Like most of George Eliot’s novels, Silas Marner is set in the rural England of the author’s childhood memories. Like her other novels, too, the work is meticulously realistic in many aspects of its dialogue, description, and characterization. Unlike most of her novels, however, Silas Marner is very short, with an almost geometrically formal structure, and its plot relies upon some rather improbable incidents. Such elements reflect the author’s intent to deal with profound themes in the form of a fable.
In Silas’ story, George Eliot obliquely approaches the realm of spiritual truth by depicting the restoration of faith in the heart of a very simple man. The old-fashioned rural setting is important as a frame; its cultural remoteness from the world of the reader gives it the archaic simplicity and uncontested credibility of a fable or fairy tale. Even so, George Eliot critics have never been comfortable with the implication that somehow Eppie has been given to Silas by a benevolent providence in return for his lost gold. The question of the author’s stance is especially problematic in view of her own agnosticism. Although George Eliot herself as a child was an ardent, evangelical Christian, in maturity (like many Victorian intellectuals) she rejected traditional beliefs for a humanist credo.
In Godfrey’s story, realism predominates, and thus the author’s control of theme is more secure. Godfrey’s marriage to Molly Farren is the fatal step that enmeshes him in lies and guile as he tries to evade its consequences. One must beware of condemning Godfrey, however, because the author herself does not. Rather, she sees him as a type of erring humanity—a good-hearted but weak-willed young man who desperately wants to rewrite his past and enjoy a happy future with Nancy Lammeter. The role of Dunstan as a foil to Godfrey is important: Together, they represent a classic Cain-and-Abel, bad brother-good brother contrast. This structural polarity helps to create a context of judgment in which Dunstan’s viciousness makes Godfrey’s wrongdoing seem less damning.
Structural patterns of this kind are in fact a key to the novel’s meaning. The various parallels and contrasts between the Silas and Godfrey stories show these respective halves of the novel to be formally related, like the panels of a diptych. Both Godfrey and Silas are living out the consequences of a past wrong, in which the one was the secret wrongdoer, the other the falsely accused victim. In both stories theft is a pivotal event: Dunstan’s stealing of Silas’ gold complements William Dane’s taking of the church money. Silas suffers unjustly but magnifies his misery by becoming a virtual hermit. Godfrey suffers the pangs of conscience while maintaining an outwardly cheerful, gregarious disposition. As the ironic consequence of denying his wife and child, Godfrey remains childless, since he and Nancy apparently cannot have children, whereas Silas, the lonely bachelor, receives Eppie into his life as a daughter. In general, the unfolding of each story suggests the influence of a power or force of destiny beyond human understanding—something rather like Nemesis in Godfrey’s case, and something rather like Providence in Silas’.
If the metaphysical implications of Silas Marner go beyond the realm of earthly reality, the primary moral intent of the author is firmly grounded in human relationships. As is the case in her other novels, the bonds of love, sympathy, and fellow feeling are the highest good that one can truly know. As such, they are redemptive in themselves and are the basis of George Eliot’s “religion of humanity.” Although she doubts the existence of God, she is assured of the existence of a sublime, collective goodness. Thus, in both stories, the power of human affection, especially as shown by the women of the novel, heals psychic wounds, restores humanity, and, insofar as it can, atones for wrongdoing. In Godfrey’s story, it is Nancy who serves in this role. She is a “centered” personality who counterbalances Godfrey’s lack of inner strength; her love for him unites her sensitive, affectionate nature with her deep moral principles. In Silas’ story, Dolly Winthrop and, later, Eppie, perform comparable functions. Dolly’s good sense and warm sympathy provide Silas with a lifeline to a restored faith in humanity and God. Eppie’s decision at the end to remain with Silas reflects the strength of their shared affection and affirms the bonds of feeling as the surest basis of right choice.
Summary: Chapter 19
Eppie and Silas sit in their cottage later that evening. Silas has sent Dolly and Aaron Winthrop away, desiring solitude with his daughter after the excitement of the afternoon’s discovery. Silas muses about the return of his money and reconsiders the events that have passed since he lost it. He tells Eppie how he initially hoped she might somehow turn back into the gold, but later grew fearful of that that prospect because he loved her more than the money. Silas tells Eppie how much he loves her, and says the money has simply been “kept till it was wanted for you.” She responds that if not for Silas, she would have been sent to the workhouse.
Someone knocks at the door, and Eppie opens it to find Godfrey and Nancy Cass. Godfrey tells Silas that he wants to make up to Silas not only for what Dunsey did, but also for another debt he owes to the weaver. Godfrey tells Silas that the money is not enough for him to live on without continuing to work. Silas, however, argues that though it might seem like a very small sum to a gentleman, it is more money than many other working people have. Godfrey says that Eppie does not look like she was born for a working life and that she would do better living in a place like his home. Silas becomes uneasy.
Godfrey explains that since they have no children, they would like Eppie to come live with them as their daughter. He assumes that Silas would like to see Eppie in such an advantageous position, and promises that Silas will be provided for himself. Eppie sees that Silas is distressed, though Silas tells her to do as she chooses. Eppie tells Godfrey and Nancy that she does not want to leave her father, nor does she want to become a lady.
Godfrey insists that he has a claim on Eppie and confesses that he is her father. Silas angrily retorts that, if this is the case, Godfrey should have claimed Eppie when she was a baby instead of waiting until Silas and Eppie had grown to love each other. Not expecting this resistance, Godfrey tells Silas that he is standing in the way of Eppie’s welfare. Silas says that he will not argue anymore and leaves the decision up to Eppie. As she listens, Nancy cannot help but sympathize with Silas and Eppie, but feels that it is only right that Eppie claim her birthright. Nancy feels that Eppie’s new life would be an unquestionably better one. Eppie, however, says that she would rather stay with Silas. Nancy tells her that it is her duty to go to her real father’s house, but Eppie responds that Silas is her real father. Godfrey, greatly discouraged, turns to leave, and Nancy says they will return another day.
Summary: Chapter 20
Godfrey and Nancy return home and realize that Eppie’s decision is final. Godfrey concedes that what Silas has said is right, and he resigns himself simply to helping Eppie from afar. Godfrey and Nancy surmise that Eppie will marry Aaron, and Godfrey wistfully comments on how pretty and nice Eppie seemed. He says he noticed that Eppie took a dislike to him when he confessed that he was her father, and he decides that it must be his punishment in life to be disliked by his daughter. Godfrey tells Nancy that he is grateful, despite everything, to have been able to marry her, and vows to be satisfied with their marriage.
Summary: Chapter 21
The next morning Silas tells Eppie that he wants to make a trip to his old home, Lantern Yard, to clear up his lingering questions about the theft and the drawing of the lots. After a few days’ journey, they find the old manufacturing town much changed and walk through it looking for the old chapel. The town is frightening and alien to them, with high buildings and narrow, dirty alleys. They finally reach the spot where the chapel used to be, and it is gone, having been replaced by a large factory. No one in the area knows what happened to the former residents of Lantern Yard. Silas realizes that Raveloe is his only home now, and upon his return tells Dolly that he will never know the answers to his questions. Dolly responds that it does not matter if his questions remain unanswered because that does not change the fact that he was in the right all along. Silas agrees, saying that he does not mind because he has Eppie now, and that gives him faith.
Take the Part II, Chapters 19–21, Conclusion Quick Quiz