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Silas Marner | Themes

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Isolation versus Inclusion

For Eliot, a person is a part of a past and of a community. Anyone who's isolated from their roots or from the people around them is incomplete. This is one of the primary themes in the novel and examined through the main character, Silas Marner. Silas comes to Raveloe having been ostracized by his Lantern Yard community. This separates him from both his past and his community. His odd looks and nonagricultural occupation, his cataleptic fits, and his being from other parts combine to keep him an outsider in Raveloe as well. As long as he remains an outsider, Silas is incomplete and caught in a sort of developmental limbo. The narrator says of Silas that "He hated the thought of the past; there was nothing that called out his love and fellowship toward the strangers he had come amongst; and the future was all dark, for there was no Unseen Love that cared for him. Thought was arrested by utter bewilderment" (Part 1, Chapter 2). It is not until Silas becomes included in the Raveloe community and forms roots there (through Eppie) that he becomes a complete person capable of happiness.

Organized Religion

In Silas Marner, Eliot explores two aspects of organized religion. The first is found in Silas's Calvinist sect in Lantern Yard. This is a text-based religion that bases its knowledge of God and of good and evil on a strict interpretation of the words of the Bible. Because of that interpretation, the congregation does not recognize Silas's innocence or William's betrayal; it is rigid and unjust. Silas realizes "there is no just God that governs the earth righteously, but a God of lies, that bears witness against the innocent" (Part 1, Chapter 1). This is the organized religion that Eliot rejected in her own life as well. But, like Eliot, Silas eventually comes to see another side of organized religion. The Anglican church in Raveloe is a forgiving one; the villagers are not regular in attendance; they don't know the Bible well; they help one another out of neighborliness, not because they are told to do so. They feel they can question and interpret doctrine based on conscience. It is Dolly who helps Silas join and eventually understand the benefits of this sort of organized religion. By the end of the novel, he again feels, as he says to Dolly, "There's good i' this world ... and it makes a man feel as there's a good more nor he can see, i' spite o' the trouble and the wickedness" (Part 2, Chapter 16).

Wealth

Eliot explores the theme of wealth by juxtaposing the working class and the upper class of Raveloe society, but especially through examining Silas's relationship with money. As a young weaver in Lantern Yard, Silas views money as "the symbol of earthly good, and the immediate object of toil" (Part 1, Chapter 2); it is what he can do with the money to help others that matters to him. But that changes in Raveloe; money becomes an end in itself. But it is not money as wealth that matters to him; money is a substitute for community. Once he has family and friends, he finds that his hoard of money is "a deal—almost too much" (Part 2, Chapter 19). In contrast, Godfrey warns him that it won't "go far" (Part 2, Chapter 19), believing that by offering money he will be able to convince Silas to part with Eppie and convince Eppie to come live with him. Godfrey and Nancy learn from Silas that love and happiness are a greater wealth than money.

Destiny

From the first time readers meet Godfrey in Part 1, Chapter 3, he's unable to act decisively, and his brother Dunsey pressures and blackmails him into doing whatever Dunsey proposes. Godfrey has somehow gotten himself into a marriage to a barmaid that he regrets. Rather than take responsibility for what he's done and claim the child of that marriage, he keeps hoping destiny will save him and enable him to marry the woman he really loves, Nancy Lammeter. Oddly enough, destiny seems to go his way. His wife Molly dies, Silas adopts her child, and no one is the wiser. But in the end, it turns out Godfrey would have been happier if he had confessed and taken his medicine. He and Nancy both want children, but the only child they have together dies. Meanwhile, Silas has had the joy of raising Eppie, who refuses to leave the father she loves. Godfrey learns very late that he should have grasped the opportunity when he had it:

While I've been putting off and putting off, the trees have been growing—it's too late now. Marner was in the right in what he said about a man's turning away a blessing from his door: it falls to somebody else. I wanted to pass for childless once, Nancy—I shall pass for childless now against my wish (Part 2, Chapter 20).

Godfrey has learned a lesson about destiny.

The Cass brothers allow Eliot to address the idea that destiny ensures people get what they deserve. Godfrey's refusal to claim Eppie as his child ultimately leads to her refusal to accept him as her father. Dunstan perpetrates a series of ill deeds that lead up to his death: he blackmails his brother into stealing a tenant's rent from their father; he says he will sell Godfrey's horse, but gets the horse killed instead; and he takes refuge in Silas's cottage, only to steal the weaver's money. Each crime is worse than the last, and they lead him geographically and morally to a fitting end: death in the quarry. Weighted down by the stolen coins, he sinks, and he is caught between two rocks that hold him underwater, where he is found 16 years later.

But the notion of destiny doesn't refer only to evildoers getting their comeuppance. Those who do good in Silas Marner are rewarded by happiness. Godfrey and Nancy are not bad people, and they get a share of happiness together. Silas is a good and selfless person, and his happiness is complete by the end of the tale, when he has a family, friends, and happiness. Similarly, Dolly helps not only Silas but many others in Raveloe, and she is also repaid in love, friendship, and contentment.

Social Status

Wherever there's a community, the members of that community assume various levels of social status. This is true even in the Lantern Yard congregation. There, without seeking it, Silas assumes a slightly higher status because his catalepsy is interpreted as a sign of God's favor. Resentment of this higher status is part of why his supposed best friend, William Dane, frames Silas for theft. In Raveloe, there are two clear social classes. One is the wealthy, landed families, whose status also derives from their long association with the area. Mr. Lammeter managed to join this class by virtue of being wealthy and marrying an Osgood, but it remains a matter of confusion to the villagers that he rents his large farm. The other is the villagers, who either work on the land as tenants of the landowners or work in a capacity that supports the local farming community, such as the farrier, the wheelwright, and the butcher. There are also a few professional people who bridge the gap between the two groups, including the doctor, Mr. Kimble, who even married Squire Cass's sister.

Among the villagers, there is constant jockeying for status. This provides several moments of humor and lightness in the novel. One of the clearest examples is how the tailor and parish clerk, Mr. Macey, teases the farrier in Part 1, Chapters 6 and 7; each wants to be seen as the more knowledgeable, and the farrier in particular always wants to show he's right and others are wrong.

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