Critical Essays Plot and Structure of Silas Marner


The book covers a long span of time — over thirty years. However, concentration within this span limits the time actually portrayed to three relatively short periods. The first of these, the time on which the book opens, shows Silas living his lonely existence at Raveloe. This period is followed by a flashback to the time fifteen years earlier when he was driven from Lantern Yard. The time then skips quickly back to its original point, settling on a November afternoon. The events between then and New Year's take up the first portion of the book, although the narrator briefly mentions some events that follow as Silas begins to raise Eppie.

Sixteen years are then jumped over, and the results of the early events are seen. The intervening years are filled in mostly by the narrator or by conversations between characters. There are only a few brief dramatic portrayals of events during those years — for example, Godfrey and Nancy's discussion about adopting Eppie. After the past is brought up to date, the time remains at the same Sunday on which this portion of the book opened, until the main plot considerations are disposed of (for example, Dunstan's disappearance, Godfrey's relationship to Eppie, and Eppie's future). Some events occur after that — Silas goes to Lantern Yard a few days later, and still later Eppie is married — but they are treated very briefly.

The three times on which Eliot concentrates contain five main events: the Lantern Yard robbery, the theft of Silas' gold, the death of Molly (or the arrival of Eppie), the return of Silas' gold, and Godfrey's attempt to claim his child.

Consideration of these basic events gives a broad view of the structure of Silas Marner. They are all more or less related, either in the mind of one or more characters, or by cause-and-effect. The last four fall into pairs: the theft of the gold and the coming of Eppie in its place; the return of the gold and Godfrey's claim on Eppie. The first two are not related in fact, as the reader knows, but Silas and the other inhabitants of Raveloe consider them to be a kind of cause-and-effect, which gives rise to a symbolic relationship between them. The latter pair are related strictly through their cause — the discovery of Dunstan's body with the gold leads Godfrey to confess that he is Eppie's father. But the symbolic relationship that has been established carries over from the past. The first event, the robbery at Lantern Yard, is of course the indirect cause of the rest, for it sends Silas to Raveloe, but it also provides the basis for Silas' reactions at the time of the second robbery — it causes his feeling of being tormented by an unseen power. As such, it is responsible for the symbolic values of later events.

There are two plots in Silas Marner: Silas' rejection of humanity and his redemption, and the plot involving Godfrey and his two wives. The two plots are not unrelated, however. In the beginning, there is little connection between them, but by the end of the tale they are inseparable. A glance at the events outlined above shows how this happens. The structure of the book might be thought of as a funnel, with Godfrey and Silas on opposite sides at first but gradually being carried by events into the same course. There are many parallels between their lives. At first these parallels are distant, but they come closer and closer until at last they join. Note, for example, that Godfrey is betrayed by Dunstan as Silas was betrayed by William Dane. Godfrey has two wives to correspond to Silas' two treasures; in both cases, the first is their ruin, and the second is their salvation. Their first real connection is the gold: Dunstan is trying to extort money from Godfrey, and when he fails at that, he steals it from Silas. Eppie comes to replace the gold, and she is the second and far closer connection between Silas and Godfrey. Godfrey is her real father, but Silas becomes like a father to her. Furthermore, the event that brings Eppie to Silas is looked on as a blessing by both Silas and Godfrey, for it frees Godfrey to marry Nancy.

The meaning of the novel and its symbolic values are completely bound up in the contrasts and comparisons between these two plots. The nature of a "blessing," the meaning of good and bad in relation to social conduct — these and other problems become involved in the working out of events. Nor are Godfrey and Silas the only persons involved. Their lives are connected most of all through the society in which they live. The community of Raveloe is an agent of their acts as well as a spectator and commentator. When Silas discovers the robbery, he reports it to the Rainbow, and Godfrey hears of it from there. A cross-section of the community is present to receive word of Molly's death. Eppie provides a connecting link not only between Godfrey and Silas, but between Silas and the community as well. Communal opinion is never the final authority in the novel; Eliot often treats it ironically; but it is an important factor in the lives of the major characters and in the functioning of the plot.

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