In this article, we will study another Victorian novel, Silas Marner by George Elliot. The novel reflects the Victorian age sensibilities of class distinction. We will see that different characters belong to different classes with different moral, economic and social experiences. Each character knows his or her position in the social class ladder and acts accordingly. For instance, the “villagers dare not mingle with their superiors at the Red House Party …Eppie is contended with her low social life (Iwuchukwu 2010, 87). Silas has a lot of money yet does not belong to the high social class of Reveloe. The implication is that money alone does not determine one class and that the upper class is not always the best in terms of moral uprightness. We are going to discuss yet another interesting novel. You will not help empathising with Silas Marner as he settles in Reveloe but in the end you rejoice with him and with the theme of retributive justice explored in the novel especially as it affects the Lantern Yard Assembly and Dunstan Cass.
Background of the Author
George Elliot is the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans who was born in 1819 in Warwickshire, England. She was sent to the boarding school, where she developed a strong religious faith, and was influenced by the evangelical preacher Rev. John Edmund Jones. After her mother’s death, Evans moved with her father to the city of Coventry where she met Charles and Caroline Bray, progressive intellectuals who led her to question her faith. In 1842 she stopped going to church, and this renunciation of her faith put a strain on Evans’s relationship with her father which lasted for several years.
She was forced to adopt a pen name because women writers were not taken seriously at that time so she had to publish under a man’s name. Her meeting with George Lewes in London marked a turning point in her life as he later became her husband in all but the legal sense as a true legal marriage was impossible, as Lewes already had an estranged wife. Evans was interested in philosophy, but Lewes persuaded her to try fiction writing. She published her first collection of stories, Scenes from Clerical Life in 1857 as George Elliot and it was a huge success and it was followed by the publication of her first novel Adam Bede (1859). After that, she revealed her identity and naturally, it caused a stir in a society that felt that women were incapable of serious writing. Her other novels include The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), and Middlemarch (1871–1872).
George Elliot’s Silas Marner the Weaver of Reveloe presents a simple story of a withdrawn weaver called Silas Marner. He was an ardent member of the Lantern Yard Assembly until he is falsely accused of stealing the congregation’s funds while watching over one of their deacons who was sick. Unknown to him, his ‘best friend’, William Dane, masterminded the accusation and connives with the hierarchy of the church to proclaim that he is guilty. Consequently, his fiancée, Sarah rejects him and marries William. This incident shatters his faith in God and man so he leaves the church and his old hometown heartbroken and settles in the village of Reveloe where he lives as a recluse.
Members of Reveloe are suspicious of him because of the belief that he possesses mystical powers especially after curing the cobbler’s wife with herbs. Marner is not bothered by this and focuses on his business and before long has stored huge amount of gold which he hoards and
counts daily with passion. Unfortunately, his stack of gold is stolen by Dunstan Cass, the dissolute younger son of Squire Cass. This shatters his life again, he becomes very gloomy and disconsolate despite the villagers attempts to help him. Godfrey Cass’s marriage to Molly, an opium-addicted woman of low birth is kept secret and the secret threatens to destroy Godfrey’s blooming relationship with Nancy, a young woman of higher social and moral standing. On one winter’s night, Molly decides to take her two- year old daughter to town to reveal Godfrey’s secret and ruin him but unfortunately she could not reach her destination, she sits down to rest in the snow because of her disorientated state of mind and dies there.
Her child wanders from her mother’s still body into Silas’ house. Silas takes the child, follows her tracks in the snow and discovers the woman dead. Godfrey also arrives at the scene, but resolves to tell no one that she was his wife. Silas keeps the child and names her Eppie and the child changes his life completely. He feels that his material gold that was robbed has been returned to him symbolically in the form of golden-haired Eppie. Godfrey Cass is now free to marry Nancy, but continues to conceal the existence of his first marriage and child from her. However he helps Marner with occasional gifts to take care of Eppie.
Eppies grows up to be a very beautiful lady and reinvigorates Silas Marner’s life while Godfrey and Nancy are childless. Eventually, Godfrey confesses to Nancy that Molly was his first wife and that Eppie is his child. They decide to take her and raise her as a gentleman’s daughter but Eppie rejects the offer as that would mean a separation from Silas. According to her there is no happiness for her without Silas. In the resolution of the story, Dunstan Cass’s skeleton is found at the bottom of the stone quarry near Silas’ home still clutching Silas’s gold. The gold is recovered and returned to Silas and he lives happily among his family and friends. Eppie marries a local boy, Aaron, and they move into Silas’ new house, courtesy of Godfrey.
In Silas Marner, George Elliot presents a tale of love and hope. The major theme therefore is love. The characters who show love are rewarded abundantly while the selfish ones pay for their unholy acts in the end. Silas Marner sowed love both at his natal home in the north and at the rural community of Reveloe and is richly blessed with a daughter and his lost gold restored. In the same way, Eppie is blessed with a good husband and a kind-hearted mother-in-law.
The novel therefore has a strong moral tone. That is why the callous Godfrey is disappointed while his brother Dunstan meets his waterloo at the stone pit. Finally, barely sixteen years after they ill-treated Silas Marner, the unloving brethren of Lantern yard Church goes into extinction. Although it seems like a simple moral story with a happy ending, George Elliot also explored themes that relate to the criticism of organised church, the role of the gentry, and the negative impacts of industrialisation in the novel.
Silas Marner: Silas Marner is the protagonist in the novel. He is a weaver who lives in Reveloe as a stranger. The villagers see him as an odd fellow because he is a recluse who suffers occasionally from cataleptic fits and has knowledge of the herbs. He is forced to relocate to Reveloe because he was betrayed by his friend, accused falsely and based on the accusation, he lost his fiancée and his faith. He becomes obsessed with the money he makes from his work which he hoards and counts every night. Physically, he is bent from his work at the loom, has strange and frightening eyes, and generally looks much older than his years. However he is very kind hearted, honest and loving. This is reflected in his adoption of a little girl who walked into his house and brings her up as Eppie. The novelist, through Marner’s relationship with Eppie presents a portrait of an ideal family and home where love and sacrifice reign supreme. Thus, Marner who is seen initially as an outcast becomes the most exemplary citizen in the community.
Eppie: Eppie is another important character in the novel. She is the product of the secret marriage between Molly and Godfrey Cass and walked into Silas Marner’s cottage on a cold winter’s night when her mother died in the snow. She is a humble, beautiful and loving young lady who is content with her class. She therefore rejects the life of affluence and higher social class offered by her legitimate father. She loves flowers and animals and is presented as a near-perfect being and her sense of wisdom is worthy of emulation. In the end she marries Aaron and is happy because she is still close to Silas.
Godfrey Cass: Godfrey is the eldest son of Squire Cass and the heir to the Cass estate.
He is a good-natured young man, but not strong-willed and so is usually swayed in his decisions and sometimes he acts out selfish interests. For instance, he keeps his marriage to the opium addict, Molly Farren, secret because he is afraid that his father will disown him if the truth is known yet later, he wants to claim the product of that marriage Eppie, when he could not have another child in his new marriage. He is presented as a passive character whose “endless waffling and indecisiveness stem entirely from selfishness” (Stedman 1996, 32) His younger brother, Dunstan, knows about his secret marriage and uses it to blackmail him constantly. However when Dunstan and Molly die he becomes apprehensive, confesses and decides to take care of his daughter but Eppie is content with Silas so turns down the offer.
Squire Cass: Squire Cass is the wealthiest man in Reveloe, and his two eldest sons are Godfrey and Dunstan, or Dunsey. He is a tall stout man of sixty with a hard face and a weak mouth. He is a widower who could not train his children well. He enjoys the company of his gentry class especially at the Rainbow. He does not take proper care of himself especially in terms of dressing but has an air of authority and his statements are considered irrevocable. He enjoys playing host to visitors especially on the eve of a new year. The novelist seems to infer that the absence of a mother in his household contributes to the recklessness and indiscipline of his children.
Nancy: Nancy is a society lady who later marries Godfrey Cass. Like Godfrey, Nancy comes from a wealthy family but her father values moral rectitude, thrift, and hard work. Nancy inherited these strict values from him and disapproves the lack of discipline and weakness in Godfrey’s character. She is a pleasant, loving, charming and attractive lady whose main regret in life is the loss of her only child. She refuses to adopt another child because of her conviction that it is against God’s will. Nancy is neither well educated nor particularly curious but reads her bible often and does not compromise her Christian faith. When the news of Eppie’s paternity is broken to her, she regrets the entire story but maintains her calmness.
Dunstan Cass: Dunstan Cass is the second son of the Squire who is hated by the people because of his reckless life. He revels in excessive drinking, betting, borrowing money and threatens his brother constantly with blackmail. He is very selfish and callous. For instance, he causes the death of his brother’s priceless horse, wildfire and shows no remorse. He steals Silas Marner’s money (bag of gold) to make up for the money he would have made from the sale of Wildfire but unfortunately dies clutching the bag of gold which was later recovered and returned to Silas Marner. There are also characters like Dolly and Aaron Winthrop, Priscilla Lammeter and many others.
The time or historical setting of the novel is the “early years” of the nineteenth century while the physical or geographical setting is Reveloe, a fictional village, a rural but growing industrial community in the English countryside. The action of the novel takes place in Reveloe in locations like the cottage, the Red House, Rainbow Inn and the Street. The action in the early part of the novel, that is, Silas Marner’s life before his arrival at Reveloe, takes place up North.
Style/ Narrative Technique
The narrative technique adopted in the novel is that of an anonymous omniscient narrator with no part in the plot. As is characteristic with this point of view, the narrator speaks in the third person, describing what the characters are seeing, their innermost feelings, thoughts, hopes and aspirations. Close to the beginning, a personal story unrelated to the action of the novel is relayed to provide corroborating evidence for a generalisation, hinting that the narrator is a real person.
Silas Marner was Elliot’s third novel and is among the best known of her works. She explores the theme of love, selflessness and the loss of religious faith in the novel. The novel’s setting recalls the beauty of the disappearing English countryside and a concern that England was fast becoming highly industrialised and impersonal. There is also the issue of class and family.
In the novel, Silas Marner Elliot treats the themes of faith, family, and class in a way that gives them universal appeal, especially at the time of publication, when English society and institutions were undergoing rapid changes as moral values were also changing. It is also relevant in contemporary societies of the world especially in Nigeria where the rapid chances in moral values has taken an outrageous dimension. She explores the innermost feelings of her characters and their relationship to their society giving detailed and insightful psychological aspects of her characters showing the complex ways these characters confront their moral dilemmas.