Silas Marner | Study Guide

George Eliot

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Silas Marner | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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The heartfelt, realistic novel Silas Marner was written by George Eliot and published in 1861. In the novel, the weaver Silas is robbed of his wealth but finds joy in adopting Eppie, an abandoned orphan. His turn from greed to generosity reveals the redemptive power of hope and love.

Though Silas Marner is far shorter than Eliot's other works, its simplicity is deceptive. The story, set early in the 19th century, treats the timeless themes of human relationships and the roles of family, religion, community, and love. Its plots are tightly woven and its allegory and symbolism dense. The novel's complexity has made it a favorite with critics and readers alike.

1. A love affair in Silas Marner parallels Eliot's own life.

In 1851 George Eliot met the already married George Lewes, who had an open marriage with his wife. Three years later he and Eliot were living together, though such an arrangement was socially unacceptable. The strain of having to keep the affair secret caused Eliot considerable pain. Eliot probably drew upon this suffering when she wrote about Nancy's parallel feelings for Godfrey, a secret love over which Nancy feels anguish and guilt.

2. Silas Marner contains fairy-tale elements.

Though much of Silas Marner is realistic, it also contains aspects of fairy tale. The outsider with "strange, unearthly eyes," the miser with bags of gold, and the orphan child are all elements of fairy tale. Eliot herself was aware of these elements, telling her publisher the idea for the story came to her "as a sort of legendary tale."

3. A reviewer compared Silas Marner to works by Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare.

The Saturday Review in 1861 published a review of Silas Marner in which the reviewer claimed Eliot did a better and more complete job of characterization than Dickens. The reviewer also compared the humor in the public-house scene to that of Shakespeare and finished by stating the novel "is perhaps superior" to other Eliot works.

4. Eliot's tense relationship with her father is mirrored in Silas Marner.

In the 1980s feminist critics began looking at the role of Eppie, the abandoned daughter, in Silas Marner. Some argued Eppie's abandonment by her real father reflects Eliot's own father-daughter relationship. Eliot argued with her father over losing her religious faith, a quarrel that nearly left her homeless and took nearly a decade to resolve.

Silas Marner illustration

A 1907 illustration from Silas Marner

5. Critics loved George Eliot's writing—but not her appearance.

Writer Henry James was a fan of George Eliot's work, saying of Silas Marner, "It is ... nearly a masterpiece." However, about Eliot's appearance, he was less flattering, noting she was "magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous." Critic William Michael Rosetti said she had "next to no feminine beauty or charm." But James found that when he met Eliot, he was overwhelmed by her wit: "Behold me, literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking!"

6. Eliot and Queen Victoria greatly admired each other.

George Eliot, a Victorian living in sin, and Queen Victoria, the emblem of morality, seemed polar opposites, but the two admired each other. Though they could not meet because of Eliot's lifestyle, the queen had paintings made of scenes from Eliot's Adam Bede. When Eliot wrote a condolence letter to a courtier, Victoria cut off the signature to keep. And Eliot, whose life paralleled the queen's in many ways, felt great sympathy for the queen on the death of her consort.

Queen Victoria

A portrait of Queen Victoria (1887)

7. One reviewer called Silas Marner "careless" and "slip-shod."

A review in the American Quarterly Church Review and Ecclesistical Register of 1861 compared Eliot's novel Adam Bede, to Silas Marner, calling the latter "careless, slip-shod, and hastily-written." The reviewer appeared to dislike the focus of the novel and felt it could have been written better:

The type of life which she here represents, is taken from the lower walks of English Society, and while there are vigorous touches and life-like sketches, and masterly groupings, they only show what the writer could have done, if she had really tried.

8. Silas Marner was a favorite of silent filmmakers.

Because Eliot's work was considered safe for all audiences, when the early film industry looked around for stories to capture on celluloid, Silas Marner was often chosen. In fact, there were at least six silent film versions of the book released by between 1911 and 1922, including one by D.W. Griffith, one of the best-known and most prolific American directors of the silent era.

Silas Marner film (1916)

A still from the 1916 film adaptation of Silas Marner

9. Comedian Steve Martin produced and starred in a film adaptation of Silas Marner.

In 1994 comedian and actor Steve Martin produced a version of Silas Marner titled A Simple Twist of Fate. The reviewer for the Los Angeles Times stated, "It's not hard to understand why Martin was attracted to a warhorse of Victorian literature, for in the 19th century, writers confidently took on grand themes, drew rich characters and made bold use of coincidence to evoke a sense of the workings of fate." He called the film an "involving entertainment suffused with genuine emotion."

10. The name on George Eliot's gravestone is "Mary Ann Cross."

George Eliot was born Mary Ann Evans. She changed her name when she began writing so her work wouldn't be judged by her gender, choosing "George" after her lover, George Lewes, and "Eliot" because it was "a good, mouth-filling word." After Lewes's death, she married John Walter Cross, who was 20 years her junior. They were together for just months before Eliot died. Her gravestone is etched with her real first name, her married last name, and the words, "Here lies the body of George Eliot."

George Eliot's gravestone in Highgate Cemetery

George Eliot's gravestone in Highgate Cemetery, London, England Simon Lee CC BY-SA 2.0

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