Did the miser, Silas Marner, recover his faith in God?
George Eliot’s novel tells of a miser who hoards gold and is redeemed by taking in and raising an orphaned child. Anyone can see why such a story would be regarded as a story of faith, even a Christian story, though Eliot herself was not a believer.
When Silas takes in Eppie, he had long since abandoned his old faith in God, having been betrayed by his old friends and community. I think Silas did recover his faith by the end of the novel, though online I have seen comments to the effect that he comes to have faith, not in God, but in a child.
Everyone agrees that Silas’ adoption of Eppie changes him greatly. There may be disagreement about what happened to his faith.
I looked up the passages in the novel that refer directly to his faith, and have listed them below. To me it’s clear that his faith is restored, not in a child, but through a child.
The relevant passages are below.
The first comes after Silas, a young man with a good life in a faithful parish, is falsely accused of a robbery. Silas realizes that it is his own longtime friend, William Dane, who has framed him and has probably stolen the money himself. He nevertheless trusts that God will clear him, when the parish decides to draw lots to determine the truth of the matter. The lots, however, show that Silas is guilty of the robbery.
I wondered whether the lots were somehow manipulated by William Dane, though that is not stated. George Eliot does state that seeking the truth about a robbery through such methods was bound to strike fatally at the faith of a simple unquestioning man such as Silas Marner:
We are apt to think it inevitable that a man in Marner’s position should have begun to question the validity of an appeal to the divine judgment by drawing lots; but to him this would have been an effort of independent thought such as he had never known; and he must have made the effort at a moment when all his energies were turned into the anguish of disappointed faith. If there is an angel who records the sorrows of men as well as their sins, he knows how many and deep are the sorrows that spring from false ideas for which no man is culpable.
Silas is suspended from church membership, pending a confession to the crime. His fiancée breaks off their engagement, and even marries William Dane.
Even before the casting of the lots, in which Silas had confidently looked forward to being cleared, he had felt something in him already broken —
Silas knelt with his brethren, relying on his own innocence being certified by immediate divine interference, but feeling that there was sorrow and mourning behind for him even then—that his trust in man had been cruelly bruised.
After the casting of the lots —
Poor Marner went out with that despair in his soul—that shaken trust in God and man, which is little short of madness to a loving nature.
Silas’ final words to William Dane echo the Book of Job and show his faith truly broken —
“You stole the money, and you have woven a plot to lay the sin at my door. But you may prosper, for all that: there is no just God that governs the earth righteously, but a God of lies, that bears witness against the innocent.”
There was a general shudder at this blasphemy.ch. 1
Here is Silas fifteen years later, living a lonely life where nobody knows him, a miserly weaver in the town of Raveloe:
The light of his faith quite put out, and his affections made desolate, he had clung with all the force of his nature to his work and his money …Ch. 5
Silas is robbed of all his gold at this time, and the robber is not found. His despair deepens.
Silas receives a friendly visit from a neighbor, Dolly Winthrop. Dolly asks him why he doesn’t go to church. She asks her son Aaron to sing him a Christmas carol (“God rest you, merry gentlemen”). But none of this moves him.
The fountains of human love and of faith in a divine love had not yet been unlocked, and his soul was still the shrunken rivulet …Ch. 10
Shortly afterward, an orphaned two-year-old girl shows up inexplicably in front of the fireplace in his cottage.
After Silas takes in Eppie, the change in him is profound. He is drawn out of himself by taking care of a child who loves him; and he is no longer a loner. Any parent will recognize here what’s happening, and the process is understandable to anyone. No child is naturally a loner. Adults are naturally drawn to socialize with young children, to offer help, to speak with the parent, who is happy for the help and grateful to find common ground with others.
The change in Silas, though it begins immediately, is not instantaneous. Yet Part 1 of the novel ends with this passage, recalling both Genesis 19 and Isaiah 11:6 —
In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.Ch. 14
In Part 2, sixteen more years have passed, and we hear about Silas’ faith in God being repaired.
By seeking what was needful for Eppie, by sharing the effect that everything produced on her, he had himself come to appropriate the forms of custom and belief which were the mould of Raveloe life; and as, with reawakening sensibilities, memory also reawakened, he had begun to ponder over the elements of his old faith, and blend them with his new impressions, till he recovered a consciousness of unity between his past and present. The sense of presiding goodness and the human trust which come with all pure peace and joy, had given him a dim impression that there had been some error, some mistake, which had thrown that dark shadow over the days of his best years…..Ch. 16
Dolly Winthrop helps Silas greatly in this process, and it’s worth quoting at length her extended reflections about the mystery of misfortunes suffered by innocents:
… as it grew more and more easy to him to open his mind to Dolly Winthrop, he gradually communicated to her all he could describe of his early life. … Silas at last arrived at the climax of the sad story—the drawing of lots, and its false testimony concerning him…..
“that was what fell on me like as if it had been red-hot iron; because, you see, there was nobody as cared for me or clave to me above nor below. And him as I’d gone out and in wi’ for ten year and more, since when we was lads and went halves—mine own familiar friend in whom I trusted, had lifted up his heel again’ me, and worked to ruin me.”
“Eh, but he was a bad un—I can’t think as there’s another such,” said Dolly. “But I’m o’ercome, Master Marner; I’m like as if I’d waked and didn’t know whether it was night or morning. I feel somehow as sure as I do when I’ve laid something up though I can’t justly put my hand on it, as there was a rights in what happened to you, if one could but make it out; and you’d no call to lose heart as you did. But we’ll talk on it again…”
Dolly was too useful a woman not to have many opportunities of illumination of the kind she alluded to, and she was not long before she recurred to the subject….
“Well, then, Master Marner, it come to me summat like this: I can make nothing o’ the drawing o’ lots and the answer coming wrong; it ’ud mayhap take the parson to tell that, and he could only tell us i’ big words. But what come to me as clear as the daylight, it was when I was troubling over poor Bessy Fawkes, and it allays comes into my head when I’m sorry for folks, and feel as I can’t do a power to help ’em, not if I was to get up i’ the middle o’ the night—it comes into my head as Them above has got a deal tenderer heart nor* what I’ve got—for I can’t be anyways better nor* Them as made me; and if anything looks hard to me, it’s because there’s things I don’t know on; and for the matter o’ that, there may be plenty o’ things I don’t know on, for it’s little as I know—that it is. And so, while I was thinking o’ that, you come into my mind, Master Marner, and it all come pouring in:—if I felt i’ my inside what was the right and just thing by you, and them as prayed and drawed the lots, all but that wicked un, if they’d ha’ done the right thing by you if they could, isn’t there Them as was at the making on us, and knows better and has a better will? And that’s all as ever I can be sure on, and everything else is a big puzzle to me when I think on it. For there was the fever come and took off them as were full-growed, and left the helpless children; and there’s the breaking o’ limbs; and them as ’ud do right and be sober have to suffer by them as are contrairy—eh, there’s trouble i’ this world, and there’s things as we can niver make out the rights on. And all as we’ve got to do is to trusten, Master Marner — to do the right thing as fur as we know, and to trusten. For if us as knows so little can see a bit o’ good and rights, we may be sure as there’s a good and a rights bigger nor* what we can know — I feel it i’ my own inside as it must be so. And if you could but ha’ gone on trustening, Master Marner, you wouldn’t ha’ run away from your fellow-creaturs and been so lone.”
“Ah, but that ’ud ha’ been hard,” said Silas, in an under-tone; “it ’ud ha’ been hard to trusten then.”
“And so it would,” said Dolly, almost with compunction; “them things are easier said nor* done; and I’m partly ashamed o’ talking.”
“Nay, nay,” said Silas, “you’re i’ the right, Mrs. Winthrop—you’re i’ the right. There’s good i’ this world—I’ve a feeling o’ that now; and it makes a man feel as there’s a good more nor* he can see, i’ spite o’ the trouble and the wickedness. That drawing o’ the lots is dark; but the child was sent to me: there’s dealings with us—there’s dealings.”
Dolly and Silas both know that they don’t know — they’re able to acknowledge their own ignorance, in a way that educated people have a much harder time doing (yours truly a classic example).
That humility makes faith possible (it also makes science possible, a topic for another day).
We see in the above passages that Silas’ faith is linked closely with his relationship to others. It was the betrayal by his best friend that really damaged his early faith, and it’s the goodness brought by Eppie that repairs it.
Silas comes to feel this link himself, when the sudden and unexpected recovery of his old hoard of gold makes him ask what might happen to his faith if he were to lose Eppie:
Silas sat in silence a few minutes, looking at the money. “It takes no hold of me now,” he said, ponderingly—“the money doesn’t. I wonder if it ever could again—I doubt* it might, if I lost you, Eppie. I might come to think I was forsaken again, and lose the feeling that God was good to me.”
Late in the novel, Silas journeys with Eppie back to his old home, to find his old parishioners and to see if anyone had ever discovered the falseness of the accusation once laid upon him. They are unable to find anything about it, and even the old parishioners themselves are gone. Hearing this news, Dolly acknowledges that the old wrong done to Silas will have to remain a mystery. But she and Silas both affirm, as in their earlier conversation, their faith in a goodness or light, even if to their human eyes it remains dark:
“You were hard done by that once, Master Marner, and it seems as you’ll never know the rights of it; but that doesn’t hinder there being a rights, Master Marner, for all it’s dark to you and me.”
“No,” said Silas, “no; that doesn’t hinder. Since the time the child was sent to me and I’ve come to love her as myself, I’ve had light enough to trusten by; and now she says she’ll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die.”Ch. 21
We see here, Silas again linking his faith with human connection. He says he has faith in this light, now that Eppie has promised never to leave him.
Maybe when he makes such statements, he sounds to some readers as if he believes in people rather than in God. I do not hear it that way; he clearly believes in both.
We might say that Silas seems incapable of having faith in God if he does not have human love. That might be fair to say.
Yet I’m not sure how many of us really are capable of such a faith. If we had no human love, what would happen to our faith in God?
Can faith in God even exist apart from human love? God exists independent of human love, that’s a separate matter. But are we human beings capable of having faith in God without human love?
I think a Christian faith must be bound up with the world, and particularly with human love, in some critical sense because it’s an Incarnational faith. It’s about God incarnating and being with us. Crawling as a baby. Living and dying with us. Promising to always be with us.
There was a recent article by Esau McCauley, author of Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, that made me think of Eppie and Silas.
To show you what I mean, let me give you this quote first from “Silas Marner”:
Unlike the gold which needed nothing, and must be worshipped in close-locked solitude—which was hidden away from the daylight, was deaf to the song of birds, and started to no human tones—Eppie was a creature of endless claims and ever-growing desires, seeking and loving sunshine, and living sounds, and living movements; making trial of everything, with trust in new joy, and stirring the human kindness in all eyes that looked on her. The gold had kept his thoughts in an ever-repeated circle, leading to nothing beyond itself; but Eppie was an object compacted of changes and hopes that forced his thoughts onward, and carried them far away from their old eager pacing towards the same blank limit—carried them away to the new things that would come with the coming years, when Eppie would have learned to understand how her father Silas cared for her; and made him look for images of that time in the ties and charities that bound together the families of his neighbours. The gold had asked that he should sit weaving longer and longer, deafened and blinded more and more to all things except the monotony of his loom and the repetition of his web; but Eppie called him away from his weaving, and made him think all its pauses a holiday, reawakening his senses with her fresh life, even to the old winter-flies that came crawling forth in the early spring sunshine, and warming him into joy because she had joy.
And this is from McCaulley’s article, “Marriage Made Me Let Go of My Dreams. Good.” —
Marriage has taught me that people are what matter. I am proud of some things I have accomplished in my career. Nonetheless, one thing about goals is that they are shockingly difficult to hug. They cannot talk back to you or laugh about all the difficult things you had to do to obtain them. They are needy, hungry monsters capable of gobbling our time and our lives whole.
But a person is a wonder. It laughs, cries, changes, grows, frustrates, disappoints and loves us back. One gift of marriage is that we are privileged to witness up close a life different from our own. We get to see the slow unfolding of one of God’s greatest miracles: a human life.