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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Silas Marner!