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.
Silas Marner, the linen weaver, lives in the small community of Raveloe. Long years at his spinning wheel leave Silas extremely nearsighted so that his vision is limited to only those objects that are very bright or very close to him. Because of an unjust accusation of theft, Silas left his former home at Lantern Yard and became a recluse. For fifteen years, the lonely, shriveled man lives for no purpose but to hoard the money he receives in payment for his weaving. Night after night, he takes his golden hoard from its hiding place in the floor of his cottage and lets the shining pieces run through his fingers.
The leading man in Raveloe is Squire Cass, who has one fine son, Godfrey, and one wastrel son, Dunstan. It is said that Godfrey will marry Nancy Lammeter. Godfrey, however, becomes involved in Dunstan’s gambling debts. He lends his spendthrift brother some of the squire’s rent money, which Dunstan loses in gambling. Since neither brother can raise the money, they decide that Dunstan must sell Godfrey’s favorite horse, Wildfire, at a nearby fair. Godfrey’s one fear is that this affair will harm his reputation in the neighborhood and his chance with Nancy. Another thing that weighs on Godfrey’s conscience and prevents his declaration to Nancy is the fact that he is already married. Once he was drunk in a tavern in a distant hamlet, and in that condition he married a woman of the lower class. Sober, he fled back to Raveloe and kept his marriage a secret.
Dunstan rides Wildfire across the fog-dimmed fields and cripples the animal on a high jump. With no means of raising the money, half-drunk and fear-driven, Dunstan comes to Silas’s cottage. He knows through the neighborhood gossip that the weaver has a hidden hoard of gold. The cottage is empty, and instinct soon leads the drunken youth to the hiding place of the gold. Stealing out of the cabin with his prize and stumbling through the night, Dunstan falls into an abandoned quarry pit and dies.
The robbery of Silas’s cottage furnishes gossip for the entire community. Another mystery is the disappearance of Dunstan. Godfrey is forced now to tell his father about the rent money he gave Dunstan and about the loss of the valuable horse, which was found dead. Silas begins to receive visitors from the neighborhood. One of his most frequent callers is Dolly Winthrop and her son Aaron, a charming little boy. Nevertheless, Silas cannot be persuaded to come out of his hermitage; he secretly mourns the loss of his gold.
On New Year’s Eve, a destitute woman dies in the snow near Silas’s cottage. She has with her a little yellow-haired girl who makes her way toward the light shining through the cottage window and enters the house. Returning from an errand, Silas sees a golden gleam in front of his fireplace, a gleam that he mistakes for his lost gold. On closer examination, he discovers a sleeping baby. He follows the child’s tracks through the snow and discovers the body of the dead woman.
Godfrey is dancing happily with Nancy when Silas appears to say that he found a body. Godfrey goes with the others to the scene and sees to his horror that the dead woman is his estranged wife. He tells no one of her identity, and he does not have the courage to claim the baby for his own. Silas, with a confused association between the golden-haired child and his lost hoard, tenaciously clings to the child. After Dolly speaks up in favor of his proper attitude toward children, the villagers decide to leave the baby with the old weaver.
Years pass. Under the spell of the child who, in her baby language, calls herself Eppie instead of the biblical Hephzibah that Silas bestowed upon her, the cottage of the weaver of Raveloe takes on a new appearance. Lacy curtains decorate the once drab windows, and Silas outgrows his shell of reticence. Dolly brings her son to play with Eppie. Silas is happy. After many years, he even returns to Lantern Yard, taking Eppie. He searches his old neighborhood hopefully but can find no one who can clear his blighted past.
Godfrey marries Nancy, but it is a childless union. For sixteen years, Godfrey secretly carries with him the thought of his child growing up under the care of Silas. At last, the old stone quarry is drained, and workmen find a skeleton identified by Dunstan’s watch and seals. Beside the skeleton is Silas’s lost bag of gold, stolen on the night of Dunstan’s disappearance. With this discovery, Godfrey’s past reopens its sealed doors. He feels that the time comes to tell Nancy the truth. When he confesses the story of Eppie’s birth, Nancy agrees with him that they should go to Silas and Eppie with their tale. After hearing this strange story of Eppie’s parentage, the unselfish weaver opens the way for Eppie to take advantage of her wealthy heritage; but Eppie flees back to the man who was a father and a mother to her when no one else would claim her. There is one thing remaining to complete the weaver’s happiness. Eppie marries Aaron Winthrop, her childhood playmate, while Silas beams happily on the scene of her wedding.