Book Summary: Silas Marner by George Eliot

Book Summary: Silas Marner by George Eliot

Type of work: Symbolic, life drama

Setting: English village of Raveloe; early 19th century

Principal characters
Silas Marner, a lonely and miserly linen-weaver
Godfrey Cass, an insensitive, yet charming, young man
Dunstan Cass, Godfrey’s opportunistic brother
Squire Cass, Godfrey and Dunstan’s lewd, dull-witted father
Eppie, an abandoned little girl

Silas Marner Book Summary

Silas Marner, bent at his loom, was interrupted by some curious boys peering through his cabin window. Scaring them away with an icy stare, the shriveled linen-weaver returned to his work. Fifteen years earlier Marner had come to Raveloe from a northern industrial town, where he had been a respected elder in a small fundamentalist sect.

But one night as he watched over a deacon lying on his deathbed, Silas fell into a trance. While he slept, his best friend had stolen into the room and taken the deacon’s money bag; then, in a move to win the affections of Silas’s sweetheart, he had blamed the theft on Silas. The weaver was “convicted” in the case by the drawing of lots; even God had found him guilty.

His faith shattered and “his trust in man … cruelly bruised,” Silas had left his beloved home in Lantern Yard. The eccentric visionary now found himself a lone alien in the prosperous village of Raveloe. Taking refuge in his work, Silas slowly began to accumulate gold. It became his one purpose in life, and every evening the nearsighted old man would count and caress his shiny coins.

Still, Silas’s life grew more and more empty: “He hated the thought of the past; there was nothing that called out his love and fellowship toward the strangers he had come amongst.” And the future was dark, for there was “no Unseen Love that cared for him.” Meanwhile, Squire Cass, the “greatest man in Raveloe,” threw nightly parties and attended pubs by day. One of his sons, Dunstan, followed him in his drunken reveries.

His other son, Godfrey, had a slightly better reputation, and it was presumed he would soon marry the lovely Nancy Lammeter. But Dunstan knew a secret about Godfrey, kept hidden from their harsh father: Godfrey was already married to Molly, a raucous tavern woman with whom he had shared a brief moment of passion. “Dunsey” continually manipulated his brother over this secret, demanding money to pay gambling debts. In fact, Godfrey finally even handed over to his brother the Squire’s rent money.

Then, with no other way left to reimburse their father, Godfrey let his brother take his own prize horse to be sold at a nearby fair. Dunstan was paid a good price for the horse, but while delivering it to its new owner he was diverted into joining a hunting party, where the animal was accidentally killed. Unfazed and drunken, Dunstan kept the payment.

Then, taking a shortcut on his way home, he passed Silas Marner’s cabin. Recalling rumors that the weaver kept a hoard of gold, Dunstan entered the empty cabin, uncovered the miser’s money, and carted it off into the night. Silas returned home that night in anticipation of sitting down to the roasted meat provided by the neighbor-lady.

But, as was his ritual, when he lifted the bricks to gloat over his cache of gold, he found it gone. Hysterically, he rushed off to the nearby Rainbow Pub to alert the authorities. For days the townsfolk debated the robbery. Some said that the Devil was the thief and that Silas’s money was now in hell. Others blamed a ghost or a gypsy peddler. Meanwhile, when Dunstan didn’t arrive home from selling his brother’s horse, no one was concerned.

The young man had a reputation for sporadic disappearances. The only notable reaction to his absence was Squire Cass’s rage after Godfrey confessed to the reasons behind the missing rent money. Over the weeks, village interest in Silas’s problem died down, though the citizens still felt sorry for the withered and despondent recluse.

A few neighbors – Dolly Winthrop and her little son, Aaron, in particular – invited Silas to church and sometimes prepared food for him. As Christmas came and went, Godfrey remained in frustration and turmoil. His father prodded him to propose to Nancy Lammeter – and how he wished he could! Then, at Squire Cass’s annual New Year’s Eve party, at last Godfrey began to woo Nancy.

Unbeknownst to him, however, his wife, Molly, was at that moment trudging through the snow towards the house, hand in hand with a ragged, golden-haired two-year-old girl. Seeking revenge, she intended to expose the marriage and force Godfrey to acknowledge their child. But fate intervened: before she arrived, the opium-crazed woman was overcome by weakness, and she collapsed.

The child, spying the light from Silas’s cottage, toddled in through the doorway. Awakened from a trance and seeing the gleam of the sleeping child’s hair by the fireplace, Silas at first imagined that his gold had been restored to him. Regaining his senses, he fed and bundled the tot, then tracked her footprints out into the night where he found her mother, dead. Silas whisked the little girl into his arms and rushed to where the party was being held.

At the sight of the child, Godfrey raced through the snow to where the dead woman lay, his conscience seared by urgent questions: Should he acknowledge the truth and claim the child as his own, or marry Nancy and keep the identity of his daughter and estranged wife a secret? Godfrey chose the latter.

That night, Silas Marner made a startling announcement: he planned to keep the child. It was his right and blessing; she had come to replace his gold. The community rallied around the new guardian of Hephzibah – named after the weaver’s mother and sister, and known as Eppie for short.

As spring approached, Silas’s soul seemed to sprout and bloom like a flower. Lacy curtains graced his windows. He’d grown to love the delightful girl even more than he had loved his gold. Unlike the gold, which needed nothing, and must be worshipped in close-locked solitude … Eppie was a creature of endless claims and ever-growing desires, seeking and loving sunshine. … The gold had asked that he should sit weaving longer and longer, deafened and blinded more and more to all things … but Eppie called him away from his weaving, and made him think all its pauses a holiday … warming him into joy because she had joy. Godfrey, in contrast, grew more and more sullen. Though he had married Nancy, he could not forget little Eppie.

He often stopped by Silas’s cottage and left money to help support the growing girl. Sixteen years passed. Silas was now a very old man; and though he was happy, he still clung to the past, searching for the meaning of his life. Eppie had grown into a beautiful, high-spirited and well-bred young woman – with a beau, Aaron Winthrop, Dolly’s industrious son. She spent her days gardening, caring for her pets, and fussing over her father. Godfrey and Nancy Cass had been blessed over the years with wealth but with no living children, and Nancy would not hear of adoption. And so, Godfrey increasingly felt disappointed, deprived and punished.

Then, one day, pale and trembling, Godfrey entered and informed his wife that Dunstan’s skeleton had been unearthed, along with Silas’s stolen coins, from the bottom of a recently drained quarry. Convinced that this was a sign that all truths would eventually come to light, Godfrey revealed his long-kept secret. To his joy, Nancy accepted what her husband had done and expressed the desire to adopt Eppie. Meanwhile, Silas was delighted that his lost gold had returned to him.

He now had two treasures; but Eppie remained by far the more precious of the two. Then a knock came at the door. Mr and Mrs Godfrey Cass appeared, congenially offering to take Eppie into their own home. Silas, astounded, rejected the idea. When the couple pressed the matter, Eppie instinctively cradled Silas’s trembling body in her arms and again refused them. Godfrey then blurted out the truth – he was the girl’s father – and asserted his “claim” on her.

But Silas chastised Godfrey for abandoning his daughter and reminded him of the long bonds of love between himself and Eppie. And once more Eppie begged to stay with Silas in his humble cottage. Confused and angry, Godfrey stomped out of the house. But on the way home his mood mellowed. He expressed his love for his wife and told her in quiet irony, “I wanted to pass for childless once … I shall pass for childless now against my wish.” The humbled couple determined to live out their lives in acceptance and love.

One day, Silas and Eppie made a journey to visit his old home, Lantern Yard. They found in the now dirty, noisy, joyless city that Lantern Yard had disappeared, torn down to make room for a factory. His mind now freed from his luckless past, Silas could return home in peace.

The miracle of Eppie caused him to trust life, and “now she says she’ll never leave me … I think I shall trusten till I die.” Godfrey supplied the funds to enlarge Silas’s tiny cabin and hosted Eppie’s marriage feast. Hand in hand with Aaron she stood, dressed in Nancy’s wedding gown. And the guests gathered in the churchyard to retell the old story of Silas and Eppie. “O father, what a pretty home ours is!” Eppie exclaimed when they reached their flower-strewn cottage. “I think nobody could be happier than we are.”

Silas Marner Reviews

Eliot’s Silas Marner is replete with religious overtones, class divisions, and interwoven human emotions. Life-mysteries such as luck and fate are examined. The contrast between Silas’s urban home in Lantern Yard – pushed aside by the Industrial Revolution – and the bustling village of Raveloe, representing an unchanging, personable and rural society, shows Eliot’s obvious preference.

George Eliot’s real name was Mary Ann Evans. An intellectual, she lived in 19th-century scandal with a married man, who urged her to write fiction. Evans wrote under the pen name out of fear of rejection. Eliot’s racy style and the fact that she chose to feature in her novels the complex psychological lives of ordinary laborers, made her, simultaneously, both an outcast and a beloved author.

Silas Marner was written out of a floodgate of feelings she had acquired from her unhappy childhood. It teaches the values of honesty, kindness, and courage as it entertains, and is still quite a radical, intriguing vision of the world.

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