George Eliot’s "Silas Marner": How a Man’s Life is Influenced By his Environment

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

19 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1 Introduction

2 Lantern Yard

3 Raveloe

4 Conclusion

5 Works Cited

6 Works Consulted

1 Introduction

George Eliot’s Silas Marner, “that charming minor master piece“ (in Eliot 252) as F. R. Lewis calls it, was published in 1861 by John Blackwood. Her publisher explains: “Silas Marner sprang from her childish recollection of a man with a stoop and an expression of face that led her to think that he was an alien from his fellows” (Eliot VII). This man was a weaver like Silas Marner. In making him the protagonist of her novel, George Eliot emphasizes his strangeness by adding short-sightedness and cataleptic fits to set him off from the people around him. The difficult process of this outsider’s integration into society is the theme of the novel.

Silas Marner grows up as a member of an illiberal religious sect at Lantern Yard, whose chapel is situated in a small side street of a big manufacturing town in the North. Here human relations are of secondary importance, it is the form reliance on divine intervention which counts. When the weaver is falsely accused of having stolen the church money, he loses his faith in God and humanity, and moves to the small parish of Raveloe “in the rich central plain of what we are pleased to call Merry England” (10). The villagers are narrow-minded, ignorant, and naïve, but they are connected by “ties of fellowship and communal warmth” (Draper 229). Although they are members of the Church of England, their religion is rather haphazard, interwoven with superstition and chance associations. Marner’s “advent from an unknown region called ‘North’ard’” (Eliot 10), and his strange appearance instil a “vague fear” (12) into the villagers, and make them keep aloof from him, only turning to the weaver for his handicraft. By two acts of fate affecting the weaver, however, human relations gradually develop between Marner and the community of Raveloe.

George Eliot, whose real name is Mary Ann Evans, grew up in Griff House in a rural area as the youngest daughter of a large, rather well-to-do family of firm traditional convictions. Their house lay near a run-down community, the main support of which was weaving and mining (Karl 15-16). Hence she was personally concerned with the topics she took up in her novel. That “the society into which Eliot was born often seemed to her as parallel to Eden” (9), is one of the reasons why she often chose earlier eras as the setting for her novels (5).

Yet Silas Marner is not a nostalgic fairy tale of by-gone times George Eliot is a learned woman, and a keen observer of contemporary developments, and well acquainted with the prevailing trends: Calvinistic Dissent, Utilitarism, Providentialism, Chance, and Darwinism (Carroll 165), which she does not negate. Neither does she unconditionally embrace the changes evolving around her, but her view of the complex heterogeneity of modern civilization is discriminating, leading her to a partial and sceptical acceptance (Winkgens 63). Regarding Darwin, for instance, she agrees to “his reliance on the hereditary past, on vestiges of creation or vestigial structures, on the significance of time itself, on slowness, minuteness”, but she firmly opposes his granting the species pre-eminence above the individual (Karl 273). Evidences of all these aspects can be traced in her novel.

Although George Eliot was “prepared to move rapidly into the new and explore unknown territories socially and theologically” (75), she also felt bound to the customs of “Olde England”. Notwithstanding her distrust of progress, she was unable to resist it, and that is probably the reason why she set her story in an era of social transformation, when the traditional aristocratic society was replaced by the modern one, in which “achievement” supplanted the feudal “ascription” of birth (Semmel in Eliot 257-258). Silas Marner displays that “the shift taking place [in society] as not necessarily to the better” (Karl 273), but progress cannot be stopped.

George Eliot is convinced that “men’s lives are thoroughly blended with each other” (275), and this is what she demonstrates in Silas Marner, expressing her ideas in a kind of supra-realism. This style combines elements of social realism (e.g., in respect to the townspeople and peasants) with Wordsworthian qualities (e.g., the unity of people and nonhuman elements). In her novel the choice of locations, the depiction of nature, and the change of the seasons are always presented in connection with human activities, “and underscore the interwoven quality of the lives and their environment” (355).

Notwithstanding the fact that the figures she portrays are anti-heroic and commonplace, they experience “the sublime prompting to do the painful right” (Eliot in Karl 222), thus gaining pathos. This “sublime prompting” can be regarded as an example of determinism, implicit in the course of the lives she presents (Karl 220). Eliot’s method of combining the faithful study of nature with close observation of the ordinary (217) and Christian humanism (353), without a trace of sentimentality, makes the story she tells come alive.

In the following, I shall analyze the two locations and communities, Lantern Yard and Raveloe, which determine Marner’s history of a double metamorphosis (Hardy 72), keeping in mind the aspects mentioned above.

2 Lantern Yard


Silas Marner spends the first part of his life in a big manufacturing town in the North of England. By refraining from mentioning the name of the city, the author makes it representative of all the large cities living on the production of goods. Although this time is of great importance for Marner’s development, George Eliot gives only a scanty description of the location. The reader is told that the weaver’s life centred on Lantern Yard, the place where the evangelist sect he belonged to assembled. The chapel with its whitewashed walls is situated in a “narrow alley” (Eliot 227), which fits the narrowness of the belief. When the congregation meets, the members sit in little pews, separated from each other because concentrating on the Divine above is considered more important than human intercourse. They form a secluded small community within the big city, as Marner on his return, after having been away for over thirty years, states “that he never felt easy in the big streets” (227). The neighbourhood of Lantern Yard apparently housed mainly artisans, as the street leading there is called Shoe Lane. When Marner comes back to his home town with Eppie, much has changed. The small houses and Lantern Yard have disappeared, in its place there is an opening and a factory, only the prison Marner remembers is still where it was. This hints at the progress of industrialization, and perhaps at a growing open-mindedness of the people, while the law does not change. Eppie finds the living condition in this big town repulsive, as she feels ill at ease “amidst the noise, the movement, and the multitude of strange, indifferent faces” (226). Furthermore, the houses with their gloomy doorways standing so close together, the bad smell prevailing in the streets, and any glimpse of the sky being obstructed by the “grim walls” (226) of the prison, make an overall desolate impression on her, and stand in depressing contrast to her native Raveloe (Auster 204). Only Shoe Lane, where evidently some craftsmen still reside (Eliot 228: “little brush shop”), affords the view of a “broader strip of sky” (227), thus giving a more positive impression than the rest of the town. Here, individuals can still be found, in contrast to the anonymous mass of “sallow, begrimed faces” (227) watching them pass. Notably, the brushmaker is the only person Marner addresses in his quest for Lantern Yard. It is obvious that George Eliot hereby implies that the progress of industrialization destroys individuality and renders people unable to communicate. All in all, the portrayal of Marner’s native town implies the author’s scepticism of the deep-rooted changes evident in society. It does, however, also point to the fact that simple people like Eppie and Marner lose their bearings in the onslaught of progress.


Just as Lantern Yard is a small, secluded area in the big manufacturing town, so does the religious community settled there shut itself off from the life going on around it. It adheres to Calvinistic beliefs in divine election and Providence. The followers of this sect are convinced that salvation is not achieved by good works, but that God himself chooses the “elect”, who know about their vocation by their assurance of their election (237). Moreover, man must not interfere in the course of events, because divine intervention is responsible for all occurrences. That is the reason why, for instance, no doctors are needed to cure illnesses, and even naturopathic treatment is rejected. Marner has acquired some knowledge of medicinal herbs from his mother, and enjoys wandering in the fields to look for them, but “of late years he had had doubts about the lawfulness of applying this knowledge” (14) because it could signify interference in God’s decisions. Therefore he no longer pursues his walks, regarding his delight in nature as a temptation. These examples are evidence of the sect’s narrow-mindedness and their negation of all enjoyment in life. Furthermore, no authorities are needed to intervene in case of a criminal offence: “Any resort to legal measures for ascertaining the culprit was contrary to the principles of the church” (18). According to the laws of the sect, prosecution is forbidden to Christians, and the community must not be exposed to scandal. In order to find out the truth, they rely on prayer, and the drawing of lots (18). Of course these are not reasonable measures for proving a person’s guilt or innocence, yet they lead to Marner’s expulsion from church membership. As a firm believer, he relies “on his own innocence being certified by immediate divine interference” (18), hence the result shakes his faith in the community and in God. Although a confession could have restored him as a member of the sect, he refuses to repent something he has not done, turning his back on the others and on God, whom he holds responsible. Only despair is left for him, “that shaken trust in God and man which is little short of madness to a loving nature” (18). For Marner’s naïve mind, God has become evil, siding against the innocent. This thought makes him not only leave Lantern Yard, but also lose his former open and trusting attitude towards others, keeping aloof from his surroundings as far as possible. On closer look, however, nothing has been changed for him by his departure. The excessive otherworldliness of Lantern Yard and the narrow materialism of his solitary life at Raveloe are essentially the same (Draper 199). The narrator ascribes the weaver’s complete withdrawal to his inability to reflect and think independently, and to the false ideas which have been instilled into him since his childhood (Eliot 19). She does not condemn the “obscure religious life” (18) to which the sect and Marner adhere, but indicates a way out of the misery caused by unquestioning obedience to the rules, namely “to reason about the forms in which their religious feeling has incorporated itself” (19).


Excerpt out of 19 pages


George Eliot’s "Silas Marner": How a Man’s Life is Influenced By his Environment
University of Paderborn  (Germanistik und vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft)
Europäischer Realismus
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
494 KB
george, eliot’s, silas, marner, man’s, life, influenced, environment
Quote paper
Kathrin Ehlen (Author), 2007, George Eliot’s "Silas Marner": How a Man’s Life is Influenced By his Environment , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: George Eliot’s "Silas Marner": How a Man’s Life is Influenced By his Environment

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free