Silas Marner Criticism
by George Eliot

Silas Marner book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Silas Marner Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Themes in Eliot's Novel

Some critics have dismissed Eliot’s Silas Marner because it reads too much like a fairy tale. And true, there are many fairy-tale elements in the novel, but this is no reason to condemn it as lacking depth. Eliot uses the familiar story frame of fortuitous coincidence, clear-cut relationships between good and evil, as well as the novel’s happy ending so as to avoid inventing a new kind of story structure. Using this simple form has allowed Eliot to concentrate on the themes she wants to explore. The fundamental form highlights Eliot’s messages, making them stand out against the more basic background. Her point is not to tell a complicated story but rather to get her point of view across. Eliot’s themes are her message, and her messages can be seen most clearly through an examination of the contrasting characters of Silas Marner and Godfrey Cass.

Although the title of this novel emphasizes Silas Marner as the main character, Marner would not be as fully developed if Eliot had not included Marner’s mirror image, Godfrey Cass. Not only does Eliot flip back and forth between the circumstances of these men’s lives throughout the story, she also compares and contrasts their images with one another long before their eventual meeting. So as readers travel through this novel, it is as if they are wearing stereophonic headphones through which they listen to two separate tracks of music that, though diverse, complement one another. Godfrey is like the bass to the melody of Silas. One offsets the other.

When Silas is first introduced, he is seen as an “alien-looking” man who lives near the village of Ravenloe. He has “mysterious peculiarities.” He also does not invite people to his cottage, nor does he enter the village to seek company. Silas is a loner, who needs, or so it appears, nothing more than to work, which he does incessantly. He is, according to gossip, a “dead man come to life again,” a man who might just as easily cure you from a malady as to cause you mischief. In the villagers’ eyes, Silas is someone to talk about but not someone to talk to. He is a man with no known past and thus a man who cannot be trusted.

In contrast, Godfrey Cass is the son of “the greatest man in Raveloe” whose main weakness, according to village sentiment, is that he has “kept all his sons at home in idleness.” Although Godfrey has his family’s reputation behind him, he has not proven himself. He has yet to establish any worth other than his inheritance. Godfrey’s history is well known, and so he is trusted. His path has been determined by the stature of his father and his grandfather. He has a path that the local citizens expect him to follow. Their only fear is that Godfrey might stray from that path, as did his brother. Thus, the comparison of Silas and Godfrey begins. Silas works hard but is criticized for not socializing while Godfrey is deemed a “fine, open-faced, good-natured young man,” but he is lazy. At this point, Eliot also begins to display her other major theme: the disparities between the working class and the wealthy landowners. Each group has its qualities; each has its weaknesses. At the beginning of the novel, Godfrey is given the benefit of the doubt because of his known ancestry. Silas is feared because he represents the unknown. As the novel progresses, however, the villagers become more acquainted with Silas as his humanity becomes exposed. In contrast, Godfrey’s reputation begins to crumble.

Eliot gives both Silas and Godfrey adversaries. It is through the men’s relationship with these antagonists that the novelist explores her dual theme of honesty and deception. Ironically for Silas, his enemy is his best friend, William Dane. Dane betrays Silas and is the reason Silas leaves his hometown and lives for many years in total isolation. Dane’s dishonesty causes Silas to mistrust everyone. Silas eventually turns against himself. Instead of blossoming in his youth, Silas sinks deeper and...

(The entire section is 5,325 words.)