Silas Marner is George Eliot’s third full length novel. Like its predecessors, it is set in the fields and villages of the English Midlands in the days before the Industrial Revolution. (Silas works as a hand weaver – the occupation most famously ruined by the advent of steam-powered manufacturing.) In style and tone, however, Silas Marner is very different from what has come before: it is more fable than novel, more mythic than romantic, and its ending bittersweet rather than tragic.
Marner’s story opens with a terrible injustice done to him. He belongs to a Dissenting Protestant sect in an artisan town. His best friend steals church funds in such a way as to cast the guilt on Silas. Silas protests his innocence. The sectarians, who refuse all connection with judges and police, test him by drawing lots, on the theory that God will identify the wrongdoer. The lot falls on Silas, and he is driven out of the community. Shortly thereafter, the best friend marries Silas’ fiancee.
Betrayed by man and God, Silas finds refuge in a small rented cottage in the countryside. Self-isolated, he works, stints himself, and gains money. Over the next 15 years, Silas accumulates a substantial sum for a working man, more than 200 golden guineas, and his only delight in life comes in the evening, when he digs out his hoard and lovingly counts and recounts it.
Until one wet and fog-bound night, New Year’s Eve as it happens, when the debauched and vicious second son of the local squire stumbles into Silas’ cottage in Silas’ absence to escape the weather. Knowing Silas’ reputation as a miser, the squire’s son searches the cottage, discovers the gold, pockets it, and walks out again into the night.
On that same dangerous night something else happens: A poor and degraded woman, walking from town to town, succumbs to her opium addiction near Silas’s cottage and dies of exposure. She was carrying a toddler daughter, and like the squire’s son, the abandoned toddler wanders toward the light and warmth of the cottage and enters. She too is waiting for Silas.
Silas is overwhelmed by the loss of his gold. He snatches up the child and runs to the home of the squire, knowing that everyone of consequence in the village will be there. He recounts the theft and demands justice, but nothing can be done. He reports too the arrival of the child. The local notables decide that the child must go to the local workhouse. Silas impulsively declares that he will keep and raise her. “The child came to me,” he says.
Unknown to him, he makes this declaration in front of the child’s true father: the squire’s eldest son, Godfrey, who had contracted a disastrous secret marriage with the dead woman. Now, liberated by Silas’ news, the eldest son can marry the girl marked out for him. This second marriage promises nothing but good. The squire’s son sincerely loves this girl, her inheritance will restore the family’s declining fortune, and her upright character will (the son believes) redeem his life. So he keeps silent as Silas takes public responsibility for his daughter before his community.
Just as the first robbery ended with a betrayal intended to gain a wife, so too does this second.
Silas raises the little girl devotedly. His neighbors, who had always kept their distance from the strange miser, begin by sympathizing with his loss and come to admire his semi-comic efforts at single fatherhood. (There are moments in Silas Marner that do uncomfortably feel like one of those heart-warming Hollywood comedies in which a man tries to raise a child alone and hijinx ensue.)
He is drawn into the community. He returns to religion, the local Church of England form. And the girl grows into a beautiful, loving, and sunny joy to all who know her.
The squire’s elder son inherits the estate. His life is complete and successful, with only one shadow: He and his wife fail to have a child of their own. The squire tries to persuade his wife to adopt a child … for example, perhaps that pretty orphan sheltered by Silas Marner? But the wife’s fatalism forbids adoption.
Squire Godfrey prospers materially however. He implements modern farming schemes, including a new irrigation plan. In watering his fields, he drains an abandoned stone quarry near Silas’s cottage. As the last of the water gurgles out, there is revealed: the skeleton of the wicked brother, still carrying Silas’ gold. As this secret shame is brought to light, Squire Godfrey feels compelled to confess to his wife a second secret: his fatherhood.
“Nancy,” said Godfrey slowly, “when I married you I hid something from youÑsomething I ought to have told you. That woman Marner found dead in the snowÑEppie’s motherÑthat wretched womanÑwas my wife: Eppie is my child.”
He paused, dreading the effect of his confession. But Nancy sat quite still, only that her eyes dropped and ceased to meet his. She was pale and quiet as a meditative statue, clasping her hands on her lap.
“You’ll never think the same of me again,” said Godfrey after a little while, with some tremor in his voice.
She was silent.
“I oughtn’t to have left the child unowned: I oughtn’t to have kept it from you. But I couldn’t bear to give you up, Nancy. I was led away into marrying herÑI suffered for it.”
Still Nancy was silent, looking down; and he almost expected that she would presently get up and say she would go to her father’s. How could she have any mercy for faults that must seem so black to her, with her simple, severe notions?
But at last she lifted up her eyes to his again and spoke. There was no indignation in her voiceÑonly deep regret.
“Godfrey, if you had but told me this six years ago, we could have done some of our duty by the child. Do you think I’d have refused to take her in if I’d known she was yours?”
At that moment Godfrey felt all the bitterness of an error that was not simply futile, but had defeated its own end. He had not measured this wife with whom he had lived so long. But she spoke again, with more agitation.
“AndÑO GodfreyÑif we’d had her from the first, if you’d taken to her as you ought, she’d have loved me for her motherÑand you’d have been happier with me. I could better have bore my little baby dying, and our life might have been more like what we used to think it ’ud be.”
The tears fell, and Nancy ceased to speak.
“But you wouldn’t have married me then, Nancy, if I’d told you,” said Godfrey, urged in the bitterness of his self-reproach to prove to himself that his conduct had not been utter folly. “You may think you would now, but you wouldn’t then. With your pride and your father’s, you’d have hated having anything to do with me after the talk there’d have been.”
“I can’t say what I should have done about that, Godfrey. I should never have married anybody else. But I wasn’t worth doing wrong forÑnothing is in this world. Nothing is so good as it seems beforehandÑnot even our marrying wasn’t, you see.” There was a faint, sad smile on Nancy’s face as she said the last words.
“I’m a worse man than you thought I was, Nancy,” said Godfrey rather tremulously. “Can you forgive me ever?”
“The wrong to me is but little, Godfrey; you’ve made it up to meÑyou’ve been good to me for fifteen years. It’s another you did the wrong to; and I doubt it can never be all made up for.”
Squire Godfrey does try to right the wrong. He goes to Silas and offers to acknowledge the girl as his own and elevate her to a higher station in society. But the offer is delivered with all the arrogance of the English gentry of circa 1820: the child, Eppie, must separate from Silas and all her friends, must break off her engagement to a laborer, and must learn a whole new manner of life – which will impose an isolating duty of deference on everyone she knows and put her into a new mode of life where she will have to change everything, even her mode of speech.
She refuses – she will stay with Silas and bring her laboring husband into Silas’ cottage.
Godfrey accepts the verdict upon him.
Nancy and Godfrey walked home under the starlight in silence. When they entered the oaken parlour Godfrey threw himself into his chair, while Nancy laid down her bonnet and shawl and stood on the hearth near her husband, unwilling to leave him even for a few minutes, and yet fearing to utter any word lest it might jar on his feeling. At last Godfrey turned his head towards her, and their eyes met, dwelling in that meeting without any movement on either side. That quiet mutual gaze of a trusting husband and wife is like the first moment of rest or refuge from a great weariness or a great dangerÑnot to be interfered with by speech or action which would distract the sensations from the fresh enjoyment of repose.
But presently he put out his hand, and as Nancy placed hers within it he drew her towards him, and said,Ñ
She bent to kiss him, and then said as she stood by his side, “Yes, I’m afraid we must give up the hope of having her for a daughter. It wouldn’t be right to want to force her to come to us against her will. We can’t alter her bringing up and what’s come of it.”
“No,” said Godfrey, with a keen decisiveness of tone, in contrast with his usually careless and unemphatic speech; “there’s debts we can’t pay like money debts, by paying extra for the years that have slipped by. While I’ve been putting off and putting off, the trees have been growing: it’s too late now. Marner was in the right in what he said about a man’s turning away a blessing from his door: it falls to somebody else. I wanted to pass for childless once, Nancy; I shall pass for childless now against my wish.”
In his last years, Marner’s life is now fulfilled. He has his daughter. His fortune is restored to him only after he has been liberated from its evil isolating power. Squire Godfrey discreetly aids them, enabling Silas to retire just as his occupation has been rendered obsolete.
A nearly happy ending – it’s all very un-Eliot!
Well, not quite un-Eliot. Silas Marner, although written more tautly than either Adam Bede or The Mill on the Floss, still suffers from Eliot’s characteristic over-emphasizing of her moral points.
If Eliot had told us once that the golden-haired Eppie replaced the vanished gold of the guineas, that would have been once too often, but in fact she insists on doing it half a dozen times over. Ditto the contrast between Silas volunteering for a responsibility and gaining a blessing and Godfrey shirking his responsibility and turning his blessing away. Eliot never fully trusts her readers to understand her meaning without an admonitory nudge in the ribs.
To do her justice, perhaps she had cause. Eliot was a contemporary not of Joyce, Proust, and Mann, but of Dickens and Trollope. She was making the novel do more serious work than her audience was accustomed to. (In this way I suppose she reminds me of her French contemporary, Flaubert.) For the readers of the 1860s, the novel was entertainment plain and simple – television on the page. It might be very good television, but author and reader agreed: This was entertainment. Eliot is one of the very first English writers to conceive of the novel as a work of art. And if she mistrusted her readers’ ability and willingness to notice or understand her artistic purposes … well perhaps she knew her audience, certainly her audience then, and perhaps even her audience now.
Silas Marner is art in miniature, art perhaps a trifle oversweetened and a little overdrawn, but art all the same, enriched as always by Eliot’s distinctive artistry: her depth of mind and her unflinching awareness of the consequences of all actions and all choices.