Study Guide

Silas Marner Religion

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Even people whose lives have been made various by learning, sometimes find it hard to keep a fast hold on their habitual views of life, on their faith in the Invisible… when they are suddenly transported to a new land. (1.2.1)

There's a lot going on in this sentence. First, Eliot seems to be linking religious belief with habit. Religion isn't transportable. If you suddenly leave behind your friends, family, and home, you might find yourself leaving behind your religion, as well. Second, the way to combat that atheism is to be educated, because—it seems—education broadens your world, to allow you to see the similarities between places. In other words, Silas doesn't see Raveloe as part of a larger England. His city and the village he moves to might as well be on different planets. His experience is so narrow that he doesn't understand himself as living in a nation made up of many different types of people and places. Of course, the idea that education can make you more religious is not exactly common—nor is it true to Eliot's experience.

To people accustomed to reason about the forms in which their religious feeling has incorporated itself, it is difficult to enter into that simple, untaught state of mind in which the form and the feeling have never been severed by an act of reflection. (1.1.18)

A lot of Eliot's thinking about religion has to do with the relationship between education and belief. She seems to be suggesting that people without much education have a simpler, more natural religious belief system, and that thinking too hard—"reflection"—can make beliefs difficult to hold. But does she really think it's better to be uneducated?

You may prosper, for all that: there is no just God that governs the earth righteously, but a God of lies[.] (1.1.15)

Here, Silas bitterly accuses his friend William Dane of betraying him. At this moment, Silas renounces his simple belief system, because he feels that God isn't just. Little does he know that he's going to get his reward at the end of the novel. Is Eliot saying that God really is just? Or is righteousness something that only narrators can do?

The white-washed walls; the little pews where well-known figures entered with a subdued rustling, and where first one well-known voice and then another, pitched in a peculiar key of petition, uttered phrases at once occult and familiar, like the amulet worn on the heart; the pulpit where the minister delivered unquestioned doctrine, and swayed to and fro, and handled the book in a long-accustomed manner; the very pauses between the couplets of the hymn, as it was given out, and the recurrent swell of voices in song: these things had been the channel of divine influences to Marner—they were the fostering home of his religious emotions—they were Christianity and God's kingdom upon earth. (1.2.1)

Religion is like brushing your teeth: nothing more than a habit. Silas associates religion not with belief so much as with certain words, phrases, and surroundings. When he leaves those behind, he also leaves behind his beliefs.

It seemed to him that the Power in which he had vainly trusted among the streets and in the prayer-meetings, was very far away from this land in which he had taken refuge, where men lived in careless abundance, knowing and needing nothing of that trust, which, for him, had been turned to bitterness. (1.2.2)

This complicated sentence makes location part of religion. Silas's life in the manufacturing city may have been difficult, but he got by with a little help from his friends. Life is easier. The time at which the novel is set was a good one for farmers—prices were high and they had a few years of good harvests—and comfortable people who live in "careless abundance" don't need to turn to God. In other words—think you're not religious? Wait until times get tough.

The sight of the empty hole made his heart leap violently, but the belief that his gold was gone could not come at once—only terror, and the eager effort to put an end to the terror. He passed his trembling hand all about the hole, trying to think it possible that his eyes had deceived him; then he held the candle in the hole and examined it curiously, trembling more and more. (1.5.5)

Silas refuses to believe that his gold is gone, just like he refuses to believe that God would have let Dane betray him. He's just as terrified to lose his money as he was to lose God—which doesn't say much for his faith in God.

The inhabitants of Raveloe were not severely regular in their church-going, and perhaps there was hardly a person in the parish who would not have held that to go to church every Sunday in the calendar would have shown a greedy desire to stand well with Heaven, and get an undue advantage over their neighbours—a wish to be better than the 'common run,' that would have implied a reflection on those who had had godfathers and godmothers as well as themselves, and had an equal right to the burying-service. (1.10.16)

The villagers of Raveloe don't have to work at religion. There's no fasting or penitence involved, and there doesn't seem to be much prayer, either. Their religion is communal: rather than designed to put an individual right with God, it keeps the community together, more like a social club than a religion. Anglican churches have traditionally focused on the communal aspects of religion—even today, all the different countries that have Anglican churches are said to be part of the "Anglican communion."

Dolly's exposition of her simple Raveloe theology fell rather unmeaningly on Silas's ears, for there was no word in it that could rouse a memory of what he had known as religion, and his comprehension was quite baffled by the plural pronoun, which was no heresy of Dolly's, but only her way of avoiding a presumptuous familiarity. (1.10.40)

Dolly's religion is so communal that she even refers to God as "they." She can't think of religion as something between just herself and God, and luckily there are no English teachers around to correct her.

Those green boughs, the hymn and anthem never heard but at Christmas—even the Athanasian Creed, which was discriminated from the others only as being longer and of exceptional virtue, since it was only read on rare occasions—brought a vague exulting sense, for which the grown men could as little have found words as the children, that something great and mysterious had been done for them in heaven above, and in earth below, which they were appropriating by their presence. (1.10.56)

Only at Christmas, and probably other major church holidays, do the Raveloe villagers actually seem to feel something like belief—and only then because the celebrations are special. Otherwise, religion is ordinary and everyday, something done because everyone else does it. (Again, like brushing your teeth or saying "bless you" when someone sneezes.)

For it would not have been possible for the Raveloe mind, without a peculiar revelation, to know that a clergyman should be a pale-faced memento of solemnities, instead of a reasonably faulty man, whose exclusive authority to read prayers and preach, to christen, marry, and bury you, necessarily co-existed with the right to sell you the ground to be buried in, and to take tithe in kind. (1.11.61)

The Raveloe people expect their priests to be ordinary, too. Unlike angry Calvinist preachers going on and on about sin and salvation, and unlike celibate Catholic priests who keep apart from daily life, Anglican priests are part of the community, people basically like themselves—bad habits, annoying character traits, and all.

On this occasion Silas, making himself as clean and tidy as he could, appeared for the first time within the church, and shared in the observances held sacred by his neighbours. He was quite unable, by means of anything he heard or saw, to identify the Raveloe religion with his old faith; if he could at any time in his previous life have done so, it must have been by the aid of a strong feeling ready to vibrate with sympathy, rather than by a comparison of phrases and ideas[.] (1.14.33)

Silas goes to church for the first time after he adopts Eppie, but it doesn't mean anything to him beyond the experience of being with his neighbors. It's so different that it might as well be a mosque or a synagogue; he just likes being with people again.

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