What happens in Silas Marner?

In Silas Marner, Silas flees his strict religious community after being framed for a crime he didn't commit. He settles on the outskirts of a small town, where he becomes a wealthy but unfeeling weaver. His faith is restored when he adopts a young orphan girl.

  • At the beginning of the novel, Silas loses everything when a man he thought to be a good friend frames him for a crime that the friend himself committed. He believes his faith will protect him, but when God doesn't defend his innocence, he abandons his religion.

  • After fleeing his home, Silas settles in a small town, where he devotes himself to weaving linen and amassing a small fortune. His world is turned upside down, however, when he's robbed around Christmas.

  • A young golden-haired girl arrives on his doorstep. He takes her in, and this allows him to join the community and the church that he has been avoiding for fifteen years. In the end, Silas recovers his faith and believes that God sent him the child as a reward.

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In Silas Marner, George Eliot achieved some of her most successful symbolic narrative, a method that has been compared to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s definition of “romance” with reference to this story. In this novel, Eliot’s pervasive theme of spiritual renewal through the influence of human love and communal fellowship is embodied, as elsewhere, in realistic events, drama, and dialogue, with currents of symbolic meanings that suggest a mythic structure of concrete universals. Eliot called the story a “legendary tale” with a “realistic treatment.”

The theme of spiritual rebirth is announced in chapter 1 by reference to Marner as “a dead man come to life again” and to his “inward life” as a “metamorphosis.” The resolution is foreshadowed in the description of his catalepsy as “a mysterious rigidity and suspension of consciousness” that his former religious community has “mistaken for death.” The rigidity of despair has driven him from his former home in a northern industrial city, the dimly lit Lantern Yard, where members of his “narrow religious sect” have believed him guilty of stealing church funds in the keeping of a dying man. Marner has been so stunned at being framed by the man he thought was his best friend, at being renounced by his fiancé, who soon married the guilty man, and at being believed guilty by his community, that he could only flee. Because he had believed that God would defend his innocence, he has felt utterly abandoned in his faith and has declared “there is no just God.”

He chances among strangers in the isolated village of Raveloe and for fifteen years remains an alien at its fringes, immersed in his work as a linen weaver like “a spinning insect,” loving only the gold he earns and hoards, with ties to neither past nor present. When his gold is stolen as the Christmas season begins, Marner announces his loss at the Rainbow (promise of hope) Tavern and, like Job, begins to receive “comforters,” an interaction that slowly renews human feeling and consciousness of dependency. On New Year’s Eve, as Marner longs for the return of his gold, he finds on his hearth instead a sleeping, golden-haired toddler, a baby girl who has wandered in while Marner held his door open during one of his cataleptic trances, leaving her laudanum-stupefied mother unconscious in the snow-filled lane. Marner can only think that “the gold had turned into the child,” but then seeks the mother, goes for the authorities, and learns that the woman is dead.

Marner clings urgently to the child as his own and names her Eppie for his mother and sister, renewing his ties to his past. His conscientious fatherhood, under the good Dolly Winthrop’s tutelage, brings him firmly into the community, including its church, making the ways of Raveloe no longer alien to him. As in Adam Bede , Eliot contrasts the Church of England as a vehicle of tradition with evangelicalism as awakening more fervent, personal...

(The entire section is 2,320 words.)