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Silas Marner | Part 1, Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

For Silas Marner, the move to Raveloe is difficult. He moves from a town set among hills to a village surrounded by the abundance of nature in the flat fields, orchards, and forests. In Lantern Yard, life centered on his church with its "whitewashed walls" and "little pews" filled with the familiar faces of his congregation and "the pulpit where the minister delivered unquestioned doctrine"; it was all he knew. The large church in Raveloe stands in a "wide churchyard," and the people who should make up its congregation "loung[e] at their own doors" during services. In the farming community of Raveloe, life is not dominated by attendance at prayer meetings and church services. The villagers' casual acceptance of the "abundance" around them makes Silas feel very distant from "the Power he had vainly trusted in." To overcome his shock at the change of surroundings and loss of his faith, Silas immerses himself in his work and in performing necessary tasks like fetching water and preparing meals. He tries not to think of the past, "reduc[ing] his life to the unquestioning activity of a spinning insect."

Shortly after he moves to Raveloe, Silas finishes weaving some table linen for Mrs. Osgood, and she pays him five guineas—a guinea is a coin representing a pound and a shilling—in gold. This is more than he used to earn in town, and there he gave much of what he earned to his church or to charity. In town he enjoyed earning money as a sign that he had labored well, but he also loved what he could do with the money. Now he has little need for the money, so in Raveloe it becomes an end in itself. As he walks home with his first five guineas, he thinks it looks "brighter in the gathering gloom."

Around the same time, he takes some shoes to be repaired and finds that the cobbler's wife, Sally Oates, has heart problems and edema just as his mother did before her death. He remembers his mother had drunk "a simple preparation of foxglove" to relieve these symptoms and brings some to Sally. This simple act of charity makes Silas feel better about himself. His remedy works, and soon the whole village has heard about it. This reminds people of the old Wise Woman in nearby Tarley from whom they used to buy potions and charms, and the villagers start coming to Silas for help with every pain, illness, injury, and misfortune. People even walk all the way from Tarley to ask for his help. They are all willing to pay, but Silas tells them he can't make charms or "work ... cures." His honest refusal is interpreted as animosity, and his charitable act ends up increasing the distance between Silas and the community, "ma[king] his isolation more complete."

Silas's hoard of gold and silver grows, and Silas neglects his own needs in order to help it grow faster. Nurturing his hoard becomes his overwhelming passion; he actually loves the coins. At the end of his workday, he takes them out "to enjoy their companionship." He counts them, handles them, and comes to know them intimately. He pulls up some bricks in the floor under his loom and stores his coins there in an iron pot. Keeping one's money at home is not unusual, and in a small village, people would not steal anyway, as they could not spend it there without giving themselves away. Their only option would be to leave town, which would be "a course as dark and dubious as a balloon journey." Because Silas doesn't look after himself as well as his gold and because he spends all his time either at his loom or with his coins, even though he is still in his 30s, he looks much older.

A few other things still mean something to Silas. For instance, he is deeply saddened when he stumbles and breaks the old brown pot he has been using to draw well water for 12 years. He glues the pieces together and keeps "the ruin in its old place for a memorial."

After 15 years, Silas's hoard has long since outgrown the iron pot; now he keeps it in two thick bags made of dark leather. He particularly loves the shiny gold guineas, but would not give up the smaller silver coins; he loves them, too. He thinks about the guineas he will be paid for the linen he is currently working on, loving them, too, "as if they had been unborn children." When he is out of the house, he is still thinking about his coins; he no longer looks for herbs. Herbs are part of "the past, from which his life ha[s] shrunk away."

At Christmas Silas undergoes another huge change—one that intermingles "his history ... in a singular manner with the life of his neighbours."

Analysis

Moving to Raveloe represents a fundamental change in Silas Marner. He was used to living in town in a closed community—the congregation in his sect—where he felt not only accepted but valued. He trusted the God he worshipped and everyone in his congregation, and he looked forward to a bright future with Sarah. Now his faith in God, his community, and his future have all been shattered, leaving him with "bitterness" and "the blackness of night." This feeling of purposelessness is exacerbated by his lack of connection with Raveloe's landscape and community. He looks for something to light the darkness of his despair. First, he tries work, but that just fills his time and keeps the sharpness of the pain at bay. Then he sees his first five guineas. Suddenly, gold is not just a sign of a job well done; it becomes an end in itself. Its brightness and the desire for more of its brightness replace the light he once found in his congregation, friendships, and plans for a future with Sarah. Gold becomes something to be treasured for its own sake.

Silas has changed during his first 15 years in Raveloe. Love of God and his congregation have been replaced by love of his hoard. Whereas he still had some sense of charity toward his fellow man when he first moved to the village and used his knowledge of herbs to help the cobbler's wife, he no longer makes any such attempt. When he first moved there, he was an odd-looking young man, but now, only 15 years later, he looks like an old man. It's easy for readers to understand why Silas's neighbors feel put off by him. But readers also understand Silas's transformation and feel sympathy—perhaps even empathy—for him. In just a few pages, Eliot has shown how a shy, helpful victim of betrayal became a miser while fully humanizing what might easily have been a caricature.

The narrator describes how Silas feels about the gold guineas in his hoard in a very sensuous way. She says he "felt their rounded outline between his thumb and fingers"; the choice of "rounded" might make the reader think of a chubby child. She goes on to say he "thought fondly of the guineas that were only half-earned by the work in his loom, as if they had been unborn children"; now the reference to the coins as children is explicit. Finally, the narrator says Silas "thought of the guineas that were coming slowly through the coming years, through all his life, which spread far away before him"; this is a perspective that a man might take as he considers his progeny—his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Because Silas loves his coins as if they were his children, he feels he must keep them safe. Their theft will leave him grieving. This may seem insane, but Eliot makes it understandable. Because he anthropomorphizes—that is, assigns human qualities to—his hoard, it is clear that Silas is still capable of loving another human being.

The last line of the chapter mentions a change is about to occur in Silas's life that will bring him into the community in some way. It is significant that it comes at Christmas—a holiday that celebrates the birth of Christ in Christianity. But historically, it is also tied to the winter solstice and the Roman festival of Saturnalia. The winter solstice is the shortest day—and longest night—of the year. People celebrated it because, starting the next day, there would be a little more sunlight. So this was also a sort of rebirth of the sun. By linking the change in Silas's life to the concepts of birth and rebirth, Eliot implies that Silas will also undergo redemption and rebirth.

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