The Price of Isolation: George Eliot’s Silas Marner

By Daniel Garrett

George Eliot, Silas Marner
Everyman Library/Knopf, 1993
(Original publication 1861)

Mary Ann (Marian) Evans writing under the name George Eliot provides a frame for the cloth weaver Silas Marner, a frame of ignorance, superstition, and suspicion in the small but naturally prosperous rural community, Raveloe, he finds himself in, after leaving in sadness and bitterness the town church community Marner was once part of (Marner had been charged with theft and his fiancée was taken by a man Marner thought a friend). The weaver Silas Marner has the isolation of a stranger in his new dwelling. His knowledge of herbal medicines is thought odd, a kind of witchcraft. When Marner denies any magical ability, the denial is disbelieved and distrust of him increases. It is a remarkable portrait of social misunderstanding, one that is so clear it illuminates current, similar but subtler suspicion of odd individuals in our own world. The money that Marner makes becomes important to him—obvious reward for his work. He is transformed by his isolation, his work, his money, his (often inhuman or at least unsocial) concerns: achieving independence but a spiritual withering.

William Dane, Silas’s former friend—with whom Silas was seen as akin to Jonathan and David—shared a bond without well-founded trust. The same can be said of Square Cass’s sons, Dunstan and Godfrey, with Dunstan abusing his brother’s affection (borrowing money that’s not his, not bothering to pay it back): Godfrey has entered a secret marriage and Dunstan gets what he wants partly out of blackmail. (It is at least a little strange that Dunstan keeps remarking on how good-looking his brother is. Is his mistreatment of his brother—and Dane’s of Marner—a way of repudiating attraction? It can be intolerable for one man to love another, no matter the nature of the love—a kind of enslavement or at least humbling.) Godfrey’s circumstances are making him bitter (a parallel of Silas’s bitterness). Yet, it is shocking when Dunstan steals Silas Marner’s gold. Marner at first suspects the wrong man, a poor but innocent man—Jem Rodney (as he, Silas, was one mistakenly suspected). The true thief remains unknown, and Dunstan disappears.

An aside: Someone in the novel is described as trying to be “cute”—shrewd, smart, witty. An old connotation, sometimes still used. One of the pleasures of reading established literature—seeing the development of language and its survivals. (The Republican leader Michael Steel said recently that his NPR interviewer was trying to be cute—and I heard the clash of two senses of that word: shrewd/attractive.)

George Eliot allows us to know what her characters think of each other—and in allowing us to know what she thinks of them she raises the level of comprehension. “Favorable Chance is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in,” writes George Eliot, in a passage decrying self-deception, dumb hopefulness (82-83). Eliot lets philosophy and history into the novel, transforms the book from goodness into greatness.

Following his desolation regarding the theft of gold, villagers visit Silas Marner to encourage him to attend church. It’s rather disgusting to me (religious believers, like vultures, often pick the weakest moment in which to descend). Their mundane expectation of conformity is predictable: pain and poverty are expected to break his will, to make accepting common beliefs and habits easier. Although the village people are not fanatic church goers, attendance of some regularity is the convention.

Godfrey Cass, though secretly married, has maintained his infatuation with a decent young woman named Nancy (who disapproves of aspects of Godfrey’s indulgent behavior). The intimacy between pretty Nancy and her plain honest sister, and their candor, are contrasted with the more conceited attitude of town sisters, the Miss Gunns. Godfrey’s wife is near-destitute and not happy about it. “It is seldom that the miserable can help regarding their misery as a wrong inflicted by those who are less miserable,” writes Eliot, after describing the plans for revenge and humiliation held by Godfrey’s poor, secret wife (122). (It is surprising to read of the woman’s opium addiction, but it fits.) The drug-addicted mother falls in the snow. Godfrey’s unacknowledged child crawls into Marner’s cottage; and her golden curls are mistaken for his lost gold. (The child also reminds Marner of his now dead little sister.) Eliot just describes all this—the description alone compels. She doesn’t offer logic as justification or likelihood—her description of events suffices. Marner says of the child, “it’s a lone thing—and I’m a lone thing” (134). Money has been taken from Silas and the child given to him: “the gold had turned into the child” (139).

The importance of religion is brought to Marner again—regarding the child’s moral education and protection. Silas is willing now. The child’s joy becomes his, bringing him closer to others, closer to life, whereas work and money kept him isolated in the past. Silas wants to give the little girl, Eppie, the best that is available in town of Raveloe. Godfrey sees Silas rear his daughter from a distance, expecting that one day he himself may do something for her (Godfrey seems much less attractive now—a lucky, privileged prick).

Part Two of Silas Marner
Sixteen years later, George Eliot shows us people leaving church. We learn that Godfrey and Nancy have married. The son of a woman, Dolly Winthrop, who has befriended Silas and Eppie, Aaron, likes Eppie and wants to be of use to her and her father (Silas and Eppie plan a garden and Aaron volunteers to help); and Aaron wants to marry Eppie. Godfrey has been somewhat generous—helping to enlarge Silas’s cottage, giving some furniture too. I’m not fond of some of the accented country dialogue—as participated in by Dolly Winthrop, but it does remind me that idiomatic (and regional) speech is recurrent in every country, in every age. Most importantly, when a field project drains water from the stone pit near Silas’s cottage, an unexpected revelation is presaged.

The book’s ending: Silas and Eppie have been happy together. Godfrey and Nancy have been somewhat less so. Godfrey and Nancy haven’t been able to have children together (making the child he let go, Eppie, more rare). Self-absorbed, self-deceived, Godfrey even considers adopting Eppie from Silas, though Nancy objects (he does not say the child is his; and she figures providence does not want them to have a child). Soon, Godfrey goes out for a walk and returns shocked: after going out to the fields near the stone pit at Silas’s cottage, the long-disappeared Dunstan’s skeleton can be seen in the pit, with Silas’s gold. It is now known that Dunstan robbed Silas Marner. Godfrey confesses his own secret marriage and parentage to his wife Nancy, who says they could have adopted Eppie if she had known she was his child (he misjudged his wife’s ethics and sympathy). Silas is glad the money has been found but not for himself—for Eppie. When Godfrey and Nancy go to claim Eppie for their own—though she is now a young woman, they are rebuffed by Eppie and Silas, who feel themselves a family. Silas goes back for a visit to the town where he once lived—and was betrayed—but that chapel community is gone. (Was the community not sound enough to sustain itself, its wrong judgment of Silas evidence of that?) The novel ends with Eppie’s wedding party and her affirmation of her happiness with Silas and her home and life.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  Garrett’s comment on Silas Marner previously appeared on his internet log, The Garrett Reader.