In the early pages of Silas Marner, a devout young weaver falls asleep at a sick man’s bedside and is accused of having robbed the dying man. His religious community
resolved on praying and drawing lots… 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. The lots declared that Silas Marner was guilty. He was solemnly suspended from church-membership, and called upon to render up the stolen money: only on confession, as the sign of repentance, could he be received once more within the fold of the church. Silas Marner listened in silence.
A book often assigned in high school, Silas Marner has a considerable amount to say about losing and regaining faith and what that journey may look like. The story begins in early nineteenth-century England, with Silas Marner, a young weaver. Silas is a member of a close-knit dissenting chapel in Lantern Yard. He is earnest about faith, has one very close friend, and is engaged to be married. We are told that his nature was “both sane and honest, though, as with many honest and fervent men, culture had not defined any channels for his sense of mystery, and so it spread itself over the proper pathway of inquiry and knowledge.” He is inexperienced in the world and altogether trusting of his community.
A great tragedy befalls young Silas Marner. His close friend frames him as a thief. When the drawn lots determine that Silas is guilty, he loses his fiancée—to his friend—and leaves town in shame, finding his way to the small village of Raveloe. Like so many twenty-first century Christians, fleeing congregations where they have been hurt or confused, Silas doubts everything. Eliot describes his distress: “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.” When he gets to Raveloe, he wants little to do with people and less to do with God.
Marner cannot get past the casting of lots. How could he have been found guilty? He cannot dismiss it as a trick or mistake. Eliot writes that, “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.” His chapel and community at Lantern Yard was all he knew of faith, “they were Christianity and God’s kingdom upon earth.” When he leaves Lantern Yard, he leaves religion behind.
In Raveloe, Silas puts money in the place of God. “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.” He spends his days weaving and his evenings counting his earnings. His coins are his only companions. In many ways, he is in hiding. Eliot writes, “poor Silas was vaguely conscious of something not unlike the feeling of primitive men, when they fled thus, in fear or in sullenness, from the face of an unpropitious deity. It seemed to him that the Power he had vainly trusted in among the streets and at the prayer-meetings, was very far away from this land in which he had taken refuge.” He is also a stranger to his neighbors, who view him with suspicion.
Silas Marner spends years in this way. He is not unkind or cruel, but there is no connection between his current life and his old life at Lantern Yard. And then, another tragedy befalls him. He is somehow robbed of his gold. In shock, he goes out into the night and seeks the help of his neighbors. Though they are stunned to see him and unsure of him, his loss helps the neighbors to begin to see him for what he is, a poor creature in need of comfort. Though they cannot get his gold back, they can be good to him.
The changes in his circumstances cause his neighbors to begin to try to care for him. They do so very imperfectly. They often say the wrong thing when trying to comfort him. But some are better at helping—like Mrs. Winthrop, who brings him cakes and begins to ask him about his story. Deep below the surface, Silas is beginning to change. The kindness of others is having an effect. As Eliot writes, “our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us any more than without us: there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud.”
Soon after, Silas discovers a small child in his cottage, whose mother has died in a cold night. He first notices her because her hair is the color of his lost gold. Silas keeps the child and names her Hepzibah after his sister, calling her Eppie. At this point, Silas knows that his life has changed dramatically, but he does not realize that his path to faith and fullness has begun.
The child brings him into closer contact with his neighbors, especially Mrs. Winthrop, who has raised many children. Dolly is kind and compassionate, but that does not mean that she can communicate perfectly with Silas. They have many conversations, but he has no frame of reference for her Anglican tradition. His experiences of faith were entirely foreign and confusing to her, as well. She has no answers for the drawing of lots and God’s role in it. Neither is he ready to believe. Dolly’s “simple view of life and its comforts, by which she had tried to cheer him, was only like a report of unknown objects, which his imagination could not fashion. The fountains of human love and of faith in divine love had not yet been unlocked, and his soul was still the shrunken little rivulet, with only this difference, that its little groove of sand was blocked up, and it wandered confusedly against dark obstruction.”
Over time, Dolly’s sincere belief and care for Silas and Eppie begins to yield fruit. Silas agrees to have Eppie christened and to begin to attend church, on occasion, because “Dolly had said it was for the good of the child.” Eventually, Silas himself experiences the good of it. “The child created fresh and fresh links between his life and the lives from which he had hitherto shrunk continually into narrower isolation,” and he begins to know his neighbors. His love for this child leads him not only back to the love of others but even to the love of God. Eliot writes that while we do not often see angels anymore, “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.” By the end of the book, Silas recognizes Eppie for what she is—a gift of God.
The character of Silas Marner is a good reminder for how we ought to see others who have left the faith or who are “deconstructing.” Silas casts aside belief and even replaces his faith with explicit idolatry—he is obsessed with his money. He never considers praying or going to church. His neighbors see him as suspicious. We might, too. But through the devices of literature, we are able to see Silas as he is—pitiable. He is frightened and confused. He is angry, but he is also injured. The delight he finds in his money is not at all enviable. He has wealth, but his life is genuinely wanting.
Silas’ background resembles that of many other doubting Christians. Quite a few come from strict churches and have had a deep and intense experience of faith but limited exposure to other Christian bodies or beliefs. When that original church or leader causes hurt or is found wanting, people don’t know where else to go and what to believe. Sometimes they decide to leave it all behind. Consider the interviews from The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and how many of Mark Driscoll’s biggest supporters found themselves questioning their faith after their experiences at Mars Hill. Even when the home church is excellent, exposure to the wider world can cause doubt. Plenty of Christian students who attend Christian colleges find themselves temporarily rocked when they learn about some denominational differences and broader streams of theology. The inexperienced are sometimes easily shaken.
People will also encounter genuinely inexplicable events. How was Silas found guilty in the drawing of the lots? Perhaps that, too, was somehow orchestrated by his friend, but there is no definite answer. How could his closest friend betray him in the way that he did? How could God allow it all? Neither Silas nor Dolly has answers for these questions. Together they determine that God must be working some good in the world in ways that they cannot comprehend. They live according to faith, because when Silas returns to Lantern Yard toward the end of the book, the chapel is gone and so is everyone he knew. He never learns how it all worked out and whether he was vindicated by his old community. He also no longer needs those answers.
We can identify with Silas’ neighbors and their imperfections. Eliot writes that “there was a fair proportion of kindness in Raveloe; but it was often of a beery and bungling sort, and took the shape least allied to the complimentary and hypocritical.” Our kindness is also not unalloyed with errors and oversights. What matters is that Silas Marner “was not utterly forsaken” by his neighbors. They patiently did their best and he patiently bore it. That is a standard we can strive toward.
The patience we see in Mrs. Winthrop is one reason why literature is such a gift to us. Often in actual life, we expect to have single conversations that set people straight or resolve their questions. Or perhaps the right study will turn them around. Sometimes when someone continues to doubt for years, we consider them altogether lost. In a novel, we don’t expect an immediate resolution. We recognize that there are a hundred pages left to come. We wait, we let the story play out. That same patience may sometimes be well applied in real life. We can keep the conversation alive like Mrs. Winthrop did, encouraging Silas “with gentle distress and compassion.” She gave him years to share his full story and was content to practice consistent kindness and wait upon visible results.
Silas Marner may also be a consolation for those who are worried about contemporary problems. George Eliot published this book in 1861. Young people have been overwhelmed by doubts and pain and have left the faith behind before. It is not a new phenomenon. The church has not fallen. People can find their way back, or, truly, be led back. Many people may finish life with a story of loss and redemption like that of Silas Marner.
Most of all, Silas Marner reminds us of the power of stories. The story of Silas Marner cannot be replaced by a three-point summary or an analytic approach. Perhaps you can communicate the major plot points that way and identify some main characters, but you will have lost all of the beauty and all that is compelling about it. Story is also at the heart of Silas’ transformation. Silas was brought back through story—the opportunity to tell his story, his gradual understanding of Dolly’s story, and his experience of being woven into the story of the life of the town. There is no substitute for story and helping people find their place in one. Sometimes we need a little literature to remind us of the significance of narrative.