Form and Content

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Set in rural England in the early nineteenth century, Silas Marner covers a time span of some thirty years during which Silas undergoes a process of spiritual-emotional death and rebirth. The secondary plot revolving around Godfrey Cass is of nearly equal importance, and the intersections of the two plots create the primary energies of the novel. In both stories, moreover, suffering is created by men but redeemed by women.

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Silas has grown up within the fundamentalist religious community of Lantern Yard—an ironic name, because there is more spiritual darkness than illumination there. Falsely accused by his best friend William Dane of stealing the church’s meager funds, and with his guilt “proven” by the drawing of lots, Silas abandons his trust in God and humankind. He takes up residence far to the south in the village of Raveloe, where he makes an adequate living by his weaving. Silas is shunned by the villagers, however, partly because of his reclusive habits and partly because Raveloe is a closed, insular community. With no sense of purpose or human connectedness, Silas becomes a solitary miser whose accumulating hoard of gold coins is his sole comfort.

In contrast, Godfrey Cass, the eldest son of the principal landowner of Raveloe, would seem to be favored by fortune. In fact, however, he lives in dread that his secret and sordid marriage to a woman in a neighboring town will be revealed by his brother Dunstan and that his hopes of marrying Nancy Lammeter thus will be destroyed. To buy Dunstan’s silence, Godfrey gives Dunstan his prize horse Wildfire to sell, but Dunstan recklessly rides the horse onto a stake, mortally wounding the animal. Passing Silas’ cottage on his way home from the accident, Dunstan sees that Silas is out, enters and finds the gold, and disappears mysteriously into the night.

Silas’ dismayed announcement to the community of the theft cracks his shell of solitude, but the breakthrough comes with the providential arrival of Eppie a few months later. Determined to confront Godfrey with his child, Molly trudges through the snow to Raveloe but dies of exposure a few yards from Silas’ cottage. Seeking the light, Eppie crawls in. For a moment, Silas, in his extreme nearsightedness, takes her golden curls for his gold coins, miraculously restored. Yet Eppie proves to be a greater treasure than the lost gold: In becoming a father to her, Silas becomes a human being once again.

Dolly Winthrop is an invaluable mentor to Silas in his parenting. She provides maternal advice and presence as well as much-needed spiritual support for Silas. In a comparable way, Nancy—now married to Godfrey—provides an emotional and spiritual center to Godfrey’s life. Though childless, they are happy in each other, and Godfrey is resigned to a background role in the life of his unacknowledged daughter.

After the passage of some sixteen years, however, the discovery of Dunstan’s skeleton (and Silas’ gold) in a recently drained quarry brings the novel to a climax. Godfrey confesses to Nancy that Eppie is his child, expecting a severe rebuke, but Nancy, “ripened into fuller goodness” by maturity, forgives him and agrees to adopt Eppie. Neither has counted on the strength of the affection between Silas and Eppie or is aware that Eppie intends to marry Aaron Winthrop. When Eppie chooses to remain where she is, Godfrey and Nancy sadly accept her decision. Silas’ journey in the final chapter to the town of his youth proves to be a fruitless quest; Lantern Yard is gone, replaced by a factory. Thus, the door is closed on Silas’ past, with his understanding of its events “dark to the last,” although he now has “light enough to trusten by.”

Places Discussed

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Raveloe

Raveloe. Village in central England to which Marner moves after his best friend’s false accusations of dishonesty force him to leave an unnamed industrial city in northern England. During his first fifteen years in Raveloe, he lives an almost wholly solitary life; his work is all that he has; he virtually lives within his loom, reduced to the stooped and malformed life of a spinning insect. After he takes a foster child into his home, he finally begins to connect with the community.

Marner’s cottage

Marner’s cottage. Former home of a stone cutter in which Silas Marner lives in Raveloe. The cottage is located at the edge of an abandoned quarry. Within his cottage, Marner quietly amasses a hoard of gold coins, which he earns through years of painstaking weaving work. After his gold is stolen, his literal and figurative myopia—accentuated by his cataleptic trances—causes him to mistake for his returned coins the golden hair of an orphaned infant girl, Eppie, who wanders into his cottage on a dark, cold night, seeking light and warmth. Marner’s loving care of Eppie for sixteen years, shored up by the kindness of the villagers, awakens in him an imaginative sympathy that renews and expands his formerly dead sensibilities. Through the influence of the child, Eppie, the bare, stone cottage and its surroundings are transformed into a place of a growing garden that promises to keep flowering at the end of the story, with the help of the young man whom Eppie marries.

Rainbow Inn

Rainbow Inn. Village gathering place in which the character of the community is revealed through the vivid dialogue of those who come to socialize. Marner comes to the inn to seek help after he discovers his gold has been stolen because it is the place where important village decisions are made, such as what to do about the robbery. The narrator reveals that the unaccustomed human interaction that Marner experiences here precipitates his growth of social consciousness. The suggestion of hopeful promise connoted by the inn’s name culminates with its serving as the location of Eppie and Aaron’s wedding feast.

Red House

Red House. Home of Squire Cass, the village landlord, which provides a background for developing the character of his two sons, Godfrey, who refuses for sixteen years to acknowledge that he is Eppie’s natural father, and Dunstan, whose thievery of Marner’s gold goes undiscovered through the same period. The motherless home is seen as loveless until Godfrey marries Nancy, when feminine touches begin to add warmth.

Lantern Yard

Lantern Yard. Gathering place for Dissenters of a narrow religious sect with whom Marner attended chapel when he lived in an unnamed northern industrial city before moving to Raveloe. The Lantern Yard is associated with impersonal and mechanical ways, represented in part by the drawing of lots to determine guilt or innocence. At the beginning of the novel, Marner is victimized here, falsely accused by William Dane, whom he has regarded as his best friend. Although he is innocent, the drawing of lots makes him appear guilty. After being cast out by his Calvinist-influenced religious group, he arrives in Raveloe feeling abandoned and betrayed by God and man.

Through the influence of Dolly Winthrop, Marner becomes open to fellowship through the traditional church of Raveloe. At the end of the novel, he and Eppie go in search of Lantern Yard because Marner hopes to find explanations for the earlier events in his life. However, they find only a factory where the chapel stood before. Eppie’s repulsion at the crowded and dirty scene reinforces Eliot’s presentation of place as all-important to the nurturing of community fellow-feeling.

Context

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Although she was the most influential woman writing in English until the twentieth century, George Eliot has not been thought of as a women’s writer. Drawn by temperament and talent to the central issues of her times, whether political, religious, social, or artistic, she made a commanding place for herself (under her real name of Mary Ann or Marian Evans) as a writer in a male-dominated intellectual world long before she wrote her first novel. Her novels were published under the masculine pseudonym in order to avoid being thought of as “feminine,” and indeed for a time they were thought to be the work of a retired clergyman.

Nevertheless, in both her life and the novels on which her reputation rests, there are women’s issues of significance. Her unconventional union with fellow intellectual George Henry Lewes, prevented from being a marriage because of Lewes’ inability to obtain a divorce under archaic Victorian divorce laws, scandalized her contemporaries. In her own mind, however, she was right, and eventually society came to accept them as a legitimate couple. Her novels, moreover, are generally centered on problems of choice and vocation for heroines not unlike George Eliot herself. Typically, she focuses on the tension between a woman’s personhhood, with its unexpressed depth of talent or feeling, and the limited social role that is available to her.

Silas Marner has no central heroine and consequently does not deal directly with such issues. If women’s concerns are not at the forefront of the plot, however, they may be seen in the form of a thematic design. Without exception, the wrongdoing that drives the plot is the work of men—William Dane’s betrayal of Silas, Godfrey’s disavowal of Molly and Eppie, and Dunstan’s theft of Silas’ gold. The center of the novel’s value-structure, however, is found in the triad of female characters that consists of Nancy, Dolly, and Eppie. In various ways, they demonstrate a special kind of humanity that offsets the wrongs done around them. The novel tells the reader that there are wrongs that cannot be set right, but just as unmistakably it implies that life goes on nevertheless; wounds must be healed, wrongs forgiven, troubled spirits calmed. The nurturing acts that are the positive expressions of personhood of the female characters on Silas Marner thus substantiate George Eliot’s deepest and most keenly felt moral vision.

Historical Context

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Weavers in England
Historian E. P. Thompson, in his book The Making of the English Working Class, describes four different employment situations for weavers during the nineteenth century. The first was the “customer-weaver,” like Silas Marner, an independent worker in a village or small town who fulfilled orders from individual customers. Although customer- weavers were diminishing in numbers, those who continued the practice made a good living. In Silas Marner, Mr. Macey guesses that the hardworking Marner may make a pound a week from his weaving, which would have been a fairly sizable income. (This would have been during the early years of the nineteenth century.) The second kind of weaver was self-employed, producing work for a number of different masters. The third type was the journeyman weaver, who often owned his own loom and worked in his own home for one master. This was probably the status of Silas Marner in his hometown in northern England, where he learned his trade. The last category of weaver was the farmer who worked part-time at the loom. From 1780 to 1830, according to Thompson, these groups tended to merge into one group, “the proletarian outworker, who worked in his own home, sometimes owned and sometimes rented his loom, and who wove up the yarn to the specifications of the factor or agent of a mill or of some middleman.”

Thompson emphasizes the loss of status and security that accompanied these changes, although weaving could still be a profitable business for the weaver.

The business was changing, however. The power loom was invented in 1784 and patented the following year. It enabled the weaver to once more to keep pace with the spinner, who up to then had been able to produce more yarn than the weaver could use. The power loom was first used in Manchester in 1791. By 1813, there were 2,400 power looms in England. But weaving remained predominantly a domestic industry until 1820, when power looms came into general use.

Social Change
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, England was a largely settled and static society. Villages like the fictional Raveloe in Silas Marner were relatively self-sufficient, since the inhabitants were able to manufacture their own clothes and supply their own food. But social change accelerated during the course of the century. Agricultural laborers and manufacturers became willing to leave villages in search of work or of better paid work. This was not just a matter of a shift from the countryside to the nearest town, but of large-scale migrations. By the end of the century, workers were moving to Lancashire, where the cotton industry was flourishing, at the rate of fifteen thousand a year. The town of Bolton, for example, increased its population from 5,339 in 1773 to 11,739 in 1789. New canals enabled raw materials to be transported more quickly and efficiently, and new roads facilitated the recruitment of a labor force. There was, however, a price to be paid for economic gain, and that was the creation of a new class of landless agricultural laborers, who had lost their independence.

By the beginning of the reign of King George IV in 1820, the huge growth in manufacturing towns that had little connection with the old rural communities had radically changed England. As social historian G. M. Trevelyan writes in Illustrated English Social History: “The harmonious fabric of old English society suffered a perpendicular cleavage between town and country, as well as expanding the old lateral cleavage between rich and poor.”

Literary Style

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Imagery
In becoming a solitary miser, Silas Marner has become almost less than human, a point which is brought out by the imagery that is associated with him. He is described as like a spider, weaving its web; his life is reduced to the “unquestioning activity of a spinning insect.” After he has lost his money, the image changes to that of an ant. His mind is baffled like a “plodding ant” that on its way home finds that the earth has been moved.

The imagery changes when Marner is on the way to redemption. When he sits with Eppie on a bank of flowers listening to the birds, he starts to look for herbs again, as he did when he was younger. As a leaf lies in his palm, memories of the past come flooding back to him. His mind is “growing into memory,” and his soul is “unfolding too, and trembling gradually into full consciousness.” Instead of being compared to an insect, Marner is now implicitly likened to an unfolding flower.

Fairy Tale and Realism
The narrative combines elements of the fairy tale with realistic settings and characters. Fairy tales often tell of a man or woman who is unjustly banished from a kingdom or is otherwise the victim of great misfortune. The person then goes through many trials and much suffering and feels that all is lost. Chance events, often involving the supernatural, intervene, evil is punished, good is rewarded, a perfect marriage is arranged, and the characters live happily ever after.

The story of Silas Marner has clear affinities with the fairy tale. Silas is unjustly expelled from his hometown and arrives in what is to him an alien environment. As a miser hoarding his gold, he is like a stock figure in folklore and fairy tale. When the miser sees the child and mistakes her golden curls for his stolen gold, the narrative is firmly in fairy tale mode. Marner’s restoration to happiness and the happy ending with Eppie marrying Aaron are also strongly reminiscent of the fairy tale.

But other elements in the story are realistic. Unlike fairy tales, which are set in unnamed places in unknown times, Silas Marner takes place at a definite time and in a definite place. It is anchored in rural England at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Village life and customs are described in realistic mode, and realism is also seen in the dialect in the villagers’ speech. The story of Godfrey Cass, as opposed to that of the miser, contains no fairy tale elements. Godfrey’s marriages, his family relations, the secret he keeps that may ruin him are the stuff of realistic Victorian fiction.

Compare and Contrast

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1810s: Each parish in England provides a workhouse to accommodate and employ the destitute. Conditions in the workhouses vary. Some are relatively acceptable, but others are grim. In 1810, George Crabbe writes of one workhouse: “It is a prison, with a milder name, / Which few inhabit without dread or shame.”

1860s: Since the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, hundreds of new workhouses have been built. They are supervised by a local Board of Guardians. Conditions in the workhouses are intentionally made harsh and degrading, to deter all but the most desperate. They are inhabited mainly by the old, the infirm, the sick, the orphaned, and unmarried mothers. The largest of them house over a thousand people.

Today: Workhouses no longer exist. They were abolished in 1930. People who in addition to being poor are sick, old, or mentally ill are cared for in hospitals and by social welfare organizations. Under the National Health Service, every British citizen is entitled to free health care, according to his or her need. No social stigma is attached to being an unmarried mother, and women in such situations are able to gain employment.

1810s: The population of England and Wales, according to the official census, is 10,164,000. The population is rising rapidly. The increase is due largely to a falling death rate, which falls from 33.4 per 1,000 in 1730 to 19.98 per 1,000 in 1810. This is due to better living conditions and better diet.

1860s: The population continues to increase. There is a continuing shift of population to cities and away from rural areas. London is the biggest city in the world, with a population in 1861 of 2,803,989. This is an increase of 19 percent in ten years. Manchester also becomes one of the largest industrial centers in the world. After 1860, mortality rates decline because of the reduction in deaths from scarlet fever, typhus, and consumption.

Today: The population of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) at mid-2001 is 58.8 million. Nearly 84 percent of this total lives in England, mainly in the major cities. London is the largest city in Europe, with a population of 7.2 million. The population of the United Kingdom is increasing. It has risen by 10 million between 1950 and 2000, mainly due to rising immigration. The death rate has dropped to 10.35 deaths per 1,000 population.

1810s: The Napoleonic Wars end in 1815. Britain’s conservative government fears social revolution and represses civil liberties.

1860s: Britain increases democracy by extending the franchise. In the 1850s, only 900,000 out of 5,300,000 adult males in England and Wales were eligible to vote, but the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1867 adds an additional 1,008,000 men to the voter rolls. An amendment for the enfranchisement of women is rejected by 196 to 73 votes in the House of Commons.

Today: Like all Western democracies, all British citizens who qualify by age are eligible to vote. However, voter participation is in decline. In the general election of 2001, only 59.4 percent of the total electorate vote. This figure is down from 70.9 percent in 1997 and 76.7 percent in 1992. It remains higher than voter turnout in the United States.

Media Adaptations

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The film Silas Marner (1985) was directed by Giles Foster and starred Ben Kingsley as Marner, with co-stars Jenny Agutter, Freddie Jones, and Angela Pleasence.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Dallas, E. S., Review of Silas Marner, in The Critical Response to George Eliot, edited by Karen L. Pangallo, Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 94–96, originally published in The Times, April 29, 1861.

Eliot, George, Silas Marner, edited and with an introduction by Q. D. Leavis, Penguin, 1985.

Ermath, Elizabeth Deeds, George Eliot, Twayne’s English Authors Series, No. 414, Twayne Publishers, 1985, pp. 97–102.

Leavis, Q. D., “Introduction,” in Silas Marner, by George Eliot, edited by Q. D. Leavis, Penguin, 1985.

Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, 1968, pp. 297–346.

Trevelyan, G. M., Illustrated English Social History, Vol. 3, The Eighteenth Century, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1968, p. 139.

Further Reading
Beer, Gillian, George Eliot, Indiana University Press, 1986, pp. 108–46. In this feminist study, Beer discusses Silas Marner, Romola, and Felix Holt in terms of the displacement involved in proposing a conflict between natural parents and nurturing parents.

Johnstone, Peggy Fitzburgh, The Transformation of Rage: Mourning and Creativity in George Eliot’s Fiction, New York University Press, 1994, pp. 68–94. This is a Freudian interpretation of the novel, including a discussion of what is called obsessive-compulsive disorder (repetitious actions and thoughts) and its cure.

McCormack, Kathleen, George Eliot and Intoxication: Dangerous Drugs for the Condition of England, St. Martin’s Press, 2000, pp. 91–109. As part of her study of Eliot’s drug metaphors, Mc- Cormack analyzes the novel as a parable of addiction and recovery.

Speaight, Robert, Review of Silas Marner, in George Eliot, 2d ed., Arthur Barker, 1968, pp. 61–67. This is a short review of the many outstanding aspects of the novel, including its characterization, its lack of excessive moralism, and its life-like realism that still allows for symbolic elements.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

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.

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