George Eliot’s Silas Marner offers a snapshot of England in transition between agrarianism and industry, one that intimates the impending decline of aristocracy while also remaining firmly in a world where station matters. But the novel’s most enduring lessons flow from the way Eliot treats love—and the way it can change our character. The story centers on a lonely weaver adopting a young girl and being transformed by his love for her. Contemporary readers will find in its pages a sharp contrast to our individualism and relative freedom of movement. They may also find themselves questioning the relative importance our society places on children.

It’s hard to imagine a contemporary adaptation of such a story, but Steve Martin did make an attempt. His 1994 movie A Simple Twist of Fate adapted some of Eliot’s original but set it in early 1980s small-town America. It isn’t too much of a stretch to accept the idea that in 1980 or so, a single, middle-aged man might have undertaken an act of self-sacrificial love and been changed by it. Living as we do in a world defined more by the thin connections of social media than by the deeper bonds of small-town life, this seems less true today.

The central challenge we face in appreciating Silas Marner flows from this shift. Are we still a people who embrace this kind of relational self-sacrifice as normal and good? To whom do we imagine giving our life and love?

Idolatry versus Love

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Eliot introduces Silas as a young weaver living in Lantern Yard, an English community being transformed by the Industrial Revolution. She sketches his life as quite content and successful. He is a promising tradesman, engaged to be married, and deeply enmeshed in the life of his church. But tragedy strikes when his best friend frames him for a theft, and his church community (which, in a sort of overly logical fideism, resolves disputes through the drawing of lots) finds Marner guilty and shuns him. Silas’s fiancée marries his betrayer instead, leaving him all alone. He loses his faith in God after being exiled from Lantern Yard, concluding that “there is no just God that governs the earth righteously, but a God of lies, that bears witness against the innocent.” Nothing Eliot writes in the rest of the novel suggests Silas repudiates this view, and it sets the tone for how the novel treats faith as a whole: religion is something many of the characters occasionally practice, but after Silas leaves Lantern Yard, church does not seem to occupy the characters very much. In the novel, relationships offer the closest thing to transcendence.

Silas moves some distance to the village of Raveloe, whose residents try in vain to include him in the life of the town. As the years pass, the outsider develops an idol in place of his lost faith: mammon. Whenever the people of Raveloe pay him for his work, he begins saving all his gold guinea coins and using the other currency—crowns, half-crowns, and shillings—to cover his expenses. This is not mere saving, however. The coins are the only precious thing left in his life; he takes them out of their hiding place after dinner every night to admire and touch them, an act of sad idolatry that defines his existence.

When they are stolen from his home one night, the people of Raveloe take pity on him. He tentatively allows himself to be drawn into the lives of a few of his neighbors. Not long after this, through a combination of Silas’s eccentricities and an ongoing tragedy, an orphaned two-year-old girl wanders into his home on a snowy night seeking warmth. When Silas is told he should leave the child with some of the town’s women, something unexpectedly awakens within him:

“No—no—I can’t part with it, I can’t let it go,” said Silas abruptly. “It’s come to me—I’ve a right to keep it.”

The proposition to take the child from him had come to Silas quite unexpectedly, and his speech, uttered under a strong sudden impulse, was almost like a revelation to himself. A minute before, he had no distinct intention about the child.

A little later, when Godfrey, the son of the local squire—and, unbeknownst to any of the novel’s characters, the child’s natural father—suggests Silas take her to the local parish, Silas responds, “The mother’s dead, and I reckon it’s got no father. It’s a lone thing—and I’m a lone thing.” The townsfolk accept Silas’s wish to raise her, and he embraces his role as father, learning how to care for the girl from his new friend Dolly Winthrop. Worried that the child will not fix her love upon him, Silas is reluctant to let others share in his burden, but he is quite willing to be taught all he needs to know.

Silas names her Eppie, after his mother, and she quickly replaces his gold, becoming his treasure. Fatherhood transforms him: people who mostly ignored him before reach out to aid him, and he in turn he knits himself into the community. Although Godfrey and his wife eventually take an interest in recognizing Eppie as Godfrey’s child and bringing her into their family and social station, she scorns this idea. Now a young woman, Eppie chooses to marry Aaron Winthrop—Dolly’s son and a young tradesman—and resolves to care for Silas until the end of his days.

The Reordering Power of Love

It’s easy to adopt a cynical perspective that discounts the idea that love can transform human hearts. Silas himself seems to hold that view before it actually happens to him. But the transformation flows not simply from the mere act of loving and being loved in turn. The reason parental love can change a person is that it requires constant self-sacrifice—in the caring for and nurturing of another, we grow deeper. Eliot narrates this development:

Unlike the gold, which needed nothing, and must be worshiped in close-locked solitude, which was hidden away from the daylight, was deaf to the song of birds, and started to no human tones, Eppie was a creature of endless claims and ever-growing desires, seeking and loving sunshine and living sounds and living moments; making trial of everything, with trust in new joy, and stirring the human kindness in all eyes that looked on her.

Eppie’s happiness became Silas’s new goal; he could let go of his love of money since “something had come to replace his hoard which gave a growing purpose to the earnings, drawing his hope and joy continually onward beyond the money.” The bonds of relational love reorder all of his priorities in life.

People today haven’t stopped believing in love, exactly. Our culture is awash in the longing for it. But we want it too cheaply—usually without deep commitment—and we want it alongside our dreamt-about careers. In short, we desire love without having to alter our sense of self.

In what ways could we tell this story today? Modern audiences may all too easily identify with Silas’s rejection of religious faith, or the rest of the characters’ rather casual attitude toward it through the novel. They might similarly embrace the novel’s general sense that relationships and success matter a great deal. Where we might stumble is on the way Silas changes because of Eppie.

Coping with Solitude

Today, men seem less willing than ever to take the risky, transformative step of marriage, and even married couples regularly delay parenthood by a decade compared to previous generations. It isn’t that we couldn’t tell a plausible story about a single man transformed by love for an adopted child today—it’s just more likely that, in our world of delayed child-rearing and a culture where religious faith plays so little a role, that story seems so much less likely to ever happen. It’s far more plausible that a lonely man like Silas would retreat ever more into solitude, abated only by pornography, Tinder, and a loosely bound world of online connections.

This isn’t just a failure of masculinity, though. Americans move for college and work, and every time they do, they leave behind a web of face-to-face connections that inevitably diminish in strength. No one can carry more than a handful of those people in their hearts, so we turn to the internet to maintain an echo of these old ties—to see how their families have grown, where they vacation, how their gardens are turning out, and the like. The access that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram offer into other people’s lives delivers the appearance of intimacy without its actual substance. It makes sense that we would turn to these forms to fill the void left by real and risky community, and especially by the attenuated family bonds such moves leave in their wake.

Silas Marner sought relief from loneliness in his wealth, and when that was taken from him, he received an unexpected, restorative gift in the form of a child who drew him back into community. The novel offers a view into what we have lost in our culture’s deferral or outright denial of transformative love. In a way, children help raise their parents up from self-absorption, just as they grow up in the parents’ image. This is the great lesson that Silas Marner can teach us.

Children can help draw us back into our neighbors’ lives, but without a faith that calls us to love our neighbors and sustains us through the pains that flow from love’s joys, the risk of such transformative love may seem insurmountable. In the end, the lesson of Silas Marner may be one our society cannot hear.