Silas Marner, a linen-weaver, works in his solitary cottage by a stone-pit outside the English village
of Raveloe. In a flashback, you learn that Marner came to Raveloe fifteen years earlier from a large
industrial town where he was part of a fundamentalist Christian sect. But one night, Silas had fallen into
a trance while watching over the deathbed of a church elder. Silas' best friend stole a bag of money from
the dying man and blamed the theft on Silas. Their sect tried the case by drawing lots, to let God show
who was guilty. When this method convicted Silas, he lost his faith in God and soon left the city. Ending
up in Raveloe, he kept to himself and worked long hours. Slowly he began to accumulate gold, and this
became his one purpose in life.
Godfrey Cass, son of the village squire, at this time needs money. His younger brother Dunstan has
borrowed a large sum from Godfrey and now he's lost it. But the money belongs to their father, and
Godfrey has to repay it himself. Otherwise Dunstan will tell their father Godfrey's secret- that he's
married to a drug-addicted barmaid. Godfrey gives his favorite horse to Dunstan to sell for the money, but
Dunstan carelessly kills the horse in a hunting accident. On his way home, Dunstan passes Silas Marner's
cottage and sees it empty, with the door open. Walking in, he finds Silas' hoard of gold and steals it,
disappearing into the night. When Silas returns home and finds he's been robbed, he is devastated.
Godfrey learns that his horse was found dead. When Dunstan doesn't return, he explains to their
father about the money. Squire Cass is angry with Dunstan, but he doesn't probe into why Godfrey lent his
shiftless brother the money. He does pressure Godfrey to marry his sweetheart Nancy Lammeter, and
Godfrey, still hiding his marriage, hopes somehow he can still marry Nancy.
Though desolated by his loss, Silas is drawn doser to human society by the sympathy of the villagers,
especially his neighbor Dolly Winthrop. Dunstan has still not returned home- his family and friends
assume he has simply run away. On New Year's Eve, at Squire Cass' annual big party, Nancy Lammeter
avoids Godfrey, feeling hurt that he hasn't proposed to her. While he tries to woo Nancy, outside in the
snow Godfrey's wife is heading toward the house. She intends to force Godfrey to acknowledge her by
appearing at the party with their child. But addiction overcomes her; she takes a dose of opium and passes
out in the snow. Her two-year-old daughter wanders off, attracted by the light shining from a nearby
cottage. It is Marner's home- he has fallen into another trance and left his door open. When he comes to,
he sees the little girl, her hair shining so brightly that at first he thinks his lost gold has magically
After finding the mother in the snow, Silas goes to the Squire's house to fetch the doctor.
Recognizing the child in Silas' arms, Godfrey guiltily joins the rescue party, but finding his wife dead, he
keeps her identity a secret.
Silas is determined to keep the child, like a treasure he has found. He names her Eppie after his own
sister, and he even takes her to church to be christened. His care for Eppie forces him to become part of
village life. His love for her changes his personality. As Eppie grows up, Godfrey watches her silently,
and occasionally helps Silas out with money. But he doesn't acknowledge her, because now that he's free,
he has married Nancy.
Sixteen years pass. Silas and Eppie are happily devoted to each other. Dolly Winthrop's son, Aaron, is
Eppie's sweetheart. But at the Cass house, Nancy worries about her marriage. After one stillbirth, she
hasn't been able to conceive a child, and Godfrey is wracked with disappointment. He's been urging her to
adopt Eppie, but Nancy feels it's against the will of God to adopt a child who is not her own. Then the
stone-pit beside Silas' cottage is drained to create new fields. Dunstan's skeleton is discovered at the
bottom, clutching Silas' gold. Shaken by the sight, Godfrey tells Nancy the truth about his first marriage.
To his surprise, she agrees to adopt Eppie, Godfrey's real daughter.
They go to Marner's cottage with their proposal. Though Silas' gold has been restored to him, he's
distraught at the prospect of losing his second, more precious treasure, Eppie. But he lets Eppie make her
own choice- and she chooses to stay with Silas. Godfrey and Nancy return home, sad but reconciled. In
the spring, Eppie marries Aaron and they walk back to Silas' cottage to live with him.
[Silas Marner Contents]
- SILAS MARNER
When she first conceived of the story of Silas Marner, George Eliot thought immediately of one of her
favorite poets, William Wordsworth. He was the first to show country life realistically in poetry, as Eliot
was the first in prose fiction. To some degree, Silas Marner is a typical Wordsworthian hero- a simple,
instinctual creature, with limited education and imagination, whose life has a natural dignity. But a
novel works differently from a poem, and Silas Marner is an unlikely hero for a novel. It isn't just that
he's poor, although before George Eliot few authors cast working folk in major roles in novels. It isn't just
that he's skinny and pale, with bulging brown eyes- physically unattractive heroes, like Shakespeare's
Richard III or Cervantes' Don Quixote, can make powerful literary material. And it isn't just that he's a
loner and an alien in Raveloe. Outsiders have made great heroes throughout literature, from
Shakespeare's Othello to Emily Bronte's Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights to R. P. McMurphy in Kesey's
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. These, however, are charismatic, complex personalities. Silas Marner
is not. Yet George Eliot gives this simple linen-weaver all the attention most authors save for their most
Some readers see Silas as a fairy-tale character, like the typical poor old woodcutter who endures
poverty and misery in lonely silence for years. In this, he is also like a biblical character, Job. (Silas,
however, loses his faith when he is unjustly punished, whereas Job heroically hangs on to his faith while
God tests him with rounds of suffering.) Silas simply seems the plaything of some great force guiding the
universe, whose plan is inscrutable and maybe even unfair. He's subject to mysterious fits that rob him of
his senses for minutes at a time. He does nothing to deserve being expelled from his congregation or
having his fiancee Sarah break off their engagement. He does nothing to deserve being robbed fifteen
years later by Dunstan Cass. And he does nothing to deserve finding Eppie. These things simply happen
to him, like spells or miracles, transforming his life.
This storybook quality is suggested in the book's opening passage, which seems to describe a magical
other world. Soon, however, Eliot shifts to a more realistic view. She explains, as an anthropologist might,
how superstitious country folk are. She talks about the linen-weavers in sociological terms, as
"emigrants from the town into the country." Then you first see Silas in his cottage, weaving
away while village boys peer curiously in the windows. He doesn't need to be realistic, some readers argue.
The point is that you are asked to fit this eccentric creature into a realistic social context. The villagers
see him as a magical figure- they say he works for the devil- but this is a comment on their
superstitiousness, not on Silas. As you read, consider how his skills- as a weaver or as a herb-healer- are
regarded by the villagers. Watch how his grief over his robbery and his care of Eppie pull him into village
Other readers place more emphasis on the passages where Eliot dissects Silas' psychological
processes. She explains how he felt when he left Lantern-Yard, how he became a miser, how he reacts to
the theft of his gold, how Eppie's presence heals him and draws him back into the mainstream of life. She
gives you a medical reason for his fits and shows you how his poor vision often confuses him. In
comparison to her analysis of Godfrey Cass' mind, of course, Silas' psychology seems rudimentary. But
those who think Silas is realistic point out that Eliot is trying to portray a limited mind stunted by a poor
education and a lifetime of ceaseless work.
The debate over Silas' realism goes on and on. But one thing seems clear- Eliot is sympathetic toward
him. She constantly shifts from his perspective to that of the community surrounding him and back again,
to show how misunderstood he is. She reminds you that he once had a mother and a sister and a
childhood. Silas doesn't act in grand sweeping gestures, but Eliot interprets the strong emotions lying
behind his timid little actions. Thus, by the time he makes his meek, stammering appearance at the
Rainbow to report his theft, you've already seen him go through an internal agony of disbelief and despair
at home. Even though he quietly tells Eppie that she herself must choose between him and her real father,
Godfrey, Eliot makes you feel how hard this is for Silas, how devastated he would be if he lost her.
Though he is only a simple linen-weaver, she feels his story is worth telling.
- GODFREY CASS
Godfrey is in many ways the direct opposite of Silas. He's young, handsome, well-off, and charming.
The villagers admire him, even when they suspect he isn't acting right. Unlike Silas, who's alone in the
world, Godfrey has too much family- a gruff father, a troublesome brother, a wife and child he doesn't
want, and a sweetheart anxiously waiting for him to propose. Silas works hard, but Godfrey has no
particular work to do. While Silas endures his exile from society, Godfrey is impatient and a moral
coward. Whereas Silas is unjustly punished, time and again Godfrey manages to escape punishment, even
for sins he has committed.
Some readers, therefore, see Godfrey as the villain of this novel. His weakness sets Dunstan on a path
that ends with Dunstan robbing Silas. While Silas is grieving over his lost gold, Godfrey is relieved
because Dunstan has disappeared. He is relieved, too, when his wife Molly is found dead in the snow,
because it clears the way for him to marry Nancy Lammeter. At the end of the book, Godfrey selfishly
tries to take Eppie away from Silas. But he's finally punished, by Eppie's rejection, for having lied to the
world for so many years.
Yet other readers look beyond this formal structure, in which Godfrey plays a villain's role, to judge
whether he is really a villainous person. In his first scene, they point out, he appears with his callous
brother Dunstan, who makes Godfrey look sensitive and conscientious by comparison. Godfrey seems to
know what is right, though he's often too weak to do it. When you see his home environment, you can
understand Godfrey's lack of moral fiber. When Eliot traces the tiny mental steps by which he talks
himself out of doing the right thing, the process is somehow easy to understand- hasn't everyone
rationalized like this at times? His love for Nancy is genuine, and her love for him testifies to something
good in his nature. Once they're married, he makes a fine husband, except for his disappointment over
their childlessness (which he tries to hide from her). He does have fatherly feelings for Eppie, and he
watches her grow up with a constant sense of regret. To these readers, Godfrey is a good but weak man
whose fate embodies the moral of the novel.
As you read, for example, the scene on New Year's Eve when Silas appears with the infant Eppie,
imagine how other characters judge Godfrey. Just as Eliot gives you special sympathy for Silas, she gives
you a special insider's view of Godfrey's weakness. You know his worst impulses- the side that most of us
never show to the world. As you read, decide for yourself whether Godfrey is the villain or the tragic hero
of this novel.
- NANCY LAMMETER
For several chapters, you don't actually meet Nancy- you just hear of her as the girl Godfrey wants to
marry. She's presented as the proper, socially respectable partner for him, as opposed to his secret wife
Molly. Even crude Squire Cass approves of her. Considering what you are shown of the upperclass world
she belongs to, how do you feel about Nancy before you meet her?
When Nancy finally appears in Chapter 11, you may be in for a surprise. Eliot enters Nancy's
thoughts, to show that she's a gentle, sensitive girl, insecure and confused about Godfrey's courtship.
Then you see her through the eyes of the fashionable, town-bred Gunn sisters. They see that she is pretty,
well-mannered, and neatly dressed. Nevertheless, she disapproves of their low-cut dresses, and they
disapprove of her country dialect- she is clearly part of her country environment. You can see the signs of
hard work on Nancy's hands. In general, Eliot describes Nancy's looks and character in glowing terms.
Her only faults, Eliot tells you, are a touch of pride and inflexibility.
Having a positive view of Nancy may make you feel more kindly toward the upper class in general
(notice that the men at the Rainbow, too, speak well of the Lammeters). It may also give you more
sympathy for Godfrey. She seems to be a good influence on him. On the other hand, are her moral
standards too high? She keeps Godfrey at arm's length because she's heard bad rumors about him. Even
after Molly has died and he is free to marry Nancy, Godfrey is reluctant to tell her about Molly because he
fears her disapproval. Later, Nancy's strict code also keeps her from agreeing to adopt a child, which
creates the only unhappiness in her marriage to Godfrey. As you read, consider: Is Nancy a good moral
example or are her strict principles a flaw in her character?
- DOLLY WINTHROP
Dolly represents Raveloe's values of what an individual should be. She's hardworking, skillful, and so
efficient that she has time left over to care for her neighbor Silas. She doesn't hesitate to give advice and
get involved with other people's lives. She is motherly, not only toward her own child Aaron but toward
Eppie. As a wife, she's tolerant of her husband's drinking but fairly independent. She knows she's no
scholar, but she earns great respect from Silas for her ability to see matters clearly, almost instinctively.
Dolly's friendship with Silas demonstrates concretely how the village gradually accepts him. But
Dolly serves another function, too- she is the spokesperson for Raveloe religion, holding it up against
Silas' Lantern-Yard beliefs. Dolly believes in religion without knowing the fine points of doctrine. While
the rituals of the church comfort her, she concentrates on good deeds here on Earth rather than on a
relationship with God. Her concept of God is almost pagan, a fuzzy vision of "Them up
above." But with true peasant wisdom, she sees a divine pattern in events, working out over long
years. She makes Silas look upon his life with this kind of long-range view, showing him that all his
sorrows were simply a path leading to his finding Eppie.
On the title page of Silas Marner, George Eliot placed a quotation from Wordsworth's poem
A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.
In the novel, that prophecy is fulfilled by Eppie, the abandoned child that Silas Marner adopts.
Symbolically, she is the golden treasure that replaces his stolen gold. Psychologically, she is the force that
pulls Silas out of his isolation and restores him to harmony with the human race, as well as with his own
Although Eppie fulfills these functions in the novel, she is also an interesting character in her own
right. She is believable as a toddler, wandering away from her careless mother toward a shiny light. Her
needs are simple- she's hungry and her feet are wet- and she clings lovingly to Silas once he has taken
care of these needs. Later, you see her as an active little child, getting into anything that's in her reach.
Pretty Eppie is blonde like her biological father, Godfrey. She's no common village girl, though Eliot
says this is the result of her loving environment, not her upperclass blood. In her simple emotions and
her strong attachments, Eppie is like her adoptive father, Silas. But she also has unique qualities,
associated throughout the novel with animals, flowers, and nature. In the Wordsworth quotation, a child is
said to be a gift of Earth- and Eppie is part of that natural bounty.
If Silas is like the poor old woodcutter in a fairy tale, then Eppie is like the woodcutter's daughter- a
beautiful, golden-haired girl who's really a princess in disguise. George Eliot turns the fairy tale on its
head, though, because this princess doesn't meet a handsome prince. When her real father shows up to
offer her a life of riches, she rejects him in favor of the poor old woodcutter. The man she marries is
simply a brawny young gardener, Aaron Winthrop, whom she loves more like a brother than a lover. But
in this novel's scheme of things, that means she will live happily ever after.
- DUNSTAN CASS
If Godfrey is not the villain of this novel, perhaps his younger brother Dunstan is. Godfrey's sins are
all passive- he decides not to do something- whereas Dunstan actually commits bad deeds. He squanders
the money Godfrey lends him, then he destroys Godfrey's horse while hunting. Finally, he steals Silas'
money. What motivates Dunstan? Eliot shows you the twists and turns of his reasoning, just as she does
Godfrey's. Both think selfishly, but while Godfrey is aware of moral considerations, Dunstan just
calculates what he can get away with. Eliot shows him mostly in upperclass settings, so his vices seem a
product of his class. Yet even his own family and friends don't seem to care when Dunstan disappears.
His nickname, Dunsey, sounds like "dunce," and Dunstan doesn't seem very bright. He
allows himself to be propelled by circumstances, which he thinks of as "luck." He doesn't plot
to rob Silas, but when the opportunity comes his way, he takes it. Soon after, however, he falls into the
stone-pit and is drowned. Is this bad luck- or a fitting punishment for his crime?
- SQUIRE CASS
In Squire Cass, Eliot embodies what she sees as the worst characteristics of the English gentry- the
upper class of country society. He bullies his sons and he patronizes the common people of Raveloe. He's
dull-witted and narrow-minded. He isn't hard-working and his pleasures are crude- eating red meat,
swilling ale, and making lewd jokes. (Note that his last name sounds like the word "crass.")
Squire Cass is a great man in the community because of his hereditary position. The poor never question
his wasteful life. But Eliot does, just as she questions the way he has raised his sons. Godfrey wishes his
father had disciplined him more. You'll have to decide whether you blame Squire Cass for the tragic
events brought about by his wayward sons.
- AARON WINTHROP
When Aaron first comes with his mother Dolly to visit Silas, he's still a small child. Silas regards him
as an alien creature, but this encounter foreshadows the impact Eppie will have upon Silas. When he's
grown up, Aaron becomes Eppie's sweetheart (although she doesn't seem sexually attracted to him). Like
Eppie, he is in touch with nature, a gifted gardener. Some readers think Aaron is a cardboard figure, a
stereotype of the manly young laborer whom Eppie should choose over a life with Godfrey. Yet others
think that his kind, brotherly affection for Eppie represents Eliot's idea of perfect, wholesome love.
- PRISCILLA LAMMETER
When blunt-spoken, dumpy Priscilla appears beside her sister Nancy, Nancy's beauty and grace are all
the more evident. These sisters show a strong family affection for each other, as the Cass brothers do not.
Together with their father, they demonstrate that strong family love does exist in the upper class. Priscilla
defines even more strongly than Nancy certain positive traits of the gentry. She is hard-working,
practical, and devoted to farming. She doesn't put on upperclass airs. While some readers feel she's too
rude and opinionated, others feel that Eliot wanted her that way, to show that, in the country, the leading
families may not be as refined as you would expect.
- MOLLY FARREN
Godfrey's unfortunate first wife is seen only briefly, in Chapter 12. Up until then she has simply been
a nuisance to Godfrey, but now you see her as a living character, struggling through the snow. Her goal is
the Red House where she hopes to have her revenge on Godfrey. Yet she seems like a victim herself,
rather than a strong avenger. She has sparks of motherly tenderness, which almost stop her from taking
her fatal dose of opium. She is too weak to resist her addiction, however, and soon meets her fate. Is she
the victim of her limited background, Godfrey's neglect, and her addiction? Or do you think she, like
Godfrey, is morally to blame for taking the easy way out?
- THE MEN AT THE RAINBOW
In classical Greek tragedies, a group of citizens called the Chorus comments upon the action of the
main characters. The group of men who meet at the Rainbow serve this function in Silas Marner. Their
conversation defines the Raveloe values and gives you a sense of how the main characters fit into the
society. The scenes of the gentry at the Red House party in Chapter 11 define another part of Raveloe
society. But the men from the Rainbow also appear here, as spectators. They are the base of country
wisdom that Eliot uses as a moral standard.
This is a fully fleshed-out social group, with a whole range of personalities. There's Dowlas the know-
it-all farrier, the sarcastic wheelwright Ben Winthrop, the easy-going butcher Lundy, the old codger Mr.
Macey, the deputy clerk Tookey who's the butt of their jokes, and the landlord Mr. Snell who moderates
and keeps the peace. Think about groups of people you socialize with- don't they interact in typical roles
[Silas Marner Contents]
The opening of Silas Marner suggests a world of legend and myth- a pastoral countryside untouched
by the modern world, where figures are larger than life. But gradually Eliot establishes that this story
occurs in the first years of the nineteenth century, during the Napoleonic wars, when George III was King
of England. This is slightly before Eliot's own childhood. It's also before the Reform Act of 1832, which
many Englishmen felt marked the end of an era (as Americans today may regard the bombing of
Hiroshima or the Vietnam War). It represented for her an age of innocence.
The landscape is the farming country of the English Midlands where George Eliot grew up. The
villagers of Raveloe live in isolation only because of their old-fashioned customs- they really aren't that
far from the rest of civilization. Upperclass characters, such as the Casses, frequently travel to neighboring
towns. In general, the two classes in Raveloe inhabit different worlds. The Rainbow pub is the center of
the common folks' world, and Squire Cass' Red House is the center of the gentry's world. The Raveloe
gentry are representatives of an ancient British social class- the "squirearchy," well-off rural
landowners who wielded local political power and stood independent of the aristocracy. By Eliot's own
time, this class had nearly been obliterated. Raveloe's class system is smoothly integrated, however.
Upperclass men drink at the Rainbow, too, and villagers are invited to the Red House parties. They all
hear the same gossip. Everyone meets at church.
Silas Marner, in contrast, comes from a large industrial town, though he stayed within a smaller
community there, his religious sect. While his hometown is a portrait of the "new"
industrialized city of the nineteenth century, his sect is a portrait of the fanatical Evangelical or Puritan
denominations that had challenged the established Church of England since the sixteenth century. (Eliot
herself had briefly been influenced by Evangelicals.) The customs of such a place are totally different
from those of Raveloe, so Silas is branded an alien. Therefore, he lives outside the village, in a cottage
beside a dangerous, desolate stone-pit. After Eppie enters his life, however, a garden blooms around its
walls, signifying the roots he has put down at last.
The following are major themes of Silas Marner.
- LUCK AND FATE
Are some people simply luckier than others? Or is there an overall justice ruling life? Different
characters in this book answer these questions differently. Dunstan Cass trusts his native good luck, while
Godfrey nervously waits to see if his luck will be good or bad. Neither believes in a system of just rewards
and punishment, until years later when Godfrey accepts his childlessness as a divine punishment. Dolly
Winthrop trusts blindly to the wisdom of "Them" above, but she does believe that good deeds
on Earth are fairly rewarded. Silas, however, used to believe in just rewards in his Lantern-Yard days,
and his faith was cruelly disappointed. He seems to be the victim of a blind destiny- even Eppie comes to
him like a blessing out of nowhere. As you follow this theme through the book, notice its relation to
religion (see Theme 2). Consider not only what characters say, but also how their lives eventually work
out in the plot.
Under the name of Christianity, many different faiths exist in Silas Marner. Eliot did not believe in a
divine being herself, yet most of her public probably did. How does she present organized religion in this
book? On the one hand there is Silas with his joyless, strict Lantern-Yard faith. On the other hand is
Dolly with her buoyant, almost pagan Raveloe beliefs. Nancy Lammeter's clear-cut beliefs show how
established doctrine can sometimes become too rigid. At times, Eliot implies that religion is no better
than superstition. At other times, she sympathetically describes how church rituals comfort the faithful.
Religion binds a community like Raveloe together- even Silas feels lost when he breaks with his sect. Yet
many readers feel he seems stronger for having lost his faith. He never really regains a belief in God,
even after he joins the church in Raveloe. His "redemption" is a product of human, rather than
heavenly, love. What does George Eliot seem to propose as the guiding force of the universe?
- HUMAN AFFECTIONS
What kinds of human ties are important in this novel? There are family ties- weak at the Casses'
house but strong for the Lammeters. The bonds of parent and child are especially important, whether they
are biological (as with Dolly and Aaron Winthrop) or adoptive (as with Eppie and Silas). When Eppie has
to choose between her biological father, Godfrey, and her adoptive father, Silas, what factors count most
with her? Wholesome human affections can restore a damaged personality like Silas'. Yet stunted
affections, like those at Squire Cass' house, can damage a basically good person like Godfrey. Look at the
way larger communities are bound together, too: Lantern-Yard, the city Silas came from, Raveloe as a
whole, or the upperclass society of Raveloe.
In Eliot's view, all change is the product of a multitude of tiny factors. The process is so complex that
mere humans cannot presume to control it. To examine this theory, Eliot chose for her main setting a
community with ingrained old beliefs, a place where change comes slowly. She shows how gradually the
collective "mind" of village opinion shifts until it accepts Silas. Many individual characters,
too, have fixed habits of thought that are hard to change. Consider, for example, Squire Cass, Nancy
Lammeter, old Mr. Macey, Dolly Winthrop, Godfrey's wife Molly, and Silas himself. Choosing a long
time span for her story, Eliot shows people changing gradually over the years, as Silas changes before his
robbery and then after finding Eppie. She also minutely examines step by step the process of short-term
changes- the reasoning that leads Godfrey to keep his secret marriage hidden or that makes Dunstan rob
- THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PAST
Raveloe is a society strongly connected to its past. In contrast, the town Silas comes from seems
impersonal and transient- when Silas returns thirty-two years later, Lantern-Yard has been literally wiped
off the face of the Earth. Individuals in this book also are connected to their own pasts in different
degrees. Godfrey hopes to bury his past. Silas and Eppie cherish their past together. As Silas is redeemed
by his love for Eppie, he regains a sense of his past, and memory heals him. Attachment to the past can be
stultifying, however, for characters like Squire Cass and Nancy Lammeter. Look at the role played in this
novel by local traditions, personal memories, and familiar objects or places. By her own comments, then,
Eliot gives this story, set in the past, a meaning for her own modern world.
- OTHER THEMES
In Silas Marner, Eliot also examines the class system of England in microcosm (mark the differences
between the upper and lower classes, and judge Eliot's comments on them). Connected to this is her belief
in the importance of work. The villagers understand the value of having a craft or skill and the role this
gives one in a community. Silas clings to his craft when all else is taken from him. In the upper class, the
Lammeter girls understand hard work, but the Cass sons are dangerously idle. In examining the social
structure of Raveloe, however, Eliot defines a society that no longer exists. In describing Raveloe
particularly by comparing it to the town Silas comes from- she depicts an England that may have been
destroyed by the spread of the Industrial Revolution.
At her best, George Eliot writes in a strong, precise style, each word chosen carefully. At her worst,
her sentences circle around what she's trying to say, stringing out clauses loaded with abstract, colorless
words. In the second paragraph of the book, for example, she starts off with a plain sentence that sets up
Silas' situation in simple, concrete words. But by the end of the paragraph she's tangled up in long,
meandering sentences, using abstract terms like "a shadowy conception of power that by much
persuasion can be induced to refrain from inflicting harm." This puts some readers off before
they've even gotten into the book.
When George Eliot is not speaking to the reader directly, however, her style is less self-conscious.
Often she takes on the voice of a village gossip to show the community's view of Silas; her language
becomes casual, humorous, and colloquial. (See for example the fifth sentence in that second paragraph,
beginning "They had, perhaps, heard their mothers and fathers hint....") When she takes on
the voice of an upperclass observer, she uses a light, arch irony. (See the first paragraph of Chapter 3.)
Her scenes of straight dialogue can also be surprisingly dramatic, as characters use distinctive dialects,
and speeches move energetically back and forth.
Woven into the structure of the novel is a complex and subtle web of symbols. Eliot doesn't point them
out- you have to be on the lookout for them. She uses imagery drawn from nature to show that human life
follows the same laws as the rest of the organic world. She compares Silas to insects, and she shows his
love for Eppie growing like a plant. Habits of thought are described as flowing streams. Symbols are not
always used as metaphors, however. For example, Eliot frequently mentions the gentry's horses. These
are real animals in the story, but they symbolize the gentry's world whenever they appear. Similarly,
Silas' gold coins become associated with Eppie's golden hair, symbolizing that both are precious to Silas.
Another important strand of imagery is the opposition of light and dark. But as you trace it through the
book, be careful- the meanings of George Eliot's symbols shift and change. Her moral vision is too
complex to be set out like an allegory, where symbols represent abstract concepts in clear-cut patterns.
Instead, her symbols are like little hidden signs, enriching the message you draw from the plot.
POINT OF VIEW
Technically, Silas Marner has an omniscient third-person narrator- a narrator who isn't a character
but can enter the thoughts and sensations of all the characters. This lets George Eliot delve into her
characters' psychological processes, to show the mind of Godfrey, as well as Silas, and then to contrast
them. Dunstan's and Nancy's minds are probed, too. With the rest of her characters, however, who provide
a social context for the story, the narrator steps back and adopts the role of a social observer. She analyzes
the patterns of village life and comments on them- often with the perspective of someone from the outer
Maybe that's why it isn't quite true to say that George Eliot is not a character in her novels. She isn't a
figure acting in the plot, but her presence certainly is felt as she speaks to the reader. (At the end of the
second paragraph, notice that she uses the first person.) Her commentaries bridge the gap between
Raveloe and your world. Sometimes she needs to explain attitudes and ideas that would seem strange to
"modern" readers. (There's a lot of this in the first chapter.) Sometimes she shows you
parallels between the events of the story and your own life. (Look, for example, at Chapter 2, where she
compares Silas' hoarding to the way sophisticated men bury themselves in their work.) These comments
keep you from getting too caught up in the story. But this is intentional- Eliot wants you always to think
about the moral significance of what is happening. Some readers resent this preaching and feel that the
story itself teaches the lesson well enough without her comments. Yet other people enjoy her interpreting
remarks, feeling that they open up depths of wisdom in this seemingly simple novel.
FORM AND STRUCTURE
Silas Marner is divided into Part One and Part Two, separated by sixteen years in time. The
flashback in Chapter 1 travels an equal sixteen years in time, creating a fundamental symmetry (see
diagram). Some readers have felt that the gap between the two parts is too long- they would like to watch
Silas being transformed by his love for Eppie, not just be told about it. Yet in Chapter 14 Eliot does show
the first stages of the process in detail, and in Chapter 16 she backtracks to fill in even more.
This novel is divided into two parts in another, more important way. While Silas follows a cycle from
misery back to happiness, Godfrey Cass follows an opposite path, from a life rich with possibilities to an
unfulfilled existence. (See the diagram.) Eliot shifts back and forth between these two plots continually.
Silas and Godfrey rarely meet face to face, yet they are linked- through Dunstan, who cheats Godfrey and
robs Silas, and later through Eppie, whom Godfrey abandons and Silas adopts.
Some readers feel the novel is split in two, that Silas' half is like a simple folktale with its happy
ending, while Godfrey's half is a complex psychological study with a sad, realistic conclusion. Other
readers say that the two halves are separated by different moral climates. In Silas' story, fate is ruled by
mysterious pagan gods. Human beings can only surrender themselves and trust these inscrutable
divinities. Godfrey's story is like a stern Greek tragedy, where a man's own actions lead inexorably to a
tragic climax. Pain and suffering are necessary for him to purge himself of his sin.
To counteract this split, Eliot's elaborate system of parallels, contrasts, and symmetries holds the two
THE AUTHOR AND HER TIMES
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