Study Guide

Silas Marner Themes

By George Eliot

  • Wealth

    Money makes the world go round—or does it? Is wealth the gold you can bury under your bed (or stash in an offshore account), or is it a pile of warm curls under your hand? Silas Marner answer that question pretty decisively, but not without some complications along the way. There's no doubt in the novel that money is good to have, and the specific wartime setting means that the villagers aren't exactly poor. It doesn't seem like Eliot wants us to discount the importance of money—after all, Silas Marner is at least partly a realistic portrait of life. So how much of the book deals with money as a symbol, and how much deals with it as a necessary and vital part of life?

    Questions About Wealth

    1. What are the various kinds of wealth in Silas Marner? Who has real wealth?
    2. What can wealth do for people in Silas Marner? Why doesn't Eppie accept Godfrey's offer of adoption?
    3. Why does Silas accumulate gold? What purpose does it serve in his life, and what kind of relationship with it does he develop?
    4. What is the relationship between work and wealth? What kinds of work do people do in the novel?

    Chew on This

    In Silas Marner, true wealth comes from relationships rather than from money. Too much money ends up making people poor.

    Wealth should be appreciated communally. It holds society together rather than bolsters an individual's social standing.

  • Greed

    Where there's wealth, there's greed. But in Silas Marner, the greed, like the wealth, isn't quite where you expect it to be. Silas may have all the money, but, if greed means a selfish desire to acquire, he's the least greedy character we meet. Although he wants to acquire money, he doesn't want it out of any desire or greed. In contrast, Godfrey, who wants Eppie without having to work for her, and who wants Nancy without deserving her, seems to harbor a lot of greed. What does greed mean when money doesn't seem to mean much?

    Questions About Greed

    1. What different types of greed does Eliot explore? What is desirable in the world of the novel?
    2. What's the relationship between greed and wealth? Greed and poverty?
    3. Are there any instances in which greed becomes a positive emotion? Can greed be channeled for good?
    4. What happens to the greedy characters? How is greed punished (if it is)?

    Chew on This

    In Silas Marner, greed is an antisocial force. In other words, Greed is the main emotion that keeps people apart.

    Eliot suggests that greed is acceptable when it is applied to personal relationships. To be greedy for someone's company is positive force in a community.

  • Religion

    Eliot evidently never got the memo re: not talking about religion, because Silas Marner is one God-rumination after another, exploring several different ways of thinking about religion. A little historical background: in the early 19th century, when Silas Marner takes place, the Anglican Church was the official, state-sponsored religion of England. People who didn't belong to the church were called Dissenters, and they went to "chapel." There were many different types of Dissenters, but many of them were Calvinist—they believed that you were either saved or not, and there wasn't anything you could do about it. Conflict between Anglicans and Dissenters is a major issue in a lot of 19th-century novels.

    In Silas Marner, there's Silas, who comes from a Dissenting, Calvinist Church; there's the official Anglican religion of Raveloe; and then there's the superstitious, folkloric beliefs that both Silas and the villagers practice, full of household gods and ghosts. What's the purpose of religion, and what kind is best? Eliot doesn't give a straight answer, but you may have an idea by the end of the novel.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Does Eliot seem to approve of any one kind of religious belief over another?
    2. What is the purpose of religion in the novel? Why do people go to church?
    3. Given that Eppie appears at Christmas, to what extent could you argue that Silas Marner is an allegory of Christian salvation?
    4. It's odd that, in a book so much about Christianity, the words "Christ" and "Jesus" only appear once, in the carol that Mrs. Winthrop's son Aaron sings to Silas. What might that mean?

    Chew on This

    Eliot expects her readers to have a more sophisticated understanding of religion than her characters. Their simple religion is appropriate to a rustic village, but not to the readers of the novel.

    Silas Marner is critical of Dissenting sects and suggests that Dissenters should re-enter the Anglican church.

  • Isolation

    Silas begins the book fully part of his Lantern-Yard group and then spends the next fifteen years living alone in a cottage, rejecting anyone's attempt to bring him into village life. If we think of Silas Marner as a religious allegory, then we can think of the story as the soul being taken away from God and then brought back to it. Or if Silas Marner is Eliot's attempt to think about England and history, then it's the story of England becoming a nation, all the little isolated pockets of communities beginning to see themselves as part of a country connected by a common culture and brought together by railroads—and being destroyed in the process. Leaving isolation is not always good.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Which characters seem to be isolated, other than Silas Marner? What causes them to be isolated?
    2. Does isolation have any positive effects in the novel?
    3. By the end of the novel, Silas Marner has resigned himself to being part of his new community. Does he ever seem to miss his isolation? Without Eppie, would he become a loner all over again?

    Chew on This

    In Silas Marner, individuals pass through isolation as a necessary stage along the way to true community.

    Eliot suggests that isolation is destructive, leading to crime and debasement.

  • Community

    Raveloe is a stratified community. There are wealthy folks—the "parishioners," Eliot usually calls them—and there are poor (but respectable) villagers. They're tied together by a common church and by yearly rituals like the New Year's dance at the Red House. Everyone knows his place and everyone seems fairly content with it. The villagers help each other out with baked goods and laundry, and the parishioners stimulate the economy by purchasing goods and smoothing things over with gifts. But how seriously can we take Eliot's portrait of Raveloe, given that the unraveling of the community is written into the village's very name?

    Questions About Community

    1. How many different kinds of communities does Silas Marner explore? What binds these communities together—blood, religion, geography?
    2. Eliot looks at communities as large as nations and as small as two-person families. Are the types of communities essentially the same, or does something change as they grow or shrink? Is Eliot suggesting that a nation ought to look like a family?
    3. What happens when communities are destroyed? Lantern-Yard has completely disappeared because it's been turned into a factory; what does Eliot suggest will happen to Raveloe?

    Chew on This

    The contrast between the troubled community of Lantern-Yard and the idealized community of Raveloe suggests that England's future lies in disintegrating communities and families.

    In Silas Marner, community rather than individuality is the highest good. Functioning as an individual means dooming one's self to loneliness and even death.

  • Tradition

    Tradition is important to the villagers of Silas Marner's Raveloe. As an agricultural community, Eliot suggests, the village has changed little in hundreds of years. Anything new—like Silas's loom, or Silas himself—is suspicious. And so tradition is both good and bad. It holds communities together, but it can also shade into something like habit, and habit can keep people apart. In the context of Eliot's religious interests, it's also worth pointing out that the Anglican church has traditionally (so to speak) been imagined as a stool resting on three legs: Reason, Scripture (the Bible), and Tradition. In the Anglican church, tradition, or what people have always done, is just as important as what the Bible says.

    Questions About Tradition

    1. What is the difference between habit and tradition in Silas Marner? Where does Eliot draw the line?
    2. Do certain traditions seem outdated in the novel? Where do novelty and newness come from?
    3. How sincere is Eliot in praising the traditions of the villagers? For example, are we supposed to read her praise of the New Year's celebration at Red House as ironic?
    4. What's the relationship of tradition to religion? To superstition?

    Chew on This

    In Silas Marner, tradition is connected to agriculture and novelty is connected to industrialization. An industrialized society can have no traditions.

    Eliot suggests that tradition can isolate individuals as much as it can bind together communities.

  • Change

    Since Silas Marner is about rebirth and redemption, change is an important theme. But it's not always welcome. Silas can't bear the change from his childhood home to the strange new place where he finds himself, and even when he's happy with Eppie, he resists change. Eppie herself refuses to exchange her place with Silas for a comfortable life with Godfrey. But Silas and Godfrey are both changed despite themselves. Like any good Christian story of salvation, change seems never to come from inside. You can only be changed through an act of God, whether that's an orphan showing up at your door or a body coming to light at the bottom of a quarry.

    Questions About Change

    1. Which characters change over the course of the novel? Which don't? What does that tell you about the story Eliot is trying to tell?
    2. Besides character change and growth, what other changes occur in the novel? What historical movements does Eliot gesture at?
    3. Change can be good and bad. What negative changes happen in the novel? How do characters react to change in negative ways?
    4. What's the difference between maturation (as with Eppie, and possible Godfrey) and true change as an adult?

    Chew on This

    In Silas Marner, personal change happens against a background of historical change. Personal and historical change are subtly linked.

    Eliot suggests that resistance to change is a key characteristic of rural country life. Silas's arrival in Raveloe heralds the eventual dissolution of that way of life.

  • Home

    The desire for home is one of the oldest themes in Western literature (The Odyssey, anyone?). In Silas Marner, Eliot thinks a lot about what home means and what makes a home. Silas is cast out of his home, and the experience is so traumatic that it takes him 31 years to feel comfortable in a new one. Home isn't simply a place where you live; it's a place of community, religious faith, and family. And in Silas Marner, it's always under threat. Knowing what we do about what happens to the real-life counterparts of Raveloe at the beginning of the 19-century, how secure are we supposed to feel about Eppie's delight in her home at the end?

    Questions About Home

    1. Which homes in Silas Marner are happy? Which are unhappy? Why?
    2. Silas is displaced from his home at the beginning of the novel. What other characters are unhomed in some way?
    3. How sincere or ironic is Eliot being at the end of Silas Marner? Given the tragedies of the first part of the book, how seriously can we take the Hollywood ending?

    Chew on This

    Through the examples of Silas and Squire Cass, Eliot suggests that women are necessary for a true home. A house with only men is not a home.

    In Silas Marner, childhood homes are permanent. Adults are not able to make new homes for themselves.