Setting is often overlooked by readers as in important and revealing thematic element. Setting often reveals facets of a story or its characters that are not implicitly stated in the text. Setting can foreshadow events, reveal or emphasize character traits, set a prevailing mood, or facilitate action or change on the part of a character. In the novel Silas Marner, by George Elliot, setting is used in many subtle ways to enhance the narrative of the story. Homes, and in particular the hearth of the home, play a large role in unfolding the plot and revealing character traits.
Setting is most important to the development of the protagonist, Silas. Excommunicated from his religious community of Lantern Yard before the action of the novel begins, Silas has come to his new home, the village of Raveloe. Raveloe is a fictional village, typical of the time period in which the novel is set. The small village has only a single pub and church to provide a sense of the township. The church and the pub, demonstrate the two extremes of human behavior, piety and debasement. Silas lacks a connection to his new community, seeking solitude in his remote cabin in the woods.
For Silas, the most important events in the novel unfold for him in his own cottage. He is a recluse, avoiding contact with the people of his village. At the novel he has lived at Raveloe for 15 years, dedicating all his time to earning gold with his work as a weaver. He is stooped to the height of his loom, in effect becoming a human spider, sitting in the center of his web. Like a web, Silas’ home provides interaction with the larger world for him. Travelers from Raveloe are drawn to the light from his cottage in the dark woods.
Silas hordes his gold, hidden under the cottage floor. Initially the gold is his life’s only joy, and he hides that joy is kept hidden beneath his loom, his only other comfort. When Silas comes home to discover he has been robbed, he runs to the pub to report the theft, but finds no comfort outside his cottage despite the townspeople’s efforts to aid him.
Importance of the Hearth
After a cataleptic episode which leaves him standing entranced in his open doorway, he spies a glint of gold in the gloom. He’s overjoyed, assuming the gold has been returned. What he finds instead is the golden hair of Eppie, a wayward orphan who becomes his own daughter. Eppie becomes more of a treasure to Silas than his gold coins ever were. A toddling infant, Eppie is drawn to the light of Silas’ hearth, the center of the home, just as Dunsey Cass was drawn from the woods by the light when he stole Silas’ gold.
The hearth is the heart of a home, whether Silas’ meager cottage, the estate Red House, or even the local pub named The Rainbow. A character’s importance is measured by their nearness to the hearth. By drawing in visitors from the dark woods, Silas’ web, his home, removes his unhealthy obsession with his money, replacing it with Eppie who draws Silas into the community of Raveloe.
Godfrey Cass and Red House
Silas’ story is set opposite to that of Godfrey Cass, heir of the richest family in Raveloe, whose home is the only other we visit. The wealthiest people in Raveloe, the idle Casses are the opposite of hard working Silas. Having their stories intersect at crucial points illustrates the variety of town life that goes on between these two extremes. The lives of Silas and the Cass family intersect at three crucial points at Silas’ home. First, when Dunsey steals Silas’ gold. Secondly, When Eppie, who is Godfrey’s illegitimate daughter, appears at Silas’ hearth. Lastly, when Godfrey and Nancy come to try and adopt the now grown Eppie, who would rather stay in the only home she’s known, Silas’ cottage. Silas has become Eppie’s real father and has become as respected in Raveloe as Godfrey himself. Continuing the theme of opposites, Godfrey’s wealth and privilege cannot buy him what Silas has found with Eppie, and it is the hearth of Red House which lacks the love of a family.
The Weaver’s Web
When Eppie and Aaron Winthrop marry they decide to live with Silas and expand the cottage. Godfrey Cass, having accepted he is at best a stepfather or secondary guardian to Eppie, pays to decorate the cottage and plant a huge garden for her. The action of the novel ends where it begins, in the cottage that Silas Marner has made in Raveloe, which eventually draws the whole town together.
Joe Capristo holds a North Carolina teaching license in English, grades 9 – 12. He studied Literature at UNC Greensboro.