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 deeper into a world of darkness.
Godfrey’s adversary is his brother Dunstan, a fraudulent man who causes Godfrey a lot of distress. The circumstances surrounding the brothers’ relationship are more complicated than that between Silas and Dane. Dane, in comparison to Silas, is a man of loose morals. The Silas and Dane relationship has very definite boundaries without any shades of gray. Silas is all good. Dane is all bad. Dane acts alone, without any communication with Silas. Dane is cruel and, as far as the story studies the matter, fully without repentance. Silas portrays the role of the innocent and is caught completely off guard when Dane betrays him. In contrast, Godfrey, even though at first it appears he is only trying to protect his brother from their father’s...
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The story of Silas Marner’s life has a mythic dimension to it. Silas undergoes a spiritual journey that is a variation on the great religious myth of Western culture. In the Christian myth, man is expelled from a garden, saved by the birth of the Christ-child, and promised a life in bliss in the heavenly city of Jerusalem described in the Book of Revelations. Silas travels a similar path from expulsion to redemption, but the symbolism is reversed. He is expelled from a city, saved by a child, and ends up in a garden (as seen in the final chapter when Eppie and Aaron grow a garden just outside his cottage). In the course of this journey, which occupies over thirty years of Silas’s life, he travels from a stern, Bible-centered Calvinistic religion, in which the central concern is the “Assurance of salvation,” to a more tolerant, nondogmatic version of Christianity in which the emphasis falls not on the idea of salvation but on tolerance and solidarity with others in a cooperative human community.
Marner’s spirituality is first awakened at Lantern Yard, where as a young man in the 1780s he is a member of a Dissenting Protestant sect. In nineteenth century England, those who rejected the doctrines and authority of the Church of England were known as dissenters. They included such groups as the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians, and other minor sects. The most notable feature of the dissenters was that they were more democratic than Anglicans. They had no bishops or priests, and did not accept doctrines or policies handed down from above. Instead, they took responsibility for organizing, financing and running their own groups. Large towns like Birmingham and Manchester were dominated by dissenters, and many artisans, like Silas Marner, were members of dissenting sects. The sect to which Marner belonged has not been identified as of 2004, but from the clues given in the text, it was strongly Calvinistic in nature. Calvinist tradition was strong in parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire during this period. The tenets of Calvinism, as Q. D. Leavis points out in her notes to the Penguin edition of the novel, include the idea of a priesthood of all believers; marriage only within the sect (as Silas, who was engaged to a girl named Sarah, intended to do); and the necessity of personal salvation, accomplished through divine grace revealed through personal religious experience. Those who were assured of salvation became members of the Elect.
Silas, who by nature is humble and selfdoubting, never manages to convince himself that he possesses that vital assurance, quite unlike his holierthan- thou, judgmental friend William Dane. From Dane’s treachery to the subsequent unjust condemnation of Silas for theft, it appears that the members of this sect, that pride themselves on being among the Elect, do not possess much in the way of spiritual wisdom. And just in case events do not speak sufficiently for themselves, the narrator (whose voice is surely that of Eliot) adds this poignant description of the earnest discussions that take place between Silas and William Dane and others of their type: “Such colloquies have occupied many a pair of palefaced weavers, whose unnurtured souls have been like young winged things, fluttering forsaken in the twilight.” This description gives the impression of youthful purity of heart and intention that is given no guidance at all by the religious sects to which the young people entrust their spiritual lives.
It is a long journey, in more ways than one, from Lantern Yard to Raveloe, from dissenting chapel to village church. Not surprisingly, Silas, his faith shattered, does not go out of his way to discover what kind of religion might be available to him in his new place of residence. Lantern Yard was all he knew. Had he been of a mind to investigate, he would have discovered that religion in Raveloe is a different matter altogether than the fierce and narrow faith he has been fed at Lantern Yard. The narrator is at pains to point out that Raveloe has not only seen nothing of the Industrial Revolution, it has not been affected by “puritan earnestness”—the kind that flourished...
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