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 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.
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.