It is entirely to George Elliot's credit that in this short novel she manages to convey, clearly and powerfully, her fairly narrow vision of Christianity and Christian life without in the least compromising her artistic integrity.
On one level Silas Marner can be read as a simple tale of loss and love. Through the early parts of the novel our eponymous hero experiences the sort of misfortune only Job would put up with; he loses his betrothed, his friends, his relationship with his God such as it is, and dramatically, a little later, his fortune. Gradually, through his relationship with an orphan child, all of these are restored or rather replaced with something better. Marner finally learns that simple unconditional love can facilitate both redemption for past sins and deep and long-lasting happiness.
Ostensibly this story is simple and yet Elliot gently expounds her opinions on a variety of religious and social topics. We learn of course that a love of material things is ultimately destructive and isolating, particularly when contrasted with a love for our fellow man. This message is not a challenging one but we are also told, in no uncertain terms, that the Calvinist form of Christianity of the big city with it's confined spaces, 'baptism' and `drawing of lots' is similarly destructive. It is contrasted with the all-embracing, life-affirming Anglican form of Christianity practiced in the rural parts of England which Elliot clearly held very dear. This form of Christianity, exemplified in the simple soul of Dolly Winthrop offers its adherents a simple and instinctive relationship with God and their fellow man. Dolly understands little of the words in the Bible but somehow knows that it is right and lives her life in the best way she can. In addition to criticising Calvinists and their ilk Elliot exposes what she sees as the folly of holding too firmly to set doctrines in her treatment of Nancy Cass. Nancy is evidently a kind and loving human being but her very clearly defined sense of what is right and what is wrong comes from what she has been taught rather than from her instinct and her faith. Hence she refuses to allow her husband to adopt a child and potentially denies them both the happiness that could bring.
Whether or not the reader agrees with Elliot's ideas about religion or indeed about the gradual erosion of pastoral life through the expansion of the city and the industrial revolution, it is impossible not to admire the way she simultaneously instructs, edifies and entertains.