The Triangular Silas Marner
As a result of betrayal, Silas Marner of George Eliot's so titled novel becomes a man in body without incurring any of the duties normally associated with nineteenth century working class adults. Eliot creates these unusual circumstances by framing our title-hero so it appears to his comrades that he has stolen money. Thereby, she effectively rejects innocent Marner from his community and causes him to lose his fiancé. At this pivotal moment in Marner's life, just as he is about to assume fully the role of a man, depended upon as such by his neighbors, future wife and probable children, he is excised and does not successfully complete the transformation. Accordingly, he moves on to a new place, Raveloe, with the same carefree lack of responsibility as a boy, who is clearly unable to act like the man he seems he should be.
By denying Marner the possibility of a traditional family from the start, Eliot immediately brings forward the question of family values. A question that she answers in the course of her novel. Jeff Nunokawa, in his essay The Miser's Two Bodies: Silas Marner and the Sexual Possibilities of the Commodity, claims that Eliot "simply" shows "support for family values" (Nunokawa 273), and that she "encourages" them through her narrative (Nunokawa 290). As evidence, he cites quotations from the text that paint, as he puts it, "men [living] without women... in a barren region" (Nunokawa 273). Adeptly, he points to Eliot's line, "The maiden was lost... and then what was left to them?'" (Nunokawa 273). Furthermore, Nunokawa goes on to label the moral implications of the novel as those of a "blunt dichotomy," saying that Eliot hands her reader "the evil of the gold" in direct contrast to "the goodness of the child [Eppie]" (Nunokawa 274).
I do not disagree with Nunokawa's easily supported primary claim that men who lack women in Silas Marner are not happy. However, I do not think that Silas Marner's endorsement of family values is nearly as straightforward as Nunokawa makes it out to be. In fact, Eliot's stance on the family unit is three-pronged. Nunokawa's reduction of Silas Marner to a "dichotomy" ignores the middle ground that Eliot ultimately recommends as the key to a life with a happy ending.
In order to demonstrate this, I must first show that none of the families in Silas Marner (with the exception of Silas' own) are totally happy. In accord with Nunokawa, I will start with the uncomplicated melancholy of Squire Cass' male-only family. Eliot candidly tells her reader that "Red House [the Squire's residence] was without the presence of the wife and mother which is the fountain of wholesome love and fear in parlour and kitchen" (Eliot 22). Immediately, Eliot prepares her reader for an unhappy, incomplete group of inhabitants. The only scene between father and eldest son is both awkward and unkind, showing the attitude of...