
order is at work through seemingly chance events. It seems to be chance, for example, that Marner happens to
be away from his cottage on a short errand and has left his door unlocked (which he would never normally do)
at the exact moment that Dunsey is walking by, thus giving Dunsey a chance to rob him. It also seems to be a
chance event when Molly Cass collapses near Marner’s cottage and Eppie wanders inside. The door to the
cottage is once again open and Marner is in one of his strange trances, so he does not notice the girl until she
is asleep on his hearth.
But there is more at work than chance. Almost as soon as he sees the child, Marner senses that some
supernatural order is operating in his life, and he later thinks that the child must have been deliberately sent to
him. Dolly Winthrop agrees with him, although neither offers any explanation as to who or what this
benevolent power might be. Later, after Marner has explained his past life to Dolly, she struggles to articulate
her intuitive feeling that there is a higher power that arranges everything for the best: “For if us as knows so
little can see a bit o’ good and rights, we may be sure as there’s a good and a rights bigger nor what we can
The Need for Human Community
The novel presents pictures of two poles of human existence, isolation and community. For fifteen years
Silas Marner: Themes 6
Marner retreats into a solitude that denies life. He is redeemed only when events conspire to make him rejoin
a human community.
In his years of isolation at Raveloe, cut off from the real springs of life, Marner makes the mistake of treating
inert things as if they were alive. His delight in his gold is so great that it even gratifies his senses of touch and
sight: “It was pleasant to feel them [the guineas] in his palm”; he enjoys looking at their “bright faces”; they
offer him “companionship,” and as he “bathed his hands” in them he “felt their rounded outline between his
thumb and fingers.” He even begins to think that the gold is conscious of him, as he believes his loom is. And
Marner’s life, with its ceaseless, monotonous, repetitive activity, has come to resemble the actions of the
loom. His constant bending over his loom has also deformed him physically, making him curiously fitted to it,
like a “handle or a crooked tube” that has no independent existence apart from what it is attached to. In his
attachment to a machine, Marner has cut himself off from nature. He forgets all about his former interest in
herbs and his skill in using them for healing. When he walks through the lanes on a work-related trip, he
thinks only of his money and his loom. The life of nature goes on around him unobserved. As a miser, he has
given to inanimate things a spurious life and forgotten what real life is. His own life has become “a mere
pulsation of desire and satisfaction that had no relation to any other being.”
The loss of his money is a blessing in disguise for Marner because it breaks his attachment to things that have
no life. It also reveals that the human spirit within him is not quite dead. He has a dim sense that if any help is
to reach him, it must come from outside. This is why, when the villagers become more sympathetic to him,
“there was a slight stirring of expectation at the sight of his fellow-men, a faint consciousness of dependence
on their goodwill.” This faint channel of hope is symbolized by the fact that at Christmas, Marner, even
though he is still full of grief, does not make any attempt to close the shutters or lock the door of his cottage.
Moreover, he develops a habit of opening his door and looking out from time to time. He does this not
because he is consciously inviting companionship, but because he has some irrational hope that his money
will somehow be returned. But it is this habit of leaving his door open that allows the child to come into his
life. It is a sign that he has begun his journey back from isolation to community.
The arrival of Eppie has an immediate effect on Marner. When he first sees the child, he thinks it may be his
little sister, come back in a dream. He remembers how he carried his sister around in his arms for a year until
she died. By recalling a tender time of childhood that he had closed off from memory, Silas begins the process
of reconnecting with his past. The process continues when he tells Dolly Winthrop all the details of his early
life. Through this process his fractured psyche starts to become whole again. And with Eppie taking his
thoughts away from their endless circularity into a more outward direction, Marner is at last ready to become
integrated into the community life of Raveloe.
Just as Marner is a case study in isolation, Raveloe is presented as an example of community. There are two
centers of community in Raveloe: the Squire’s Red House, which is generous in giving out food to the poor
and hosts the New Year’s Eve dance, and the Rainbow inn, where the villagers gather round the hearth to tell
their stories. The inhabitants of Raveloe may not be perfect, but they are fairly easy going and do not make a
habit of applying moral censure to others. Although the village is strictly divided along class lines, there is no
envy of the rich by the poor. It is a community in which everyone knows his or her place, and a spirit of
cooperation and tolerance is the norm. This is shown especially vividly when the men in the Rainbow
immediately do everything they can to help Marner, a man they all regard as rather strange, when he informs
them that he has been robbed. The villagers all know that they are dependent on each other, and when Marner
also realizes this, he is ready to play his part in a wider community, instead of foolishly trying to be
Silas Marner: Themes 7
Silas Marner: Style
In becoming a solitary miser, Silas Marner has become almost less than human, a point which is brought out
by the imagery that is associated with him. He is described as like a spider, weaving its web; his life is
reduced to the “unquestioning activity of a spinning insect.” After he has lost his money, the image changes
to that of an ant. His mind is baffled like a “plodding ant” that on its way home finds that the earth has been
The imagery changes when Marner is on the way to redemption. When he sits with Eppie on a bank of
flowers listening to the birds, he starts to look for herbs again, as he did when he was younger. As a leaf lies in
his palm, memories of the past come flooding back to him. His mind is “growing into memory,” and his soul
is “unfolding too, and trembling gradually into full consciousness.” Instead of being compared to an insect,
Marner is now implicitly likened to an unfolding flower.
Fairy Tale and Realism
The narrative combines elements of the fairy tale with realistic settings and characters. Fairy tales often tell of
a man or woman who is unjustly banished from a kingdom or is otherwise the victim of great misfortune. The
person then goes through many trials and much suffering and feels that all is lost. Chance events, often
involving the supernatural, intervene, evil is punished, good is rewarded, a perfect marriage is arranged, and
the characters live happily ever after.
The story of Silas Marner has clear affinities with the fairy tale. Silas is unjustly expelled from his hometown
and arrives in what is to him an alien environment. As a miser hoarding his gold, he is like a stock figure in
folklore and fairy tale. When the miser sees the child and mistakes her golden curls for his stolen gold, the
narrative is firmly in fairy tale mode. Marner’s restoration to happiness and the happy ending with Eppie
marrying Aaron are also strongly reminiscent of the fairy tale.
But other elements in the story are realistic. Unlike fairy tales, which are set in unnamed places in unknown
times, Silas Marner takes place at a definite time and in a definite place. It is anchored in rural England at the
beginning of the nineteenth century. Village life and customs are described in realistic mode, and realism is
also seen in the dialect in the villagers’ speech. The story of Godfrey Cass, as opposed to that of the miser,
contains no fairy tale elements. Godfrey’s marriages, his family relations, the secret he keeps that may ruin
him are the stuff of realistic Victorian fiction.
Silas Marner: Historical Context
Weavers in England
Historian E. P. Thompson, in his book The Making of the English Working Class, describes four different
employment situations for weavers during the nineteenth century. The first was the “customer-weaver,” like
Silas Marner, an independent worker in a village or small town who fulfilled orders from individual
customers. Although customer- weavers were diminishing in numbers, those who continued the practice made
a good living. In Silas Marner, Mr. Macey guesses that the hardworking Marner may make a pound a week
from his weaving, which would have been a fairly sizable income. (This would have been during the early
years of the nineteenth century.) The second kind of weaver was self-employed, producing work for a number
of different masters. The third type was the journeyman weaver, who often owned his own loom and worked
in his own home for one master. This was probably the status of Silas Marner in his hometown in northern
England, where he learned his trade. The last category of weaver was the farmer who worked part-time at the
loom. From 1780 to 1830, according to Thompson, these groups tended to merge into one group, “the
proletarian outworker, who worked in his own home, sometimes owned and sometimes rented his loom, and
Silas Marner: Style 8
who wove up the yarn to the specifications of the factor or agent of a mill or of some middleman.”
Thompson emphasizes the loss of status and security that accompanied these changes, although weaving
could still be a profitable business for the weaver.
The business was changing, however. The power loom was invented in 1784 and patented the following year.
It enabled the weaver to once more to keep pace with the spinner, who up to then had been able to produce
more yarn than the weaver could use. The power loom was first used in Manchester in 1791. By 1813, there
were 2,400 power looms in England. But weaving remained predominantly a domestic industry until 1820,
when power looms came into general use.
Social Change
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, England was a largely settled and static society. Villages like the
fictional Raveloe in Silas Marner were relatively self-sufficient, since the inhabitants were able to
manufacture their own clothes and supply their own food. But social change accelerated during the course of
the century. Agricultural laborers and manufacturers became willing to leave villages in search of work or of
better paid work. This was not just a matter of a shift from the countryside to the nearest town, but of
large-scale migrations. By the end of the century, workers were moving to Lancashire, where the cotton
industry was flourishing, at the rate of fifteen thousand a year. The town of Bolton, for example, increased its
population from 5,339 in 1773 to 11,739 in 1789. New canals enabled raw materials to be transported more
quickly and efficiently, and new roads facilitated the recruitment of a labor force. There was, however, a price
to be paid for economic gain, and that was the creation of a new class of landless agricultural laborers, who
had lost their independence.
By the beginning of the reign of King George IV in 1820, the huge growth in manufacturing towns that had
little connection with the old rural communities had radically changed England. As social historian G. M.
Trevelyan writes in Illustrated English Social History: “The harmonious fabric of old English society suffered
a perpendicular cleavage between town and country, as well as expanding the old lateral cleavage between
rich and poor.”
Silas Marner: Critical Overview
Although there have been occasional complaints that the first part of the book is too gloomy and the second
part too sentimental, Silas Marner has always been highly regarded by literary critics. Initial reviews were all
positive. In a review published in The Times in 1861, E. S. Dallas praised the novel for its truthful portrayal of
village life. He pointed out that although the characters were not idealized they were given dignity by the
author’s treatment of them:
The personages of the tale are common, very common people, but they are good and kind,
hardworking and dutiful. . . . their lives are ennobled and beautified by their sense of duty,
and by their sympathy with each other.
Many modern critics regard Silas Marner as a flawless work, although because it is only novellalength it is
not regarded as Eliot’s greatest novel. Critics have shown that the novel is far more than a simple moral tale
about a miser who discovers through adopting a young child that love is more rewarding than money.
Elizabeth Deeds Ermath analyzes the novel as a “double story about isolation and community,” and points
out the complex similarities and differences between the stories of Marner and Godfrey Cass. Q. D. Leavis, in
her introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel, discusses it in terms of the social changes brought about
by the Industrial Revolution. She points out that Marner, brought up in a manufacturing town, has become a
slave to his loom—a piece of machinery— whereas Raveloe still clings to the traditional way of life, “the
Silas Marner: Historical Context 9
organic community and the unified society.”
Silas Marner: Criticism
George Eliot
Silas Marner is not the most important, but it is perhaps the most perfect of George Eliot’s novels. It is
flawed by no failure of characterisation and no excess of moralism. Where Adam Bede had in parts the still
beauty of an eclogue and where Maggie Tulliver expressed with great tenderness and truth the unsatisfied
longings of her creator, Silas Marner represents a significant advance in objectivity. Even the familiar
landscape is viewed with greater realism; nowhere, except in the passages between Marner and his
foster-child Effie, is there the slightest effort to charm. George Eliot tells us that she once asked a dying
labourer: “Is there anything that you can fancy that you would like to eat?” “No,” he answered, “I’ve never
been used to nothing but common victual and I can’t eat that.” It was out of her own experience of this
plainness, this homespun simplicity, that Silas Marner was conceived. The Methodist atmosphere of
Marner’s youth, and of her own, is perfectly evoked:
The whitewashed walls; the little pews where wellknown figures entered with a subdued
rustling, and where first one well-known voice and then another, pitched in a peculiar key of
petition, uttered phrases at once occult and familiar, like the amulet, worn on the heart; the
pulpit where the minister delivered unquestioned doctrine, and swayed to and fro, and
handled the book in a long-accustomed manner; the very pauses between the couplets of the
hymn, as it was given out, and the recurrent swell of voices in song: these things had been the
channel of divine influences to Marner—they were the fostering home, of his religious
emotions—they were Christianity and God’s kingdom upon earth.
This was [Latern Yard] with its courtyards and red-brick alleys and censorious congregations, where Marner
had been unjustly pronounced guilty of theft. A sharp contrast is drawn between this industrial dinginess and
the fat complacent countryside where Marner will always feel himself to be an exile.
Orchards, looking lazy with neglected plenty; the large church in the wide churchyard, which
men gazed at lounging at their doors during service-time; the purple-faced farmers jogging
along the lanes or turning in at the Rainbow; homesteads, where men supped heavily and
slept in the light of the evening hearth, and where women seemed to be laying up a stock of
linen for the life to come.
And there is the prosperous Anglican Christmas, with its
vague exulting sense, for which the grown men could as little have found words as the
children, that something great and mysterious had been done for them in heaven above and in
earth below, which they were appropriating by their presence. And then these red faces made
their way through the black, biting frost to their own homes, feeling themselves free for the
rest of the day to eat, drink, and be merry, and using that Christian freedom without
These oppositions are more scenic than sociological; they prepare the reader’s mind for the myth which is the
core of the novel. Nothing is more dangerous for a novelist than an idea, and George Eliot was more than once
defeated by them. But in Silas Marner the myth is so amply clothed by characterisation, so subtly aided by
description, that we still feel that “this is life”—the acid test of fiction—even though we are made aware, as we
are so often made aware in life itself, of symbols and purposes behind it. Marner is certainly presented to us as
Silas Marner: Critical Overview 10
a wronged man, but there is a sin in his embitterment. Of this embitterment, this sterile turning in upon
himself, the hoarded gold is the expression; and when he loses it, again unjustly, he loses a prop which had
really been an obstacle. His material and spiritual poverty are now made one, and he is free to welcome the
redemptive influence of Effie. These profound meanings are never overstressed and Marner himself is
doubtless but half aware of them. He only knows that:
The gold had kept his thoughts in an ever-repeated circle, tending to nothing beyond itself;
but Effie was an object compacted of changes and hopes that forced his thoughts onward and
carried them far away from their old eager facing towards the same blank limit. . . . The gold
had asked that he should sit weaving longer and longer, deafened and blinded more and more
to all things except the monotony of his loom and the repetition of his web; but Effie called
him away from his weaving and made him think all its pauses a holiday— re-awakening all his
senses with her fresh life, even to the old winter-flies that come crawling forth in the early
spring sunshine, and warming him into joy because she had joy.
Marner’s redemption was neither automatic nor immediate. It was only when his love was perfected that the
gold was given back to him. He sensed it with that clear moral intuition which belongs to all George Eliot’s
unsophisticated characters.
At first, I’d a sort of feeling come across me now and then . . . as if you might be changed
into the gold again; for sometimes, turn my head which way I would, I seemed to see the
gold; and I thought I should be glad if I could feel it, and find it was come back. But that
didn’t last long. After a bit, I should have thought it was a curse come again if it had drove
me from you . . .
George Eliot was never again directly to treat the theme of money. There is nothing sentimental in her
opposition of gold and charity; indeed, her handling of it, though it lacks psychological complexity, has the
pure simplicity of a parable. Behind it lies the mystery of being, the unpredictable design, and the permitted
wickedness of Mammon. These are left in the twilight where the mind does its feeble best to apprehend them.
There is no trace of pessimism in George Eliot’s agnostic acceptance of Fate: “the gods of the hearth exist
for us still; and let all new faith be tolerant of that fetichism, lest it bruise its own roots.” And Marner has his
own irrefutable reply to the problem of evil:
There’s good i’ this world—I’ve a feeling o’ that now; and it makes a man feel there’s a good deal more nor
he can see, i’ spite o’ the trouble and the wickedness. That drawing o’ the lots is dark; but the child was sent
to me: there’s dealings with us—there’s dealings. This is more profound, because it is more realistic and less
emotional, than Hardy’s “the President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess.” And Marner is
helped to his conclusion by Dolly Winthrop, one of George Eliot’s most triumphant character parts. She is
the voice itself of naturalism, understood not as an accurate recording of dialect or photographic observation
of idiosyncrasy— though she is both of these—but as nature’s own comment upon life. The peasant common
sense is finally prepared to accept Marner’s rearing of Effie:
It’s like the night and the morning, and the sleeping and the waking, and the rain and the
harvest—one goes and the other comes, and we know nothing how nor where. We may strive
and scrat and fend, but it’s little we can do arter all—the big things come and go with no
striving of our’n—they do, that they do; and I think you’re in the right on it to keep the little
’un, Master Marner, seeing as it’s been sent to you, though there’s folks as thinks different.
You’ll happen to be a bit moithered with it while it’s so little; but I’ll come and welcome,
and see to it for you; I’ve a bit of time to spare most days, for when one gets up betimes i’
the morning, the clock seems to stan’ still tow’rt ten, afore it’s time to go about the victual.
So, as I say, I’ll come and see to the child for you, and welcome.
George Eliot 11
Listen to the liturgical lilt of this speech and you will find it easy to imagine that Dolly was used to hearing
the Authorised Version read aloud, and these Biblical echoes are mixed with native poetry. George Eliot is
generally able to rise to a poetic apprehension of character, and Dolly Winthrop is a good example of this
capacity. She is with Shallow and Touchstone and Mistress Quickly, giving to her setting as much as she
takes from it.
Silas Marner is, technically, a very finished book. It is much shorter than George Eliot’s other more
important novels and one feels that she has put into it exactly the right weight of writing. She does here all her
characteristic things supremely well. The scene at the Rainbow is justly celebrated, with Marner, crazy with
the loss of his gold, shattering the bucolic humours of the bar. In a single image George Eliot gives us the
whole picture, when “the long pipes gave a simultaneous movement, like the antennae of startled insects.”
The various social milieux are admirably related to each other—the small squires, the yeoman farmers, the
tradesmen, the peasants. There is a rough equality here; the fabric holds easily together. Geoffrey Cass, weak,
conscientious, and good-natured, quite without imagination, is first cousin to Arthur Donnithorne and Nancy,
a step lower down in the social scale, is carefully differentiated by a touch of provincial dialect. But this was
the last time that George Eliot was to content herself with a rustic theme. The bloom of these Midland
hedgerows was beginning to wear off; there was a world elsewhere; and even within the loved, familiar
setting a more complex pattern of human relationships awaited her discovery.
Source: Robert Speaight, “George Eliot,” in George Eliot, Lowe and Brydone, 1954, pp. 62–67.
Themes in Eliot's Novel
Some critics have dismissed Eliot’s Silas Marner because it reads too much like a fairy tale. And true, there
are many fairy-tale elements in the novel, but this is no reason to condemn it as lacking depth. Eliot uses the
familiar story frame of fortuitous coincidence, clear-cut relationships between good and evil, as well as the
novel’s happy ending so as to avoid inventing a new kind of story structure. Using this simple form has
allowed Eliot to concentrate on the themes she wants to explore. The fundamental form highlights Eliot’s
messages, making them stand out against the more basic background. Her point is not to tell a complicated
story but rather to get her point of view across. Eliot’s themes are her message, and her messages can be seen
most clearly through an examination of the contrasting characters of Silas Marner and Godfrey Cass.
Although the title of this novel emphasizes Silas Marner as the main character, Marner would not be as fully
developed if Eliot had not included Marner’s mirror image, Godfrey Cass. Not only does Eliot flip back and
forth between the circumstances of these men’s lives throughout the story, she also compares and contrasts
their images with one another long before their eventual meeting. So as readers travel through this novel, it is
as if they are wearing stereophonic headphones through which they listen to two separate tracks of music that,
though diverse, complement one another. Godfrey is like the bass to the melody of Silas. One offsets the
When Silas is first introduced, he is seen as an “alien-looking” man who lives near the village of Ravenloe.
He has “mysterious peculiarities.” He also does not invite people to his cottage, nor does he enter the village
to seek company. Silas is a loner, who needs, or so it appears, nothing more than to work, which he does
incessantly. He is, according to gossip, a “dead man come to life again,” a man who might just as easily cure
you from a malady as to cause you mischief. In the villagers’ eyes, Silas is someone to talk about but not
someone to talk to. He is a man with no known past and thus a man who cannot be trusted.
In contrast, Godfrey Cass is the son of “the greatest man in Raveloe” whose main weakness, according to
village sentiment, is that he has “kept all his sons at home in idleness.” Although Godfrey has his family’s
reputation behind him, he has not proven himself. He has yet to establish any worth other than his inheritance.
Themes in Eliot's Novel 12
Godfrey’s history is well known, and so he is trusted. His path has been determined by the stature of his
father and his grandfather. He has a path that the local citizens expect him to follow. Their only fear is that
Godfrey might stray from that path, as did his brother. Thus, the comparison of Silas and Godfrey begins.
Silas works hard but is criticized for not socializing while Godfrey is deemed a “fine, open-faced,
good-natured young man,” but he is lazy. At this point, Eliot also begins to display her other major theme: the
disparities between the working class and the wealthy landowners. Each group has its qualities; each has its
weaknesses. At the beginning of the novel, Godfrey is given the benefit of the doubt because of his known
ancestry. Silas is feared because he represents the unknown. As the novel progresses, however, the villagers
become more acquainted with Silas as his humanity becomes exposed. In contrast, Godfrey’s reputation
begins to crumble.
Eliot gives both Silas and Godfrey adversaries. It is through the men’s relationship with these antagonists that
the novelist explores her dual theme of honesty and deception. Ironically for Silas, his enemy is his best
friend, William Dane. Dane betrays Silas and is the reason Silas leaves his hometown and lives for many
years in total isolation. Dane’s dishonesty causes Silas to mistrust everyone. Silas eventually turns against
himself. Instead of blossoming in his youth, Silas sinks deeper and deeper into a world of darkness.
Godfrey’s adversary is his brother Dunstan, a fraudulent man who causes Godfrey a lot of distress. The
circumstances surrounding the brothers’ relationship are more complicated than that between Silas and Dane.
Dane, in comparison to Silas, is a man of loose morals. The Silas and Dane relationship has very definite
boundaries without any shades of gray. Silas is all good. Dane is all bad. Dane acts alone, without any
communication with Silas. Dane is cruel and, as far as the story studies the matter, fully without repentance.
Silas portrays the role of the innocent and is caught completely off guard when Dane betrays him. In contrast,
Godfrey, even though at first it appears he is only trying to protect his brother from their father’s wrath, turns
out to be a silent partner in his brother’s deception. Godfrey himself is dishonest and makes excuses for his
own weaknesses in order to justify them. In this way, Eliot’s contrast of the two main characters begins to
deepen. Silas, Eliot demonstrates, is the better man.
The issue of money is another major theme of Eliot’s story. She looks at it from several different points of
view. There is, of course, the money that William Dane stole and then blamed its theft on Silas. This matter of
pilfering a small bag of coins has as much to do with money as it does with religion and friendship, at least in
terms of Silas’s life. It was this theft and the blame for it that drove Silas away from his home, his church,
and his friends. This act was the catalyst that in the end would save Silas from a life of monotonous labor in
an industrialized world. It might have also saved him from an unhappy marriage, as his betrothed ended up
marrying Silas’s best friend, the one who had betrayed him, implying that the young woman might not have
been worth Silas’s love. This money and the theft of it turned out to be Silas’s ticket out of town. Looked at
in this way, this first robbery foreshadows a greater and more significant crime, one that will once again
change the course of Silas’s life.
Silas is more personally involved in the second robbery. This time the money is his—savings he has
accumulated over many years. Silas’s devotion to and admiration of his wealth is as close as he comes to
feeling love. There is nothing more precious to him than the gold that he hides under his loom and counts each
night before going to bed. It is the reason for him to weave all day and night. It is what drives him to go out
and sell his wares. This money is the motivation that makes him want to continue to live. It is his family, his
friends, and his community. When Godfrey’s brother steals it, Silas is devastated. He was like a “man falling
into deep water,” Eliot writes, and he “gave a wild ringing scream, the cry of desolation” when the full
realization of the theft sunk deep into his consciousness. Silas had invested every thought, every hope in his
golden treasure. His attention to his wealth might even have absorbed him to the depth of his identity, his
soul. Who was he without the rewards he had earned through his labors? What worth remained in him? Or as
Eliot puts it, the theft had “left his soul like a forlorn traveler on an unknown desert.” This loss of money will
once again turn Silas’s life around. Only this time, instead of turning toward the dark, Silas will turn toward
Themes in Eliot's Novel 13
the light. His life will open up, as will his heart. He will become a part of the community. His past, both the
good and the bad parts, will be reviewed. He will no longer have to hide. Money, Eliot seems to be saying, is
not the proper goal in life. It is but currency and must move from one hand to another to provide food and
shelter. The love of money can turn one’s heart into an organ as cold as a rock.
Offsetting Silas’s part of the story, Eliot presents Godfrey’s problems once again. Godfrey has wealth but it
is controlled by his father. This does not usually seem to concern Godfrey. His needs are always met. He has
no need for a craft by which to earn a wage because he will one day rule the family estate. It seems that the
only time Godfrey thinks of money is when he is forced to cover his brother’s mishandling of it. Money, in
Godfrey’s case, is not associated with sweat, as it is with Silas. The only sweat Godfrey experiences is of a
psychological nature. For one thing, Dunstan causes Godfrey great anxiety. So, too, does Godfrey’s own
deeds. Godfrey’s real fear is that his secret will be found out, and he will lose both his father’s and his
sweetheart’s respect. It is at this point that Eliot reveals further corruptions of Godfrey’s integrity. For
reasons of sexual passion, Godfrey has become involved with a poor, drug-addicted woman. She has born him
a child for whom Godfrey shows little affection. He provides monetary easements but little else. With this,
Eliot demonstrates again her theme that money is not related to love. She also shows the shallowness of
Godfrey’s feelings. Godfrey cares little for his wife, Molly. He wants only to be rid of her so that he can
marry Nancy, a woman more suited to his social standing. Also with Godfrey’s involvement with Molly,
Eliot emphasizes the chasm that exists between the poor class and the rich. It is in contrast with these exposed
elements of Godfrey’s personality, his weaknesses and deficits, that Silas Marner begins to shine.
Finally there is Eppie, Godfrey’s child, who has a head of gold curls that remind Silas of the pile of gold
treasure he once had but has lost. Upon seeing Eppie, Silas immediately falls in love with her. It is his belief
that the gods of fortune have replaced his lost money with this child. He feels he has finally been rewarded.
Eppie now becomes the true reason for living. She opens Silas’s heart. Silas had been misguided in the past,
trying to amass a fortune of gold to dismiss his loneliness and make up for the false judgment of his character.
It takes more than gold, Eliot proclaims through Silas, to make a life worthwhile. Opening oneself to another
is the most gratifying pleasure that exists. Then, Eliot takes this concept one step further by having Godfrey
try to win the heart of Eppie through monetary things. Godfrey tries to buy Eppie’s love. He will provide her
a better home and bestow on her social status. Eppie exemplifies Eliot’s message. Love, not money, is the
way to open someone’s heart. So in the end, Silas is victorious, and Godfrey berates himself for having
failed. “It’s part of my punishment,” he says to his wife, “for my daughter to dislike me.”
With this, the fairy tale ends. The bad are punished for their weaknesses and sins, and the good are provided
benevolence. Through this fairy tale, Eliot has found a form upon which to display her message.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Silas Marner, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
The Contrast Between the Approach to Religion and the
Sect at Lantern Yard and the Villagers of Raveloe
The story of Silas Marner’s life has a mythic dimension to it. Silas undergoes a spiritual journey that is a
variation on the great religious myth of Western culture. In the Christian myth, man is expelled from a garden,
saved by the birth of the Christ-child, and promised a life in bliss in the heavenly city of Jerusalem described
in the Book of Revelations. Silas travels a similar path from expulsion to redemption, but the symbolism is
reversed. He is expelled from a city, saved by a child, and ends up in a garden (as seen in the final chapter
when Eppie and Aaron grow a garden just outside his cottage). In the course of this journey, which occupies
over thirty years of Silas’s life, he travels from a stern, Bible-centered Calvinistic religion, in which the
central concern is the “Assurance of salvation,” to a more tolerant, nondogmatic version of Christianity in
which the emphasis falls not on the idea of salvation but on tolerance and solidarity with others in a
The Contrast Between the Approach to Religion and the Sect at Lantern Yard and the Villagers of 1R4aveloe
cooperative human community.
Marner’s spirituality is first awakened at Lantern Yard, where as a young man in the 1780s he is a member of
a Dissenting Protestant sect. In nineteenth century England, those who rejected the doctrines and authority of
the Church of England were known as dissenters. They included such groups as the Presbyterians,
Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians, and other minor sects. The most notable feature of the
dissenters was that they were more democratic than Anglicans. They had no bishops or priests, and did not
accept doctrines or policies handed down from above. Instead, they took responsibility for organizing,
financing and running their own groups. Large towns like Birmingham and Manchester were dominated by
dissenters, and many artisans, like Silas Marner, were members of dissenting sects. The sect to which Marner
belonged has not been identified as of 2004, but from the clues given in the text, it was strongly Calvinistic in
nature. Calvinist tradition was strong in parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire during this period. The tenets of
Calvinism, as Q. D. Leavis points out in her notes to the Penguin edition of the novel, include the idea of a
priesthood of all believers; marriage only within the sect (as Silas, who was engaged to a girl named Sarah,
intended to do); and the necessity of personal salvation, accomplished through divine grace revealed through
personal religious experience. Those who were assured of salvation became members of the Elect.
Silas, who by nature is humble and selfdoubting, never manages to convince himself that he possesses that
vital assurance, quite unlike his holierthan- thou, judgmental friend William Dane. From Dane’s treachery to
the subsequent unjust condemnation of Silas for theft, it appears that the members of this sect, that pride
themselves on being among the Elect, do not possess much in the way of spiritual wisdom. And just in case
events do not speak sufficiently for themselves, the narrator (whose voice is surely that of Eliot) adds this
poignant description of the earnest discussions that take place between Silas and William Dane and others of
their type: “Such colloquies have occupied many a pair of palefaced weavers, whose unnurtured souls have
been like young winged things, fluttering forsaken in the twilight.” This description gives the impression of
youthful purity of heart and intention that is given no guidance at all by the religious sects to which the young
people entrust their spiritual lives.
It is a long journey, in more ways than one, from Lantern Yard to Raveloe, from dissenting chapel to village
church. Not surprisingly, Silas, his faith shattered, does not go out of his way to discover what kind of religion
might be available to him in his new place of residence. Lantern Yard was all he knew. Had he been of a mind
to investigate, he would have discovered that religion in Raveloe is a different matter altogether than the fierce
and narrow faith he has been fed at Lantern Yard. The narrator is at pains to point out that Raveloe has not
only seen nothing of the Industrial Revolution, it has not been affected by “puritan earnestness”—the kind that
flourished in many of the dissenting chapels. People in Raveloe are not in the habit of applying a stern
morality to their own lives, and they do not judge their neighbors in that way either.
In Raveloe, religion is a much more easy-going, casual affair than it is at Lantern Yard. No one is expected to
be fanatical about regular church attendance, for example. In fact, the opposite seems to apply:
[T]here was hardly a person in the parish who would not have held that to go to church every
Sunday in the calendar would have shown a greedy desire to stand well with Heaven, and get
an undue advantage over their neighbors—a wish to be better than the “common run.”
Whereas in Lantern Yard, religion has an element of competition in it—the urge to show that one is saved—in
Raveloe, it is a more cooperative enterprise. It is valued primarily as a way of encouraging a sense of
community. For example, Mr. Macey’s purpose in telling Silas he should have a suit made so he can come to
church on Sunday, is to enable Silas to “be a bit neighborly.” It has nothing to do with salvation, which no
one in Raveloe ever talks about. Indeed, Godfrey Cass, who perhaps has as much reason as anyone in the
novel to fear God and ask Him for mercy and forgiveness, appears to be untroubled by any religious thought
at all. He relies only on “chances which might be favourable to him.”
The Contrast Between the Approach to Religion and the Sect at Lantern Yard and the Villagers of 1R5aveloe
“Favourable Chance,” as Godfrey continually finds out, makes a poor god. Most people in Raveloe, if anyone
were to ask them, would no doubt claim to believe in a better one, but few trouble themselves to inquire into
His nature. Eliot gives no opportunity to the rector, Mr. Crackenthorp, to discourse on such a topic. A minor
character, his sole contribution is to admonish Silas that his money has probably been taken from him because
he thinks too much about it and also because he does not go to church. But Mr. Crackenthorp, like some of the
other villagers, does bring Silas a gift of food, a gesture that shows his desire to include Silas in the
The real theologian of Raveloe is not the rector but the humble, inarticulate, unlearned Dolly Winthrop. Dolly
understands almost nothing of Christian doctrine, but she has an intuitive faith that a higher force operates in
human life that knows better than she does what is right for her and for everyone else. She goes to church
because doing so makes her feel better. She trusts in “Them,” as she puts it—the plural pronoun satisfying her
need not to seem overly familiar with the divine persons. Dolly’s faith is based on bits and pieces she has
picked up from sermons and other aspects of the church services, as well as from her own experience. It
serves her well enough. Like Mr. Macey, she has no interest in assuring Silas’s eternal salvation; she simply
wants him to go to church because it will make him feel better too, and will also enable him to participate in
the community.
Such is religion in Raveloe. It offers comfort and a sense of community. In that respect it is perhaps no more
important than the Rainbow or even the squire’s Red House when it hosts a community event. The nearest
the Raveloe church congregation ever gets to the kind of spiritual experience that the believers at Lantern
Yard might value is during the special service at Christmas, which “brought a vague exulting sense . . . that
something great and mysterious had been done for them in heaven above and in earth below, which they were
appropriating by their presence.”
The “something great and mysterious” in Silas Marner is of course the appearance of Eppie on Silas’s
hearth. This is the moment when salvation reaches out and touches the miser. But it is a thisworldly salvation,
redemption of Silas’s earthly life, not the promise of an afterlife in heaven. It has nothing to do with the
Thirty-Nine Articles that constitute the orthodox doctrine of the Anglican Church. And just in case the reader
misses the point, the narrator, who has earlier subtly conveyed her disapproval of the spiritual education
provided at Lantern Yard, now tellingly comments on the events by which Silas’s life is to be transformed.
His salvation is not to be confused with anything transcendental or supernatural:
In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from
the city of destruction. We see no white-angels now. But yet men are led away from
threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a
calm and bright land, so that they look no more backwards; and the hand may be a little
This interpolation by the narrator might be seen as a kind of agnosticism or humanism. The child that saves is
not the divine child that the wise men came to honor, nor the angels of popular tradition, but a poor little
orphan girl. What counts in human life, the narrator seems to be telling the reader, is not man’s relationship to
God or his reliance on the panoply of divine helpers so beloved by true believers, but man’s relationship with
man. In place of empty speculation about “Assurance of salvation,” which led the pious young Silas into the
barren terrain of “hope mingled with fear,” is the concrete reality, mediated to him by the innocent Eppie, of
a man’s connections to the human community in which he lives. Silas’s salvation is found not in supernature
but in nature, not in a future shining heavenly city but in a garden and a cottage and the comforting familiarity
of daughter and son-inlaw and neighbors well-known and loved.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Silas Marner, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
The Contrast Between the Approach to Religion and the Sect at Lantern Yard and the Villagers of 1R6aveloe
Silas Marner: Compare and Contrast
1810s: Each parish in England provides a workhouse to accommodate and employ the destitute. Conditions in
the workhouses vary. Some are relatively acceptable, but others are grim. In 1810, George Crabbe writes of
one workhouse: “It is a prison, with a milder name, / Which few inhabit without dread or shame.”
1860s: Since the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, hundreds of new workhouses have been built. They are
supervised by a local Board of Guardians. Conditions in the workhouses are intentionally made harsh and
degrading, to deter all but the most desperate. They are inhabited mainly by the old, the infirm, the sick, the
orphaned, and unmarried mothers. The largest of them house over a thousand people.
Today: Workhouses no longer exist. They were abolished in 1930. People who in addition to being poor are
sick, old, or mentally ill are cared for in hospitals and by social welfare organizations. Under the National
Health Service, every British citizen is entitled to free health care, according to his or her need. No social
stigma is attached to being an unmarried mother, and women in such situations are able to gain employment.
1810s: The population of England and Wales, according to the official census, is 10,164,000. The population
is rising rapidly. The increase is due largely to a falling death rate, which falls from 33.4 per 1,000 in 1730 to
19.98 per 1,000 in 1810. This is due to better living conditions and better diet.
1860s: The population continues to increase. There is a continuing shift of population to cities and away from
rural areas. London is the biggest city in the world, with a population in 1861 of 2,803,989. This is an increase
of 19 percent in ten years. Manchester also becomes one of the largest industrial centers in the world. After
1860, mortality rates decline because of the reduction in deaths from scarlet fever, typhus, and consumption.
Today: The population of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) at mid-2001
is 58.8 million. Nearly 84 percent of this total lives in England, mainly in the major cities. London is the
largest city in Europe, with a population of 7.2 million. The population of the United Kingdom is increasing.
It has risen by 10 million between 1950 and 2000, mainly due to rising immigration. The death rate has
dropped to 10.35 deaths per 1,000 population.
1810s: The Napoleonic Wars end in 1815. Britain’s conservative government fears social revolution and
represses civil liberties.
1860s: Britain increases democracy by extending the franchise. In the 1850s, only 900,000 out of 5,300,000
adult males in England and Wales were eligible to vote, but the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1867 adds an
additional 1,008,000 men to the voter rolls. An amendment for the enfranchisement of women is rejected by
196 to 73 votes in the House of Commons.
Today: Like all Western democracies, all British citizens who qualify by age are eligible to vote. However,
voter participation is in decline. In the general election of 2001, only 59.4 percent of the total electorate vote.
This figure is down from 70.9 percent in 1997 and 76.7 percent in 1992. It remains higher than voter turnout
in the United States.
Silas Marner: Topics for Further Study
Does Godfrey Cass, Eppie’s biological father, have the right to take her from Silas Marner, her foster father?
What moral issues does this matter raise? How is this issue relevant in the early 2000s?
Silas Marner: Compare and Contrast 17
Bearing in mind that Eliot has sometimes been criticized by feminists for being too conservative in her
representation of women, discuss the characters Nancy Lammeter, Dolly Winthrop, and Eppie. Are they
presented as dependent on men? How do they go about fulfilling their needs and desires? How do they
support others?
Discuss how Silas Marner rears Eppie. What principles does he follow? Does he follow Dolly Winthrop’s
advice? What role does punishment have in childrearing?
Write a detailed analysis of the scene in Chapter 6 in which the male villagers meet at the Rainbow. Who are
the main characters, and what do they discuss? What does this scene reveal about village life in Raveloe?
Why is the scene placed at this point in the narrative?
Silas Marner: Media Adaptations
The film Silas Marner (1985) was directed by Giles Foster and starred Ben Kingsley as Marner, with co-stars
Jenny Agutter, Freddie Jones, and Angela Pleasence.
Silas Marner: What Do I Read Next?
Like Silas Marner, Eliot’s novel Adam Bede (1859) is set in a fictional rural community in which the people
adhere to traditional ways of communal living. Unlike the situation in Silas Marner, however, the villagers
must learn to deal with the kinds of social change they are illequipped to face.
North and South (1855), by Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, makes for an interesting comparison with
Eliot’s style and themes. Margaret Hale, a girl from southern England, is unwillingly sent to the northern
industrial city of Manchester, where she must adjust to a rougher society than the one in which she was raised.
Frederick Robert Karl’s biography George Eliot: Voice of a Century: A Biography (1995) has been widely
praised for bringing Eliot vividly to life. Giving full attention to issues of class and gender, he recreates the
world in which she lived and shows how she became a great writer.
Asa Briggs’s The Age of Improvement: 1783– 1867 (1959; 2d ed., 1999) is a classic study of how and why
Britain changed from the time of the French Revolution to the mid-Victorian era. Briggs covers sociological,
economic, political and cultural history.
Richard Muir’s The English Village (1980) describes the history of the English village and provides many
Silas Marner: Bibliography and Further Reading
Dallas, E. S., Review of Silas Marner, in The Critical Response to George Eliot, edited by Karen L. Pangallo,
Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 94–96, originally published in The Times, April 29, 1861.
Eliot, George, Silas Marner, edited and with an introduction by Q. D. Leavis, Penguin, 1985.
Ermath, Elizabeth Deeds, George Eliot, Twayne’s English Authors Series, No. 414, Twayne Publishers,
1985, pp. 97–102.
Silas Marner: Topics for Further Study 18
Leavis, Q. D., “Introduction,” in Silas Marner, by George Eliot, edited by Q. D. Leavis, Penguin, 1985.
Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, 1968, pp. 297–346.
Trevelyan, G. M., Illustrated English Social History, Vol. 3, The Eighteenth Century, Harmondsworth,
Penguin Books, 1968, p. 139.
Further Reading
Beer, Gillian, George Eliot, Indiana University Press, 1986, pp. 108–46. In this feminist study, Beer discusses
Silas Marner, Romola, and Felix Holt in terms of the displacement involved in proposing a conflict between
natural parents and nurturing parents.
Johnstone, Peggy Fitzburgh, The Transformation of Rage: Mourning and Creativity in George Eliot’s
Fiction, New York University Press, 1994, pp. 68–94. This is a Freudian interpretation of the novel, including
a discussion of what is called obsessive-compulsive disorder (repetitious actions and thoughts) and its cure.
McCormack, Kathleen, George Eliot and Intoxication: Dangerous Drugs for the Condition of England, St.
Martin’s Press, 2000, pp. 91–109. As part of her study of Eliot’s drug metaphors, Mc- Cormack analyzes the
novel as a parable of addiction and recovery.
Speaight, Robert, Review of Silas Marner, in George Eliot, 2d ed., Arthur Barker, 1968, pp. 61–67. This is a
short review of the many outstanding aspects of the novel, including its characterization, its lack of excessive
moralism, and its life-like realism that still allows for symbolic elements.

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