Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Individual Versus the Community
Silas Marner is in one sense the story of the title character, but it is also very much about the community of Raveloe in which he lives. Much of the novel’s dramatic force is generated by the tension between Silas and the society of Raveloe. Silas, who goes from being a member of a tight-knit community to utterly alone and then back again, is a perfect vehicle for Eliot to explore the relationship between the individual and the surrounding community.
In the early nineteenth century, a person’s village or town was all-important, providing the sole source of material and emotional support. The notion of interconnectedness and support within a village runs through the novel, in such examples as the parish’s charitable allowance for the crippled, the donation of leftovers from the Squire’s feasts to the village’s poor, and the villagers who drop by Silas’s cottage after he is robbed.
The community also provides its members with a structured sense of identity. We see this sense of identity play out in Raveloe’s public gatherings. At both the Rainbow and the Squire’s dance, interaction is ritualized through a shared understanding of each person’s social class and place in the community. As an outsider, living apart from this social structure, Silas initially lacks any sense of this identity. Not able to understand Silas in the context of their community, the villagers see him as strange, regarding him with a mixture of fear and curiosity. Silas is compared to an apparition both when he shows up at the Rainbow and the Red House. To be outside the community is to be something unnatural, even otherworldly.
Though it takes fifteen years, the influence of the community of Raveloe does eventually seep into Silas’s life. It does so via Godfrey’s problems, which find their way into Silas’s cottage first in the form of Dunsey, then again in Eppie. Eliot suggests that the interconnectedness of community is not something one necessarily enters into voluntarily, nor something one can even avoid. In terms of social standing, Silas and Godfrey are quite far from each other: whereas Silas is a distrusted outsider, Godfrey is the village’s golden boy, the heir of its most prominent family. By braiding together the fates of these two characters and showing how the rest of the village becomes implicated as well, Eliot portrays the bonds of community at their most inescapable and pervasive.
Character as Destiny
The plot of Silas Marner seems mechanistic at times, as Eliot takes care to give each character his or her just deserts. Dunsey dies, the Squire’s lands are divided Godfrey wins Nancy but ends up childless, and Silas lives happily ever after with Eppie as the most admired man in Raveloe. The tidiness of the novel’s resolution may or may not be entirely believable, but it is a central part of Eliot’s goal to present the universe as morally ordered. Fate, in the sense of a higher power rewarding and punishing each character’s actions, is a central theme of the novel. For Eliot, who we are determines not only what we do, but also what is done to us.
Nearly any character in the novel could serve as an example of this moral order, but perhaps the best illustration is Godfrey. Godfrey usually means well, but is unwilling to make sacrifices for what he knows to be right. At one point Godfrey finds himself actually hoping that Molly will die, as his constant hemming and hawing have backed him into so tight a corner that his thoughts have become truly horrible and cruel. However, throughout the novel Eliot maintains that Godfrey is not a bad person—he has simply been compromised by his inaction. Fittingly, Godfrey ends up with a similarly compromised destiny: in his marriage to Nancy he gets what he wants, only to eventually reach the dissatisfied conclusion that it is not what he wanted after all. Godfrey ends up in this ironic situation not simply because he is deserving, but because compromised thoughts and actions cannot, in the moral universe of Eliot’s novel, have anything but compromised results.
The Interdependence of Faith and Community
In one sense Silas Marner can be seen simply as the story of Silas’s loss and regaining of his faith. But one could just as easily describe the novel as the story of Silas’s rejection and subsequent embrace of his community. In the novel, these notions of faith and community are closely linked. They are both human necessities, and they both feed off of each other. The community of Lantern Yard is united by religious faith, and Raveloe is likewise introduced as a place in which people share the same set of superstitious beliefs. In the typical English village, the church functioned as the predominant social organization. Thus, when Silas loses his faith, he is isolated from any sort of larger community.
The connection between faith and community lies in Eliot’s close association of faith in a higher authority with faith in one’s fellow man. Silas’s regained faith differs from his former Lantern Yard faith in significant ways. His former faith was based first and foremost on the idea of God. When he is unjustly charged with murder, he does nothing to defend himself, trusting in a just God to clear his name. The faith Silas regains through Eppie is different in that it is not even explicitly Christian. Silas does not mention God in the same way he did in Lantern Yard, but bases his faith on the strength of his and Eppie’s commitment to each other. In his words, “since . . . I’ve come to love her . . . I’ve had light enough to trusten by; and now she says she’ll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die.”
Silas’s new faith is a religion that one might imagine Eliot herself espousing after her own break with formalized Christianity. It is a more personal faith than that of Lantern Yard, in which people zealously and superstitiously ascribe supernatural causes to events with straightforward causes, such as Silas’s fits. In a sense, Silas’s new belief is the opposite of his earlier, simplistic world view in that it preserves the place of mystery and ambiguity. Rather than functioning merely as a supernatural scapegoat, Silas’s faith comforts him in the face of the things that do not make sense to him. Additionally, as Dolly points out, Silas’s is a faith based on helping others and trusting others to do the same. Both Dolly’s and especially Silas’s faith consists of a belief in the goodness of other people as much as an idea of the divine. Such a faith is thus inextricably linked to the bonds of community.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Natural World
Throughout the novel, Eliot draws on the natural world for many images and metaphors. Silas in particular is often compared to plants or animals, and these images are used to trace his progression from isolated loner to well-loved father figure. As he sits alone weaving near the start of the novel, Silas is likened to a spider, solitary and slightly ominous. Just after he is robbed, Silas is compared to an ant that finds its usual path blocked—an image of limitation and confusion, but also of searching for a solution. Later, as Silas begins to reach out to the rest of the village, his soul is likened to a plant, not yet budding but with its sap beginning to circulate. Finally, as he raises Eppie, Silas is described as “unfolding” and “trembling into full consciousness,” imagery evoking both the metamorphosis of an insect and the blooming of a flower. This nature imagery also emphasizes the preindustrial setting of the novel, reminding us of a time in England when the natural world was a bigger part of daily life than it was after the Industrial Revolution.
For the most part, the events of Silas Marner take place in two homes, Silas’s cottage and the Cass household. The novel’s two key events are intrusions into Silas’s domestic space, first by Dunsey and then by Eppie. Eliot uses the home as a marker of the state of its owner. When Silas is isolated and without faith, his cottage is bleak and closed off from the outside world. As Silas opens himself up to the community, we see that his door is more frequently open and he has a steady stream of visitors. Finally, as Silas and Eppie become a family, the cottage is brightened and filled with new life, both figuratively and in the form of literal improvements and refurbishments to the house and yard. Likewise, the Cass household moves from slovenly and “wifeless” under the Squire to clean and inviting under Nancy.
Raveloe, like most of nineteenth-century English society, is organized along strict lines of social class. This social hierarchy is encoded in many ways: the forms characters use to address one another, their habits, even where they sit at social events. While the Casses are not nobility, as landowners they sit atop Raveloe’s social pecking order, while Silas, an outsider, is at its base. Nonetheless, Silas proves himself to be the better man than his social superiors. Similarly, in Eppie’s view, the simple life of the working class is preferable to that of the landed class. Eliot is skilled in showing how class influences the thinking of her characters, from Dunsey’s idea of Silas as simply a source of easy money to Godfrey and Nancy’s idea that, as higher-class landowners, their claim to Eppie is stronger than Silas’s.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Silas’s loom embodies many of the novel’s major themes. On a literal level, the loom is Silas’s livelihood and source of income. The extent to which Silas’s obsession with money deforms his character is physically embodied by the bent frame and limited eyesight he develops due to so many hours at the loom. The loom also foreshadows the coming of industrialization—the loom is a machine in a time and place when most labor was nonmechanical, related to farming and animal husbandry. Additionally, the loom, constantly in motion but never going anywhere, embodies the unceasing but unchanging nature of Silas’s work and life. Finally, the process of weaving functions as a metaphor for the creation of a community, with its many interwoven threads, and presages the way in which Silas will bring together the village of Raveloe.
The place where Silas was raised in a tight-knit religious sect, Lantern Yard is a community of faith, held together by a narrow religious belief that Eliot suggests is based more on superstition than any sort of rational thought. Lantern Yard is the only community Silas knows, and after he is excommunicated, he is unable to find any similar community in Raveloe. Throughout the novel Lantern Yard functions as a symbol of Silas’s past, and his gradual coming to grips with what happened there signals his spiritual thaw. When Silas finally goes back to visit Lantern Yard, he finds that the entire neighborhood has disappeared, and no one remembers anything of it. A large factory stands in the spot where the chapel once stood. This disappearance demonstrates the disruptive power of industrialization, which destroys tradition and erases memory. Likewise, this break with the past signals that Silas has finally been able to move beyond his own embittering history, and that his earlier loss of faith has been replaced with newfound purpose.
The hearth represents the physical center of the household and symbolizes all of the comforts of home and family. When Godfrey dreams of a life with Nancy, he sees himself “with all his happiness centred on his own hearth, while Nancy would smile on him as he played with the children.” Even in a public place such as the Rainbow, one’s importance is measured by how close one sits to the fire. Initially, Silas shares his hearth with no one, at least not intentionally. However, the two intruders who forever change Silas’s life, first Dunsey and then Eppie, are drawn out of inclement weather by the inviting light of Silas’s fire. Silas’s cottage can never be entirely separate from the outside world, and the light of Silas’s fire attracts both misfortune and redemption. In the end, it is Silas’s hearth that feels the warmth of family, while Godfrey’s is childless.
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