Theme of Religion
Religion, in various forms, plays a major part in Silas Marner. It dominates the early part of the novel and influences the course of events in a decisive way. It has a significant part to play in the lives and attitudes of the people of Raveloe. George Eliot presents us with a variety of attitudes to religion in the course of the novel and there is always the implied contrast between the differing versions of religious faith and practice presented throughout the novel.
Our first glimpse of organised religion is given to us in the account of the church at Lantern Yard. It is not a flattering account. The doctrines shared by the congregation there are Calvinist in origin. The church is described as ‘a narrow religious sect’. It is inward-looking and very restrictive. Indeed, the whole account of lantern yard is an unsparing look by George Eliot at a variety of Protestant religion of which she was intimately familiar. Some would say that Lantern Yard had little to do with real Christianity and amounted to a serious perversion of religion. This is best illustrated in the drawing of lots, ‘they resolved on praying and drawing lots’. This method yields up a lie and an innocent man must suffer.
The other form of religious practice seen in the novel is that practised by the villagers in Raveloe. Whereas Lantern Yard people took their religious practices with deadly seriousness, those in Raveloe, on the other hand, are much less concerned with the externals of religious practice at any rate. Indeed, such is their anxiety not to appear too righteous some avoid going to church every Sunday! Their attitude to religion is treated with mild humour by George Eliot: the people are not ‘severely regular’ and even the ‘good livers’ go to church with ‘moderate frequency’.
The essential point to make About the form of religion practised in Raveloe is that in spite of its thinness on the side of doctrine and theology, even its closeness to mere superstition, its effects on the lives of the people is generally beneficial. Dolly Winthrop, if questioned on the subject, would probably find it difficult to articulate her religious beliefs, but fundamentally Christian practices come easily to her: ‘We must be going home now. And so I wish you goodbye, Master Marner; and if ever you feel anyways bad in your inside, as you can’t fend for yourself, I’ll come and clean up for you, and get a bit of victual, and willing’.
In contrast, Nancy Lammeter’s outlook on religion is totally different from Dolly’s. Unlike Dolly, Nancy is able to read the Bible; she is presented as usually sitting, on Sundays, with her Bible before her and in many ways, her attitude is nearly as narrow as that of the congregation in Lantern Yard.
His Lantern Yard experience has shaken Silas to the core, and shaken is genuinely held religious beliefs. Towards the end, he decides to revisit Lantern Yard with Eppie to find out if his name has been cleared and to see whether Mr Paston might enlighten him about the practice of the drawing of lots. He finds that Lantern Yard has been swept away, and he, therefore, will never get the answers to his troubling questions: ‘It’s dark to me; I doubt it’ll be dark to the last’. He will never now be fully satisfied with the wrong done to him, but his last years will be lived in a spirit of trust, thanks to the charity of real friends.
Theme of Redemption
This theme may be divided into two parts, (a) the salvation of Silas Marner from the mental and spiritual disintegration which is taking place within him because of his disillusionment with and rejection of God, and because of his miserliness and withdrawal from society, and (b) the salvation of Godfrey Cass from spiritual destruction because of his secret marriage to Molly Farren and, later, his decision to disown his own child.
There is the notion of the purging of a tragic hero through suffering in the case of both of these characters, but one of them – Godfrey – is, in the end, denied what he demands most. Yet both of them come to acquire self-knowledge. Silas says, ‘I’ve had light enough to trusten by; and now she says she’ll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die.’ Godfrey, too, has consolation, ‘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 deserved it.’
Eliot may be trying to point out that, without contact with other human beings, the heart dries up. Silas rejects the notion of a loving God and of belief in his fellow-man as a result of his experiences in Lantern Yard. God turned from him in the drawing of the lots; William Dane and Sarah betrayed him at the human level.
In Raveloe ‘there was nothing that called out his love and fellowship toward the strangers he had come amongst, and the future was all dark, for there was no Unseen Love that cared for him.’ Even his simple impulse to help Sally Oates rebounds on him, and he becomes more isolated. Money now becomes his new God. What affection he has left is bestowed on inanimate things – a small brown pot and his gold. He becomes a miser.
The theft of his gold is the beginning of his salvation. It brings the sympathy of the villagers – especially Dolly Winthrop. He feels conscious of ‘dependence on their goodwill.’ The coming of Eppie (perhaps an Act of God) brings him consolation for his suffering. He begins again to trust a human. He accepts Dolly’s advice that Eppie should be christened, although he does not know what this means. With Eppie he lives again. When he brings her to the village he is met with ‘smiling faces and cheerful questioning.’ She has replaced his gold. He has been out of touch with Nature as he was in Lantern Yard. It is Eppie who brings him back to it. There is no more betrayal. When Godfrey asks Eppie to come with him, she stands with Silas.
Godfrey’s faults are the result of his weakness of character. He has a ‘natural irresolution’, ‘moral cowardice’, and is ‘indecisive’. His marriage to Molly is a result of weakness but also of pity for her. His motives for concealing the marriage are selfish – fear of discovery, his father’s anger, the loss of his inheritance and of Nancy.
His silent reaction to the news that Molly is dead is a sinful fear that she may not be dead. His rejection of Eppie is a spoken one. He disowns his moral and paternal obligations and lacks the moral courage to give up Nancy. He is now living a lie and tries to justify it by assuring himself that he is thinking only of Nancy’s happiness. He is punished by a childless marriage. He has, however, a conscience about Eppie and almost accepts his childlessness as a punishment. Further punishment and suffering come with the shame of Dunstan’s theft, but he accepts God’s will for the first time and admits his secret to Nancy. He bitterly realises that Nancy would have gladly accepted Eppie had she known the situation. He is further punished by Eppie’s rejection of him. His redemption comes in his realisation of the truth that ‘there’s debt we can’t pay like money debts.’ He has suffered, but recognises the injustice of it. He, too, has some consolation in Nancy.
Theme of Social Isolation and Communication
The degrees of isolation and communication through which the central character – Silas – passes are extreme. One might divide his life into four distinct parts – distinct because he is subject to a change of disposition each time.
- There is his period in Lantern Yard.
- Then his first fifteen years in Raveloe during which he becomes dedicated to his gold and so more isolated.
- Next comes the short period after the theft of his gold when he is deprived of any comfort and has only limited communication with the people of Raveloe.
- Finally, Eppie arrives and Silas is no longer isolated.
In Lantern Yard he is immersed in the life of the sect. He shares the rigid, Calvinistic society of his fellow-believers, the companionship of William Dane and the company of Sarah. His self-doubting is offset by William’s certainty – although in the end of this period God seems to desert him. William falsely accuses him of theft and Sarah deserts him, he has been relatively contented.
When he arrives in Raveloe he is a stranger and, so an object of suspicion. He hates ‘the thought of the past’; there is ‘nothing that calls out his love and fellowship towards the strangers in the village.’ He contributes to his own isolation in his failure to invite anyone to visit him and his failure to mix with others except on business. The riches of Nature are in contrast with the narrow, frugal life (physical and spiritual) of Lantern Yard. There is no ‘Unseen Love’ that cares for him. The children fear him and the villagers wonder at his solitary isolation. The results of his impulsive desire to help Sally Oates are disastrous. He refuses to exploit the villagers and they drive him back to isolation. His attempt to establish a relationship has, through no fault of his own, driven a wedge between the villagers and him. Money now becomes his god. He still retains a spark of affection but it is for inanimate things like his broken pot. When his gold is stolen, the disaster seems worse than that of Lantern Yard. His soul is ‘like a forlorn traveller on an unknown desert.’ Yet his impulse is to go for help. He goes to the Rainbow Inn. It is here that he communicates with others.
Afterwards the neighbours try to ‘get through’ to him. He is not yet one of them, but is affected by their anxiety to help. He feels that people might help him. Their kindness may spring from their recognition of suffering – ‘pain and mishap present a far wider range of possibilities than gladness and enjoyment.’ Although he still feels desolate he is now aware that he depends on others. Yet he is not cheered by Dolly as ‘human love and divine faith have not yet been released in him.’
The coming of Eppie changes everything. It makes the villagers more actively sympathetic. She unlocks the door to his happiness within the community when he determines to meet the neighbours for her sake. He acquires knowledge of life from his new acquaintances. As he grows older, his eyes ‘seem to have gathered a longer vision as is the way with eyes that have been short-sighted in life.’ This may be symbolic of his spiritual outlook. Eliot says that a sense of presiding goodness and human trust come with all pure peace and joy. The human trust is important; he had lost it after Lantern Yard.
He has a bad moment when Eppie speaks of marriage. Is his gold again being stolen? But she reassures him. His final trial comes when Godfrey arrives to ask for Eppie. Silas’s decision not to stand in her way is heroic, but he has no need to fear; he will never again be isolated.
Godfrey Cass may be included as one whose failure to communicate contributes to his unhappiness. The Red House atmosphere is not conducive to communication, as love does not exist within it. His lack of true communication with Nancy prevents him getting to know her until it is almost too late. He is afraid to tell Squire Cass of his marriage to Molly, a social inferior, because he fears the Squire’s reaction and because he feels that he will lose Nancy. He again fails to communicate when he denies knowledge of Molly and then rejects his child. When he finally tells Nancy of the marriage, she tells him that she would have accepted Eppie. He now realises that his reticence has been for nothing.
Again, when he calls Silas to surrender Eppie, he shows his inability to understand Silas by speaking in terms of bodily warts and money and by painting Eppie’s future as a lady and contrasting it with the rough life before her if she remains with Silas. It is only when he faces the truth and accepts the justice of his punishment that he is saved. He now knows himself and is rewarded when Nancy’s eyes and his ‘meet in trust’.
Theme of Chance
In Chapter XI Eliot personally intervenes to comment on Chance – ‘In this point of trusting to some throw of fortune’s dice, Godfrey can hardly be called old-fashioned. Favourable Chance is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in.’ she personifies Chance as a deity, ‘the mighty creator of success and its worship is a religion of these people.’
Godfrey is always hopeful that something will turn up to save a dangerous situation. As a result he finds it hard to make a decision about anything. So he falls back on ‘casualties’ (accidental happenings). He fails to admit his marriage to Molly Farren because he feels that, the longer the interval before revelation, the more chances there are of deliverance from some of the unpleasant consequences to which he may have subjected himself. When Dunstan fails to return from the sale of Wildfire, Godfrey asks himself why he should cut off his hopes by his own admission of his misdeeds. If Dunstan fails to return soon everything may blow over. When the Squire tells him to propose to Nancy with the half-threat that the Squire may himself speak to Nancy’s father he flies to ‘his usual refuge, that of hoping for some unforeseen turn of fortune, some favourable chance which would save him from unpleasant consequences – perhaps even justify his insincerity by manifesting its prudence’. Not until Eppie rejects him does he face the truth and accept the consequences.
Silas Marner, too, at one stage leans on Chance. He, like the Lantern Yard brethren, believes that Chance in the form of ‘trial by lot’, reflects God’s judgement. When his innocence is not borne out, he rejects God. Later, after Eppie’s coming, he agrees with Dolly that there is good in the world. He feels that the ‘lots’ were compensated for by Eppie. ‘There’s dealings with us – there’s dealings.’ Eppie, too, has arrived by Chance.
Theme of Love
Love runs through the novel as a recurring motif. It is associated with other themes. Its absence may be noted in Lantern Yard where the devotees have been taught that they are miserable sinners so that they are prepared to believe in the sinfulness of their brethren and to punish it without an impulse of charity or human pity. Each thinks only of his own salvation. Lantern Yard also suppresses Silas’s love of Nature.
Yet, in Raveloe, Silas feels ‘a rush of pity’ for Sally Oates. He also shows grief for his broken pot, but his affection is for inanimate things. At first the villagers in Raveloe, because of their superstition, contribute to Silas’s loveless life by withholding whatever neighbourliness they might normally bestow on a fellow-human. His miserliness saps his love for other human beings; gold is his true love.
His love is rekindled, albeit slowly when his gold is stolen. He feels pity for Jem Rodney whom he accuses of the theft, realising the injustice of the accusation. (This is an echo of what befell himself in Lantern Yard). His apology is, in effect, a gesture of love. The kindness of the villagers to someone in trouble is an indication that love is there if he can meet it half-way. Dolly Winthrop is in the vanguard of human compassion; she is ‘mild and patient’ and helps those who need help. This is true love.
The coming of Eppie brings true love into Silas’s life; not alone the love she gives to him and the love which he bestows on her, but also the friendship and sympathy of the villagers. Her pranks and naughtiness make him realise that love makes claims on him, yet he cannot really find it within himself to punish her. After sixteen years with her, he has acquired the ‘mild, passive happiness of love-crowned age in his face.’ Eliot says that, because of his love and the seclusion of his cottage, she has been preserved from the coarseness of village talk and habits, so that she has a touch of refinement. In the end, his love for her is repaid by her declaration of love for him and her rejection of Godfrey. He now asserts his trust in God.
Godfrey and Dunstan have been deprived of love since their mother’s death. Their father is weak in character and self-indulgent. He rules his household by fear. He lacks courtesy and makes no attempt to understand his sons. Dunstan has no saving graces; he is entirely lacking in love. Godfrey shows his weakness in marrying Molly Farren, but he is conscious of the harm he has done to her. He loves Nancy Lammeter and sees her as his loving wife, but even in his love, he has no real knowledge of her and so postpones admitting to her his unfortunate marriage.
Eliot says ‘…..the yoke a man creates for himself by wrong-doing will breed hate in the kindliest nature’, and that the affectionate-hearted Godfrey is becoming bitter and subject to cruel wishes (presumably for the early death of Molly). When he hears that she is dead, his fear is that she may not really be dead. He then rejects his own child – Eppie. This is the antithesis of love. There is happiness and love in his marriage to Nancy, although it may be asked if Nancy falls short of love in her refusal to adopt the child. When Godfrey finally admits to his marriage to Molly, their eyes meet ‘ with awe in them, as at a crisis which suspended affection.’ Is there a temporary cessation of love here on Nancy’s part? She speaks of a chance lost of having a child to love her. After their abortive attempt to persuade Eppie to live with them, they again look into one another’s eyes. It is now that, although Eppie has rejected him, he knows that Nancy truly loves him, ‘And I got you, Nancy, in spite of all.
Theme of Nature
Eliot believed that Nature is an influence in developing the human person. Silas rejects Nature in Lantern Yard, briefly returns to it to aid Sally Oates and then, under the influence of Eppie, finally returns. Eppie’s wish is for a garden. This may indicate her simplicity and that Nature is sufficient for her. It is also possible to discuss human nature under this theme. (See further notes on Nature Imagery here.)
The Theme of Knowledge
The theme of Knowledge has some importance in the novel. There is a suggestion that knowledge of oneself and others, or the lack of it, plays an important part in both characterisation and plot. Eliot, speaking of the Lantern Yard sect with its constant discussions on the possibility of salvation, says it resembles ‘young winged things fluttering forsaken in the twilight.’ This suggests a misdirected search for knowledge that is in contrast with Dolly Winthrop’s certain trust in ‘Them above’.
The superstition of the villagers in Raveloe that helps keep Silas in isolation is a result of their fear that Silas possesses knowledge that they do not have and their belief that knowledge and skill come from the devil. When his gold is stolen, the villagers see him as without knowledge and so, godly.
With the coming of Eppie, Silas acquires knowledge from his now sympathetic neighbours. His discussions with Dolly also help him towards religious contentment. He also gains self-knowledge when Godfrey cannot begin to understand why Silas might not wish to part with Eppie. Yet Eliot says that it is only the want of sufficient knowledge that allows him to be deliberately unkind.
Godfrey also undergoes a journey towards self-knowledge. You might try to map this journey yourself using the incidents in the novel.
You might also like to read
Silas Marner – The Characters
Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’
Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner
Silas Marner by George Eliot is a radically disturbing social document…