“In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.” (Chapter 14)
George Eliot’s Silas Marner is a short novel. The weaver Silas Marner was part of a religious cult until he was wrongly found guilty of theft and thrust out. The group cast lots, believing God would reveal whether or not he was guilty in this way. The lots declared him guilty, but not before Silas realized that it was his own friend, who was like a brother to him, who had stolen the money and put the blame on him. No longer trusting in God or man, he departs to Raveloe, shunning human contact, absorbed in his work only. He begins to find joy in the gold he receives for his cloth and becomes a miser. His greatest enjoyment is, after a day of weaving, to relax in the evening and count his gold, delighting in its color and feel. So he lives solitary for many years, until his gold is stolen and a child comes to his hearth in its place.
As hard as it was for Marner to lose his gold, he begins to turn to others for help. When he finds Eppie on his hearth, mistaking her curls for his lost gold, he begins to care for someone outside of himself. Her mother is found dead and Marner brings her up. As a child, Eppie is, of course, curious about the world around her and so draws Marner back into the living world. He begins to trust in God’s goodness once more.
The importance of human relationships — caring for people beyond oneself — and of trust are central topics in Silas Marner. While he lived so alone, shunning everyone, intent only on his work, completely self-absorbed, Marner shriveled up mentally, emotionally, and even physically. When Eppie begins to draw him out of himself, he becomes happier and healthier. Dolly Winthrop, who befriended Marner when his gold was stolen and helped him when he decided to raise Eppie, tells him,
“[T]here’s trouble i’ this world, and there’s things as we can niver make out the rights on. And all as we’ve got to do is to trusten, Master Marner — to do the right thing as fur as we know, and to trusten. For if us as knows so little can see a bit o’ good and rights, we may be sure as there’s a good and a rights bigger nor what we can know — I feel it i’ my own inside as it must be so. And if you could but ha’ gone on trustening, Master Marner, you wouldn’t ha’ run away from your fellow-creaturs and been so lone.” (Ch. 16)
“You were hard done by that once, Master Marner, and it seems as you’ll never know the rights of it; but that doesn’t hinder there being a rights, Master Marner, for all it’s dark to you and me.” (Ch. 21)
God’s ways are higher than our ways, and His thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). He sees not as man sees (I Samuel 16:7).
Next to Silas Marner, the next major character is Godfrey Cass, the eldest son of Squire Cass (part of the landed gentry of the area). Though in love with Nancy Lammeter, he is deluded into marrying a barmaid named Molly, who turns out to be an opium addict. Afraid of being turned out by his father and of losing his chances with Nancy (as if he hadn’t already done that), Godfrey is eager to keep his marriage secret. To do so he continues to give in to his detestable brother Dunstan, who helped trap him into the marriage in the first place and uses his knowledge for blackmail. Though a kindly young man, Godfrey lacks strength of character. To give up his ease and all that he cares for, for a woman he hates is impossible for him, so he drifts along in a life of deceit, hoping for some propitious release to prevent the truth from crashing down upon him. And then, in a double stroke of luck, Dunstan disappears and Molly dies.
Now Godfrey’s way to happiness is clear. All he has to do is not own his daughter — the little girl who makes her way to Marner’s hearth. Eventually he marries Nancy and inherits his father’s estate. But the years go by and he and Nancy have no children. More and more Godfrey wishes to adopt Eppie. Nancy sets herself against this, however. Her opinions on adoption were interesting. She thought that, if a couple had no children, it was a sign that they were not meant to have them and that any child adopted under such circumstances would turn out ill. Though, in her opinion, Marner is exempt from this, as he did not seek Eppie out.
Then, sixteen years after Dunstan’s disappearance, his body is found and it is discovered that he was the man who robbed Silas Marner. This is a major jolt to Godfrey. He doesn’t want Nancy to find out about his past after his death, so he finally confesses to her that he was married before and that Eppie is his child. Nancy regrets that she wasn’t told before, as she would never have refused to take in Eppie if she had known. “At that moment Godfrey felt all the bitterness of an error that was not simply futile, but had defeated its own end.” (Ch. 18) After an attempt to take Eppie to live with him (an offer which Eppie refuses), Godfrey sadly realizes,
“[T]here’s debts we can’t pay like money debts, by paying extra for the years that have slipped by. While I’ve been putting off and putting off, the trees have been growing — it’s too late now. Marner was in the right in what he said about a man’s turning away a blessing from his door: it falls to somebody else. I wanted to pass for childless once, Nancy — I shall pass for childless now against my wish.” (Ch. 20)
Much as Adam Bede did, Silas Marner addresses how difficult (but how worthwhile) it can be to choose right over wrong and the fact that sometimes reparation can be futile. In some ways Godfrey is very similar to Arthur Donnithorne.
In Silas Marner, George Eliot makes a few observations on child-rearing. I thought it was interesting that, though permissive parenting was shown to be detrimental to Godfrey, Marner also raises Eppie with a lack of discipline but with much better results. Godfrey’s father is a man who lets things go on until they get really bad and then becomes enraged. He claims to have been too kind to his sons. “Godfrey was silent. He was not likely to be very penetrating in his judgments, but he had always had a sense that his father’s indulgence had not been kindness, and had had a vague longing for some discipline that would have checked his own errant weakness and helped his better will.” (Ch. 9)
Marner, on the other hand, though shrinking from punishing Eppie, lest she cease to love him, is patient and much more positively involved in her life than Godfrey’s father was in his. “So Eppie was reared without punishment, the burden of her misdeeds being borne vicariously by father Silas. The stone hut was made a soft nest for her, lined with downy patience: and also in the world that lay beyond the stone hut she knew nothing of frowns and denials.” (Ch. 14) Eppie’s ability to stick to what is right despite strong temptation to do otherwise is not tested the way Godfrey’s was. Her love for her father (Silas Marner) is tested, however, and without hesitation she refuses to leave him.
Silas Marner is a beautiful story. The relationship between Marner and Eppie is, of course, the highlight. I like the picture of Marner telling Eppie the story of how she came to him, “of the past, and how and why he had lived a lonely man until she had been sent to him. … how her mother had died on the snowy ground, and how she herself had been found on the hearth by father Silas, who had taken her golden curls for his lost guineas brought back to him.” (Ch. 16) After his gold was found and restored to him, Marner muses on how he used to wish it to come back to him. He tells Eppie,
“At first, I’d a sort o’ feeling come across me now and then, … as if you might be changed into the gold again; … and I thought I should be glad if I could feel it, and find it was come back. But that didn’t last long. After a bit, I should have thought it was a curse come again, if it had drove you from me, for I’d got to feel the need o’ your looks and your voice and the touch o’ your little fingers. You didn’t know then, Eppie, when you were such a little un — you didn’t know what your old father Silas felt for you. … If you hadn’t been sent to save me, I should ha’ gone to the grave in my misery. The money was taken away from me in time; and you see it’s been kept — kept till it was wanted for you. It’s wonderful — our life is wonderful.” (Ch. 19)
Illustrations: Book cover designed by Hugh Thomson; the cover of the Bantam Books 1992 edition of Silas Marner (image from The Forbes Magazine Collection, New York); and “The Cauld Blast” (1876) by Joshua Hargrave Mann.