Study Guide

Silas Marner Wealth

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The weaver's hand had known the touch of hard-won money even before the palm had grown to its full breadth; for twenty years, mysterious money had stood to him as the symbol of earthly good, and the immediate object of toil. (1.2.4)

Money stands for something—but what? It's not an earthly good in and of itself; it stands for an earthly good. The key word here seems to be "mysterious." Money is baffling. It can't be spent, and it doesn't improve Silas's standard of living. Here's Eliot's being all philosophical: money is a symbol of something, and not a thing in itself.

He spread them out in heaps and bathed his hands in them; then he counted them and set them up in regular piles, and felt their rounded outline between his thumb and fingers, and thought fondly of the guineas that were only half-earned by the work in his loom, as if they had been unborn children—thought of the guineas that were coming slowly through the coming years, through all his life, which spread far away before him, the end quite hidden by countless days of weaving. (1.2.10)

This image could be funny—a man literally "bathing" in his money, rolling around on a pile of gold coins like a cartoon miser on his pile of $100 bills or a dragon snoozing on a heap of treasure. But Eliot infuses it with pathos. Silas clings to coins because he has nothing else. His community has been snatched away from him, and it will be a long time before he learns to join a new one.

If she could come to be mistress at the Red House, there would be a fine change, for the Lammeters had been brought up in that way, that they never suffered a pinch of salt to be wasted, and yet everybody in their household had of the best, according to his place. Such a daughter-in-law would be a saving to the old Squire, if she never brought a penny to her fortune, for it was to be feared that, notwithstanding his incomings, there were more holes in his pocket than the one where he put his own hand in. (1.3.3)

Like readers of Us Weekly speculating on celebrity marriages, the villagers agree that Nancy would be a good wife for Godfrey because she'd bring thrift and frugality to the Red House. Although none of the villagers approach Silas's level of obsession about money, they do think about it a lot.

And sure enough the wedding turned out all right, on'y poor Mrs Lammeter—that's Miss Osgood as was—died afore the lasses were growed up; but for prosperity and everything respectable, there's no family more looked on. (1.6.40)

The villagers don't always have their priorities in the right place. Here, there's a mix-up between prosperity and actually "turning out all right." From one perspective, the wedding didn't turn out all right at all. Mrs. Lammeter died early, leaving two young daughters. From another perspective—the one that the villagers adopt—the wedding turned out just fine, because the family is prosperous and, therefore, respectable. Prosperity, or having wealth, is the same as being respectable, and we all know that it gets you out of jail.

Formerly, his heart had been as a locked casket with its treasure inside; but now the casket was empty, and the lock was broken. (1.10.22)

This elaborate description of Silas's empty heart after the theft of his gold suggests that wealth got between Silas and his neighbors. Wealth took up the place in his heart that something else could have. This image of a locked heart resonates with some Christian imagery that suggests a Christian's heart must be empty in order to allow Christ to enter. It's also super heavy-handed with the symbolism: along with his metaphorical treasure (his trust) Silas's literal treasure (his gold) has been stolen.

The heap of gold seemed to glow and get larger beneath his agitated gaze. He leaned forward at last, and stretched forth his hand; but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered soft warm curls. (1.12.8)

Here, the cold coins that Silas has hoarded magically transform into a little girl. Where's the Disney option? There are a lot of fairytale-like aspects to Silas Marner, and the moment in which Silas finds that his stash has morphed into a real, live human is crucial.

And [he] had lost his money too, so as he had nothing but what he worked for week by week, and when the weaving was going down too—for there was less and less flax spun—and Master Marner was none so young. (2.16.26)

This sentence is an example of George Eliot's historical precision. That throw-away line, "there was less and less flax spun," keys into a big historical change: the Industrial Revolution, which is basically outsourcing Silas's job. In the cities, factories are churning out cheap fabric that makes his loom irrelevant.

For Silas would not consent to have a grate and oven added to his conveniences. (2.16.27)

Here's another example of how money, for Silas, is a symbol rather than a tool. Even though Godfrey would give him whatever he asked for, Silas is so attached to his things that he doesn't want any improvements. He cooks over a fire and rejects a stove top—this is like you stashing pennies in your piggy bank and hanging on to your old Nokia and refusing to get a smartphone, even if your parents offer it to you.

It's natural he should be disappointed at not having any children: every man likes to have somebody to work for and lay by for, and he always counted so on making a fuss with 'em when they were little. (2.17.14)

Nancy excuses Godfrey's disappointment in not having children because, she says, men like to have somebody to accumulate wealth for (to "lay by"). There are some similarities here between Nancy's conception of wealth and Silas's—neither sees it as useful for what it can buy in the present—but the difference is that Silas accumulates wealth simply to have it; Nancy thinks that men like to acquire wealth so they can take care of their children. No word on what women like to do with money.

"No," said Godfrey, with a keen decisiveness of tone, in contrast with his usually careless and unemphatic speech—"There's debts we can't pay like money debts, by paying extra for the years that have slipped by." (2.20.5)

This is a key realization for Godfrey's character. At this moment, you might say, he finally grows up—if what it means to be "grown up" is to accept both responsibility and the gratification of fulfilling that responsibility (like seeing a child grow up to love and respect you). Being a big shot isn't enough to make you a man—as we learn from Squire Cass's example.

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