Silas Marner

george eliot by david levine

Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe’ is the third novel by George Eliot, pen name of English novelist Mary Ann Evans. Published in 1861, it is an outwardly simple tale of a linen weaver, it is notable for its strong realism and its sophisticated treatment of a variety of issues ranging from religion to industrialization to community. Eliot’s novels often presented the cases of social outsiders and small-town persecution.

The novel is set in the early years of the 19th century. Silas Marner, a weaver, is a member of a small Calvinist congregation in Lantern Yard, a slum street in an unnamed city in Northern England. He is falsely accused of stealing the congregation’s funds while watching over the very ill deacon.

Two clues are given against Silas: a pocket-knife and the discovery in his own house of the bag formerly containing the money. There is the strong suggestion that Silas’ best friend, William Dane, has framed him, since Silas had lent his pocket-knife to William shortly before the crime was committed. Silas is proclaimed guilty. The woman he was to marry breaks their engagement and later marries William. With his life shattered and his heart broken, Silas leaves Lantern Yard and the city.

Marner travels south to the Midlands and settles near the rural village of Raveloe, where he lives alone, with only minimal contact with the residents. He comes to adore the gold he earns from his weaving, finding enjoyment only in living as a miser, but his hoard is accidentally discovered and stolen by Dunstan (‘Dunsey’) Cass, a dissolute younger son of Squire Cass, the town’s leading landowner. Silas sinks into a deep gloom, despite the villagers’ attempts to aid him. Dunsey disappears, but little is made of this not unusual behavior, and no association is made between him and the theft.

Godfrey Cass, Dunsey’s elder brother, also harbors a secret. He is married to, but estranged from, Molly Farren, an opium-addicted woman of low birth living in another town. This secret prevents Godfrey from marrying Nancy Lammeter, a young woman of high social and moral standing. On a winter’s night, Molly tries to make her way to Squire Cass’s Christmas party with her two-year-old girl to announce that she is Godfrey’s wife and ruin him. On the way, she takes opium and lays down in the snow. The child wanders away and into Silas’ house. Silas follows her tracks in the snow and discovers the woman dead. When he goes to the party for help, Godfrey heads to the scene, but resolves to tell no one that Molly was his wife.

Silas keeps the child and names her Eppie, after his deceased mother and sister, both named Hephzibah. Eppie changes Silas’ life completely. Silas has been robbed of his material gold, but has it returned to him symbolically in the form of the golden-haired child. Godfrey Cass is now free to marry Nancy, but continues to conceal the existence of his first marriage—and child—from her. However, he aids Marner in caring for Eppie with occasional financial gifts. More practical help and support in bringing up the child is provided by Dolly Winthrop, a kindly neighbor of Marner’s, who also helps him integrate her into village society.

Sixteen years pass, and Eppie grows up to be the pride of the town. She has a strong bond with Silas, who through her has found a place in the rural society and a purpose in life. Meanwhile, Godfrey and Nancy mourn their own childless state. Eventually, the skeleton of Dunstan Cass—still clutching Silas’ gold—is found at the bottom of the stone quarry near Silas’ home, and the money is duly returned to Silas. Shocked by this revelation, and coming to the realization of his own conscience, Godfrey confesses to Nancy that Molly was his first wife and that Eppie is his child. They offer to raise her as a gentleman’s daughter, but this would mean Eppie would have to forsake Silas. Eppie politely refuses, saying, ‘I can’t think o’ no happiness without him.’

Silas revisits Lantern Yard, but his old neighborhood has been ‘swept away’ and replaced by a large factory. No one seems to know what happened to Lantern Yard’s inhabitants. However, Silas contentedly resigns himself to the fact that he now leads a happier existence among his family and friends. In the end, Eppie marries a local boy, Dolly’s son Aaron. Aaron and Eppie move into Silas’ new house, courtesy of Godfrey. Silas’ actions through the years in caring for Eppie have provided joy for everyone, and the extended family celebrates its happiness.

On one level, the book has a strong moral tract: the antagonist, Dunstan Cass, gets his just deserts, while the pitiable character, Silas Marner, is ultimately richly rewarded, and his miserliness corrected. The novel explores the issues of redemptive love, the notion of community, the role of religion, the status of the gentry and family, and impacts of industrialization. While religion and religious devotion play a strong part in this text, Eliot concerns herself with matters of ethics and interdependence of faith and community.

Themes of ‘Silas Marner’ include the influence of ‘pure, natural human relationships,’ the function of religion in society, and the use of custom and tradition. There is a more direct consideration, focused on Nancy, of the extent to which ‘principle’ should predominate over sympathy in human relationships. This is closely connected to the question of indulgence versus discipline in human life, as exemplified by the home life of Godfrey and of Nancy. Industrialization and its consequences are also a theme of the novel. Lantern Yard after the factory has been built is a grimy, dark place full of unhealthy people. There is a sharp contrast between the grim unfriendliness of mechanized 19th century London and the community spirit of Raveloe, between Silas’ life as a spinning insect and the fresh air of the open fields.

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