Mary Ann Evans, commonly known as George Eliot (as women writers would use male pseudonyms in the Victorian era to publish books), is the author of the 1861 novel Silas Marner. It is the intriguing tale of a linen weaver that offers insight into the perfectly woven cosmos of overlapping religious and social themes. Although a seemingly simple tale to comprehend at first glance, the novel has multiple layers of ideas waiting to be unearthed. The characters themselves are subtly built and they showcase complex human experiences and emotions.
The naïve protagonist Silas Marner and the predatory William Dane
Silas Marner, the protagonist of the novel named after him, is presented from the very beginning as the type of honest man that couldn’t even harm a fly; at the same time, his childish naivety prevented him from being able to see that he was about to be set up by his very own best friend – William Dane. He is incapable of comprehending such evil from a person so greatly trusted and his faith is shattered – no righteous God would permit such injustice to be had by drawing lots.
The contrast between Silas Marner’s prey-like behaviour and William’s predatory practices is highlighted by this quote: “that defenceless, deer-like gaze which belongs to large prominent eyes, was strongly contrasted by the self-complacent suppression of inward triumph that lurked in the narrow slanting eyes and compressed lips of William Dane”. This is evident by the use of the verb “lurk” (what lurks in the darkness?) and the phrase “slanting eyes” (like predators, such as felines).
It is quite telling that a community so strongly influenced by the likes of William Dane rejects legal measures being taken if an injustice occurs: “Any resort to legal measures for ascertaining the culprit was contrary to the principles of the church of Lantern Yard.”. This is a ridiculous, made-up scheme that only served to help the most cunning of the community members.
Faithless despair and obsessions to cope
This deceit of Dane and the rejection of the community plunge Silas Marner right into despair, as evident by the following quote: “The little light he possessed spread its beam so narrowly, that frustrated belief was a curtain broad enough to create for him the blackness of night.” This despair and great betrayal led him into the dark night of the soul (as per the Catholic church). He has to power through it, with its tribulations, doubts and despair, in order to find the light at the end of the tunnel – which is renewed, powerful belief in God and the goodness in life and humans.
Although already deeply enthralled in the art of weaving, Silas Marner seeks comfort in obsessive, almost compulsive weaving after losing his faith. His depression makes him self-isolate into an “insect-like existence”, only weaving for decent money in Raveloe after being mistakenly taken for someone who can treat illnesses or help with misfortune at will. Later, he develops yet another obsession – guineas, as evident by the mention of hoarding in this quote: “his life has reduced itself to the functions of weaving and hoarding”. They are heaps of gold ready to fill the hole in his soul. It gives him a sense of purpose.
Lack of conscience, cowardice and anxiety
Another interesting character in the novel is Dunstan. It is evident there is a lack of conscience in Dunstan. He thinks completely like a criminal, has no empathy for the poor horse he kills by being impulsive and he has no sense of accountability – good thing the sociopath freezes to death with the money he’d stolen from Silas Marner. However, the effect of this robbery is immense: “Again he put his trembling hand to his head, and gave a wild ringing scream, the cry of desolation”. Silas is absolutely devastated. His work had been seemingly for nothing all these years.
Dunstan’s brother, Godfrey, is head-over-heels in love with Nancy, but too much of a coward to reveal his secret engagement with his actual wife, Molly Farren. An opium addict, she tragically overdoses and dies in the cold, right when she was about to expose Godfrey. Their toddler, later named Eppie by Silas Marner, finds her way to Silas’s home. This is his (and her) saving grave.
An interesting highlight is the personification of Anxiety: “that made him half deaf to his importunate companion, Anxiety”. Godfrey’s Anxiety is now a “person” that actually speaks his doubts out loud and gives life to the worst-case scenarios. It’s very interesting – as anxiety can be so debilitating and powerful, that it seems like you’re under someone else’s control, especially with intrusive, disturbing thoughts.
Some traditional views are kept, while others are tossed right out
There are outdated views of traditional femininity scattered in the novel. For example, we can see this in the following quote: “Miss Nancy was of delicate purity and nattiness; not a crease where it had no business to be”. Alternative representations of femininity and women are rejected through the character of Priscilla, who is described as unattractive, man-like, rude and an “old maid” – quite misogynistic.
Traditional views of family or parenthood are put under question: “Your coming now and saying ‘I’m her father’ doesn’t alter the feelings inside us. It’s me she’s been calling her father ever since she could say the word.” Blood relations don’t mean anything before authentic bond and love between adoptive father and adopted child. Eppie saved Silas Marner just as much as he saved her. His life took a turn for the better and he slowly got reintroduced into society with hope for humanity and faith.
After 16 years, returning to the place of Lantern Yard with Eppie, Silas Marner is shocked to see the state of it: “making their way through the streets of a giant manufacturing town”. This is possibly mocking the fast, unprecedented industrialization of England. It is said in the novel that “it smells bad”, which is maybe a reference to The Great Stink of London in 1858. Perhaps this isn’t the first happening of the kind, so it might be a coincidence.