Like most of George Eliot’s novels, Silas Marner is set in the rural England of the author’s childhood memories. Like her other novels, too, the work is meticulously realistic in many aspects of its dialogue, description, and characterization. Unlike most of her novels, however, Silas Marner is very short, with an almost geometrically formal structure, and its plot relies upon some rather improbable incidents. Such elements reflect the author’s intent to deal with profound themes in the form of a fable.
In Silas’ story, George Eliot obliquely approaches the realm of spiritual truth by depicting the restoration of faith in the heart of a very simple man. The old-fashioned rural setting is important as a frame; its cultural remoteness from the world of the reader gives it the archaic simplicity and uncontested credibility of a fable or fairy tale. Even so, George Eliot critics have never been comfortable with the implication that somehow Eppie has been given to Silas by a benevolent providence in return for his lost gold. The question of the author’s stance is especially problematic in view of her own agnosticism. Although George Eliot herself as a child was an ardent, evangelical Christian, in maturity (like many Victorian intellectuals) she rejected traditional beliefs for a humanist credo.
In Godfrey’s story, realism predominates, and thus the author’s control of theme is more secure. Godfrey’s marriage to Molly Farren is the fatal step that enmeshes him in lies and guile as he tries to evade its consequences. One must beware of condemning Godfrey, however, because the author herself does not. Rather, she sees him as a type of erring humanity—a good-hearted but weak-willed young man who desperately wants to rewrite his past and enjoy a happy future with Nancy Lammeter. The role of Dunstan as a foil to Godfrey is important: Together, they represent a classic Cain-and-Abel, bad brother-good brother contrast. This structural polarity helps to create a context of judgment in which Dunstan’s viciousness makes Godfrey’s wrongdoing seem less damning.
Structural patterns of this kind are in fact a key to the novel’s meaning. The various parallels and contrasts between the Silas and Godfrey stories show these respective halves of the novel to be formally related, like the panels of a diptych. Both Godfrey and Silas are living out the consequences of a past wrong, in which the one was the secret wrongdoer, the other the falsely accused victim. In both stories theft is a pivotal event: Dunstan’s stealing of Silas’ gold complements William Dane’s taking of the church money. Silas suffers unjustly but magnifies his misery by becoming a virtual hermit. Godfrey suffers the pangs of conscience while maintaining an outwardly cheerful, gregarious disposition. As the ironic consequence of denying his wife and child, Godfrey remains childless, since he and Nancy apparently cannot have children, whereas Silas, the lonely bachelor, receives Eppie into his life as a daughter. In general, the unfolding of each story suggests the influence of a power or force of destiny beyond human understanding—something rather like Nemesis in Godfrey’s case, and something rather like Providence in Silas’.
If the metaphysical implications of Silas Marner go beyond the realm of earthly reality, the primary moral intent of the author is firmly grounded in human relationships. As is the case in her other novels, the bonds of love, sympathy, and fellow feeling are the highest good that one can truly know. As such, they are redemptive in themselves and are the basis of George Eliot’s “religion of humanity.” Although she doubts the existence of God, she is assured of the existence of a sublime, collective goodness. Thus, in both stories, the power of human affection, especially as shown by the women of the novel, heals psychic wounds, restores humanity, and, insofar as it can, atones for wrongdoing. In Godfrey’s story, it is Nancy who serves in this role. She is a “centered” personality who counterbalances Godfrey’s lack of inner strength; her love for him unites her sensitive, affectionate nature with her deep moral principles. In Silas’ story, Dolly Winthrop and, later, Eppie, perform comparable functions. Dolly’s good sense and warm sympathy provide Silas with a lifeline to a restored faith in humanity and God. Eppie’s decision at the end to remain with Silas reflects the strength of their shared affection and affirms the bonds of feeling as the surest basis of right choice.