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Key themes in 'Silas Marner': egotism, altruism & fatalism

Updated on January 15, 2018
Jacqueline Stamp profile image

Jacqueline continues to study and explore the Literature and Socio-Political History of England circa1600-1900, and contemporary criticism.

George Eliot

creative commons image accessed online 02/01/2017
creative commons image accessed online 02/01/2017

As Barbara Hardy has said, “George Eliot’s insistent use of the structural relations of … characters can be seen as a way of classifying humanity … into egoist and altruist … [whereby she] sees a divided world, and the moral view directs the form in which the characters are presented.” (Hardy 115).

The ‘egoist’ and ‘altruist’ divisions of humanity imposed on Eliot’s work in the above excerpt are clearly demonstrated in Silas Marner by the actions of each character in respect of their inherent or assumed responsibilities. The ‘egoists’, for whom self-interest is the foundation of morality, abdicate their responsibilities in favour of materialistic pleasures which bring them only transient, superficial rewards. The ‘altruists’, characterised by their unselfish concern for others, adopt new and discarded responsibilities which bring them true happiness and contentment. Thus Eliot lays her moral trail, leading her reader Bunyan-like ‘away from the city of destruction’ (Marner 130) as surely as Eppie leads Silas from his desolation and isolation into the bosom of the Raveloe community. Fulfilling her authorial responsibility to enlighten and inform the prejudices of her reader, Eliot creates a world where to abdicate responsibility is to condemn oneself to misery and abjection whilst to adopt responsibility, as Silas adopts Eppie, is to acquire wealth and self-esteem immeasurable in worldly terms.

I intend here to discuss the ways in which individual characters in Silas Marner abdicate or adopt their responsibilities, and to consider the implications of each character’s actions on the other characters in the novel as well as the extent to which Eliot manipulates their situations to exemplify her own world-view. However, I also propose to introduce a third division of humanity in addition to those recognised by Hardy and designate this group of characters the fatalists, for they meekly accept the responsibilities life offers them without consciously agreeing to adopt them.

The role of the fatalists in the novel, as in life, is to provide a sounding-board against which the egoists and altruists can be judged. This triadic view of Eliot’s world is justified by her division of Silas Marner into three distinct parts, and it corresponds to the theological, metaphysical and positive stages through which, by her reading of Augustus Comte, Eliot believed every society must pass (Thale 127-128 and Eliot 40). It also reflects the three stages of development through which Silas passes as he moves “from superstition, through infidelity, to faith” (Simpson 226). Silas’s brown pot, broken into three parts and lovingly restored and “propped … in its old place for a memorial” (Marner 20) symbolises this tripartite world-view. The imperfections of the restored pot render it defunct, but the imperfections of the world as Eliot sees it are repaired by her narrative, as “all the incidents of the tale work together for good to the poor weaver, and restore gradually his broken trust in man and God” (Hutton 178). As Eliot’s egoists abdicate responsibilities and her altruists agree to adopt them, her fatalists follow a middle ground of “do[ing] the right thing as fur [sic] as [they] know, and … trust[ing]” (Marner 141).

Representative of the egoists is the zealously Calvinist community of Lantern Yard. It is built on the fear of a God who is “alien and remote” (Carroll 189) and it promotes an unquestioning trust in the supernatural powers of prayer. The actions of William Dane demonstrate “how really destructive of human fellowship and community this persistent belief in the miraculous can be” (Carroll 190). Dane abdicates his responsibilities to the community, to his best friend, and to himself by his betrayal of Silas, for he places his own earthly ambitions to marry Sarah above his duty to be honest and true to his peers and his God. Silas is bewildered by what occurs, and by the ease with which he is excommunicated by the drawing of lots (Marner 12-13). However, despite his innocence, he altruistically abdicates his secular responsibility to maintain his own good name and reputation in favour of adopting his religious obligation to “Obey your leaders and do what they say” (Hebrews 13:17). Thus Eliot presents not only a conflict of human interest in the abdication and adoption of responsibility, but also a conflict between religious ideology and practice in the same context. The congregation of Lantern Yard, in so readily expelling one of its most vulnerable members, abdicates its God-given responsibility ‘to love others as much as you love yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18). William Dane and Silas’s fiancée Sarah in particular abdicate this responsibility for it is they in whom Silas has invested most of his love and trust, as shown by his ‘great delight … that Sarah did not object to William’s presence in their Sunday interviews’ (Marner 9) and his ‘pain, at [William’s] doubts concerning him’ (Marner 9) following his cataleptic fit at a prayer meeting. Silas is aware that Sarah’s feelings for him are receding but both are also aware that an engagement ‘known to the church and … recognised in prayer meetings … could not be broken off without strict investigation’ (Marner 10). Through this dilemma Eliot demonstrates another abdication of responsibility on the part of the Lantern Yard community, whose inflexible moral code is founded on didactic ideological principles and makes no allowance for the vicissitudes of human consciousness. Adherence to such a code, Eliot suggests, leads inevitably to corruption and deceit. A simple, honest admission of a change of mind on Sarah’s part is unacceptable to the Lantern Yard community, so Dane resorts to dishonest means to secure her hand. Thus, his abdication of responsibility towards Silas is, paradoxically, his adoption of responsibility for Sarah’s future; an adoption which fails to compensate for the gravity of his abdication. Dane’s fate is undisclosed in the novel, but the evangelical light-in-the-darkness symbolised by the name given to Lantern Yard (Carroll 195) is extinguished by a “big factory” (Marner 173), thus indicating the submergence of his world into the sub-human urban sprawl of the nineteenth century’s newly industrialised towns.

In contrast to the egoistic “Calvinist evangelism” (Cave xi) of Lantern Yard, Eliot later presents her reader with the altruistic “moral laxity” (Carroll 195) of the Anglican Church in Raveloe. Here the “simple Raveloe theology [which falls] rather unmeaningly on Silas’s ears” (Marner 81) successfully adopts the responsibilities of religion so disastrously abdicated by the church in Lantern Yard. It is based not on strict utilitarian interpretations of biblical text but on “fountains of love and divine faith” (Marner 84) which offer spiritual guidance and comfort within the hierarchical constructs of a patriarchal society where

“the rural fashion … [was] for the more important members of the congregation to depart first, while their humbler neighbours waited and looked on, stroking their bent heads or dropping curtsies to any large ratepayers who turned to notice them.” (Marner 132).

Such deference reinforced notions of neighbourly and paternalistic responsibility, the adoption of which was central to the well-being of the village community in the years prior to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 (Overton 187).

Squire Cass sits at the tip of the village hierarchy, acknowledged as fully adopting his responsibilities towards his humbler neighbours. His title “died away from Raveloe lips [once he] was gathered to his fathers and his inheritance was divided” (Marner 133), indicating the abdication of these responsibilities by his eldest son, Godfrey. As a family man, however, the squire has abdicated his responsibilities since the death of his wife. The villagers consider it “a weakness in [him] that he had kept all his sons at home in idleness” (Marner 22) whilst Godfrey “had always had a sense that his father’s indulgence had not been a kindness” (Marner 69). Godfrey Cass is portrayed as a “young m[a]n of easy conscience” (Ashton 261), “selfish, weak, and inclined to indolence” (Ashton 176); a man whose “natural irresolution and moral cowardice” (Marner 26) mean that his “essentially kindly nature … becomes increasingly embittered and desperate” (Carroll 196). He is a reluctant egoist, led by his “habit of prevarication and escapism” (Carroll 198) to abdicate all his responsibilities towards his first wife and her child. He fails to confess their existence to his father, thereby laying himself open to the blackmail of his younger brother, Dunstan, and he fails to acknowledge his paternity when faced with the child in Silas’s arms at the Red House party (Marner 112-113). Disowning Eppie in this decisive instant marks Godfrey’s ultimate abdication of responsibility, for in the same moment he feels a “terror … that the woman [his wife] might not be dead” (Marner 112). David Carroll sees this as “the central point of the novel” (Carroll 198), marking, as it does, a turning point in the lives of both Godfrey and Silas. Silas’s sudden epiphany, in which he agrees to adopt responsibility for the child (Marner 113), marks his recovery from “fifteen years of very real bitterness and isolation” (Carroll 198-199) during which the worship of gold had replaced the worship of God. It simultaneously marks the beginning of a sixteen year period of disillusionment and deception for Godfrey as he finds himself free to marry Nancy Lammeter but condemned to unnecessary childlessness within that marriage. His eventual attempts to adopt responsibility for Eppie prove fruitless as, in a subversion of accepted literary traditions, she refuses to claim her noble birthright. As Silas adopted the young, helpless Eppie, so she adopts and embraces her responsibility to stay with and care for the elderly, ailing, Silas. Godfrey is thus forced to admit “ruefully to his faithful wife, ‘I wanted to pass for childless once, Nancy - I shall pass for childless now against my wish’” (Ashton 249). Here Eliot reinforces the permanence of the divisions in her world. Godfrey must live with the long-term consequences of his abdication of responsibility and not expect to buy his way out of the situation. He must also live with the guilt of inflicting his childlessness on his wife.

Godfrey’s second wife, Nancy, adopts her responsibilities as mistress of Red House with a fatalistic belief in her own “unalterable little code [which] formed every one of her habits” (Marner 151). Her sister Priscilla crosses her society’s gender divide in agreeing to adopt responsibility for her father and his farm, for as he readily admits “[s]he manages me and the farm too” (Marner 147). This reversal of accepted gender roles parallels Silas’s adoption of maternal responsibilities towards Eppie. Many people in Raveloe questioned “how a lone man would manage with a two year old child on his hands” (Marner 118) and it is likely many also wondered how a woman would run a farm. Eliot’s point here is that agreeing to adopt responsibilities which others might expect one to abdicate requires a strength of character and resolution of mind uncommon and exceptional in mankind. Those characters who agree to adopt responsibility are therefore exalted above the merely good-hearted and kind and serve as an example of munificence in the world. In their community, however, they stand out as ‘different’ and are thus regarded with suspicion.

Conversely, the characters who abdicate responsibility within the novel are portrayed as dishonourable and mean. The youthful Godfrey’s abdication of responsibility is the result of a weak nature and a desire to maintain peace within his father’s household. His brother Dunstan, commonly known as Dunsey, abdicates his responsibilities through a more sinister desire to live as easy a life as possible with as little effort as possible. “[A] spiteful, jeering fellow, who seemed to enjoy his drink the more when other people went dry” (Marner 23), Dunstan shows no remorse for his misappropriation of rents or for his blackmail of the “quivering” (Marner 25 and 26) Godfrey. An outright egoist, he abdicates all the inherent responsibilities of his rank as well as those of basic humanity. He is willing to see a tenant distrained (Marner 24) and his brother bereft of his horse and his inheritance (Marner 27) rather than admit his own dishonesty to his father. He has fallen so low on Eliot’s scale of moral responsibility that he suffers the most severe and unpleasant punishment she can devise. As he rots, unlamented, in the mud of the old quarry the gold he has stolen from Silas survives intact to incriminate him. Eliot thus adopts her authorial responsibility to ensure that justice is done and evil does not prosper.

As Silas adopts responsibility for the golden-haired Eppie, so the “comfortable …wholesome” (Marner 78) Dolly Winthrop adopts responsibility for Silas’s education as a parent. Through her ministrations Eppie is christened and clothed (Marner 119-123) and Silas learns how to adopt responsibility for the social, medical, and religious welfare of the child. Dolly’s natural altruism is belied by her fatalistic outlook. Her simple faith that “there’s things as we can niver [sic] make out the rights on … all as we’ve got to do is to trusten [sic]” (Marner 141) enables her to adopt responsibility as naturally as she breathes. With no conscious effort she knows instinctively what is right and acts upon that instinct. Her discussions with Silas allow him to come to terms with his past and embrace his present. Dolly’s solution to the puzzle of the drawing-of-lots is “a succinct and completely natural statement of the human situation as George Eliot sees it” (Carroll 202). Eliot then is advocating a fatalistic approach to the abdication and adoption of responsibility, for, as Dolly says “isn’t there Them as was at the making on us, and knows better and has a better will?” (Marner 140). A similar fatalistic view is adopted by the regulars of The Rainbow Inn as their discussions provide a “comprehensive rehearsal of the important themes of the novel” (Carroll 208). Events are mediated by the landlord, who tactfully adopts his responsibility towards his business and his customers by concluding that “[t]he truth lies atween [sic] you: you’re both right and you’re both wrong” (Marner 45). In this simple paradigm Eliot not only maintains her central ground regarding the abdication and adoption of responsibility but also sums up her view of the religious and scientific debates of her day.

As judge and jury of her characters, Eliot ensures that their actions and decisions are justly rewarded or punished. Thus she creates an exemplary world divided into those who abdicate responsibility, those who agree to adopt it, and those who adopt it by default. The former continue to suffer for their abdication, as Godfrey must endure his childlessness and Lantern Yard must disappear into oblivion. The latter two benefit from their adoption, just as Silas benefited from his adoption of Eppie, not in the material sense most commonly acknowledged in society but in a spiritual and natural sense more conducive to happiness and contentment. Eliot presents her characters in such a way as to form a moral framework for her divided world. Through their abdication or adoption of responsibility she demonstrates a simple justice of cause and effect, whereby each character suffers or benefits in proportion to their actions. Thus Eliot demonstrates the essential interdependence of human society and emphasises the degree to which this interdependence is reliant on the adoption of responsibility.


Sources used:

Primary Text

Eliot, George. Silas Marner, 1861, Oxford and NewYork: Oxford World Classics. Oxford U.P., 1998.

Secondary Texts

Ashton, Rosemary. George Eliot; A Life. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,1997

Carroll, David. “Reversing the Oracles of Religion (1967)”, George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner, a selection of critical essays Ed. R. P. Draper. London and Basingstoke: The MacMillan Press Ltd. 1982. 188-216.

Cave, Terence (Ed.) “Introduction” Silas Marner, Oxford and NewYork: Oxford World Classics. Oxford U.P. 1998. vii-xxxi.

Eliot, George. “George Eliot on Literature and Life”, George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner, a selection of critical essays. Ed. R. P. Draper. London and Basingstoke: The MacMillan Press Ltd. 1982. 40-50.

Hardy, Barbara. The Novels of George Eliot; A Study in Form. London, Toronto and New York: Oxford U.P. 1963.

Hebrews”, church.co.uk Bible, Contemporary English Version, Bath: Harper Collins, 2002. 286-299.

Hutton, R.H., “unsigned review, Economist 27 April 1861, pp. 455-7”, George Eliot The Critical Heritage. Ed. David Carroll. Frome and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1971. 175-178.

Leviticus”, church.co.uk Bible, Contemporary English Version, Bath: Harper Collins, 2002. 92-119.

Overton, Mark. Agricultural Revolution in England; the transformation of the agrarian economy 1500-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P. 2001.

Simpson, Richard. “Richard Simpson on George Eliot October 1863” George Eliot The Critical Heritage. Ed. David Carroll. Frome and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1971. 221-250.

Thale, Jerome. “The Sociology of Dodsons and Tullivers (1959)” George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner, a selection of critical essays. Ed. R. P. Draper. London and Basingstoke: The MacMillan Press Ltd. 1982. 125-139.




© 2014 Jacqueline Stamp

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