Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.

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

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


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.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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

(Novels for Students)

Weavers in England
Historian E. P. Thompson, in his book The Making of the English Working Class, describes four...

(The entire section is 574 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

In becoming a solitary miser, Silas Marner has become almost less than human, a point which is brought out by the...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1810s: Each parish in England provides a workhouse to accommodate and employ the destitute. Conditions in the workhouses vary. Some...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Does Godfrey Cass, Eppie’s biological father, have the right to take her from Silas Marner, her foster father? What moral issues does this...

(The entire section is 160 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

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

(The entire section is 24 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Like Silas Marner, Eliot’s novel Adam Bede (1859) is set in a fictional rural community in which the people adhere to...

(The entire section is 205 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Dallas, E. S., Review of Silas Marner, in The Critical Response to George Eliot, edited by Karen L....

(The entire section is 267 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.