In four remarkable years, George Eliot published in succession Scenes from Clerical Life (1858), Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Silas Marner. The last, a short novel or novella, is unlike the other works, for its narrative combines elements of myth—some critics have called it a fairy tale—with the otherwise realistic details of English country life centering on the rustic village of Raveloe. Certainly the novel can be understood as a moral tale. Its message, however sentimental to a modern reader, is unambiguous: True wealth is love, not gold. As a myth of loss and redemption, the novel concerns the miser Silas Marner, who loses his material riches only to reclaim a greater treasure of contentment. Silas comes to learn that happiness is possible only for the pure and self-sacrificing. Because of his love for Eppie, he is transformed, as if by magic, from a narrow, selfish, bitter recluse into a truly human, spiritually fulfilled man.
The novel, however, has a dimension other than the moralistic. Eliot skillfully counterpoints the experiences of Silas with those of Godfrey Cass. Whereas Godfrey appears, when the reader first meets him, to be a fortunate man entirely the opposite of the sullen miser, his fortunes fail just as Silas’s improve. The wealthy, genial Godfrey has a secret guilt: an unacknowledged marriage to a woman beneath him in social class and refinement. Silas, on the other hand, carries with him the smoldering resentment for a wrong that he suffered (and suffered innocently) from his friend William Dane. Godfrey’s sense of guilt festers, especially after he learns about the terrible circumstances of the woman’s death. Nevertheless, he remains silent, fearful of exposing his past. Eppie, the child of his brief union with the woman, becomes the miser’s treasure and replaces the sterile gold stolen by Dunstan. Thereafter, the happiness of the old man is Godfrey’s doom. His second wife, Nancy, is barren, and when he offers too late to adopt Eppie as his own child, she clings to her foster father. Silas’s love earns what Godfrey’s power fails to command.
By contrasting Silas’s good fortune with Godfrey’s disappointment, the author expands the mythic scope of her fiction. If some men—the pure and deserving—discover almost by accident the truths of happiness, others, maybe no less deserving, pass by their chances and endure misery. Silas is reformed not only spiritually but also psychologically. Once blasphemous, he returns to the Christian faith of his childhood, but his religious reaffirmation is not as important as the improvement of his psychological health. Freed of his neurotic resentment of past injustices, he becomes a friend to all, beloved of the village. For Godfrey, whose history is realistic rather than marvelous, quite the opposite fate happens. Without an heir, he shrinks within himself. He may endure his disgrace, even eventually make up to Eppie and her husband Aaron some of the material things he owes her; yet he cannot shake his sense of wrongdoing, appease his sorrow for betrayal, or make restitution for the evils of the past. Eliot, who once described her novel as “rather somber,” balances her miraculous fable of rebirth for the favored Silas with another more common human story, that of the defeated Godfrey.