In Silas Marner, George Eliot achieved some of her most successful symbolic narrative, a method that has been compared to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s definition of “romance” with reference to this story. In this novel, Eliot’s pervasive theme of spiritual renewal through the influence of human love and communal fellowship is embodied, as elsewhere, in realistic events, drama, and dialogue, with currents of symbolic meanings that suggest a mythic structure of concrete universals. Eliot called the story a “legendary tale” with a “realistic treatment.”
The theme of spiritual rebirth is announced in chapter 1 by reference to Marner as “a dead man come to life again” and to his “inward life” as a “metamorphosis.” The resolution is foreshadowed in the description of his catalepsy as “a mysterious rigidity and suspension of consciousness” that his former religious community has “mistaken for death.” The rigidity of despair has driven him from his former home in a northern industrial city, the dimly lit Lantern Yard, where members of his “narrow religious sect” have believed him guilty of stealing church funds in the keeping of a dying man. Marner has been so stunned at being framed by the man he thought was his best friend, at being renounced by his fiancé, who soon married the guilty man, and at being believed guilty by his community, that he could only flee. Because he had believed that God would defend his innocence, he has felt utterly abandoned in his faith and has declared “there is no just God.”
He chances among strangers in the isolated village of Raveloe and for fifteen years remains an alien at its fringes, immersed in his work as a linen weaver like “a spinning insect,” loving only the gold he earns and hoards, with ties to neither past nor present. When his gold is stolen as the Christmas season begins, Marner announces his loss at the Rainbow (promise of hope) Tavern and, like Job, begins to receive “comforters,” an interaction that slowly renews human feeling and consciousness of dependency. On New Year’s Eve, as Marner longs for the return of his gold, he finds on his hearth instead a sleeping, golden-haired toddler, a baby girl who has wandered in while Marner held his door open during one of his cataleptic trances, leaving her laudanum-stupefied mother unconscious in the snow-filled lane. Marner can only think that “the gold had turned into the child,” but then seeks the mother, goes for the authorities, and learns that the woman is dead.
Marner clings urgently to the child as his own and names her Eppie for his mother and sister, renewing his ties to his past. His conscientious fatherhood, under the good Dolly Winthrop’s tutelage, brings him firmly into the community, including its church, making the ways of Raveloe no longer alien to him. As in Adam Bede, Eliot contrasts the Church of England as a vehicle of tradition with evangelicalism as awakening more fervent, personal religious feelings for some. She is not an advocate of either set of beliefs, however, but approves a religious sense that cultivates “a loving nature” with a Wordsworthian piety expressed in charitable acts and fortified by a non-doctrinal awareness of “Unseen Love.” As Dinah the Methodist awakened this sense in Hetty, Dolly the Anglican awakens it in Marner, enabling him to ravel (weave or involve) himself into the “O”—to join the circle of fellowship. He is rewarded by Eppie’s filial loyalty when her blood father offers to adopt her into his home of luxury and rank.