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Silas Marner Summary in English by George Eliot
George Eliot’s Silas Marner is based in the beginning of the nineteenth century in England. This was the time when the introduction of machines and heavy industries was bringing about a change in British society. Old values, ethics and ways of living were being replaced by new. Silas Marner, the central character of the novel, lives in this changing society.
Silas Marner does not belong to the city. He is a linen-weaver and lives in the countryside, in the village of Raveloe. Since he is the only weaver in the village, he gains importance among the villagers. Marner is not rich, but at the same time, he is not poor. However, it is not money or the lack of it that makes him unhappy. People look down upon him as an outsider, as someone who cannot be trusted. This attitude of the villagers disturbs Marner and he does not feel at home in Raveloe.
Things take a turn for the worse when Marner is suspected of being a witch doctor. One day, Marner’s neighbour is sick and asks him for help. Marner’s herbal treatment cures her. But this leads the villagers to believe that there is indeed something supernatural or even evil about him. Since Marner often experiences fits, the people suspect him even more. To make matters worse, news reaches Raveloe that he had been thrown out of the religious sect to which he belonged in a place called Lantern Yard.
In Lantern Yard, Marner was a deeply devout Christian. However, the senior deacon under the care of Marner died. When the deacon’s money bag was recovered from Marner’s house and Marner’s pocket-knife was recovered from the Deacon’s bureau, he was accused of being a thief and thrown out of Lantern Yard. His engagement to Sarah, an inmate in Lantern Yard, was broken and she, in turn, married Marner’s friend William. In fury and despair Marner renounced his faith since he had eagerly hoped that God would come to his help.
In such a climate of distrust and dislike, Marner finds himself increasingly isolated and unwanted. In Raveloe he works diligently, but loses every human connection with the village society. He does not once visit the church and this is one of the reasons why he is looked down upon by the villagers. Shunned by the villagers as an evil man, Marner seeks, and perhaps finds, comfort in his work. As time passes, Marner though friendless, accumulates a lot of wealth and it appears that his wealth is his most beloved friend and his sole companion.
New characters are introduced in the third chapter. Here one comes across the Squire, the British equivalent to a zamindar in India. In the novel, it is the Squire’s sons – Godfrey and Dunstan – who are of importance and not so much the Squire himself. Godfrey, the older son is handsome but rather weak-willed. The younger son Dunstan, popularly called Dunsey, is heavily into gambling and drinking.
Despite Godfrey’s flaws, villagers in Raveloe like him and hope to see him married to the pretty village girl, Nancy. While there is nothing apparent to stop this marriage, an ugly secret between the brothers threatens it. Godfrey and Dunstan have a furious quarrel over a hundred pounds: money which was rent from a tenant. Godfrey had lent this sum to his brother who quite predictably squandered it. With the Squire asking for the money, Godfrey now insists that Dunstan returns it to him.
When Godfrey threatens to report the matter to the Squire, Dunstan threatens Godfrey that he would tell the Squire of Godfrey’s secret marriage to Molly, an opium addict. Thus, Godfrey’s marriage to Nancy would be impossible. With this piece of information comes a revelation that Godfrey was actually lured into the marriage as a trap so that Dunstan could always exert influence over him. This revelation clears Godfrey of his wrongdoing and also shows the reader that Dunstan is an ill- natured man.
The problem is resolved when Dunstan suggests that Godfrey should sell Wildfire, Godfrey’s horse, and pay the Squire. Godfrey reluctantly agrees to do it. It becomes clear that Godfrey has feelings for the beautiful and noble Nancy; and it also shows that Godfrey is weak-willed, and is easily manipulated by his cunning brother.
The focus of the novel, from here on, is Dunstan. On his way to sell Godfrey’s horse, Duncan passes Marner’s cottage and thinks about borrowing money from Marner instead of selling the horse. However, he soon dismisses the thought because he feels that it would be more pleasurable to see the sorrow on Godfrey’s face after selling the horse. Dunstan soon runs into some of his friends, who are out on a hunting expedition. Not only does he make a deal with them to sell the horse, he even joins them with the intent to show them his horse. His plans go horribly wrong when Dunstan tires the horse and in the midst of a leap, severely injures and kills it. Since everyone is deeply engrossed in the hunt, nobody notices this mishap. Dunstan escapes without much injury.
On his way home, while he is about to pass by Marner’s cottage, Dunstan wonders about the rumour of Marner’s hoarded wealth. Given the current situation he is in, he can go to any lengths to save himself. It is already dusk and the light from Marner’s window invites him to carry out his ill intentions. Luck seems to be on his side as the door is unlocked, and though there is meat roasting on the fire, Marner is not at home. Dunstan spots a tiny mound of sand inside and rushes towards it. After sweeping it away, he removes the loose bricks below, and finds the bags of gold which belong to Marner. Dunstan takes the bags of gold – Marner’s savings of a lifetime – and flees.
Unfortunately, Marner is again at the receiving end of a theft and this leaves him extremely upset. Till now, he was happy as a loner but now he is desperate for help. Initially, Marner suspects a poacher called Jem Rodney but he’s not sure whether Jem has taken the gold. For the first time in years Marner seeks company to share his grief and heads for the village tavern, the Rainbow. When he reaches the Rainbow, he finds that most of the people have gone to the dance. He remembers Godfrey being excited about it since he had hoped to meet Nancy there.
These dances were important social interactions. The dances gave the opportunity to the people to have a drink together, or share a joke, or dance. However, strict codes of propriety had to be adhered to and the dances took place under the supervision of the elders. The Rainbow may be seen as an example of Raveloe society. From the familial space, the focus shifts to the public arena. The power equation is shown clearly.
The rich order expensive spirits and are seated near the fire, w hile the poor order beer and sit further away from the fire. It may be gathered from the conversations that the village folk are rather simple-minded and do not indulge in much thinking about anything that does not have any direct impact on their lives. Their needs are limited and so are their worldviews.
Everyone in the tavern is startled by Marner’s appearance. Since Marner preferred to be alone, people hardly saw him, and now, with his looks of bewilderment and grief, he looked nothing less than a ghoul. Jem Rodney is present as well, but soon Marner stops suspecting him when he is told that Jem was with the landlord at the time of the theft.
However, once they find out about Marner’s loss, the villagers show great concern. It is decided that the villagers will help Marner in trying to recover his money.
From the Rainbow, the scene now shifts to the household of the Squire. Upon returning from the dance, Godfrey finds that his brother is not at home, but his feelings for Nancy keep him distracted. The next morning the entire village is talking about the theft. Though some pity Marner, some are dismissive of his situation, stating that the words of Marner are nothing but the ravings of a mad man. When the dwelling of Marner is checked for clues, a tinder-box is recovered. Though not much comes out of this discovery, Mr Snell, the tavern owner, reminds the search party that a peddler had mentioned a tinder-box some time ago.
Though no one sees anything suspicious about the disappearance of Dunstan, Godfrey tells his father that the money received as rent had been spent by Dunstan. He also informs the Squire about the misfortune that has befallen Wildfire.
The short-tempered Squire is very angry and blames his sons for all his misfortunes. He also expresses his discontent over Godfrey’s hesitation in proposing marriage to Nancy. The Squire even proposes to play match-maker and act on behalf of Godfrey. However, Godfrey is miserable and cannot take a decision. He’s simply unable to muster courage and tell his father the reason why he is not in a position to marry Nancy.
As time passes, it becomes more and more evident that there is very little hope of any recovery of Marner’s money. Some of the villagers of Raveloe seem to have softened. They come to Marner’s cottage to cheer him up and offer their regrets over his misfortune. One such visitor is a pious woman named Dolly Winthrop. She and her son, Aaron, bring him lard cakes. She insists that Marner visits the church; which according to her is the only source of solace. But Marner is beyond any consolation. He has formed a kinship with his money; so the subsequent loss of it makes him almost inconsolable. It is Christmas time, and while the villagers of Raveloe are in a mood to make merry, Marner is in a mood to mourn.
After the Christmas festivities, the New Year dance is an event eagerly awaited by all in Raveloe. At this juncture in the narrative, the focus directly shifts on how life was like for the womenfolk in Raveloe. Till now we knew about the life of the women in the lower strata of the society; but now one sees what life was like for women belonging to the more privileged sections.
Nancy Lammeter, the love interest of Godfrey, arrives in the Squire’s household along with her father and her sister, Priscilla. In the eleventh chapter, one notes how intensely conscious the women are of their social class – especially of their socio-economic standing. Though Nancy seems uncomfortable with Godfrey, she cannot help but wonder what it would be like to be the mistress of such a splendid house. While the Squire keeps asking Godfrey to speak to Nancy about marriage, Godfrey is unable to decide what to do.
While the dancing and merry-making is underway in the Squire’s house, Godfrey’s wife Molly is walking towards the Red House with her baby in her arms. She is aware that a party is going on there and intends to avenge her misfortune. While she directs her anger towards her husband, she is equally aware that her opium addiction is the root cause of all her misery. Besides, she also resents the fact that while she’s bearing all the poverty and cold, her husband is enjoying a life of wealth and comfort.
Weakened by ill-health and addiction, Molly sits down on the roadside and has some opium to relax her, and soon becomes unconscious and dies. The child in her arms, upon finding her mother’s grip loose, starts toddling towards the light emanating from Marner’s cottage window. After the theft Marner has been in a wretched state himself. He keeps the door open, hoping that someone might bring back his gold. On this day when Molly’s daughter makes an appearance, the door is unlocked as always and Marner is having a fit. By the time he recovers, the child is already inside the house and asleep by the fireplace. Marner has grown old and has become short-sighted. When he recovers, all he can see is what seems to be a mound of gold. Marner is thrilled. He thinks his gold has been returned to him. But upon touching the mound, he realizes that it is the silken golden hair of a child. The child reminds him of his sister who died in her childhood. He is taken back to his days in Lantern Yard. He feeds the child some porridge and follows the footprints of the child. Before long, he finds Molly’s corpse.
The party in the Red House is in full swing when Marner makes a sudden appearance with the child in his arms. The Squire is irritated to see this unwelcome visitor. Godfrey immediately recognizes the child and turns pale. Marner narrates to them the circumstances in which he came into the possession of the child. When it is confirmed that the child’s mother is indeed dead, Godfrey breathes a sigh of relief. Marner informs the people that he intends to bring up the child. Though Godfrey seems a little uneasy about Marner taking custody of his daughter, he is also quick to notice that this is the best option, given the circumstances. The death of Molly gives him the liberty to propose marriage to Nancy. He feels that since his daughter is under the care of Marner, he will certainly be able to keep an eye on her.
Molly’s death brings relief not only to Godfrey but also gives the child a better life. Had she been under Molly’s care or the lack of it, she was almost destined for a difficult life. In Marner’s household, she finds a very loving father figure. He loves her and cares for her. Seeing the love and concern that Marner has for her, the villagers start liking him and offer their help in whichever way they can. Dolly Winthrop often comes to help him and it is she who suggests that the child be baptized. Although he is reluctant at first, Marner gives in. Marner and the child get baptized. He names her Hephzibah, the name of both his long-dead mother and sister. People in Raveloe, including Marner, lovingly call her Eppie.
With Eppie’s arrival, life takes a dramatic turn for Marner. Marner is no longer an outcast; the villagers have a new-found love and admiration for him. While his earlier wealth had kept him aloof from society, his new-found wealth, Eppie, has brought him in close contact with the people. In the spring and summer, they are to be found in the open fields. Even when he is out to collect yam, little Eppie is his constant companion. The very children who were terrified of him, seem to like him.
Godfrey, too, keeps an eye on Eppie and every once in a while offers help. He is content to see his daughter being showered with love by Marner. Without any worries in his life, even Godfrey seems to have become a new man. Even the villagers have noticed a change in him.
When the novel opens in the second section, sixteen years have elapsed. There have been many changes in the people who live there. In this section we find the characters being re-introduced.
Squire Cass has died and his estate has been divided. Godfrey is one of the most noble and respected residents in Raveloe. He has married his beloved Nancy. Silas Marner, in his fifties has become a part of the society in Raveloe. Little Eppie has grown up. Dolly Winthrop’s son Aaron is deeply in love with her. Dolly, we are told, is Eppie’s godmother.
At this point, it appears that Marner has stopped running from his painful past and has accepted it. He talks to Dolly and Eppie about his life in Lantern Yard. Marner has also revealed the fact to Eppie that he is not her biological father. She does not seem perturbed as she believes that nobody could have loved her and cared for her like Marner had. However, Eppie is quite curious to know about her mother and keeps looking at her mother’s ring, which Marner had given her. Eppie informs Marner that Aaron has proposed marriage to her and since she loves him she intends to marry him. She says that Aaron does not mean to desert Marner and wants him to stay with them as their father.
During this time, the pit near Marner’s cottage is being drained. The fields need to be watered and the water from the pit near Marner’s dwelling is being used for this purpose.
The focus now shifts from the residence of Marner to the Red House – the Cass residence. As mentioned earlier, the Squire is dead and his younger son, Dunstan, has not been seen again after stealing Marner’s money. The elder son Godfrey has married Nancy and now the Red House is orderly and peaceful under her supervision. However, not all is well in the Cass dwelling. Nancy has had a miscarriage and she is childless since. Godfrey has suggested adoption time and again but Nancy sees adoption as meddling with Providence. While Godfrey tries to persuade her to adopt a child she continues to oppose his suggestion. Godfrey even suggests adopting Eppie but to no avail. Godfrey has turned out to be a rather thoughtful person. With Eppie growing up in front of his eyes, it appears that Godfrey remembers Molly, who he never acknowledged as his wife, and the grief he had caused her.
In chapter eighteen, the skeleton of Godfrey’s younger brother, Dunstan, is found in the pit near Marner’s cottage. The body had been in the pit all along and is discovered while it was being drained to water the fields. The money Dunstan had stolen is also found on him.
Godfrey is shaken but it is not only because of the death of his younger brother. What appears to have disturbed him most is the realization that all evil comes to light at some point or the other. One may succeed in hiding it for a while but not for long. In his state of disorder and shock, he confesses to Nancy that in his married life he has had one secret. The woman Marner found dead in the snow, long years ago, was actually his wife, Molly, and the child that Marner has been raising as his own is actually Godfrey and Molly’s.
Nancy’s maturity and nobility of character comes to the fore when in response she tells her husband that had he made this confession to her earlier, he would have spared Eppie the situation of being motherless and spared Nancy the pain of being childless. Nancy makes it clear to him that she forgives him simply because he has been a good husband to her but the wrong he has done to Eppie is not to be forgiven easily.
While Marner and Eppie are sitting in their cottage talking thoughtfully about the discovery of Dunstan and the money, Nancy and Godfrey arrive. They offer to adopt Eppie which is very politely and firmly refused even when the advantage of this adoption is explained to them. Upon meeting strong refusal from them, Godfrey realizes that he has no choice but to reveal to Marner that Eppie is his daughter and it is only right that she comes and stays with him. Even Nancy thinks that Godfrey is very justified in wanting his daughter back in his life with him.
Much distressed and angered, Marner says that the decision is neither his nor Godfrey’s to make as to who has greater claim over her and that it is entirely Eppie’s decision as to with whom will she live. After Nancy, it is now Eppie’s turn to show her nobility of character and makes it very clear to both Godfrey and Nancy that despite all the benefits, she has no intention of abandoning the person who has brought her up with such love and devotion.
Godfrey and Nancy come back home and realize that Eppie’s mind is already made up and that she is probably going to marry Aaron. Godfrey says that Eppie’s refusal to acknowledge him as her father is the punishment he deserves for all the wrongs he has committed. At the same time, he says that he is indeed grateful that Nancy, the love of his life, is still with him.
The final chapter contains an interesting peek into nineteenth century British society and what industrialization was doing to it. With the money recovered, Marner and Eppie travel to Lantern Yard. They are surprised to see that the place has changed beyond recognition. The high buildings and narrow, filthy lanes frighten them. The old chapel of Marner has been replaced by a large factory and none of the old residents of Lantern Yard are to be seen anywhere. Marner is content that Raveloe is his home now and that Eppie is his precious possession. Upon returning, Dolly tells him that truth matters most in the end and as he has always stood for the truth, he has no reason to feel unhappy.
The book concludes with an account of the beautiful marriage ceremony of Eppie and Aaron. Nancy and her sister Priscilla comment on the event along with their father. At the Rainbow, the people discuss the life of Marner. As the wedding procession arrives at its destination, one is told that Aaron and Eppie have decided to stay with Marner in his cottage. Interestingly, a beautiful garden has been now laid and Godfrey has paid for the expense.