Without doubt Middlemarch is George Eliot’s masterpiece – in fact, many literary historians consider it the best nineteenth-century novel written in English. And her lesser-known works of fiction, too, deserve accolades. George Eliot is the pen name of Mary Ann Evans (1819 – 1880), a writer of genius who combined philosophical ideas and psychological insight with astute observation of society and its effect on the individual. Her books reflect her intelligence, imagination and broad vision concerning the human condition. Behind every sentence in George Eliot’s fiction lurks a powerful and deeply learned mind. Her stories register the world and they portray characters precisely and sympathetically.
In her youth Eliot had been a devout, church-going Christian, but by the time she reached 20, she had lost faith in God and in the teachings of Christianity. Yet she remained an ardent believer in the Christian code of morality, convinced that for decency and the good of society, humans must adhere to that code. Clearly, Eliot’s conviction is that Christianity may be literally wrong, but it is morally right. As a young woman she fell in love with George Lewes, a respected London man of letters. Lewes became her husband in all but the legal sense; marriage was out-of-the-question because he already had an estranged wife who refused to divorce him. Not surprisingly, Eliot’s fiction was underpinned with the notion that morality is not black and white, that it entails an acknowledgement of life’s realities.
A decade before Middlemarch, when she was at the height of her writing powers, Eliot penned Silas Marner, her shortest and, arguably, her most accessible book. For generations Silas Marner was a staple of high school English classes because of its clarity and directness. But for all its fairy-tale aspects and despite being categorized as a fable, Silas Marner is a novel, with realistic elements, firmly set in time and place and sharply observed. The Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century go on offstage as Eliot spotlights our attention on the small dramas in Raveloe, a remote village in the English countryside. Within the time span of the novel – which is set some 50 years before the time Eliot was writing it – while the townspeople of Raveloe meet their daily challenges, England transforms from a feudal to a bourgeois society.
The novel presents the story of a Silas Marner, a weaver in Raveloe who loses his fortune and gains a treasure. It may appear to have been written with spontaneity and ease, but, in fact, it is brilliantly crafted. Its narrative voice, unlike that in Eliot’s longer works of fiction, is restrained, telling the story simply and swiftly, making pithy comments only occasionally. (In Middlemarch the narrative voice frequently breaks into the action to philosophize or cast judgment.)
Silas Marner is a loner, the object of suspicion because he has come to the village from elsewhere and because he suffers occasionally from cataleptic fits. We learn that he has relocated to Raveloe in Warwickshire from a larger town, not too far away, called Lantern Yard. In Lantern Yard he had been a member of a religious sect until it falsely accused him of theft. Unspeakably outraged and disturbed following the accusation, Silas renounces his faith and falls into a numbing routine of solitary work in a lonely Raveloe cottage. His discontent is compounded by the fact that his fiancée, too, has jilted him. Eliot underscores a primary fact of Silas’s background – his loss of all connection with the past. With little else to live for, Silas becomes infatuated with the money he earns for his work. Spending practically nothing for his own needs, he starts hoarding the gold, hiding it beneath the floorboards. Every night for 15 years he pulls it out to count it. Eliot relates:
“So year after year Silas Marner had lived in this solitude, his guineas rising in the iron pot, and his life narrowing and hardening itself more and more into a mere pulsation of desire and satisfaction that had no relation to any other being. His life had reduced itself to the functions of weaving and hoarding, without any contemplation of an end toward which the functions tended.”
She notes that although Silas was not yet 40 he was so withered and yellow that the village children called him, “old master Marner.”
There is a second plot thread to Silas Marner, one that intersects seamlessly with the Silas plot and skillfully comments on it. It centers around Godfrey Cass, the older son of Raveloe’s wealthiest man, Squire Cass. The squire himself, as Eliot dismissively remarks, is lazy, complacent and “not overly bright.” Godfrey has a younger brother, Dunsey, a cruel and greedy young man, while Godfrey is described as amiable but weak-willed. Though he is secretly married to Molly Farren, an opium addict, he is in love with the beautiful Nancy Lammeter, a perceptive and kind person. For years Dunsey has been blackmailing Godfrey with the threat to reveal to their father Godfrey’s marriage to Molly.
In need of money to repay a loan, and aware of the rumors about Silas’s hoard of gold, Dunsey plans to frighten Silas into lending him money. But when he goes to the weaver’s cottage, he finds it empty. Dunsey wonders where the weaver could have gone and thinks about the darkness and blinding mist that had made his own trudge to the cottage so grueling. With her impressive gift for foreshadowing, Eliot drops a hint about Dunsey’s imminent demise, stating:
“But where could [Silas] be at this time, and on such an evening, leaving his supper in this stage of preparation, and his door unfastened? Dunsey’s own recent difficulty in making his way suggested to him that the weaver had perhaps gone outside his cottage to fetch in fuel, or for some such brief purpose, and had slipped into the stone-pit. That was an interesting idea to Dunsey, carrying consequences of entire novelty. If the weaver was dead, who had a right to his money?”
For Dunsey the pressing question now became “Where are the gold coins hidden?” He had completely forgotten that Silas’s death was not a given. With characteristic insight, Eliot writes, “A dull mind, once arriving at an inference that flatters a desire, is rarely able to retain the impression that the notion from which the inference started was purely problematic.” In other words, Dunsey was ignorant of one version of the truth – that one must never take anything for granted.
Dunsey finds the hiding place and steals the gold coins. The theft marks the first time that the novel’s two plot lines intersect, and it sets in motion the action of the entire novel. Silas returns home from an errand and finds his money gone. Overwhelmed by the loss, he runs to the local tavern and reports the theft. The tavern patrons are sympathetic, and the crime immediately becomes the talk of the village. Many suspect a peddler who had come through the village. Silas is utterly disconsolate over the loss of his gold. In despair he turns to his weaving, but his isolation and the monotony of his life diminish. Townspeople drop by to offer their condolences and advice, notably the wheelwright’s wife, Dolly Winthrop, who will become his loyal friend.
Soon after the pivotal theft, Squire Cass holds his annual New Year’s dance to which all the village rich are invited. It is the next chain of events that lead up to the book’s melodramatic – but nonetheless affecting – climax. Godfrey’s secret wife, Molly, makes her way through the cold and snow to reveal to Squire Cass that she is Godfrey’s wife. She is carrying in her arms the baby girl, a toddler, whom Godfrey has fathered. Tiring during the arduous walk, Molly takes a draft of opium and passes out on the side of the road. Seeing Silas’s cottage and drawn by the light of the fire, Molly’s little toddler wanders through the open door and falls asleep at Silas’s hearth. Silas is having one of his periodic cataleptic seizures at the time and does not see her until he awakens. He is as stunned by her appearance as he was by the loss of his gold coins. The little girl’s presence on Silas’s hearth is the second intersection of the parallel Silas and Cass-family narratives.
With the imperiled baby in his arms, Silas traces her footsteps in the snow and finds Molly’s body. Looking for a doctor, he hurries to Squire Cass’s home where he shocks the partygoers because he is holding a child. Recognizing his daughter, a white-lipped Godfrey begins to tremble. He and Silas exit the party with a doctor in tow. When one of the women guests suggests to the departing Silas that he leave the baby, he answers abruptly, “No – no – I can’t part with it; I can’t let it go…it’s come to me – I’ve a right to keep it.” The proposition to take the child from him had come to Silas quite unexpectedly. Eliot tells us, “…his speech, uttered under a strong, sudden impulse, was almost like a revelation to himself: a minute before, he had no distinct intention about the child.” From Silas’s emotional announcement, readers understand that the child provides him with an object to love. His thirst to love another has been diminished but unquenched by either the fraudulent accusation in Lantern Yard or by the solitary years of hoarding gold.
Silas, Godfrey and the doctor hurry to the site of Molly’s fall. When the doctor formally declares Molly dead, Godfrey knows his secret is safe at last. He does not claim his daughter, and Silas adopts her.
Silas names the child “Eppie,” after his mother and sister, and each day becomes increasingly fond of her. With Dolly Winthrop’s help he raises Eppie capably and lovingly. The girl serves as an agent in bringing him out of the morbid state he fell into after the loss of his gold coins. Eppie also serves as a bridge between Silas and the rest of the villagers, who offer him help and advice. They are impressed with his kindness to the little girl, and their perception of Silas gradually undergoes a drastic change. No longer is he viewed as a marginalized, almost lunatic weaver. He is a man who can give and receive love. Because of his newfound contentment, Silas finds the confidence to explore memories of his past that he has for so long repressed.
Eliot’s narrative then vaults ahead 16 years. Godfrey has married Nancy Lammeter, and Squire Cass has died. Eppie has grown into a pretty and high-spirited young woman, and Silas is a proud father. Eliot has Nancy point out that Eppie, “doesn’t look like a strapping girl come from working parents.” Silas has discussed his past with her, informing her that he is not her father. He has told her how she came to him at her mother’s death. When the stone-pit behind Silas’s cottage is drained to water neighboring fields, Dunsey’s skeleton is found at the bottom along with Silas’s gold. The discovery frightens Godfrey, who becomes convinced that his own secrets are destined to be uncovered as well. He confesses to Nancy about having married Molly and fathering Eppie.
That evening Godfrey and Nancy go to Silas’s cottage and reveal the truth about Eppie’s parentage. They want, of course, to claim her as their daughter. The visit marks the third intersection of the novel’s two narrative lines. But gratifying to Silas – and to readers as well – Eppie tells them she would rather stay with Silas than live with her biological father. Eliot conveys the delightful moment in Eppie’s own words:
“Thank you, ma’am – thank you, sir. But I can’s leave my father, nor own anybody nearer than him. And I don’t want to be a lady – thank you all the same…I couldn’t give up the folks I’ve been used to.”
Godfrey and Nancy have no choice but to be content with helping Eppie from afar. The next day Silas travels to Lantern Yard to see if he was ever cleared of the theft charges mistakenly brought against him so many years ago. But the town has changed beyond recognition; his former church has been torn down to make way for a factory. Eliot is illuminating the truth that social transformation is at work while people live out their lives unaware. Silas understands that his question will never be answered, but he is at ease, and, thanks to Eppie has faith in the goodness of life.
This affirmation is only one of several that flow through the veins of the novel. Eliot’s Silas Marner offers readers nuggets of truth, for example: People need a community; Loss of connection with one’s past is a spiritual disaster; Some people, even victims of egregious injustice, are resilient; and, finally, character is destiny – consider Dunsey’s end in the stone pit vs. Silas’s final years.
Eliot gives her book a tidy and happy ending. Eppie is married to Aaron Winthrop, Dolly’s son. She and Aaron will live in Silas’s cottage, which has been expanded and refurbished as a gift from Godfrey. The book concludes with Eppie saying, “Oh, Father…what a pretty home ours is! I think nobody could be happier than we are.” To be sure, the accusations of romanticism and sentimentality hurled at Eliot’s ending are valid.
Moreover, there has been criticism over Eliot’s authorial manipulation in Silas Marner. Is the plot too contrived? Are the coincidences not plausible? Silas’s cottage just happens to be vacant and the door open on the one night Dunsey comes looking for money. And that door just happens to be open again when Eppie crawls out of the snow. A dedicated reader, however, will “suspend her/his disbelief” over these events in exchange for the immeasurably rich experience of partaking in the lives of Silas and his associates. The book’s flaws are miniscule compared to the book’s merits.