In an incident briefly recounted at the beginning of the novel, Silas Marner is cruelly betrayed by his best friend, who steals some money and contrives evidence suggesting that Silas is guilty. When a trial by lots conducted by Silas’ narrow Protestant sect confirms his guilt, Silas is bitterly disillusioned with divine, as well as human, justice. Moving to a rural village in central England, he isolates himself from all contact with the community and, by his assiduous weaving, accumulates a substantial sum in gold coins.
Silas’ lonely and miserly life is disrupted when his gold is stolen by Dunstan Cass, a son of the most prominent local landowner. The void which the loss of the gold leaves in Silas’ life is unexpectedly filled when a small child, the daughter of Dunstan’s older brother Godfrey by a secret marriage, wanders into Silas’ cottage. Rather than invite social disgrace by admitting his sordid marriage to a drunken barmaid, Godfrey fails to acknowledge the child. Silas undertakes the responsibility of rearing her.
Much of the significance of the novel turns on the contrast between the gold and his adopted daughter Eppie as successive centers of Silas’ life. In simplest terms, the gold isolated Silas, whereas Eppie brings him into cordial contact with the community. The child, George Eliot suggests, is like the angels who, in ages of religious belief, led men away from “threatening destruction” and toward a “calm and bright land.”
Silas attains his reward--and George Eliot asserts the moral of her fable--many years later when Eppie rejects Godfrey’s belated claim of paternity and chooses to remain with Silas.
Beer, Gillian. George Eliot. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. A feminist approach to the novels of George Eliot that acknowledges Eliot’s power to redefine issues relating to gender while remaining within the traditional canon of English literature. The chapter on Silas Marner focuses on Silas’ weaving as a metaphor, with feminine associations, for the interconnections of circumstance that form Silas’ destiny.
Draper, R. P., ed. George Eliot: “The Mill on the Floss” and “Silas Marner.” London: Macmillan, 1977. Useful casebook anthology, containing early reviews and nineteenth century criticism in addition to more modern studies. See especially David Carroll’s “Reversing the Oracles of Religion,” an authoritative essay on Eliot’s humanist religious views.
Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. George Eliot. Boston: Twayne, 1985. A compact literary biography that addresses various moral and philosophical aspects of Eliot’s intellectual development. In the chapter on Silas Marner, Ermarth sees a central theme emerging from opposed realms of circumstance and moral order linked by the bonds of human sympathy and trust.
Paris, Bernard J. Experiments in Life: George Eliot’s Quest for Values. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965. Has limited coverage of Silas Marner but includes a comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the philosophical background of George Eliot’s “religion of humanity.”
Swinden, Patrick. “Silas Marner”: Memory and Salvation. New York: Twayne, 1992. Criti-cally sophisticated but readable book-length study that focuses on Eliot’s narrative method. Offers a valuable analysis of the historical and societal contexts of the novel’s two settings, Lantern Yard and Raveloe.
Thale, Jerome. “George Eliot’s Fable for Her Times.” College English 19 (1958): 141-146. A classic essay; argues that the contrasted realistic and fabular elements of Silas Marner are successfully unified by Eliot’s moral vision. Also published as chapter 4 of Thale’s excellent The Novels of George Eliot (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959).
Uglow, Jennifer. George Eliot. New York: Pantheon, 1987. Explores the connections between Eliot’s life and work, in particular the feminine values her work affirms. In the chapter on Silas Marner, sees imagery of rebirth and regeneration at the core of the novel’s celebration of nurturing and maternal actions.
Wiesenfarth, Joseph. George Eliot’s Mythmaking. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter, 1977. Wiesenfarth argues that George Eliot’s fiction in general embodies a mythology of fellow feeling that includes various folk, classical, and biblical sources. The chapter on Silas Marner explores the novel’s fairy-tale analogues and influences, and relates them to its form and themes.