Silas Marner
George Eliot
Contributed by Harvey Landy
Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.

Eliot’s novel opens with a brief summary of Silas’s history: he once lived in a town called Lantern Yard, where he was revered as a religious man. He fell into a fit one day at church, however, and while most of the community took this as a sign of his piety, his friend William Dane suggested that such lapsing into unconsciousness might be the sign of something satanic within Silas. Soon after this incident, Silas is accused of stealing money from a dying deacon, and he’s found guilty, even though it turns out William has framed Silas. This supposed friend then steals Silas’s fiancee, Sarah, and Silas leaves town in disgrace. 

Silas comes to Raveloe -- a prosperous small town in central England and sets up shop there, weaving for the community. He’s self-employed and soon begins making quite a bit of money. He’s not particularly well-liked because he keeps to himself and is a notorious miser. His stash of gold is his life, and each evening he takes it out from its hiding spot and gazes at it lovingly.

After he’s been living in Raveloe for some time, Silas’s life intersects with the lives of the Cass family in unexpected ways. The Cass’s are the most prominent, important family in town. Squire Cass -- the patriarch -- and his two sons, Dunstan and Godfrey, live in a large house in the center of Raveloe, called the Red House. Godfrey is the eldest, and has traditionally been a good son but lately has been acting strangely. He apparently has a secret that only his brother knows, and that Dunstan holds over Godfrey’s head as a way to manipulate Godfrey into lending him money. When Godfrey tries to collect on a debt, Dunstan -- an infamous bad seed -- flies into a rage and, the next morning, steals Godfrey’s favorite horse, Wildfire, and sets off to sell him to get the money to pay Godfrey back. 

On his way home from making the sale, however, Dunstan decides to take Wildfire hunting, and when he’s jumping the horse, he miscalculates the effort required and impales Wildfire on a stake, killing him. Not only will he not be able to collect the money for Wildfire, but he’s now got to walk home in the rain. On his way, he spots Silas’s house and decides to go in and coerce Silas into lending him the money. When he sees that Silas isn’t home, he plunders the cottage, finds his gold, and steals it. Dunstan isn’t heard from again for the rest of the novel.

When Silas finds his money missing, he falls into a deep depression. The villagers warm to him somewhat because of his loss, and begin taking pity on him. One such villager, Dolly Winthrop, strikes up a friendship with Silas, coming by at Christmastime to bring him lardcakes. Silas’s misery continues somewhat unabated, however, until, fifteen years into his time at Raveloe, a small child finds her way into his cottage. It’s a snowy New Year’s Eve, and Silas is at home feeling sorry for himself. He periodically opens his door and looks out, as if expecting the money to come back to him. Meanwhile, a woman named Molly is carrying her small child through the snow, en route to crash the Cass New Year’s party. Molly, it turns out, is Godfrey’s wife, though he’s kept her secret from everyone but Dunstan, and the child is theirs together. Molly is an opium addict, though, and on her way to announce herself at the Cass’s door, she takes a hit of opium and lays down to sleep in the snow just outside Silas’s house, releasing her grip on the baby. The baby wanders into Silas’s house and sits down in front of the fire, but Molly dies outside in the cold.

When Silas finds the child he is unexpectedly drawn to her. He decides to keep her, and so begins a radically new chapter in his life. When Godfrey finds out about the dead woman and the child, he realizes that it’s Molly, and doesn’t say anything about the fact that he’s the child’s father. He takes Molly’s death as an opportunity to court his true love, Nancy Lammeter, in earnest. Silas and Eppie -- as he names the girl -- begin to have a bucolic life together, taking walks out in the fields and enjoying each other’s company.

The novel now cuts to sixteen years later. Eppie is a young woman of eighteen, and she and Silas are as close as ever. She is also being courted by Aaron Winthrop, Dolly’s son, and while she’s interested in him, she’s also apprehensive that marrying him will mean having to leave her father -- something that she doesn’t want to do. She decides to accept on the condition that the three of them can all live together, an arrangement that Aaron readily agrees to, saying that he could never take Eppie away from Silas. Around this time, Dunstan’s skeleton is found at the bottom of a stone-pit near Silas’s house, and Silas’s bag of gold is with him. Godfrey takes this opportunity to confess to Nancy that Eppie is his child, since he figures that if Dunstan’s theft can be found out, sixteen years later, that all secrets will eventually be revealed. He and Nancy are still childless, and the two of them decide to try to get Eppie to live with them and recognize Godfrey as her father. Eppie refuses, however, wanting only to be with Silas. Father and daughter make a quick trip to Lantern Yard with Dolly Winthrop in the hopes that Silas can exonerate himself, but the town is gone, replaced with a bustling industrial center. When they return to Raveloe, Eppie and Aaron get married in front of the town pub, the Rainbow. And the novel ends with Eppie’s happy outburst that she and Silas are the happiest two people she can imagine.

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