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Silas Marner
George Eliot


THE NOVEL

THE PLOT

Silas Marner, a linen-weaver, works in his solitary cottage by a stone-pit outside the English village of Raveloe. In a flashback, you learn that Marner came to Raveloe fifteen years earlier from a large industrial town where he was part of a fundamentalist Christian sect. But one night, Silas had fallen into a trance while watching over the deathbed of a church elder. Silas' best friend stole a bag of money from the dying man and blamed the theft on Silas. Their sect tried the case by drawing lots, to let God show who was guilty. When this method convicted Silas, he lost his faith in God and soon left the city. Ending up in Raveloe, he kept to himself and worked long hours. Slowly he began to accumulate gold, and this became his one purpose in life.

Godfrey Cass, son of the village squire, at this time needs money. His younger brother Dunstan has borrowed a large sum from Godfrey and now he's lost it. But the money belongs to their father, and Godfrey has to repay it himself. Otherwise Dunstan will tell their father Godfrey's secret- that he's married to a drug-addicted barmaid. Godfrey gives his favorite horse to Dunstan to sell for the money, but Dunstan carelessly kills the horse in a hunting accident. On his way home, Dunstan passes Silas Marner's cottage and sees it empty, with the door open. Walking in, he finds Silas' hoard of gold and steals it, disappearing into the night. When Silas returns home and finds he's been robbed, he is devastated.

Godfrey learns that his horse was found dead. When Dunstan doesn't return, he explains to their father about the money. Squire Cass is angry with Dunstan, but he doesn't probe into why Godfrey lent his shiftless brother the money. He does pressure Godfrey to marry his sweetheart Nancy Lammeter, and Godfrey, still hiding his marriage, hopes somehow he can still marry Nancy.

Though desolated by his loss, Silas is drawn doser to human society by the sympathy of the villagers, especially his neighbor Dolly Winthrop. Dunstan has still not returned home- his family and friends assume he has simply run away. On New Year's Eve, at Squire Cass' annual big party, Nancy Lammeter avoids Godfrey, feeling hurt that he hasn't proposed to her. While he tries to woo Nancy, outside in the snow Godfrey's wife is heading toward the house. She intends to force Godfrey to acknowledge her by appearing at the party with their child. But addiction overcomes her; she takes a dose of opium and passes out in the snow. Her two-year-old daughter wanders off, attracted by the light shining from a nearby cottage. It is Marner's home- he has fallen into another trance and left his door open. When he comes to, he sees the little girl, her hair shining so brightly that at first he thinks his lost gold has magically returned.

After finding the mother in the snow, Silas goes to the Squire's house to fetch the doctor. Recognizing the child in Silas' arms, Godfrey guiltily joins the rescue party, but finding his wife dead, he keeps her identity a secret.

Silas is determined to keep the child, like a treasure he has found. He names her Eppie after his own sister, and he even takes her to church to be christened. His care for Eppie forces him to become part of village life. His love for her changes his personality. As Eppie grows up, Godfrey watches her silently, and occasionally helps Silas out with money. But he doesn't acknowledge her, because now that he's free, he has married Nancy.

Sixteen years pass. Silas and Eppie are happily devoted to each other. Dolly Winthrop's son, Aaron, is Eppie's sweetheart. But at the Cass house, Nancy worries about her marriage. After one stillbirth, she hasn't been able to conceive a child, and Godfrey is wracked with disappointment. He's been urging her to adopt Eppie, but Nancy feels it's against the will of God to adopt a child who is not her own. Then the stone-pit beside Silas' cottage is drained to create new fields. Dunstan's skeleton is discovered at the bottom, clutching Silas' gold. Shaken by the sight, Godfrey tells Nancy the truth about his first marriage. To his surprise, she agrees to adopt Eppie, Godfrey's real daughter.

They go to Marner's cottage with their proposal. Though Silas' gold has been restored to him, he's distraught at the prospect of losing his second, more precious treasure, Eppie. But he lets Eppie make her own choice- and she chooses to stay with Silas. Godfrey and Nancy return home, sad but reconciled. In the spring, Eppie marries Aaron and they walk back to Silas' cottage to live with him.

[Silas Marner Contents]


THE CHARACTERS

  • SILAS MARNER

    When she first conceived of the story of Silas Marner, George Eliot thought immediately of one of her favorite poets, William Wordsworth. He was the first to show country life realistically in poetry, as Eliot was the first in prose fiction. To some degree, Silas Marner is a typical Wordsworthian hero- a simple, instinctual creature, with limited education and imagination, whose life has a natural dignity. But a novel works differently from a poem, and Silas Marner is an unlikely hero for a novel. It isn't just that he's poor, although before George Eliot few authors cast working folk in major roles in novels. It isn't just that he's skinny and pale, with bulging brown eyes- physically unattractive heroes, like Shakespeare's Richard III or Cervantes' Don Quixote, can make powerful literary material. And it isn't just that he's a loner and an alien in Raveloe. Outsiders have made great heroes throughout literature, from Shakespeare's Othello to Emily Bronte's Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights to R. P. McMurphy in Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. These, however, are charismatic, complex personalities. Silas Marner is not. Yet George Eliot gives this simple linen-weaver all the attention most authors save for their most glamorous characters.

    Some readers see Silas as a fairy-tale character, like the typical poor old woodcutter who endures poverty and misery in lonely silence for years. In this, he is also like a biblical character, Job. (Silas, however, loses his faith when he is unjustly punished, whereas Job heroically hangs on to his faith while God tests him with rounds of suffering.) Silas simply seems the plaything of some great force guiding the universe, whose plan is inscrutable and maybe even unfair. He's subject to mysterious fits that rob him of his senses for minutes at a time. He does nothing to deserve being expelled from his congregation or having his fiancee Sarah break off their engagement. He does nothing to deserve being robbed fifteen years later by Dunstan Cass. And he does nothing to deserve finding Eppie. These things simply happen to him, like spells or miracles, transforming his life.

    This storybook quality is suggested in the book's opening passage, which seems to describe a magical other world. Soon, however, Eliot shifts to a more realistic view. She explains, as an anthropologist might, how superstitious country folk are. She talks about the linen-weavers in sociological terms, as "emigrants from the town into the country." Then you first see Silas in his cottage, weaving away while village boys peer curiously in the windows. He doesn't need to be realistic, some readers argue. The point is that you are asked to fit this eccentric creature into a realistic social context. The villagers see him as a magical figure- they say he works for the devil- but this is a comment on their superstitiousness, not on Silas. As you read, consider how his skills- as a weaver or as a herb-healer- are regarded by the villagers. Watch how his grief over his robbery and his care of Eppie pull him into village life.

    Other readers place more emphasis on the passages where Eliot dissects Silas' psychological processes. She explains how he felt when he left Lantern-Yard, how he became a miser, how he reacts to the theft of his gold, how Eppie's presence heals him and draws him back into the mainstream of life. She gives you a medical reason for his fits and shows you how his poor vision often confuses him. In comparison to her analysis of Godfrey Cass' mind, of course, Silas' psychology seems rudimentary. But those who think Silas is realistic point out that Eliot is trying to portray a limited mind stunted by a poor education and a lifetime of ceaseless work.

    The debate over Silas' realism goes on and on. But one thing seems clear- Eliot is sympathetic toward him. She constantly shifts from his perspective to that of the community surrounding him and back again, to show how misunderstood he is. She reminds you that he once had a mother and a sister and a childhood. Silas doesn't act in grand sweeping gestures, but Eliot interprets the strong emotions lying behind his timid little actions. Thus, by the time he makes his meek, stammering appearance at the Rainbow to report his theft, you've already seen him go through an internal agony of disbelief and despair at home. Even though he quietly tells Eppie that she herself must choose between him and her real father, Godfrey, Eliot makes you feel how hard this is for Silas, how devastated he would be if he lost her. Though he is only a simple linen-weaver, she feels his story is worth telling.

  • GODFREY CASS

    Godfrey is in many ways the direct opposite of Silas. He's young, handsome, well-off, and charming. The villagers admire him, even when they suspect he isn't acting right. Unlike Silas, who's alone in the world, Godfrey has too much family- a gruff father, a troublesome brother, a wife and child he doesn't want, and a sweetheart anxiously waiting for him to propose. Silas works hard, but Godfrey has no particular work to do. While Silas endures his exile from society, Godfrey is impatient and a moral coward. Whereas Silas is unjustly punished, time and again Godfrey manages to escape punishment, even for sins he has committed.

    Some readers, therefore, see Godfrey as the villain of this novel. His weakness sets Dunstan on a path that ends with Dunstan robbing Silas. While Silas is grieving over his lost gold, Godfrey is relieved because Dunstan has disappeared. He is relieved, too, when his wife Molly is found dead in the snow, because it clears the way for him to marry Nancy Lammeter. At the end of the book, Godfrey selfishly tries to take Eppie away from Silas. But he's finally punished, by Eppie's rejection, for having lied to the world for so many years.

    Yet other readers look beyond this formal structure, in which Godfrey plays a villain's role, to judge whether he is really a villainous person. In his first scene, they point out, he appears with his callous brother Dunstan, who makes Godfrey look sensitive and conscientious by comparison. Godfrey seems to know what is right, though he's often too weak to do it. When you see his home environment, you can understand Godfrey's lack of moral fiber. When Eliot traces the tiny mental steps by which he talks himself out of doing the right thing, the process is somehow easy to understand- hasn't everyone rationalized like this at times? His love for Nancy is genuine, and her love for him testifies to something good in his nature. Once they're married, he makes a fine husband, except for his disappointment over their childlessness (which he tries to hide from her). He does have fatherly feelings for Eppie, and he watches her grow up with a constant sense of regret. To these readers, Godfrey is a good but weak man whose fate embodies the moral of the novel.

    As you read, for example, the scene on New Year's Eve when Silas appears with the infant Eppie, imagine how other characters judge Godfrey. Just as Eliot gives you special sympathy for Silas, she gives you a special insider's view of Godfrey's weakness. You know his worst impulses- the side that most of us never show to the world. As you read, decide for yourself whether Godfrey is the villain or the tragic hero of this novel.

  • NANCY LAMMETER

    For several chapters, you don't actually meet Nancy- you just hear of her as the girl Godfrey wants to marry. She's presented as the proper, socially respectable partner for him, as opposed to his secret wife Molly. Even crude Squire Cass approves of her. Considering what you are shown of the upperclass world she belongs to, how do you feel about Nancy before you meet her?

    When Nancy finally appears in Chapter 11, you may be in for a surprise. Eliot enters Nancy's thoughts, to show that she's a gentle, sensitive girl, insecure and confused about Godfrey's courtship. Then you see her through the eyes of the fashionable, town-bred Gunn sisters. They see that she is pretty, well-mannered, and neatly dressed. Nevertheless, she disapproves of their low-cut dresses, and they disapprove of her country dialect- she is clearly part of her country environment. You can see the signs of hard work on Nancy's hands. In general, Eliot describes Nancy's looks and character in glowing terms. Her only faults, Eliot tells you, are a touch of pride and inflexibility.

    Having a positive view of Nancy may make you feel more kindly toward the upper class in general (notice that the men at the Rainbow, too, speak well of the Lammeters). It may also give you more sympathy for Godfrey. She seems to be a good influence on him. On the other hand, are her moral standards too high? She keeps Godfrey at arm's length because she's heard bad rumors about him. Even after Molly has died and he is free to marry Nancy, Godfrey is reluctant to tell her about Molly because he fears her disapproval. Later, Nancy's strict code also keeps her from agreeing to adopt a child, which creates the only unhappiness in her marriage to Godfrey. As you read, consider: Is Nancy a good moral example or are her strict principles a flaw in her character?

  • DOLLY WINTHROP

    Dolly represents Raveloe's values of what an individual should be. She's hardworking, skillful, and so efficient that she has time left over to care for her neighbor Silas. She doesn't hesitate to give advice and get involved with other people's lives. She is motherly, not only toward her own child Aaron but toward Eppie. As a wife, she's tolerant of her husband's drinking but fairly independent. She knows she's no scholar, but she earns great respect from Silas for her ability to see matters clearly, almost instinctively.

    Dolly's friendship with Silas demonstrates concretely how the village gradually accepts him. But Dolly serves another function, too- she is the spokesperson for Raveloe religion, holding it up against Silas' Lantern-Yard beliefs. Dolly believes in religion without knowing the fine points of doctrine. While the rituals of the church comfort her, she concentrates on good deeds here on Earth rather than on a relationship with God. Her concept of God is almost pagan, a fuzzy vision of "Them up above." But with true peasant wisdom, she sees a divine pattern in events, working out over long years. She makes Silas look upon his life with this kind of long-range view, showing him that all his sorrows were simply a path leading to his finding Eppie.

  • EPPIE

    On the title page of Silas Marner, George Eliot placed a quotation from Wordsworth's poem "Michael":

    A child, more than all other gifts
    That earth can offer to declining man,
    Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.

    In the novel, that prophecy is fulfilled by Eppie, the abandoned child that Silas Marner adopts. Symbolically, she is the golden treasure that replaces his stolen gold. Psychologically, she is the force that pulls Silas out of his isolation and restores him to harmony with the human race, as well as with his own past.

    Although Eppie fulfills these functions in the novel, she is also an interesting character in her own right. She is believable as a toddler, wandering away from her careless mother toward a shiny light. Her needs are simple- she's hungry and her feet are wet- and she clings lovingly to Silas once he has taken care of these needs. Later, you see her as an active little child, getting into anything that's in her reach.

    Pretty Eppie is blonde like her biological father, Godfrey. She's no common village girl, though Eliot says this is the result of her loving environment, not her upperclass blood. In her simple emotions and her strong attachments, Eppie is like her adoptive father, Silas. But she also has unique qualities, associated throughout the novel with animals, flowers, and nature. In the Wordsworth quotation, a child is said to be a gift of Earth- and Eppie is part of that natural bounty.

    If Silas is like the poor old woodcutter in a fairy tale, then Eppie is like the woodcutter's daughter- a beautiful, golden-haired girl who's really a princess in disguise. George Eliot turns the fairy tale on its head, though, because this princess doesn't meet a handsome prince. When her real father shows up to offer her a life of riches, she rejects him in favor of the poor old woodcutter. The man she marries is simply a brawny young gardener, Aaron Winthrop, whom she loves more like a brother than a lover. But in this novel's scheme of things, that means she will live happily ever after.

  • DUNSTAN CASS

    If Godfrey is not the villain of this novel, perhaps his younger brother Dunstan is. Godfrey's sins are all passive- he decides not to do something- whereas Dunstan actually commits bad deeds. He squanders the money Godfrey lends him, then he destroys Godfrey's horse while hunting. Finally, he steals Silas' money. What motivates Dunstan? Eliot shows you the twists and turns of his reasoning, just as she does Godfrey's. Both think selfishly, but while Godfrey is aware of moral considerations, Dunstan just calculates what he can get away with. Eliot shows him mostly in upperclass settings, so his vices seem a product of his class. Yet even his own family and friends don't seem to care when Dunstan disappears.

    His nickname, Dunsey, sounds like "dunce," and Dunstan doesn't seem very bright. He allows himself to be propelled by circumstances, which he thinks of as "luck." He doesn't plot to rob Silas, but when the opportunity comes his way, he takes it. Soon after, however, he falls into the stone-pit and is drowned. Is this bad luck- or a fitting punishment for his crime?

  • SQUIRE CASS

    In Squire Cass, Eliot embodies what she sees as the worst characteristics of the English gentry- the upper class of country society. He bullies his sons and he patronizes the common people of Raveloe. He's dull-witted and narrow-minded. He isn't hard-working and his pleasures are crude- eating red meat, swilling ale, and making lewd jokes. (Note that his last name sounds like the word "crass.") Squire Cass is a great man in the community because of his hereditary position. The poor never question his wasteful life. But Eliot does, just as she questions the way he has raised his sons. Godfrey wishes his father had disciplined him more. You'll have to decide whether you blame Squire Cass for the tragic events brought about by his wayward sons.

  • AARON WINTHROP

    When Aaron first comes with his mother Dolly to visit Silas, he's still a small child. Silas regards him as an alien creature, but this encounter foreshadows the impact Eppie will have upon Silas. When he's grown up, Aaron becomes Eppie's sweetheart (although she doesn't seem sexually attracted to him). Like Eppie, he is in touch with nature, a gifted gardener. Some readers think Aaron is a cardboard figure, a stereotype of the manly young laborer whom Eppie should choose over a life with Godfrey. Yet others think that his kind, brotherly affection for Eppie represents Eliot's idea of perfect, wholesome love.

  • PRISCILLA LAMMETER

    When blunt-spoken, dumpy Priscilla appears beside her sister Nancy, Nancy's beauty and grace are all the more evident. These sisters show a strong family affection for each other, as the Cass brothers do not. Together with their father, they demonstrate that strong family love does exist in the upper class. Priscilla defines even more strongly than Nancy certain positive traits of the gentry. She is hard-working, practical, and devoted to farming. She doesn't put on upperclass airs. While some readers feel she's too rude and opinionated, others feel that Eliot wanted her that way, to show that, in the country, the leading families may not be as refined as you would expect.

  • MOLLY FARREN

    Godfrey's unfortunate first wife is seen only briefly, in Chapter 12. Up until then she has simply been a nuisance to Godfrey, but now you see her as a living character, struggling through the snow. Her goal is the Red House where she hopes to have her revenge on Godfrey. Yet she seems like a victim herself, rather than a strong avenger. She has sparks of motherly tenderness, which almost stop her from taking her fatal dose of opium. She is too weak to resist her addiction, however, and soon meets her fate. Is she the victim of her limited background, Godfrey's neglect, and her addiction? Or do you think she, like Godfrey, is morally to blame for taking the easy way out?

  • THE MEN AT THE RAINBOW

    In classical Greek tragedies, a group of citizens called the Chorus comments upon the action of the main characters. The group of men who meet at the Rainbow serve this function in Silas Marner. Their conversation defines the Raveloe values and gives you a sense of how the main characters fit into the society. The scenes of the gentry at the Red House party in Chapter 11 define another part of Raveloe society. But the men from the Rainbow also appear here, as spectators. They are the base of country wisdom that Eliot uses as a moral standard.

    This is a fully fleshed-out social group, with a whole range of personalities. There's Dowlas the know- it-all farrier, the sarcastic wheelwright Ben Winthrop, the easy-going butcher Lundy, the old codger Mr. Macey, the deputy clerk Tookey who's the butt of their jokes, and the landlord Mr. Snell who moderates and keeps the peace. Think about groups of people you socialize with- don't they interact in typical roles like this?

[Silas Marner Contents]


OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

The opening of Silas Marner suggests a world of legend and myth- a pastoral countryside untouched by the modern world, where figures are larger than life. But gradually Eliot establishes that this story occurs in the first years of the nineteenth century, during the Napoleonic wars, when George III was King of England. This is slightly before Eliot's own childhood. It's also before the Reform Act of 1832, which many Englishmen felt marked the end of an era (as Americans today may regard the bombing of Hiroshima or the Vietnam War). It represented for her an age of innocence.

The landscape is the farming country of the English Midlands where George Eliot grew up. The villagers of Raveloe live in isolation only because of their old-fashioned customs- they really aren't that far from the rest of civilization. Upperclass characters, such as the Casses, frequently travel to neighboring towns. In general, the two classes in Raveloe inhabit different worlds. The Rainbow pub is the center of the common folks' world, and Squire Cass' Red House is the center of the gentry's world. The Raveloe gentry are representatives of an ancient British social class- the "squirearchy," well-off rural landowners who wielded local political power and stood independent of the aristocracy. By Eliot's own time, this class had nearly been obliterated. Raveloe's class system is smoothly integrated, however. Upperclass men drink at the Rainbow, too, and villagers are invited to the Red House parties. They all hear the same gossip. Everyone meets at church.

Silas Marner, in contrast, comes from a large industrial town, though he stayed within a smaller community there, his religious sect. While his hometown is a portrait of the "new" industrialized city of the nineteenth century, his sect is a portrait of the fanatical Evangelical or Puritan denominations that had challenged the established Church of England since the sixteenth century. (Eliot herself had briefly been influenced by Evangelicals.) The customs of such a place are totally different from those of Raveloe, so Silas is branded an alien. Therefore, he lives outside the village, in a cottage beside a dangerous, desolate stone-pit. After Eppie enters his life, however, a garden blooms around its walls, signifying the roots he has put down at last.

THEMES

The following are major themes of Silas Marner.

  1. LUCK AND FATE

    Are some people simply luckier than others? Or is there an overall justice ruling life? Different characters in this book answer these questions differently. Dunstan Cass trusts his native good luck, while Godfrey nervously waits to see if his luck will be good or bad. Neither believes in a system of just rewards and punishment, until years later when Godfrey accepts his childlessness as a divine punishment. Dolly Winthrop trusts blindly to the wisdom of "Them" above, but she does believe that good deeds on Earth are fairly rewarded. Silas, however, used to believe in just rewards in his Lantern-Yard days, and his faith was cruelly disappointed. He seems to be the victim of a blind destiny- even Eppie comes to him like a blessing out of nowhere. As you follow this theme through the book, notice its relation to religion (see Theme 2). Consider not only what characters say, but also how their lives eventually work out in the plot.

  2. RELIGION

    Under the name of Christianity, many different faiths exist in Silas Marner. Eliot did not believe in a divine being herself, yet most of her public probably did. How does she present organized religion in this book? On the one hand there is Silas with his joyless, strict Lantern-Yard faith. On the other hand is Dolly with her buoyant, almost pagan Raveloe beliefs. Nancy Lammeter's clear-cut beliefs show how established doctrine can sometimes become too rigid. At times, Eliot implies that religion is no better than superstition. At other times, she sympathetically describes how church rituals comfort the faithful. Religion binds a community like Raveloe together- even Silas feels lost when he breaks with his sect. Yet many readers feel he seems stronger for having lost his faith. He never really regains a belief in God, even after he joins the church in Raveloe. His "redemption" is a product of human, rather than heavenly, love. What does George Eliot seem to propose as the guiding force of the universe?

  3. HUMAN AFFECTIONS

    What kinds of human ties are important in this novel? There are family ties- weak at the Casses' house but strong for the Lammeters. The bonds of parent and child are especially important, whether they are biological (as with Dolly and Aaron Winthrop) or adoptive (as with Eppie and Silas). When Eppie has to choose between her biological father, Godfrey, and her adoptive father, Silas, what factors count most with her? Wholesome human affections can restore a damaged personality like Silas'. Yet stunted affections, like those at Squire Cass' house, can damage a basically good person like Godfrey. Look at the way larger communities are bound together, too: Lantern-Yard, the city Silas came from, Raveloe as a whole, or the upperclass society of Raveloe.

  4. CHANGE

    In Eliot's view, all change is the product of a multitude of tiny factors. The process is so complex that mere humans cannot presume to control it. To examine this theory, Eliot chose for her main setting a community with ingrained old beliefs, a place where change comes slowly. She shows how gradually the collective "mind" of village opinion shifts until it accepts Silas. Many individual characters, too, have fixed habits of thought that are hard to change. Consider, for example, Squire Cass, Nancy Lammeter, old Mr. Macey, Dolly Winthrop, Godfrey's wife Molly, and Silas himself. Choosing a long time span for her story, Eliot shows people changing gradually over the years, as Silas changes before his robbery and then after finding Eppie. She also minutely examines step by step the process of short-term changes- the reasoning that leads Godfrey to keep his secret marriage hidden or that makes Dunstan rob Silas.

  5. THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PAST

    Raveloe is a society strongly connected to its past. In contrast, the town Silas comes from seems impersonal and transient- when Silas returns thirty-two years later, Lantern-Yard has been literally wiped off the face of the Earth. Individuals in this book also are connected to their own pasts in different degrees. Godfrey hopes to bury his past. Silas and Eppie cherish their past together. As Silas is redeemed by his love for Eppie, he regains a sense of his past, and memory heals him. Attachment to the past can be stultifying, however, for characters like Squire Cass and Nancy Lammeter. Look at the role played in this novel by local traditions, personal memories, and familiar objects or places. By her own comments, then, Eliot gives this story, set in the past, a meaning for her own modern world.

  6. OTHER THEMES

    In Silas Marner, Eliot also examines the class system of England in microcosm (mark the differences between the upper and lower classes, and judge Eliot's comments on them). Connected to this is her belief in the importance of work. The villagers understand the value of having a craft or skill and the role this gives one in a community. Silas clings to his craft when all else is taken from him. In the upper class, the Lammeter girls understand hard work, but the Cass sons are dangerously idle. In examining the social structure of Raveloe, however, Eliot defines a society that no longer exists. In describing Raveloe particularly by comparing it to the town Silas comes from- she depicts an England that may have been destroyed by the spread of the Industrial Revolution.

STYLE

At her best, George Eliot writes in a strong, precise style, each word chosen carefully. At her worst, her sentences circle around what she's trying to say, stringing out clauses loaded with abstract, colorless words. In the second paragraph of the book, for example, she starts off with a plain sentence that sets up Silas' situation in simple, concrete words. But by the end of the paragraph she's tangled up in long, meandering sentences, using abstract terms like "a shadowy conception of power that by much persuasion can be induced to refrain from inflicting harm." This puts some readers off before they've even gotten into the book.

When George Eliot is not speaking to the reader directly, however, her style is less self-conscious. Often she takes on the voice of a village gossip to show the community's view of Silas; her language becomes casual, humorous, and colloquial. (See for example the fifth sentence in that second paragraph, beginning "They had, perhaps, heard their mothers and fathers hint....") When she takes on the voice of an upperclass observer, she uses a light, arch irony. (See the first paragraph of Chapter 3.) Her scenes of straight dialogue can also be surprisingly dramatic, as characters use distinctive dialects, and speeches move energetically back and forth.

Woven into the structure of the novel is a complex and subtle web of symbols. Eliot doesn't point them out- you have to be on the lookout for them. She uses imagery drawn from nature to show that human life follows the same laws as the rest of the organic world. She compares Silas to insects, and she shows his love for Eppie growing like a plant. Habits of thought are described as flowing streams. Symbols are not always used as metaphors, however. For example, Eliot frequently mentions the gentry's horses. These are real animals in the story, but they symbolize the gentry's world whenever they appear. Similarly, Silas' gold coins become associated with Eppie's golden hair, symbolizing that both are precious to Silas. Another important strand of imagery is the opposition of light and dark. But as you trace it through the book, be careful- the meanings of George Eliot's symbols shift and change. Her moral vision is too complex to be set out like an allegory, where symbols represent abstract concepts in clear-cut patterns. Instead, her symbols are like little hidden signs, enriching the message you draw from the plot.

POINT OF VIEW

Technically, Silas Marner has an omniscient third-person narrator- a narrator who isn't a character but can enter the thoughts and sensations of all the characters. This lets George Eliot delve into her characters' psychological processes, to show the mind of Godfrey, as well as Silas, and then to contrast them. Dunstan's and Nancy's minds are probed, too. With the rest of her characters, however, who provide a social context for the story, the narrator steps back and adopts the role of a social observer. She analyzes the patterns of village life and comments on them- often with the perspective of someone from the outer world.

Maybe that's why it isn't quite true to say that George Eliot is not a character in her novels. She isn't a figure acting in the plot, but her presence certainly is felt as she speaks to the reader. (At the end of the second paragraph, notice that she uses the first person.) Her commentaries bridge the gap between Raveloe and your world. Sometimes she needs to explain attitudes and ideas that would seem strange to "modern" readers. (There's a lot of this in the first chapter.) Sometimes she shows you parallels between the events of the story and your own life. (Look, for example, at Chapter 2, where she compares Silas' hoarding to the way sophisticated men bury themselves in their work.) These comments keep you from getting too caught up in the story. But this is intentional- Eliot wants you always to think about the moral significance of what is happening. Some readers resent this preaching and feel that the story itself teaches the lesson well enough without her comments. Yet other people enjoy her interpreting remarks, feeling that they open up depths of wisdom in this seemingly simple novel.

FORM AND STRUCTURE

Silas Marner is divided into Part One and Part Two, separated by sixteen years in time. The flashback in Chapter 1 travels an equal sixteen years in time, creating a fundamental symmetry (see diagram). Some readers have felt that the gap between the two parts is too long- they would like to watch Silas being transformed by his love for Eppie, not just be told about it. Yet in Chapter 14 Eliot does show the first stages of the process in detail, and in Chapter 16 she backtracks to fill in even more.

This novel is divided into two parts in another, more important way. While Silas follows a cycle from misery back to happiness, Godfrey Cass follows an opposite path, from a life rich with possibilities to an unfulfilled existence. (See the diagram.) Eliot shifts back and forth between these two plots continually. Silas and Godfrey rarely meet face to face, yet they are linked- through Dunstan, who cheats Godfrey and robs Silas, and later through Eppie, whom Godfrey abandons and Silas adopts.

Some readers feel the novel is split in two, that Silas' half is like a simple folktale with its happy ending, while Godfrey's half is a complex psychological study with a sad, realistic conclusion. Other readers say that the two halves are separated by different moral climates. In Silas' story, fate is ruled by mysterious pagan gods. Human beings can only surrender themselves and trust these inscrutable divinities. Godfrey's story is like a stern Greek tragedy, where a man's own actions lead inexorably to a tragic climax. Pain and suffering are necessary for him to purge himself of his sin.

To counteract this split, Eliot's elaborate system of parallels, contrasts, and symmetries holds the two stories together.

THE STORY

THE AUTHOR AND HER TIMES


ECC [Silas Marner Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

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