While George Elliot’s Silas Marner is running to the Rainbow to report his missing gold to that august community, Mr. Macey is soliloquizing on the problem of language and meaning. He describes how, at Mr. Lammeter’s January wedding, the parson had warmed himself with a bit of brandy and “when he come to put the questions, he put ‘em by the rule o’ contrairy, like, and he says, ‘Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded wife?’ says he, and then he says, ‘Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded husband?’ says he” (Loc 857.) No one noticed, however, and the two still said “yes” as if nothing were odd about it. But poor Mr. Macey was like a “coat pulled by the two tails, like” (Loc. 863). And from this distress we receive the following observations:
“‘Is’t the meaning or the words as makes folks fast I’ wedlock?’ For the parson meant right, and the bride and bridegroom meant right. But then when I come to think on it, meanin goes but a little ways in most things, for you may mean to stick something together and your glue may be bad, and then where are you? And so I says to mysen, ‘It isn’t the meanin’, it’s the glue’” (Loc 866).
Basically, Mr Macey is asking how it is that sentences do what they do, and what is the glue that sticks a sentence to its action. Nor is he the only one concerned with this problem in this novel, yet looking at all the instances of language accomplishing or not accomplishing it’s goal (the lies at Lantern Yard, the neighbors comforting Marner, the Cass’ attempt to retrieve Eppie etc.) simply breeds confusion. Sometimes language works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
But the parson provides a solution to Mr. Macy’s original question; “It’s neither the meaning nor the words – it’s the regester does it – that’s the glue” (Loc. 871) that sticks the married couple together. In the case of marriages, “the regester” is the glue or the thing that accomplishes the aciton
But what is the “regester”? It could mean two things. It’s probably the signing of the church register that actually makes a marriage. If this is the case, it provides interesting implications for the way in which language acts. Is Elliot suggesting that written language is more powerful than spoken language? Is it more powerful in this case because it is in a book? What does that mean for the book that we are currently reading?
But it could also mean the “register” of the voice. In this case it would mean the intonation and the context and the “thee and thou” language that makes the vow effective. Again, though, this boils down to similar questions as the first meaning – sentences become effective by means of their context – whether it’s in a particular tone in front of a church, or written in a particular book. Language’s effectiveness depends on it’s situation.
Granted, Elliot may not be of the same opinion as her parson. But the implications for the situation of the sentences of the book she has given her reader is still fascinating. We have already discussed Elliot’s opinion that novels should make us feel as we ought about our nearest neighbors, so we can be fairly certain that she expects the language of this novel to accomplish a particular task. That this conversation should take place just as Marner is on his way to bind himself to his neighbors because of his trouble is a little too intentional to be overlooked. Perhaps Elliot hopes that the sentences of this novel should also bind us to our neighbors, and if it does this through the situation and context of the language, then perhaps we should be noticing how language works in particular locations and situations in the novel. Of special interest is the contrast between the lies of Lantern Yard (representing a dim, brief, human-formed light) and “in the Rainbow yard” (representing a colorful, divine, promising light) which offers its congratulations to the newly married couple at the end of the novel.