The Pious Youth In Lantern Yard, Silas was a very happy young man. He was very respected for his piety by the religious community to which he belonged; he had a good trade as a weaver and he was engaged to be married to a pretty serving girl named Sarah. However, it was during this period that Silas experienced his first attack of catalepsy. When he suffered a fit during a religious service, his co-religionists taking his trance-like state to be a divine visitation were filled with admiration. This aroused the jealousy of his best friend William Dane, who now sought some way to destroy his friend’s standing in Lantern Yard. His opportunity came when Silas had another attack while watching at the bedside of an old Dean, who had died before Silas recovered. While Silas was in his trance, his former friend stole the Dean’s bag of money and made it look as if Silas were the thief. When charged with the theft, the young weaver decided to rely on Providence to clear his name: he asked the elders to draw lots to determine his guilt or innocence. When the lots condemned him Silas was cast out by the community and ostracised. Sarah broke off her engagement, leaving Silas utterly friendless. With his faith in God and man destroyed by these events, Silas turned his back on Lantern Yard and city life forever and sought somewhere out of the way where he would be completely unknown.
Raveloe – The First Fifteen Years George Eliot tells us that Raveloe, ‘was a village where many of the old echoes lingered, undrowned by new voices.’ She further describes it as being, ‘Not …. one of those barren parishes lying on the outskirts of civilization — inhabited by meagre sheep and thinly-scattered shepherds: on the contrary, it lay in the rich central plain of what we are pleased to call Merry England’. However, like Harper Lee’s Maycomb it was well off the beaten track, ‘it was nestled in a snug well-wooded hollow, quite an hour’s journey on horseback from any turnpike, where it was never reached by the vibrations of the coach-horn, or of public opinion’. Much of this abundance is, of course, meant to contrast with Silas Marner’s previous place of residence in Lantern Yard. Whereas Lantern Yard had been austere, white-walled, and filled with serious and devout Puritans, Raveloe is a place of lazy plenty, pints at the local tavern, and carefree religion on Sundays. Chapter One declared it to be a place where bad farmers are rewarded for bad farming! Here Silas found his trade of weaving in such great demand that work kept his hands busy and his mind occupied. The villagers viewed their new strange outsider with interest at first, but when he repulsed their friendly overtures they stayed well clear of him. His paleness, his protuberant eyes (due to shortsightedness) and his unsocial ways led to rumours developing about the hermit-like weaver who lived alone in the stone cutter’s cottage and showed no interest in finding a wife.
Strange Powers During his early days in Raveloe an incident occurred which had profound consequences. Noticing that one of his customers, Sally Oates, was suffering from dropsy, Silas was moved to pity. He prepared a herbal tea which he had learnt from his mother and gave it to the sick woman. When she was cured, Silas was eagerly sought out by people seeking remedies for all kinds of ailments. Rumours were rife about Silas’s magical powers and soon his cottage was under siege. Unable to pretend to skills he did not possess, and too honest to take their money under false pretences, Silas sent them all away empty-handed. However, this did not prevent the locals from continuing to believe he knew how to charm and cure when he wished, and thus he became even further isolated from the community.
The second event which affected his relationship with his new neighbours and increased his fearful reputation was due to his catalepsy. When he experienced a fit while out walking, his strange state was noticed by Jem Rodney the mole catcher. Jem was thoroughly frightened by Silas’s condition, and when he reported what he saw, the villagers came to believe that Silas could send his soul in and out of his body.
The Miser Having no faith in God or man, and completely friendless, it was inevitable that something had to fill the terrible vacuum in the weaver’s heart. The bright shining gold coins which Silas received for his work gave his life a new meaning. Soon he was hoarding the precious metal and devoting himself totally to the amassing of further wealth. Reluctant to spend any of his bright darlings, he lived frugally and dressed in clothes that were little better than rags.
The Robbery Fifteen years after he came to Raveloe, Silas had become very well known throughout the district. Feared for his magical powers and envied for his treasure, he spent his days at his loom and his evenings counting and stacking his pile of gold. This routine would have continued for many more years had not the robbery of his hoard by Dunstan Cass completely destroyed his lifestyle. Bewildered by his loss, Silas was forced to seek help from his neighbours. The sight of the wretched weaver in his forlorn state was enough to arouse the villagers’ pity and warm humanity. Yet Silas was not ready to rejoin the world of men. Though Mr Macey and Dolly Winthrop sought him out and urged him to go to church, Silas was not yet ready to turn back to the God whom he believed had cast him off.
The Arrival of Eppie and the Awakening of Compassion The robbery had ended Silas’s pastime of counting his gold. Now he spent his evenings standing by his open door looking out into the dark nights. While the rest of the village made merry on New Year’s Eve, Silas kept his lonely vigil waiting for his money to return. One again his catalepsy played a crucial role. Overcome by it, he fell into a fit, and so was unaware of the little child toddling past towards the welcoming light and heat of his fire. When he came to, Silas saw the child’s golden hair, and at first thought his treasure had been restored to him. However, the discovery that instead of lifeless metal he had found a lost child did not disappoint him. Emotions, long-buried surfaced again, responding to the child’s cries. Silas’s compassionate self, so long dormant, was awakened. More importantly, the child sent Silas once more seeking help from the Raveloe community, thereby transforming his life again.
The Father Silas’ determination to adopt the child surprised the villagers. Once again they were forced to revise their opinion of the weaver. That the erstwhile miser should willingly burden himself with another’s infant was amazing but, in its way, admirable, and so they were quick to help.
At first, Silas was entirely ignorant of the demands of parenthood. Dolly’s assistance and advice were invaluable in those early days. Though he made mistakes, Silas was above all a loving and unselfish father. Eppie had replaced his gold in his heart, but this new-found love was not a possessive self-centred obsession such as he had felt for his treasure: he never sought to own his child. Even as an infant he tried to give her as much freedom as possible. Later he would show the same generous spirit when she wished to marry Aaron. He was even prepared to return Eppie to her natural father, Godfrey, had she wished it. Paradoxically, it was this willingness to free her from his care which grappled him all the tighter to her heartstrings, so that she refused the chance to become a lady, and chose instead to remain in the humble cottage which had proved her first refuge.
Faith Restored The advent of Eppie forced Silas to once again embrace a communal life. As a father, he could no longer plough his own lonely furrow living aloof from his neighbours. Their kindness melted any residual bitterness remaining from his Lantern Yard days. By having Eppie christened, Silas also returned to the Christian fold. The Raveloe church was very different from the religious community he had known before in his youth, but he soon adapted and adopted to its easy ways and he became a regular church-goer.
However, the experience of Lantern Yard had deeply troubled Silas. To seek some understanding of God’s betrayal in the lots, he and Eppie journeyed north to find the answer. But Lantern Yard no longer existed. He could find none of the community and no trace of William Dane and Sarah. Resolved to accept God’s mysterious ways, which made him so unhappy once but then brought him Eppie, Silas decided that henceforth he would trust in Providence until he died.
A Moral Coward Though handsome, well-built and well-born, Godfrey Cass is no hero. His father’s neglect and the absence of a mother encouraged Godfrey and his four brothers to idle away their youth. His weak character had allowed him to be easily led by his younger and more dissolute brother, Dunstan, into a life of drunkenness and other forms of immorality. He had become involved with a barmaid, Mollie Farren, made her pregnant and then secretly married her. Ashamed to acknowledge his low-born wife, he found himself being blackmailed by Dunstan who was aware of the whole affair. To keep him quiet, Godfrey had given Dunstan £100 rent money which he had received from Fowler, one of his father’s tenants.
The Lover Godfrey loves Nancy Lammeter, the daughter of a local landowner. For her sake, he reforms his ways. Nevertheless, he cannot propose to Nancy while Molly Farren is still alive. Yet Godfrey refuses to do anything to resolve his dilemma; instead he relies on chance to save him.
His faith seems to have been rewarded when Dunstan disappears and Molly dies in the snow. Freed of the burden of his opium-addicted wife, and rid of his blackmailing brother, Godfrey’s troubles appear to be at an end. At last, he can openly woo Nancy and seek her hand in marriage.
The Father In refusing to accept responsibility for his infant daughter, Godfrey commits his most shameful wrong-doing. Rather than reveal his secret marriage, he allows his child to be adopted by the weaver and brought up in humble circumstances. When his marriage to Nancy proves childless, Godfrey feels that God is punishing him for his rejection of Eppie. To ease his conscience, he makes generous gifts of money and furniture to Silas and helps him to extend his cottage. Later he tries to persuade Nancy to adopt the little girl but she, unaware of the child’s true parentage, stubbornly resists, believing such an act to be against God’s will.
The Snob Though Godfrey entrusts his daughter to Silas’s care, he clearly regards the weaver as his inferior. As a member of the gentry, Godfrey has been brought up to believe his own class to be superior in every way to the humble villagers. He addresses the weaver as ‘Marner’ and refers to Aaron Winthrop as ‘a low working man’. Yet, as he discovers when he reveals himself to Eppie and Silas, the reformed miser is a far better man morally and has been a better father to Eppie. Shamed by her rejection, Godfrey is forced to face up to his moral shortcomings and accept his guilt. Now, at last, he can show true repentance and achieve redemption. The experience also teaches him to appreciate Nancy’s love and forgiveness; so, though chastened, Godfrey is a far better person at the end of the novel than he was sixteen years earlier.
The Gentry George Eliot was largely unsympathetic to the pretensions of the landed gentry of her time and was particularly critical of those who gave themselves airs and graces. The idea, then common, that landowners were superior to their tenants and the villagers, is savagely satirised in this novel. The Squire imposes his social authority mainly by being loud of voice and by speaking to people ‘in a ponderous and coughing fashion’. In fact, George Eliot does a good job in undermining whatever respect the reader might feel for the Squire and his family. This is a man who favours prolonged war as a means of enriching himself and is seen giving his deerhounds ‘enough bits of beef to make a poor man’s holiday dinner’. There is, therefore enough disturbing scenes like this one to make this novel a very radical and disturbing social commentary of its time. The Squire may own more land than everyone else, but he has few if any admirable qualities.
The Father As a father, Squire Cass has proved a complete failure. His five sons have been allowed to grow up in idle and spoilt. Godfrey, his heir, has almost ruined himself through an unsuitable marriage, while Dunstan is a thief and a blackmailer. Bob is his favourite, though his only achievement is that he dances well.
Personal Habits In his personal appearance is Squire is slovenly and dirty. His house is no better – untidy, dusty and littered with unwashed tankards. Since his wife’s death, there has been no domestic order in the Red House. Breakfasts are taken at all hours, and the servants neglect their cleaning duties.
The Landowner In the management of his estate, the Squire has also shown his characteristic lack of purpose and order. Despite the high prices for agricultural produce due to the war, he is in financial trouble and he is forced to hound his tenants for their rent. Yet his extravagance and wastefulness are shown when we watch him feeding his dogs on steak.
The Jovial Host Only on New Year’s Eve, when he is the host at the biggest party in Raveloe, is the Squire seen at his best. Even then he is loud, boisterous and boastful. He is also tactless in his remarks, embarrassing both Godfrey and Nancy by his rather obvious hints.
The Moralist Though a man of many faults himself, he is quick to condemn others. He disowns Dunstan and criticises Godfrey as if he were himself a man of impeccable morality. When George Eliot refers to him as ‘the greatest man in Raveloe’, she is clearly being ironic.
Dunstan Cass, the Squire’s second son, is the villain of the novel. He is described as ‘a spiteful jeering fellow’ who is happiest when hurting others. Godfrey’s predicament is a source of great amusement to him, especially since he can profit from it through blackmailing him. By nature, a drunkard, he is never without a flask of brandy and rarely sober.
He loves to bargain and swap since it allows him to swagger before others. Foolishly, Godfrey allows him to sell his horse. Even when the price has been agreed, Dunstan insists on riding the horse to the hunt to show off. His recklessness, due in part to having drunk too much brandy, encourages him to take one fence too many, and he stakes and kills the unfortunate animal.
His worst crime is his robbery of Silas Marner. Ironically, the theft proves to be the start of the weaver’s redemption. However, Dunstan has no time to enjoy his loot, as he falls into the quarry and is drowned within minutes of leaving Silas’s cottage.
Dunstan exhibits the worst features of the landed gentry in Eliot’s time. Idle and wasteful, he is full of his own importance, prepared to bully and blackmail and even to stoop to stealing when the opportunity arises. His disappearance is a relief to all in the village. Though mourned by none, the discovery of Dunstan’s skeleton prompts Godfrey to make a full confession to Nancy and restores his lost gold to Silas.
The Village Beauty The loveliest girl in Raveloe is Nancy Lammeter. As the daughter of a rich landowner, she is seen as the obvious choice of wife for Godfrey Cass and the match is greatly desired by the Squire. Godfrey is very much in love with Nancy but can do nothing as long as Molly, his secret wife, lives. For her part, Nancy loves Godfrey but abhors his dissolute ways. Only when he reforms completely after Molly’s death is she prepared to accept his proposal and become the mistress of the Red House.
Her Religion Nancy is deeply religious. However, her Christianity is narrower and more rigid than that of Raveloe people in general. Since she also is stubborn by nature, she is prepared to take inflexible stances on what she believes are moral issues. Thus, when her baby dies in infancy, she decides it is god’s will that they remain childless. Having made up her mind, she stubbornly opposes Godfrey’s efforts to adopt a child.
Her Class Though she belongs to the gentry, Nancy has none of the snobbery associated with her class. She has worked with her hands and thought nothing of it. Her beauty and charm are acknowledged by all, even the envious Miss Gunne. Her dress may not be the latest fashion, but it is far more becoming than theirs.
The Wife As a wife, Nancy has devoted herself to her husband. She has restored the Red House to its former glory. Their marriage would have been perfect had they had children. Instead, Nancy finds her life empty and is even considering setting up a dairy to busy herself. Godfrey’s revelations about his former marriage test her love, but she proves herself truly Christian in her forgiveness. Her first thoughts are of Eppie, and she is prepared to accept the drug addict’s daughter as her own. She accepts Eppie’s rejection bravely and bears no grudge towards the girl. Indeed, she supplies Eppie with her bridal dress. Godfrey, realising how fortunate he is to have such a good wife, appreciates Nancy more than ever, and both discover a richer life together as a result of their experiences. Both have paid dearly for their mistakes, but in learning the lessons of life they achieve real happiness at last.
Note: Though George Eliot favoured the ordinary villagers more than their so-called betters, she was not prepared to glamorise them in any way. Her working people are shown warts and all, but with enough endearing qualities to ensure our sympathy and even admiration.
An Unlikely Saint Dolly Winthrop is illiterate and uneducated, yet she possesses great wisdom and kindness. She is known throughout Raveloe for her caring ways; she tends the sick and comforts the dying. When Kimble hears of Molly’s death, Dolly is the first person he sends for. She visits Silas after the robbery, bringing him lard cakes and homely advice. Dolly’s experience of suffering tells her that Silas’s real problem is loneliness. To remedy that, she encourages him to go to church to join the community.
The Godmother When Silas finds himself the adoptive parent of a baby girl, he needs Dolly. Her maternal know-how proves invaluable in the early days as Silas takes on the new and daunting role of parent. As well as instructing him in the basics, she provides Eppie with clothes. She also becomes the child’s godmother and thereafter takes an active interest in Eppie’s development and welfare. However, at no time does she try to supplant Silas in his daughter’s affections. As always, her help is entirely unselfish and altruistic.
The Confidante Dolly is Silas’s closest friend in Raveloe. He learns to value her help and advice. He also confides in her, revealing the story of the earlier theft at Lantern Yard and the judgement of the lots. Knowing how difficult it is for him to come to terms with this, Dolly advises him to have faith in Providence. Silas wants to know more, but after his fruitless journey back to Lantern Yard he comes to accept that God’s ways are too mysterious for men to understand. Yet, had he not suffered in lantern Yard, he would never have come to Raveloe and never known Eppie’s love. This realisation puts his mind at peace, and he resolves to follow Dolly’s philosophy and to ‘trusten ‘ till he dies.
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Silas Marner by George Eliot is a radically disturbing social document…