Curriculum Vital

The Education Umbrella Guide to Silas Marner
Chapter two summary and analysis

This page is part of the Education Umbrella Guide to Silas Marner. Free to download, our guide features a summary and analysis of every chapter, analysis of the novel's themes, and an introduction to George Eliot's life and work. 

Questions? Comments? Contact Ross: rgrainger@educationumbrella.com

Summary

The narrator describes Silas Marner's arrival in Raveloe.

At first the stress of his ordeal and the unfamiliarity and gloominess of Raveloe make it difficult for Silas to settle. He consoles himself by working in his loom, often for 16 hours a day. He weaves 'like the spider, from pure impulse, without reflection.'

When Silas receives his first payment for his work, his spirits lift. Whereas before he had to pay a middleman, as well as make charitable contributions to the church, he is now able to keep all of his earnings for himself. Over the years, through a great deal of hard and honest labour and an abstemious lifestyle, Silas builds up a large quantity of coins.

Soon after his arrival, Silas uses his knowledge of medicinal herbs to cure a local woman of heart-disease. He instantly acquires a reputation as a miracle worker. He rejects the label, knowing it to be false, and turns away the many villagers who come begging for his help, even though they offer him money. 

Having thus rejected his neighbours, Silas continues to work. His pile of money grows. The act of counting his money becomes a source of great comfort and joy for him. He keeps the coins in two thick leather bags, which he hides in a hole in his floorboards. Over the years, he grows increasingly less concerned that somebody might steal the bags (even if a robber took the money, he reasons, he would not be able to spend it in the village without giving himself away).

Content in his solitude, with only his mounting pile of money for company, Silas becomes old and withered. Nevertheless, he retains a sense of love and companionship. One day as he returns from the well, he slips and drops the brown pot he had owned for many years. Devastated by the loss of this cherished object, he sticks the pieces together and keeps it in his house as a memorial.

Then, around Christmas of his fifteenth year in Raveloe, something drastic occurs in the life of Silas Marner.

Analysis

Minds that have been unhinged from their old faith and love, have perhaps sought this Lethean influence of exile, in which the past becomes dreamy because its symbols have all vanished, and the present too is dreamy because it is linked with no memories. But even their experience may hardly enable them thoroughly to imagine what was the effect on a simple weaver like Silas Marner, when he left his own country and people and came to settle in Raveloe.

In Greek mythology, the Lethe was the river in Hades, the underworld. The dead souls who drunk the river’s water gained the power to forget their life on Earth. This depiction of Silas as a damned wanderer of Hades prepares us for the rebirth that is to come.

*

Nothing could be more unlike his native town, set within sight of the widespread hillsides, than this low, wooded region, where he felt hidden even from the heavens by the screening trees and hedgerows. There was nothing here, when he rose in the deep morning quiet and looked out on the dewy brambles and rank tufted grass, that seemed to have any relation with that life centring in Lantern Yard, which had once been to him the altar-place of high dispensations.

‘Silas’, from the Latin Silvanus, means ‘of the forest’. It is fitting, therefore, that Silas Marner should find solace and shelter in a forested land.

On the other hand, Silas’s exile resembles Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden. According to the third chapter of Genesis, God cast Adam and Eve out of the garden after they had eaten the fruit of the forbidden tree. The fact that Silas travels from north to south and from a hillside community to a village in a valley brings to mind this fall.

*

He had seemed to love it little in the years when every penny had its purpose for him; for he loved the purpose then. But now, when all purpose was gone, that habit of looking towards the money and grasping it with a sense of fulfilled effort made a loam that was deep enough for the seeds of desire; and as Silas walked homeward across the fields in the twilight, he drew out the money and thought it was brighter in the gathering gloom.

Silas’s nascent miserliness is reflected in this passage by the ‘gathering gloom’ of the winter twilight. He sees no light other than the glint of his coins.  

*

Thus is came to pass that his movement of pity towards Sally Oates, which had given him a transient sense of brotherhood, heightened the repulsion between him and his neighbours, and made his isolation more complete.

This passage is the conclusion to the story of Silas’s knowledge of healing plants and herbs. After using a herbal remedy to help an ailing woman named Sally Oates, Silas earns a reputation as a miracle healer. People even come from neighbouring villagers in the hope that Silas will heal them. Silas turns all of them away; he is not interested in money ‘on this condition’ or spreading ‘falsity’. This backfires, though, for the villagers then start to believe that Silas, in his anger, has begun cursing them.

Here we see Silas as a reluctant prophet. The Gospels record Jesus’s refusal to help certain non-Jews, as well as his desire that his disciples not draw attention to him.

*

So, year after year, Silas Marner had lived in this solitude, his guineas rising in the iron pot, and his life narrowing and hardening itself more and more into a mere pulsation of desire and satisfaction that had no relation to any other being. His life had reduced itself to the functions of weaving and hoarding, without any contemplation of an end towards which the functions tended. The same sort of process has perhaps been undergone by wiser men, when they have been cut off from faith and love—only, instead of a loom and a heap of guineas, they have had some erudite research, some ingenious project, or some well-knit theory.

Here, Eliot makes a comment on the relentless pursuit of profit that was a feature of life even in the mid 19th century. Socialism as a political and economic theory was prominent at the time Eliot wrote Silas Marner (1859); The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels had been published a decade earlier. In Silas Marner, we have a man whose life is ‘narrowing and hardening’ because he has been ‘cut off’ from the two lifelines of humanity, ‘faith and love’. Marner, like so many factory workers of the industrial age, works without a goal or an ‘end towards which the functions tended.’

*

They would be obliged to “run away”—a course as dark and dubious as a balloon journey.

Silas concludes that his money will never be stolen. Not only is it hidden in his cottage, but anyone who did steal it would not be able to spend it without arousing suspicion, or else would ‘be obliged to 'run away'’. The irony, of course, is that Silas himself has had to flee in his life, so ought to be aware that such a thing is possible.

The analogy of fleeing to a (hot air) balloon journey lends a quasi religious feeling to the passage. The balloon was at that time a new and often dangerous invention. Many people regarded them with suspicion; the story of Icarus would spring to mind, the Greek myth in which a father and son fashion wings, only for the son to ignore his father’s warning, fly too close to the sun and perish.

*

He spread them out in heaps and bathed his hands in them; then he counted them and set them in regular piles, and felt their rounded outline between his thumb and fingers, and thought fondly of the guineas that were only half-earned by the work in his loom, as if they had been unborn children—thought of the guineas that were coming slowly through the coming years, through all his life, which spread far away before him, the end quite hidden by countless days of weaving.

Here, we see Silas Marner in the nadir of his miserliness. With nothing else to live for, the guineas sit in his imagination like ‘unborn children’, an simile that will become apt later in the story.

Here again, one can’t help but think of Shylock the Jew from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. For many people the stereotypical image of a Jewish man was (and is) of one who hoards his money with abnormal glee.

This passage again evokes the meaning of existence: ‘the end quite hidden by countless days of weaving.’ That is, one lives only to work, and one works for nothing other than more work – and more money.