What is the significance of the epigraph of the novel Silas Marner by George Eliot?

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Noelle Matteson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The epigraph at the beginning of George Eliot’s Silas Marner is a quote from William Wordsworth’s “Michael: A Pastoral Poem,” a piece that describes a shepherd from the Lake District, “keen, / Intense, and frugal,” and his son Luke:

A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.

The titular Silas Marner is a man who has lost hope in God and humanity. He clings to his money and barely interacts with others. Marner’s best friend had framed him for stealing. His former community renounced him, and his fiancée married the duplicitous friend. Moreover, Marner suffers from catalepsy, a condition that alarms many who witness it. Some even take advantage of these episodes where he stands still and seems unaware of his surroundings.

Marner spends his days weaving clothes and is indeed a “declining man” whose only joy is his gold. One night, his trove is stolen (and consequently lost). He tells other people, hoping for its return. Instead, he receives the company of curious and religious townspeople. Marner is still despondent until he thinks he sees his gold. Instead, it is the golden hair of a motherless child. She “brings hope” and “forward-looking thoughts,” disrupting his lonely life:

Eppie was a creature of endless claims and ever-growing desires, seeking and loving sunshine, … making trial of everything, with trust in new joy, and stirring the human kindness in all eyes that looked on her.

Marner loves and cares for Eppie. He gradually regains faith in life and reconnects with his fellow men.

The epigraph is a beautiful match for the novel. Though the poem “Michael” portrays a rift between father and son, the sentiment of the chosen quote fits the themes of Silas Marner, a tale of an aging man and the child who rejuvenates him.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The epigraph at the beginning of Silas Marner, written by Wordsworth, reads as follows:

A child, more than all other gifts

That earth can offer to declining man,

Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.

The significance of this epigraph is that Silas Marner, who has long loved his gold, finds more figurative gold in the form of the child he finds in the snow and names Eppie. Silas has always been an outcast, and having Eppie allows him to relate to other people: "Hitherto he had been treated very much as if he were a useful gnome or brownie. . . but now Silas met with open smiling faces and cheerful questioning" (110). Eppie, his child, is the lifeline that fate throws to Silas when his fate seems darkest. He devotes himself to Eppie, who causes him to find the rejuvenation and happiness that pursuing gold never gave to him. Instead of concentrating on his lost gold, Silas devotes his life to looking forward to Eppie's bright future. In the end, while he loses his gold, Silas never loses Eppie, as she decides to stay with him even when her real father is found.