Silas Marner, written by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) in 1861 is a tale of money, greed, and the divisions of class in early 19th century England; but it is also a profoundly moral and Christian story where people do the right thing.
Silas Marner was forced to leave his village because he was wrongfully accused of theft. A Calvinist and man of strict rectitude and moral principle, he left Lantern Yard a bitter and resentful man. He settled in Raveloe, another small town to the south where he became a weaver. He lived alone and never forgot the injustices done to him. He mistrusted everyone, refused all but commercial engagements, and as a result began to be thought of as a conjurer. His seemingly miraculous cure of a villager thanks to his knowledge of the medicinal properties of herbs gave him immediate respect and social status; but because he refused all requests for assistance, only wanting to return to is solitary life, he became even more suspect and then once again shunned.
He was a talented weaver and his embroidered linens were in great demand; and over the years he became moderately wealthy; but choosing to live frugally he spent little of it. Instead he kept his gold hidden in the floor of his cottage; and every night he spread the guineas on the table to look at and feel them. Although Marner is often portrayed as a miser, he is a much more nuanced and complex character. The monetary value of the gold meant nothing to him. It was marker like stripes on a prison wall which delineated his limited and painful life.
Gradually the guineas, the crowns, and the half-crowns grew to a
heap, and Marner drew less and less for his own wants, trying to
solve the problem of keeping himself strong enough to work sixteen
hours a-day on as small an outlay as possible. Have not men, shut
up in solitary imprisonment, found an interest in marking the
moments by straight strokes of a certain length on the wall, until
the growth of the sum of straight strokes, arranged in triangles,
has become a mastering purpose? Do we not wile away moments of
inanity or fatigued waiting by repeating some trivial movement or
sound, until the repetition has bred a want, which is incipient
The gold was also a companion, the only bright thing in his life. After a long day of weaving, he removed the bags of gold which he had secreted in the cottage floor, spread them out on the table, ran his fingers through them. He loved their weight, their color, and their shape. They were to him what a wife and children were to others.
He began to think it was conscious of him, as his loom was, and he would on no account have exchanged those coins, which had become his familiars, for other coins with unknown faces. He handled them, he counted them, till their form and color were like the satisfaction of a thirst to him; but it was only in the night, when his work was done, that he drew them out to enjoy their companionship.
His money is stolen, and once again the injustice of theft returns. Only his work keeps him sane although there is now no purpose to it. At least in his lonely, solitary life, there was the gold; but now there was nothing.
By chance an opium addict falls asleep in the snow with her young child and dies of exposure. The child, however, finds her way to Marner’s cottage. She is the gold he has lost and he becomes a loving, devoted father to her.
The real father of the child, Godfrey Cass, a wealthy landowner of the region, has never acknowledged either his daughter or her mother – a low-class wife whom he disavows and keeps secret from everyone including his new wife whom he does not want to drive away because of the scandal the revelation would cause. Only near the end of the story does he feel it time for honest and amends. He and his wife have been childless for fifteen years, and they both hope that by reclaiming his daughter and giving her a well-to-do life will be right and just and will finally fill the empty space in their home.
Family matters become more complicated when the thief of Marner’s gold is discovered to be Godfrey’s wastrel brother; and when the gold is found and returned to Marner, Godfrey decides to make his appeal to take his daughter to live in his estate.
As a younger man Godfrey was as irresponsible, weak, and immoral as his brother, both cheating and lying to their father about their management of estate funds. His offer to adopt Eppie, his biological daughter, give his wife the child she has always wanted, and to make amends for his brother’s crime are his chance for moral redemption. Marner and Eppie of course refuse. Godfrey acquiesces but continues to provide financial support to Marner and his daughter.
The novel, like those of Thomas Hardy and other 19th century realist writers, relies on chance and circumstance to further both plot and character development. If Eppie had not wandered into Silas’s cottage, his life would have been irretrievably unhappy. She, however, resuscitates the goodness that was always in Marner before his unjust accusation in Lantern Yard ; gives him purpose; elicits love and compassion; and returns him to path from which he was deprived. Marner is a good person whom circumstances have condemned and redeemed.
Godfrey was a moral reprobate in his younger years, and the circumstances of his first wife’s death and the survival of his daughter reveal the goodness in him. He finally is able to reveal his secret, live more openly and intimately with his second wife, and do the right thing. At first he justifies his selfish ambitions by saying that taking Eppie will be good for her when in fact it is only to satisfy his wife who has for years pleaded for adoption and his long-hidden desire for reconciliation. Finally, however, Godfrey does the real right thing, renounces his claim to his daughter, and generously but quietly supports her and her adoptive father, Silas.
Godfrey’s wife, Nancy, has always been a moral person, although more because her limited intelligence has prevented her from observing anything but the few social and religious principles she has been taught as a child. Nevertheless, despite her near implacable desire for an adopted child, she sees how wrong taking Eppie would be, and her understanding, compassion, and strength, helps Godfrey to find his moral ground.
Eppie is less a girl than a gift from God. She is all love, obedience, loyalty, and respect for her father. Silas Marner is a profoundly Christian book. Eppie is a gift of grace. Marner did nothing to earn it or merit her. She was bestowed.
In many ways she is similar to Pearl, the illegitimate daughter of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter who represents more than she exists. Pearl is precociously alert, intelligent, and for Puritanical Salem, dangerously elfin and otherworldly. She is exuberant where Hester and Dimmesdale are unhappy, regretful, and guilty. She is what God intended, not the spiteful, angry, witch-hunting Puritans. In both books little girls, both innocent in their own ways, are the agents of change and denouement in the world of adults.
At the end of the novel when Godfrey and Nancy are adjusting to the new realities of their lives, she reiterates this sentiment, although couching it within a very different context - God’s will:
Nancy was silent: her spirit of rectitude would not let her try to
soften the edge of what she felt to be a just compunction. He spoke
again after a little while, but the tone was rather changed: there
was tenderness mingled with the previous self-reproach.
"And I got _you_, Nancy, in spite of all; and yet I've been
grumbling and uneasy because I hadn't something else--as if I
"You've never been wanting to me, Godfrey," said Nancy, with quiet
sincerity. "My only trouble would be gone if you resigned yourself
to the lot that's been given us."
Silas Marner is a moral book about good people, how they fall away, and how they are redeemed. It is an optimistic book about goodness in the world; and it is a book that reconciles ideas of grace, morality, and the inevitable unforeseen circumstances of character and environment.