Silas is a member of a socially isolated Calvinist Congregation. Early on, he is framed by his best friend for a theft that he did not commit. Silas loses his social standing in his congregation, his fiancé and his reputation. Due to this terrible unfairness and misfortune, he also loses his faith and he flees to the far-off village of Raveloe. There, he establishes himself as a weaver. Silas lives the life of a hermit and is looked on with a strange mix of suspicion and distrust, but also with a grudging acceptance by the community. Years go by. Over these years, as his weaving business is fairly lucrative and he lives extremely frugally, Silas accumulates a fortune, which he hoards in his cottage. He also becomes a miser who worships money.
Another character, Dunstan Cass, is a young and immoral member of the local gentry. His brother, Godfrey Cass is good natured but morally weak and is bullied and manipulated by Dunstan. When Dunstan steals Silas’s hoard, the miser is devastated. However, this event is a turning point in Silas’s life. The local community begins to feel pity for him. More importantly, he begins to connect with his neighbors.
One night, a young child wanders into Silas’s cottage. The body of her mother is found nearby. The reader is aware that this is Godfrey’s clandestine wife and child. Godfrey had secretly married when he had gotten the lower-class woman pregnant. Silas connects to the young girl and adopts her. This act of charity further endears him to the community. As more years go by, he becomes a respected member of society as he raises his adopted daughter who he names Eppie. There are additional developments as Eppie’s real father eventually tries to assert himself.
Though many have described this as a simple story, there is a lot going on in this book. My understanding of Eliot was that she was a nonbeliever who nonetheless admired some religiou ideas. There seems to be a lot of comparison between different versions of Christianity in this tale. The Calvinists, who believe in predestination but are not portrayed as very forgiving or rational, are treated harshly in the text. In contrast, the Anglicans are shown to be easy going, committed to charity and generally portrayed in a positive light. This reminds me a little of Charles Dickens’s or Charlotte Brontë’s depictions of harder, less charitable manifestations of Christianity versus more charitable and forgiving versions.
One thing that stands out here is how common this kind of a story has become. Over the years, in both books and film, we see a lot of cynical or grouchy single individuals who end up taking a child into their custody. After some rough patches, the child subsequently brings great joy and improvement to the previously alienated adult. These stories are often overly sentimental. Eliot’s tale is very well balanced between real and poignant emotions and some serious philosophy and ideas.
There are so many meaningful and well written parts to this short book. One example is how Eppie comes to displace the gold that Silas has lost. The fact that she has golden hair fits in so well with this concept. Eliot’s wonderful prose also helps to highlight this idea. Early in the narrative, Silas’s love of his hoard is portrayed as a great character deficiency. This deficiency reaches a crisis when the gold is stolen. However, Silas’s love and devotion for Eppie heals him. The moment when Silas first finds Eppie sleeping in his cottage exemplifies this and is so well written,
“to his blurred vision, it seemed as if there were gold on the floor in front of the hearth. Gold!— his own gold— brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away! He felt his heart begin to beat violently, and for a few moments he was unable to stretch out his hand and grasp the restored treasure. The heap of gold seemed to glow and get larger beneath his agitated gaze. He leaned forward at last, and stretched forth his hand; but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered soft warm curls. In utter amazement, Silas fell on his knees and bent his head low to examine the marvel: it was a sleeping child— a round, fair thing, with soft yellow rings all over its head.”
This work is not perfect. It seemed a bit too short. I thought that some of the ideas seemed too undeveloped. I would have liked to have move philosophy and more character development. Nevertheless, I found the plot and the characters interesting. At times Eliot's prose style soars into greatness. I liked this book better then Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, but I did not like it as much as Middlemarch. In the end however, I found this novel enjoyable, meaningful and, thus, well worth the read.