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 hopes of marrying Nancy Lammeter thus will be destroyed. To buy Dunstan’s silence, Godfrey gives Dunstan his prize horse Wildfire to sell, but Dunstan recklessly rides the horse onto a stake, mortally wounding the animal. Passing Silas’ cottage on his way home from the accident, Dunstan sees that Silas is out, enters and finds the gold, and disappears mysteriously into the night.
Silas’ dismayed announcement to the community of the theft cracks his shell of solitude, but the breakthrough comes with the providential arrival of Eppie a few months later. Determined to confront Godfrey with his child, Molly trudges through the snow to Raveloe but dies of exposure a few yards from Silas’ cottage. Seeking the light, Eppie crawls in. For a moment, Silas, in his extreme nearsightedness, takes her golden curls for his gold coins, miraculously restored. Yet Eppie proves to be a greater treasure than the lost gold: In becoming a father to her, Silas becomes a human being once again.
Dolly Winthrop is an invaluable mentor to Silas in his parenting. She provides maternal advice and presence as well as much-needed spiritual support for Silas. In a comparable way, Nancy—now married to Godfrey—provides an emotional and spiritual center to Godfrey’s life. Though childless, they are happy in each other, and Godfrey is resigned to a background role in the life of his unacknowledged daughter.
After the passage of some sixteen years, however, the discovery of Dunstan’s skeleton (and Silas’ gold) in a recently drained quarry brings the novel to a climax. Godfrey confesses to Nancy that Eppie is his child, expecting a severe rebuke, but Nancy, “ripened into fuller goodness” by maturity, forgives him and agrees to adopt Eppie. Neither has counted on the strength of the affection between Silas and Eppie or is aware that Eppie intends to marry Aaron Winthrop. When Eppie chooses to remain where she is, Godfrey and Nancy sadly accept her decision. Silas’ journey in the final chapter to the town of his youth proves to be a fruitless quest; Lantern Yard is gone, replaced by a factory. Thus, the door is closed on Silas’ past, with his understanding of its events “dark to the last,” although he now has “light enough to trusten by.”