Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Set in rural England in the early nineteenth century, Silas Marner covers a time span of some thirty years during which Silas undergoes a process of spiritual-emotional death and rebirth. The secondary plot revolving around Godfrey Cass is of nearly equal importance, and the intersections of the two plots create the primary energies of the novel. In both stories, moreover, suffering is created by men but redeemed by women.
Silas has grown up within the fundamentalist religious community of Lantern Yard—an ironic name, because there is more spiritual darkness than illumination there. Falsely accused by his best friend William Dane of stealing the church’s meager funds, and with his guilt “proven” by the drawing of lots, Silas abandons his trust in God and humankind. He takes up residence far to the south in the village of Raveloe, where he makes an adequate living by his weaving. Silas is shunned by the villagers, however, partly because of his reclusive habits and partly because Raveloe is a closed, insular community. With no sense of purpose or human connectedness, Silas becomes a solitary miser whose accumulating hoard of gold coins is his sole comfort.
In contrast, Godfrey Cass, the eldest son of the principal landowner of Raveloe, would seem to be favored by fortune. In fact, however, he lives in dread that his secret and sordid marriage to a woman in a neighboring town will be revealed by his brother Dunstan and that his...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Raveloe. Village in central England to which Marner moves after his best friend’s false accusations of dishonesty force him to leave an unnamed industrial city in northern England. During his first fifteen years in Raveloe, he lives an almost wholly solitary life; his work is all that he has; he virtually lives within his loom, reduced to the stooped and malformed life of a spinning insect. After he takes a foster child into his home, he finally begins to connect with the community.
Marner’s cottage. Former home of a stone cutter in which Silas Marner lives in Raveloe. The cottage is located at the edge of an abandoned quarry. Within his cottage, Marner quietly amasses a hoard of gold coins, which he earns through years of painstaking weaving work. After his gold is stolen, his literal and figurative myopia—accentuated by his cataleptic trances—causes him to mistake for his returned coins the golden hair of an orphaned infant girl, Eppie, who wanders into his cottage on a dark, cold night, seeking light and warmth. Marner’s loving care of Eppie for sixteen years, shored up by the kindness of the villagers, awakens in him an imaginative sympathy that renews and expands his formerly dead sensibilities. Through the influence of the child, Eppie, the bare, stone cottage and its surroundings are transformed into a place of a growing garden that promises to keep flowering at the end of...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Although she was the most influential woman writing in English until the twentieth century, George Eliot has not been thought of as a women’s writer. Drawn by temperament and talent to the central issues of her times, whether political, religious, social, or artistic, she made a commanding place for herself (under her real name of Mary Ann or Marian Evans) as a writer in a male-dominated intellectual world long before she wrote her first novel. Her novels were published under the masculine pseudonym in order to avoid being thought of as “feminine,” and indeed for a time they were thought to be the work of a retired clergyman.
Nevertheless, in both her life and the novels on which her reputation rests, there are women’s issues of significance. Her unconventional union with fellow intellectual George Henry Lewes, prevented from being a marriage because of Lewes’ inability to obtain a divorce under archaic Victorian divorce laws, scandalized her contemporaries. In her own mind, however, she was right, and eventually society came to accept them as a legitimate couple. Her novels, moreover, are generally centered on problems of choice and vocation for heroines not unlike George Eliot herself. Typically, she focuses on the tension between a woman’s personhhood, with its unexpressed depth of talent or feeling, and the limited social role that is available to her.
Silas Marner has no central heroine and consequently does not deal...
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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 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...
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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 moved.
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...
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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...
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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?
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?
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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 photographs.
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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.
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.
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...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Beer, Gillian. George Eliot. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. A feminist approach to the novels of George Eliot that acknowledges Eliot’s power to redefine issues relating to gender while remaining within the traditional canon of English literature. The chapter on Silas Marner focuses on Silas’ weaving as a metaphor, with feminine associations, for the interconnections of circumstance that form Silas’ destiny.
Draper, R. P., ed. George Eliot: “The Mill on the Floss” and “Silas Marner.” London: Macmillan, 1977. Useful casebook anthology, containing early reviews and nineteenth century criticism in addition to more modern studies. See especially David Carroll’s “Reversing the Oracles of Religion,” an authoritative essay on Eliot’s humanist religious views.
Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. George Eliot. Boston: Twayne, 1985. A compact literary biography that addresses various moral and philosophical aspects of Eliot’s intellectual development. In the chapter on Silas Marner, Ermarth sees a central theme emerging from opposed realms of circumstance and moral order linked by the bonds of human sympathy and trust.
Paris, Bernard J. Experiments in Life: George Eliot’s Quest for Values. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965. Has limited coverage of...
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