Silas Marner By George Eliot Summary and Analysis Part 1: Chapter 5

Summary

As Dunstan leaves the cottage, Silas is no more than a hundred yards away. He feels no alarm at having left his door unlocked because there has never been any need for a lock previously. He has been out after a piece of twine he needs for his work the next day, and now he is looking forward to his supper. That supper is a piece of meat tied to its hanger with a string and his door key, which is the reason he failed to lock the door.

Silas comes in and warms himself by the fire. He sees nothing amiss because his eyes are weak. Not until he decides to count his gold before supper does he finds anything wrong. The bricks are all in place, but the hole under them is empty. At first, Silas does not believe the gold is gone: he searches all over the cottage, thinking he may have hidden it elsewhere. Yet at last he must face the truth. Then Silas cries out in anguish.

Silas does not know when a thief might have come. There are no tracks. He fears that it may not have been a thief, but some unseen power that delights in tormenting him. The thought of a human thief is almost a comfort to him then, and he recalls that the poacher Jem Rodney once lingered too long by the fire when he stopped to light his pipe. Silas comes at last to the idea that the robber must be caught. He does not wish to punish anyone, but he wants his gold back. He sets off for the village to proclaim his loss so that someone can recover the stolen money.

Analysis

There is no attempt to build any suspense as to whether Silas will catch Dunstan in the cottage. This casualness is typical of Eliot's understated plots: the robbery is an important part of the tale, but it is not used for any irrelevant sense of excitement. Instead, Eliot uses the incident as the source of a generalization about the human condition. In turn, this generalization becomes the source of a metaphor to make Silas' trustfulness seem natural. Silas expects that a thing will not occur because it has not occurred before, just as "it is often observable that the older a man gets, the more difficult it is to him to retain a believing conception of his own death."

The general comment by Eliot tends to obscure the coincidence of Dunstan's happening along at one of the few times that Silas is not at home. This instance is the first of several coincidences that are often pointed out as "unrealistic." However, it is not the result of any unusual circumstances. Rather, the robbery arises strictly from what we might expect to be normal activities for these two characters. It is unexpected, but not unbelievable.

Little attention is paid to the exact details of Silas' life. We learn that he rarely has meat for supper and that twine is required in his work, but there is no concentration on the physical aspects of his life or work. Eliot stresses the psychological and moral nature of character rather than external circumstances.

Plot and symbolism are subtly combined in a single sentence that is easily overlooked — Silas' hypothetical question, "What thief would find his way to the Stone-pits on such a night as this?" The emphasis here is on the pits rather than on Silas' cottage. There may be a further connection with the image used for Silas' own fear when he discovers the robbery: "A man falling into dark water seeks a momentary footing even on sliding stones.” This comment is a foreshadowing of the final news of Dunstan's fate.

The stone on which Silas seeks his footing is the belief that he may only have misplaced the gold. When he finds that this cannot be true, he turns almost hopefully to the thought that a thief has come: the only alternative is that it was "a cruel power that no hands could reach, which had delighted in making him a second time desolate." Thus the robbery is connected with the first great event that shaped Silas' present life. Silas reacts in exactly the same way — the mainstay of his emotional life is removed, and he turns to his work for support. "He turned and tottered towards his loom and got into the seat where he worked, instinctively seeking this as the strongest assurance of reality." Note the connection with the concept of the "dreaminess" of life in exile, stated in Chapter 2. It is ironic that Silas fears he is dreaming only when the dream has been stolen. That his reactions here are a result of his earlier troubles gives greater continuity and depth to Silas' character.

Eliot reemphasizes that Silas’ gold has been the main thing separating Silas from contact with other men. This thought is stated directly: "His gold, as he hung over it and saw it grow, gathered his power of loving together into a hard isolation like its own"; but it is illustrated as well, by Silas' memory of Jem Rodney, who "had said something jestingly about the weaver's money; and he had once irritated Marner, by lingering at the fire when he called to light his pipe, instead of going about his business." Because of his gold, human contact has at last become irritating to Silas. He is at the depth of his exile: gold stands between him and friendship.

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