One of the most prevalent themes in human existence is the terrible toll that suffering can wreak on the manner of one's existence. Indeed, a good, happy, and honest person can quickly, though the course of adverse life events, become a shallow, negative, lurking shell of what he or she once was. Further, although society generally places little weight on the cause of one's "fall" into despair, it is the experience of suffering that divides true evil from a mere "faltering" from the path of right. This reality is exactly what George Elliot evokes in her novel, Silas Marner -- the horrible toll that suffering can exact on the individual and his personality -- as well as the power of the positive experiences of kindness and love to reverse those effects and ultimately lead to redemption.
When the reader first encounters the character Silas Marner, one notes the sad history of the man. We see that Silas is not much more than a hermit, working endlessly in a village not his own, exiled as a result of false accusations in his past, and wounded by the loss of his love to his false friend, William Dane (also his accuser). Thus, disheartened by life, as well as having lost faith in the justice of God and Man, he turns to the meager existence of work and wealth alone as the bedrock of his life. In fact, one sees from the tremendous lack of joy he experiences even from work as an indication of his profound disenchantment with all aspects of human existence. As Elliot writes, 'Formerly his heart had been as a locked casket with its treasure inside; but now the casket was empty, and the lock was broken."
Thus, given the tremendous low that the reader recognizes in Silas's soul, one cannot help but cringe at the next events when Dunstan takes the one thing Silas has left in the world -- his fortune. Interestingly, here the reader has a chance, in the character of Dunstan, to see real evil, or the absence of soul in Dunstan, as a contrast to Silas' mere emptiness as a result of his suffering. In other words, the reader can compare the two and perhaps see the possibility of redemption shining in the distance, knowing that Silas is far from all that Dunstan represents ... "a spiteful, jeering fellow, who seemed to enjoy his drink more when other people went dry."
Additionally, it is striking to note the parallel story line in which Godfrey Cass goes about his selfish business wooing Nancy Lammeter, his dishonesty in rejecting his previous commitment, and his cold hearted disinterest in his daughter in as much as she does not fit into his current desires. Again, on another scale, the reader sees the more base and everyday, yet true selfishness that is perhaps beyond redemption -- the kind that is not brought on as a response to legitimate suffering, but instead the kind that is almost a conscious and calculated choice based purely on self-interest. Indeed, it is here that the use of the parallel story as a device to illustrate the true nature of Silus' plight. As Shirley Galloway writes in her 1993 work, "Silas Marner: A Study of Transition":
The most prominent structural feature of the novel is its dual story line. Silas' story, his loss of humanity and faith and his gradual recovery, is kept entirely separate from the relating of Godfrey Cass' story, i.e. his secret marriage, second marriage, etc., until the climax of the novel when Eppie must choose between the father who reared her and her biological father. Not only do the dual story lines structurally mirror class divisions, but Eppie's choice between Silas Marner and Godfrey Cass at the conclusion symbolizes a moral choice between the values purveyed by each.
Of course, the crux of the story centers around the introduction of the child, Eppie, whom Silus initially mistakes as his lost gold. Clearly the symbolism is striking here, for the reader realizes that Silus is on the threshold of "rediscovering" the essence of life -- human love -- in place of the one thing he had been pursuing as a poor replacement. Indeed, we see that as Silus embraces Eppie as his own, his real redemption begins, both in his heart, as well as in…