Silas Marner

Major Themes

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Class

Silas Marner centers around two households, Marner's cottage by the stone-pits and the Cass manor, the Red House. These two settings represent class extremes, and the people of Raveloe know it. The cottage is the ramshackle abode of the lowliest member of Raveloe society; the manor is a sprawling home filled with gentry and a location for dances. Rather than set an impermeable boundary between these two worlds, Eliot stages many intersections between the two households. Dunstan Cass, who is a member of the moneyed class, enters Marner's home looking for money. Silas Marner, lowly and miserable, raises a Squire's granddaughter as his own child. Godfrey Cass, though he owns Marner's cottage at the end of the novel, is actually in the weaver's debt. These are just a few instances of the permeability of class boundaries in the novel.

In Raveloe, strict boundaries of class do not necessarily lead to greater happiness among the higher classes. Indeed, those with money-or those who are supposed to have money-tend to be the most harried and corrupt characters, such as Dunstan, Godfrey, and even Silas before Eppie. The person most oppressed by circumstances in Silas Marner is perhaps Godfrey Cass, who finds himself at the mercy of a lower-class wife, who fails to have children of his own, and who ends up envying the bond of a lowly weaver and his daughter. Silas Marner and Eppie, on the other hand, though they do not have status or wealth, have power over the Casses and seem to enjoy unmitigated happiness.

The Rainbow tavern and the church in Raveloe also serve as places where class differences are evident. The Rainbow becomes quite a different place when the "gentles" are having a dance; during these times (in Chapter Six, for instance), the lesser villagers, like Mr. Macey, reign over the Rainbow, telling stories all the while about the landed members of society. At the church, the important members of society sit in assigned seats at the front of the church while the rest of the villagers sit behind them and watch. In both these places, although everyone recognizes the status difference between the common villagers and the gentry, this difference does not seem to be a problem in Raveloe. The lower classes have not been fed the broth of revolt; they seem quite content. Meanwhile, the upper classes are not oppressive or cruel slave drivers like their factory-owning counterparts. In fact, the gentry rely upon the villagers to sincerely appreciate their importance and value in the town. It is Mr. Macey, not Mr. Lammeter, who celebrates the history of the Warrens. And without the respectful, watching eyes of the villagers, the front-row seats in church would have less dignity.

Thus, Silas Marner tends to represent class differences with historical accuracy. Eliot seems drawn to this pre-industrial era, when there was an easygoing class hierarchy in country towns. Compare the relatively class-indifferent respect that is shown in Raveloe to the horrible factory in the manufacturing town that Marner and Eppie visit in Chapter Twenty-One. The industrial world treats the lower classes as inhuman cogs in the factory wheels. In Raveloe's trade-based society, meanwhile, each villager can play an important role in the success of the society. That is, the weaver is respected to some degree by the Squire if he weaves his linens well. Even so, one might reasonably argue that Eliot's idyllic depiction of happy peasants romanticizes the difficulties of the class differences in nineteenth-century England.

Myth and Folklore

Many critics of the novel fault its unrealistic situations and conclusions. They point out that Marner's conversion from a miserable old misanthrope to a loving father happens too quickly, and they argue that the end of the novel has too much poetic justice, with every character getting a just reward. These critics hold the novel to a standard of realism that others see as inappropriate to Eliot's goals in Silas Marner. Defenders of the novel argue that is is more like a fable, operating through the moral logic of a fairy tale in order to accomplish goals beyond merely representing reality. In fables, ballads, myths and fairy tales, sudden transformations, inexplicable coincidences and other such unrealistic plot devices are part of the magic. Novels need not read like documentaries. Silas Marner is a work of fantasy as much as it represents a deeper reality.

While the plot reflects the novel's mythic character, there is also explicit reference to myth and legend throughout the novel. Weaving itself is a classic emblem of myths across cultures (see the Mythology and Weaving web site). Certainly Eliot was well aware of this emblem when she chose her protagonist and the activity of weaving.

The story also has a strong Biblical undercurrent, recalling especially the stories of Job, King David, the expulsion from Eden, and Cain and Abel. And the author of Silas Marner expects readers to understand its many references to ancient mythology including the Fates and Arachne (a weaver transformed into a spider--note the profusion of insect imagery describing Marner). The hearth, where Eppie is suddenly found, is an especially powerful image in Roman myth.

Myth and superstition are active patterns in the village. Mr. Macey tells ghost stories about the Warrens and predicts the future. The villagers look with curiosity on wanderers such as Marner, perceiving that such persons belong to a separate, magical race with powers to heal or harm. These patterns contribute to the folkloric character of the work. Even while Silas Marner satirizes the superstitions of the villagers and offers a fairly realistic explanation for every "miracle" in it, the novel engages the mysteries of fate and love that characterize legendary literature.

Memory

George Eliot and William Wordsworth have a special affinity. In Silas Marner, more perhaps than in any of her other works, this affinity provides the root of the novel. Eliot even facetiously wrote, in a letter to her publisher, that she "should not have believed that any one would have been interested in [the novel] but myself (since William Wordsworth is dead)." Eliot uses poetry from Wordsworth as her epigraph, she quotes and echoes his language throughout the work, and she centers the redemption of her protagonist on one of Wordsworth's favorite themes: memory.

For Eliot and for Wordsworth, memory is not simply about "remembering" in the everyday sense; it is about the profound experience of owning one's own history, of embodying one's past. For example, in Silas Marner's redemption after finding Eppie, the first thing he thinks about is his long-lost baby sister, someone he has not thought about for at least fifteen years. In fact, Eppie's name was also his mother's name and his sister's name. Eppie does not merely allow Marner to move forward out of the meaningless cycle of weaving and mourning in which he is trapped at the time of her arrival, but she also allows Marner to recover elements of his own past.

Many other motives are connected with memory. Marner's herb gathering, for instance, is something he learned from his mother, which he had forgotten until Eppie arrived. His healing process requires backward reaches into the positive, meaningful elements of his past. In the presence of Eppie, Marner's memory propels him to a richer future.

George Eliot's own memory contributed to key elements of the novel. In a letter, Eliot writes that the novel unfolded "from the merest millet-seed of thought." This little seed was her recollection of a stooped, old weaver walking along in the Midlands whom she happened to see one day long before she began the work. Eliot's enrichment of this scrap of her memory is much like the process of remembering in the novel. From a remembered gesture-such as gathering herbs with one's mother-one can unfold an entire horizon of value pertinent to the present. Memory, for both Eliot and her characters, is active and creative, more than a passive "storehouse" of knowledge and experience. In remembering we deepen our present life. One way to create the new is to refashion and reinterpret what we have recovered from old times and old meanings.

Nature vs. Industry

Almost every character in Silas Marner is described at least partly through a natural context. Such depictions can be as simple as a comparison of a character to an animal, as when Eliot writes that Nancy Lammeter's clothing is as neat "as the body of a little bird." Others can be as profound as representations of the rhythms of life and death, marriage and birth, or seasonal changes. To cite one example among many, Eppie's and Aaron's wedding at the end of the novel is set intentionally in the context of a lazy summer afternoon, when the rural economy is at its quietest and the blooming flowers are at their prettiest. Overall, Raveloe reflects the natural world. Its customs, its industries, and its values are somehow natural.

Many individual motifs and images have more extensive roles in the book. The most important of these, probably, are Marner's likeness to an insect or a spider, and Eppie's likeness to plant life. Marner's large, blurry eyes, his solitary and antisocial lifestyle, and his very profession all invite comparison with an insect or spider. Like a spider's, Marner's life before Eppie is full of thoughtless repetition; he spins his linen and counts his coins, but he does not remember why. It is only when he recalls his place within the natural order--shown in his reclaiming of the herb-gathering of his past, for instance--that he becomes fulfilled and more human than animal. Eppie, with her nurturing father, does not grow up alienated from the natural world. Like a plant, she is organically connected to her father and to nature. This is the positive meaning of Mrs. Winthrop's statement that Eppie will grow like grass, and she expresses her natural integrated with sprigs in her wedding gown. Whereas Marner's spidery behavior demonstrates his failure to integrate, Eppie is attuned to the integration and interdependence of nature and society.

In contrast, the Cass family members have destructive or thoughtless relationships with nature. Dunstan hunts boisterously, a show-off, without appreciating the lives of the animals he hunts. He remains unfazed even after impaling his brother's excellent horse, Wildfire, on a hedge-stake. Godfrey pays little attention to the love of his faithful dog at the end of Chapter Three. The Casses, and by extension, perhaps, their high society, are preoccupied with human concerns. Trivial matters sometimes even distract them from fulfilling their human natures. Whereas Marner was "too" natural in his dehumanized state before the arrival of Eppie, the Casses cultivate a humanity that tends to be separated from nature. The later Marner seems to strike an ideal balance between the human and the rest of nature.

Another challenge to the natural order in Silas Marner is industrialization. Like Thomas Hardy and other Romantics (George Eliot, despite her historical location in the Victorian Age, shares many concerns with the Romantics) such as William Blake and William Wordsworth, Eliot presents the encroaching industrialization of England as the death of a happier, more naturally integrated rural England. The factory scene in Chapter Twenty-One, which understandably horrifies Eppie, provides a clear depiction of this mechanized future, when neither the forces of humanity nor those of nature can overcome the amoral neutrality of mechanistic markets. Marner's loom, whirring with its strange repetition, is an ancient symbol of civilization, and here it may be a sort of microcosm of the coming age of industry. The loom enslaves Marner until Eppie rescues him. For the most part, then, the horror of industrialization is a specter in Silas Marner, while the villagers remain relatively safe in the country. Eliot's Victorian readers, many of them living in the big cities, would have automatically recognized the reality of this specter. They already were living in the age of industry, and they therefore may have looked upon Raveloe as representative of an idyllic English alternative that they have lost.

Faith

George Eliot's relationship to Christianity was complex. She began her life as a devout Protestant, gradually faced a crisis of faith (like many in modern times), and ended up espousing a radical reinterpretation of Christian ethics that did not necessarily include a God. (See this article.) In her first novel, Adam Bede, this radicalism was central to the plot and themes. In Silas Marner Eliot takes a more subtle approach. Suffice it to say that she finds plenty of hypocrisy in both the Puritanism of Lantern Yard and the lax Anglicanism of Raveloe. Yet, she does not directly criticize Christianity itself, and indeed the message of Silas Marner seems quite consistent with, and even contingent upon, a God-based Christian morality. Certainly that perspective seems to be the outcome of Dolly's and Silas's dialogues on questions of faith in Part Two of the book.

Nevertheless, Silas and Dolly seem to see God as active in situations where other explanations might generally suffice. Although there is something of the miraculous in Eppie's entry into Marner's life, one need not see a divine hand in their first encounter. Moreover, the ensuing restoration that Silas and Dolly attribute to God, Eliot herself might attribute to wholly human powers of sympathy, recognition, nurturing and development. Meanwhile, Silas and Dolly themselves also are just as impressed by the redemptive powers of society as by presumed divine intervention. At any rate, in Silas Marner Eliot addresses her deepest theological concerns through the hesitant philosophizing of the lower classes. Her novel suggests that, whether there is a God or not, society is the medium through which grace and blessings are transmitted. In this world, God does not rescue Silas Marner; his own love for Eppie does.

Perhaps this pattern is clearest in Lantern Yard. For Eliot, Christian grace and truth are contingent on human interaction, not divine intervention. But the crude, literalist Christianity of Lantern Yard, which locates divine truth not in the medium of society but rather in constant divine intervention, results in injustice. God is not really going to reveal the truth through a drawing of lots; in Eliot's novel, God does not work that way. The elders of Lantern Yard will not even discuss the possibility of Marner's innocence after "God" has "spoken," and their warped literalism crushes Marner's young soul. It is only through the more complex, human-centered practice of community-mediated spirituality that Marner finds solace. Lantern Yard, by the way, ends up extinct. Its community cannot survive for long based on something other than community life. At the novel's end a factory stands where Lantern Yard once did; where Lantern Yard once reproduced a mechanistic, unreflective, dehumanized faith, now a factory creates mechanized, automatic, dehumanized products. The novel resists both patterns of human life.

Chance

Who is lucky in Silas Marner? The question is not simple. Dunstan Cass, who calls himself "such a lucky fellow," and who certainly seems lucky as he avoids all of the awful repercussions of his sadism and selfishness, plummets to the bottom of the Stone-pits just after his luck allows him to steal Marner's gold. Godfrey Cass, who considers himself the most miserable and unlucky fellow in the world, is by a morbid stroke of fortune able to marry the woman he loves, Nancy, after his secret first wife perishes on her way to expose his past. Even that unlucky woman, Molly, was lucky enough at one time to marry a Squire's firstborn son. And then there is the obvious case of Silas Marner: not so lucky in the drawing of the lots that sent him out of Lantern Yard disgraced and traumatized, but very lucky indeed that Eppie toddled into his life as though by a miracle.

One of the main themes of Silas Marner is the nature of chance, and perhaps the only definite judgment one can make about chance as represented in the novel is that chance is not to be trusted. Everyone has good turns and bad-and we do not always know which is which until much later. Marner's losing his gold, which he takes to be the worst thing that could possibly happen to him, is actually the best, because it clears a space in his life for Eppie. The death of Godfrey's first wife and Marner's subsequent adoption of his daughter, which Godfrey believes to be a most amazing stroke of good fortune, turns out horribly for him in the end. He ends up desiring Eppie in his life more than he ever desired Nancy. The only thing that can sort good luck from bad at the time it happens is a set of principles or hierarchy of values. Godfrey realized it was wrong to pretend Eppie was not his child; he did so anyway, calling it good luck, and paid in the end. Marner realized it was right to consider Eppie's arrival a blessing where others would have called it a burden. In this novel, the principle of mutual human love and devotion may be at the top of the hierarchy of values, which the random compass of chance cannot easily reach. This principle may be the only trustworthy keystone in Eliot's unpredictable world.

Outside of that world, we see that chance is not random after all, but guided entirely by the author. The characters meet their poetic justice: the good end up lucky or rewarded, while the bad are unlucky or punished. If there is a God in the novel, Eliot plays the part. The characters themselves see a providential hand guiding their fate, as in Marner's and Dolly's theological conversations, and they have a sharp nose for poetic justice. For instance, Godfrey Cass realizes that he "passed for childless once" because he wanted to and, unfortunately, he "shall pass for childless now against [his] wish." This moral tidiness reflects the fairy-tale character of the novel.

Even so, the novel also reflects the messy complexity of reality, and chance serves this purpose as well. Near the book's end, the wise Marner says, despite his apparent perfect happiness, "things will change, whether we like it or no; things won't go on for a long while just as they are and no difference." Thus, chance will continue to operate, for better or worse. Pain will come, joy will come, and one can learn from each revolution of the wheel of fortune.

Community

None of the themes stands alone in Silas Marner. Faith is connected with memory and chance, class is connected with nature and community, myth is connected with chance. For example, Marner's big, blurry insect-eyes not only draw on nature by likening him to an unreflecting insect; they also denote his class in that his sight is poor partly because he stares at the fibers in his loom all day; they also have a metaphorical relationship to his faith when he cannot "see the light"; they likewise have a metaphorical relationship to his memory, which he cannot "see"; they resonate with folkloric and mythic images (the Fates, for instance, as well as being weavers, shared one blurry eye among the three of them); and they partake in chance when they keep him from noticing Molly, dying in the snow, or from seeing Dunstan's footprints after the robbery of his gold. Eliot's tapestry is so richly textured that the same multivalency can be found in just about every symbol and theme in the book. The collection of interwoven themes and symbols establishes a narrative community that reflects the pervasive importance of social community in the novel. Society and community figure in practically every sentence of the novel.

Communities are constituted by human interaction. Marner and Eppie are a two-person community, as are Marner and Mrs. Winthrop. Larger communities include the socialites who gather at the Red House and the men at the Rainbow tavern. Raveloe as a whole is a community as well, of course, as is Lantern Yard. And each of these communities expresses its own form of social interaction, sometimes just, sometimes unjust. George Eliot's consistent point in Silas Marner is that the most rewarding human lives are tied up in honest, caring and evolving relationships with others.

Silas Marner is the most obvious example of this theme. His shattering experience at Lantern Yard leaves him without a feeling of connectedness to a community. Upon arriving at Raveloe, Marner is treated with suspicion, and he lets himself become ostracized. For fifteen years he lives a near-solitary life. But even in the midst of this solitude Marner retains some tie to the community. Note that the reason he initially finds gold ducats so attractive is that they prove his usefulness to the people of Raveloe: they are cold, superficial, but real links between others and himself. With the arrival of Eppie, however, everything changes. His primary link to humankind becomes not a pile of metal coins stamped with human faces but a living, growing, communicating human being. Through the social process of loving and caring for another, and receiving love in return, Marner is integrated into the community. He finds friends; he finds his past; he finds faith-all through the open bond of human to human.

The relationship of Godfrey and Nancy exemplifies the troubles that can arise through a lack of healthy community. Although Godfrey believes that all his cares and woes would disappear if he could only marry Nancy, their marriage ends up coming short of both their expectations. Eliot is very clear about the reason for this: Godfrey does not cultivate an honest relationship with Nancy. He withholds the troubling secret of his parentage of Eppie from her for sixteen years. During this time he does everything he can to live as though he has no secret, but he is disappointed again and again when he and Nancy are unable to have a child. Their barrenness symbolizes their unfruitful, deceptive relationship. When he later asks to adopt Eppie, he has made himself unable to declare his reason. His innermost feelings are intensely private, as all secrets must be, so he has become socially maimed. Keeping so much of himself a secret has made his marriage unhappy. When he finally does accept his responsibility to come clean about his past, he does not meet the redemption that Silas Marner did; the result is more disappointment. For him it is too late to cultivate his ideal community, and he must resign himself to isolation--ultimately he will have to move on to a new community or family and start over, but even then, can there be another redemption like Marner's? Godfrey's lack of connection with Nancy, who wants nothing more than to love him, thus leaves him as isolated as Marner for about as long as Marner is isolated.

Ideally, as in the case of Eppie and Marner, society is a locus of mutual betterment and honest communication of social values. Eppie helps Marner see himself at his best; he blooms as she blooms. Other times, though, society reinforces one's prejudices and closes one's mind. Despite its advantages, community can be unjust. Some of the villagers of Raveloe are quite caring, quirky, likeable folks, but as a whole they are suspicious, rather ignorant, xenophobic, and racist. They blame a "swarthy, foreign-looking peddler"--on the scantiest of evidence--for the theft of Marner's gold, when the true thief is in fact a son of the "greatest man in Raveloe." Eliot does not strongly challenge the dangerous tendency to prefer insiders to outsiders, but she does emphasize it at times for our consideration. She suggests that human meaning-making, for better or for worse, is caught up in interpersonal relationships. Silas Marner reminds us of the dark underside of community even while it generally focuses our attention on community's advantages.