Questions about Glue

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.

Silas Marner: The Novel of Gentle Fetishism

The heap of gold seemed to glow and get larger beneath his agitated gaze. He leaned forward at last, and stretched forth his hand; but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered soft, warm curls.” 

Silas Marner

ignore females

“The gods of the hearth exist for us still; and let all new faith be tolerant of that fetishism, lest it bruise its own roots.”

“Fetishism” was an interesting choice of words for Eliot, I thought. As I read Silas Marner I realized that what the novel really concerns itself with is not, perhaps, obsession, but fetishism, or even addiction.

Marner spends every evening poring over his gold. Dunsey spends his energy hurting others, actively thinking — as not many villains do so explicitly– how best to harm others, even without anticipated gain for self. Godfrey’s time and energy spends itself in regret, wondering how he came to be married to the poor Molly, who is attached to the novel’s most damaging addiction — opium. And lastly, even Eliot’s novel is the unwinding of a fetish, a drawing of the pastoral, the pure, and the redeemed.

Eliot’s own fetish is highlighted most when she typifies her pastoral women. Nancy, Dolly, and Eppie are all of the same strain; pure and blushing without false coquetry, lively and intelligent, though uneducated, loyal, maternal, and child-like. The men are similar as well, though they differ greatly in age; men are seen less in appearance than they are in shared concerns of the outside world and economy. Men share the burden of provision for self and others, of mistaken trust and betrayal, of a carnal knowledge of the world that robs men of a natural gaiety and purity that must be restored by the feminine.

In this way Eliot’s novelistic youthfulness emerges, though the prose and characters are unique and enjoyable enough to justify its success. Silas Marner is not the novel to delve deeply into the flaws of its hero; Marner’s love of gold is the pitiable result of a disappointed life. The opium addict, a woman who nearly murders her child through her own neglect and obsession, is given an entire chapter of Eliot’s kindness. Eliot, in Silas Marner, resembles Dickens’ later work in many ways. It features a brief, fairly thorough sketch of a character whose core being, whether good or evil, is sustained throughout the novel, with foibles rather than the deep flaws one finds in the people Eliot later writes.

The phrase I wrote earlier — and then reconsidered — was “gentle fetishism.” And, perhaps, that’s the only fetishism of which we can accuse dear Eliot, her lively and uneducated women, and her sad, worried men.

Why does Lantern Yard disappear?

In the penultimate chapter of Silas Marner, Silas and adopted daughter Eppie journey to Lantern Yard, the religious community of Silas’s youth, hoping to resolve questions from his past. Was he ever cleared of the wrongful murder charge against him? Why did the “casting of lots” result in the wrong judgment in the murder case? However, when the pair reaches the turning, they find a large factory where the Lantern Yard community used to be. As Silas laments, it is “all gone – chapel and all” (179).

At this point, it would have been easy enough for Eliot to leave a thread for Silas to follow, leading to a neat ending. He could encounter someone who knew where to find the old pastor, who would answer all his questions, justify his actions, and tie up his past neatly with his present. Instead, it’s a dead end….Lantern Yard is utterly gone. The questions will never be answered. Silas’s heart cry of “Why?” meets not even an answering echo.

For one answer, we can look to the realism of the novel. The almost sickly sweet conclusion—“‘O father,’ said Eppie, ‘what a pretty home ours is! I think nobody could be happier than we are’” (183)—needs a counterbalancing force of uncertainty. This hero and this heroine do not need all plotlines to tie up neatly in order to be content with their happy ending. Despite the uncertainty of real life, they are happy. Though his questions are unanswered in this rough and changing world, Silas is at rest.

It is also significant that Lantern Yard has given way to a factory. This intrusion of industrial life, even in a novel set in a country town, destabilizes the Marners’ happy ending. We know that Silas is losing his livelihood, bit by bit, as weaving becomes defunct. We also suspect that, in coming years, innocent Eppie will encounter more changes—perhaps not all positive—as industrial innovations encroach upon Raveloe.

Finally (or, rather, a final suggestion), the disappearance of Lantern Yard reinforces the novel’s humble approach to theology. In contrast to the hierarchical, controlling religion of Lantern Yard, Eliot presents theology most sympathetically in the mouth of Dolly Winthrop, Silas’s wise but uneducated Raveloe friend. Confiding in her about his disappointing Lantern Yard visit, Silas confesses:

I shall never know whether they got at the truth o’ the robbery, nor whether Mr. Paston could ha’ given me any light about the drawing o’ the lots. It’s dark to me, Mrs. Winthrop, that is: I doubt it’ll be dark to the last. (180)

In this way, Silas is like Job—Eliot previously referred to his “comforters” (79)–who, after long wrestling with his losses, humbled himself. Silas and Mrs. Winthrop suggest that asking “why” is not our place; our place is to accept the lot given us. Like Job, Silas has been given a beautifully happy family in place of the Lantern Yard family he had lost.

 

Work Cited

Eliot, George. Silas Marner. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.

“Light enough to trusten by”

God did not, as the Bible says, make man in His image; on the contrary man, as I have shown in The Essence of Christianity, made God in his image.”  ― Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion

Less than a decade before writing Silas Marner, George Eliot began the arduous task of translating Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity into English. In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach claims that God is merely an idea created by man, a projection of man’s nature. While Eliot never states these ideas explicitly in the novel, pieces of this philosophy are evident in Marner’s relationship with religion.

In the first chapter, we are introduced to Marner as a pious young man, actively involved in the community of Lantern Yard. When he is falsely accused of a crime, Marner insists that he is innocent and that God will save him. However, his God and, perhaps more importantly, his friends and community let him down. Silas loses his faith and begins a life of isolation in Raveloe.

At this point, Marner has two faiths—a faith in God and a faith in man. Both of these are shaken after his realization of his friend’s betrayal and his false conviction from the casting of lots. The narrator states, “Poor Marner went out with that despair in his soul—that shaken trust in God and man, which is little short of madness to a loving nature” (Eliot 14). These deep feelings of betrayal and injustice cause Marner to forsake all forms of religion because for him, “the form and the feeling [of religion] have never been severed by an act of reflection” (Eliot 14). Later, when Dolly Winthrop encourages Marner to go to church, Marner cannot summon any religious feeling and sees no use in participating in what he sees as meaningless forms. He has been disappointed by God and humanity.

It is only when Marner’s faith in humanity is restored that he is capable again of having religious faith. Through Eppie, he is able to become part of a community again, and his love for her teaches him of a greater love. Though he doesn’t fully understand the significance, he is even willing to participate in the ceremony of baptism out of love for Eppie. Now his religion is inextricably tied to his love of people.

It seems that this concept of religion is the one that lasts, in Eliot’s view. Toward the end of the novel, Marner goes back to visit his old town and finds that the chapel has been replaced by a factory, and he cannot get closure for the events of his past. Dolly commiserates with him, telling him that there are many things that people like them will remain in the dark about. But, Marner responds, “‘No; that doesn’t hinder. Since the time the child was sent to me and Ive come to love her as myself, I’ve had light enough to trusten by; and now she says she’ll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die’” (Eliot 179-80). His trust in Eppie allows him to trust in a sort of divine providence. And this faith, unlike his previous faith, is one that will last.

Silas Marner and the Limitations of Experiential Knowledge

The peaceful ending of Silas Marner, and the weaver’s ardent declaration that “I think I shall trusten till I die” seem tidy, neat, redemptive. However, I can’t help but feel/think that something is missing. I feel unsatisfied, and I think that George Eliot has intentionally left some loose ends. We are not meant to feel comfortable with Silas’s ultimate “redemption” because his closing affirmation highlights a textual problem: the uncertainty of experiential knowledge and the limits of experience.

The “Christianity” in this novel (as a few of my colleagues have pointed out) is inherently unsatisfying. If (as Megan says) Eliot’s “Christianity” is an excuse for easy endings and problematic moral platitudes, or (as Mackenzie says) Silas is redeemed not by Christianity at all, but by community– we still run up against the same problem. The knowledge and trust of Marner and the other characters in Eliot’s novel is based entirely on feeling and experience, with no basis in reason or understanding of the faith they blindly affirm.

For Christians and non-Christians alike, Silas’s last affirmation of faith should be troubling because it is faith without basis. At the beginning of the novel, Silas’s past faith has been shattered by his experience (being cast out), so that “Nobody in this world but himself knew that he was the same Silas Marner who had once loved his fellow with tender love, and trusted in an unseen goodness. Even to himself that past experience had become dim” (86). The community that he shared in his former chapel no longer shapes his beliefs; thus, experience of people’s irrational, unjust, and contradictory actions is enough to destroy his moral core.

When Silas becomes a part of the Raveloe church, it is almost as if he has converted to an entirely different religion: “He was quite unable, by means of anything he heard or saw, to identify the Raveloe religion with his old faith; if he could at any time in his previous life… it must have been by the aid of a strong feeling… rather than by a comparison of phrases and ideas” (125). The religion of Raveloe looks so different to Silas because his perception of religion is based on his differing experiences of the people in Raveloe. He has not looked into the religion itself; he instead places his trust in the good faith of the people around him, creating a dangerous, blind “groupthink” effect. Nobody is actually able to say what the community of Raveloe believes, beyond a general morality and the trappings of religion (christening, going to church regularly, etc).

The theft of Silas’s gold perhaps mirrors the first theft of Silas’s faith. He does not lock his doors against Dunstan Cass because “the sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction” (41). Silas is secure in his first community because it is habit. Likewise, as soon as he is “secure” in the habit of community again in Raveloe, he does not concern himself about what– or who– exactly he is trusting. Rather, he has a “feeling”: “There’s good i’ this world– I’ve a feeling o’ that now; and it makes a man feel as there’s a good more nor he can see, i’ spite o’ the trouble and the wickedness” (145). His trust is not based on revealed knowledge of God, God’s actions, or God’s character– things just “seem to work out” and so (of course) he feels like there must be a god of some sort who wants what’s best in the long run. This affirmation reminds one (uncomfortably so) of Candide’s “best of all possible worlds” philosophy. And this belief is closer to Moral Therapeutic Deism than Christianity.

Who’s to say that Silas’s experience, his “redemption,” will be permanent? Silas’s final affirmation (“Now she says she’ll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die”) has a dangerous condition: it depends on the continuation of his present experience, just like his blind trust did in his previous community. What happens if Eppie dies young of a brutal illness? What happens if the fickle townspeople decide to cast Silas out of community again? Silas even admits, “if I lost you, Eppie[,] I might come to think I was forsaken again, and lose the feeling that God was good to me” (166). The novel ends before this happens, of course, but is Silas’s “redemption” a “happy ending” after all? Can any ending be happy when faith rests on such shaky ground?

Perhaps this question is what Eliot wants us to wrestle with.

Isolated from the World

The title character in George Eliot’s Silas Marner has become one of the greatest types for isolated miserliness in literature. We are told early on in the novel, that while Marner’s past life was filled with communal fellowship, he has since been “condemned to solitude” (Eliot, 9). For readers familiar with the ‘type’ of the literary miser, it may be easiest to view Marner’s isolation as a consequence of his own miserly conduct. Yet, Eliot humanizes Marner in a way that makes him distinctly different from other ‘types’ of his kind. Compared, for example, with another great literary miser – Ebenezer Scrooge – Marner’s turn to miserliness becomes pitiable and almost difficult to condemn. Whereas Scrooge, like other misers before him, became isolated because of their miserliness, Marner became a miser because he was isolated. Exiled from Lantern Yard for a murder he did not commit, his closest friend and fiancé both turning from him, Marner hoarded gold not because he desired wealth, but so that he could have something to fill the void of isolation. Eppie is a clear symbol for the lost gold (Eliot draws comparisons between the two multiple times), and shows the reader how ‘un-miserly’ a miser Silas really is.
Eliot contrasts the girl and the gold beautifully:

Unlike the gold which needed nothing, and must be worshipped in close-locked solitude – which was hidden away from the daylight, was deaf to the song of birds, and started to no human tones – Eppie was a creature of endless claims and ever-growing desires, seeking and loving sunshine, and living sounds, and living movements; making trial of everything, with trust in new joy, and stirring the human kindness in all eyes that looked on her (125).

Marner does not care for his lost gold, and by the time it is recovered he has grown to see it as a curse. He does not want the gold back, not because he is well provided for, but because he truly never wanted it to begin with. Eppie provides for Marner the community that he had lost at Lantern Yard.

The true miser of the novel may not be Marner at all, but the unfortunate Godfrey Cass. Though Marner can be said to ‘hoard’ Eppie like a miser, Cass’s desire for both Nancy and his family’s wealth isolates him from both almost his entire life. Unlike Marner, Cass has not been exiled, but exiles himself from society in order to keep hidden a failed marriage and secret child. The cost of the secret is Eppie, the child Godfrey and Nancy may have raised as their own.

The distinction between Marner and Cass may serve another purpose, however. Marner is exiled from his home town by gossip that is not true, while Cass, even when his secret is revealed, continues in the life he has lived since birth. The difference is of course that Marner is a provincial laborer while Cass is a part of the landed elite. Though things end more or less happily for both Marner and Cass, Eliot is subtly pointing out the distinctions in class that control her era. Readers should question why Cass is not displaced and isolated as Marner is, though the one lies and the other tells the truth. More than a treatise on miserliness, Eliot perhaps wants Marner to serve as a commentary on the class system of her time.

Fits of an Other

This was my second time reading Eliot’s Silas Marner, though, regrettably, I can’t remember my first impressions of it. It would have been interesting to compare my thirteen year-old self’s encounter with the short novel/folk tale/fable with my reading as a graduate student familiar with George Eliot’s background (and gender!) and other work. I’d imagine my middle-school self, fan of Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, quite enjoyed this charming tale of the rejected old man plagued by a course of events set against him and redeemed by the love of an adopted daughter. Over ten years later, pinning down my reaction is not quite as easy. One shaping influence of my reading is the theme of our previous Victorian prose course, “the stranger.” Eliot depicts Silas Marner as the clearest of strangers—first rejected by his own community of Lantern Yard, and then unaccepted by those of Raveloe. From the opening chapter where Eliot (quite heavy-handedly) depicts the social landscape facing an outsider, Marner is presented as an Other that—until the last third of the novel—cannot find a home. I’d like to consider how Eliot chooses to depict this otherness, namely through Marner’s “fits.” Also referred to “catalepsy” several times in the novel, this ailment of Marner’s seems to be an intriguing overlap of emotional, social, spiritual, and physical impairment.

Our first introduction to his affliction serves as our introduction to his character through the eyes of the Raveloe community. Jem Rodney, the mole-catcher, comes across Silas in a fit—stiff and seemingly dead, and yet standing upright—which the man then comes out of quite casually, saying goodnight and walking away. The community’s opinion of this—as voiced through Mr. Macey, clerk of the parish—is that Silas is an abnormality, an Other. Indeed, Mr. Macey initially rejects a physical explanation, speaking in all of his wisdom that “a fit was a stroke, wasn’t it?” but “no stroke would let a man stand on his legs, like a horse between shafts, and then walk off” (8). But then he seems to conflate it with a spiritual origin. He wonders if Marner’s soul had separated from his body, giving as support for this spiritual explanation his doubts as to where “Master Marner [got] his knowledge of herbs from.” Puzzlingly, even as this hints at a dark, spiritual origin, at the same time it turns attention back to the physical nature of his fits. Marner is known for healing the townspeople—even as they distrust him for it, and thus Eliot offers an interesting interpretation/critique of the overlap between the spiritual and physical. She seems to ask readers to consider in this othering of Marner the space between the two occupied by the medical field of the time (which is interesting to set alongside her concern for the political aspects to the field as depicted in Middlemarch).

The potential spiritual component to his ailment is further emphasized as Eliot reveals that Marner’s initial ostracization stems from a fit in church, “ a mysterious rigidity and suspension of consciousness, which, lasting for an hour or more, had been mistaken for death” (9). This description closely aligns with the traditional view of the illness catalepsy (often used in horror tales of Poe and like to induce fear at the prospect of being buried alive, Re: “The Fall of the House of Usher”). Indeed, Eliot labels it as such a few paragraphs later. And yet, the narrator emphasizes the anti-medical stance of both Marner and the minister, again highlighting a tension between in the medical field between the physical and spiritual. Marner views the knowledge of “medicinal herbs and their preparation” with apprehension, “believing that herbs could have no efficacy without prayer, and that prayer might suffice without herbs” (10).

And yet, one cannot neglect the social and emotion component to Marner’s ailment as well. These fits clearly alienate Marner from both communities. Dane capitalizes on the people’s distrust of this othering illness to cast suspicion on his ‘friend’ for stealing the gold, ultimately ousting him and stealing his fiancé. Further, Marner’s own emotional state (and thus our understanding of this character) also seems closely connected to these episodes, as he has fits in his distress following the loss of his own gold. Clearly I haven’t the space to fully develop this overlap of social, emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects of Marner’s affliction, as well as its function within the novel and its social critique, but I will end this by returning again to the overall theme of the stranger. The plight of the Other is a clear concern of the novel, and I believe considering the manifold elements to Marner’s “fits” in light of this offers an interesting interpretation worth further unpacking.

Boys Will Be Boys…With a Sprinkle of Mackenzie is Wrong

After reading Middlemarch, I was expecting something much different from Silas Marner. While it is true that a decade separates the two novels, the transition to an epic-type novel, Middlemarch, which juggles non-ideal images of good and bad, from Silas Marner, a tale akin to a children’s story about morality, is a GIGANTIC leap. The explicit moral absolutes in Silas Marner are jarring mostly because of the juxtaposition to the moral grey areas throughout Middlemarch. 

Before writing this blog I read the blogs of a few of my colleagues, and one in particular struck me as most contrary to my own readings, which necessarily excited my argumentative nature. Mackenzie contends that Silas Marner moves away from a biblical narrative to a salvation by the human community. I like this, and I think I see this reading in the text, but I also think it’s wrong. Christianity and christian imagery is prevalent in this text I can taste it like pepper on a pepper-crusted steak. Because, lets face it, the morality in the novel is christian morality. Let us count the ways:

1. The super Jewiness of the hunched “alien” money lover.

2. Worshiping money is bad and will lead to bad things.

3. The guy can only be happy when his money is taken away and replaced by a gold-headed child while he has been in a fit (perhaps religious).

4. (Most importantly) He can only be happy when he accepts Christianity: “you must bring her up like christened folks’s children, and take her to church, and let her learn her catechise…That’s what you must do, Master Marner, if you’d do the right thing by the orphin child” (123).

These are only the more obvious christian images present in the text; many more exist, but I’m tired and only have 500 words.

I like the idealism behind the image of a community bond outside of religion, but I do not think that it occurs in Silas Marner…personally…you’re still my girl, Mackenzie.

Within this christian morality then, right and wrong are very black and white and are punished in that fashion. Unlike Middlemarch we are actually pretty stoked at the end of Silas Marner because everyone got what they deserved, and it was all tied up in a nice package. Dunstan was crazy evil: he stole money and had no remorse when he practically killed a horse (not cool). We were all glad he had been dead the whole time and wasn’t allowed to even spend a penny of Silas’ money. Molly, Eppie’s mother, was a drug addict. While she seemed to have maternal feeling for her daughter, she obviously didn’t provide well, as the child was wearing rags. She died a quite death in the snow. While we probably weren’t cheering on her death, in the moral sense, she paid for her crimes and delivered the child to a better home. Silas was unjustly treated by his friends and fell into the non-holy habit of hoarding money, but when a Jesus-like child appeared at his hearth he embraced her (and Christianity). Because of these good things, Silas is rewarded with love and is cured of his addiction to money, and he gets his money back so Eppie can live a good life.

And they all lived happily ever…WAIT…What about Godfrey? He eloped with a woman, had a child, and then abandoned them both. In the end he is allowed to keep all his money, his new, better wife, doesn’t have to tell the town about his misdeeds (unlike Mr. Bulstrode) so suffers no consequences. Oh, but he doesn’t have any other children. WHAT?!

Where is the justice? Molly paid for her half of the misdeed with death and Godfrey gets off with infertility? I kept wondering what the backstory was to the young marriage to merit this extreme difference. But all that is said is, “it was an ugly story of low passion, delusion, and waking from delusion, which needs not to be dragged from the privacy of Godfrey’s bitter memory” (30). We are being told by the narrator that the story is not worth being told; therefore, we are left with nothing but Godfrey’s corrupted viewpoint.

So what is the point? Silas Marner is a highly christianized narrative…THEREFORE…boys will be boys and sew their oats…women are temptresses that draw men into illicit actions. (Drops the mic)

Father of the Fatherless

What Eliot reveals to us of Silas Marner’s life revolves around his relationship or loss of relationship with two communities of faith.  For Silas, his departure from his faith and the community is instigated through circumstances beyond his control – he is betrayed by his dearest friend and, as he sees it, God.

Accused of stealing money from another church member, Silas takes no steps to create his own defense, trusting God to clear his name.  Yet, when the lots are cast and Silas is declared guilty of the crime, he declares, “there is no just God that governs the earth righteously, but a God of lies, that bears witness against the innocent” (Ch. 1).  God fails to clear Silas, severing Silas from his best friend, the woman he is engaged to, and the community in which he trusted.

———————

“Poor Marner went out with that despair in his soul – that shaken trust in God and man, which is little short of madness to a loving nature.”  Ch. 1

———————

It takes the intrusion of baby Eppie into his life to integrate Silas into Raveloe and into Raveloe’s religion.  After choosing to keep the child and raise it himself, Dolly Winthrop informs Silas that he must “bring her up like christened folk’s children, and take her to church, and let her learn her catechise” if he’s to “do the right thing by the orphin child” (Ch. 14).  Silas is eager to do everything in his means to raise the child as he should, and thus “baby was christened” and Silas “appeared for the first time within the church” (Ch. 14).  By doing what “Dolly had said…was for the good of the child”, Silas is integrated into the faith at Raveloe – “the child created …fresh links between his life and the lives from which he had hitherto shrunk continually into narrower isolation” (Ch. 14).

However, the faith that Silas is restored to is not the equivalent of the faith he had lost.  Faith in Raveloe seems to have little to do with God and trusting in divine intervention, and more to do with faith in community and fellow man.  Eppie does not connect Silas to God, but she does connect him to their world: “There was love between him and the child that blent them into one, and there was love between the child and the world – from men and women with parental looks and tones, to the red lady-birds and the round pebbles” (Ch. 14)

———————

“In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction.  We see no white-winged angels now.  But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards and calm and bring land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.”  Ch. 14

———————

Eliot’s tale of Silas Marner’s loss and restoration of faith proposes an alternative to rigid religious practices, replacing trust in God with an emphasis on community relationships – connecting oneself with others and being helped by them (as Eppie connects Silas to the world), valuing simply doing the best one knows how to do by others (as Dolly does for Silas), and giving aid to the less fortunate (as Silas takes in Eppie to raise).  In Raveloe, the value of faith is not its heavenly meaning but its earthly significance, for there the main function of the church is concerning community relations.  Perhaps Silas Marner offers us Eliot’s ideal faith – one that emphasizes the goodness of human relationships, the value of community and the importance of the individual being connected to the community.

———————

There remains one perplexing element for me.  While establishing the goodness of human relations, Silas Marner still bears the markings of Christianity.  For as Dolly says, “isn’t there Them as was at the making on us, and knows better and has a better will?”  (Ch. 16).  Perhaps Silas’ Marner story, while expressing a new faith, cannot help also telling of Providence, working for the good of those that love him.  If not a story of providence, then perhaps a 19th century parable of loving one’s neighbor as oneself.  If neither of these, Eliot certainly seems to have a great amount of admiration for Silas Marner, Father to the Fatherless.

———————

“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.  He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.  Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.  “                                     — Deuteronomy 10: 17-19

“Wove. Twue Wove.”

Eppie’s wedding in Silas Marner is full of simple beauty and light. Eliot describes a glorious spring day, full of life-giving imagery, including budding plants, growing calves, and…well, cheese…and while the wedding itself isn’t grand or elegant—Eppie’s dress is made of pink-sprigged white cotton, rather than any more elaborate material—the dominant feeling is one of rightness and unity within their natural surroundings and community. Eppie reassures Silas that she is still his daughter, as they’ve chosen to live with him, and the wedding party, small as it is, goes out of their way to greet Mr. Macey, who is unable to attend the wedding feast because of his health. As weddings frequently do in literature, this wedding seems to signal a re-establishment of order within the community.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Peter Featherstone’s funeral in Middlemarch. It couldn’t be more different in setting and feeling, as is probably right for a funeral—the scene is properly and funerally cold and cloudy, and the general tenor of emotion is anything but unity. Rather than the sweet generosity of Eppie stopping to chat with Mr. Macey, we have Featherstone reaching beyond his grave to sow turmoil conflict and misery by forcing estranged female relatives to follow in a procession to his graveside. However, like in Silas Marner, there is a ceremony, and there is a processional, and most interesting as far as I’m concerned, there are observers, set at a distance, considering the processional as it passes.

In Silas Marner, we hear but three voices, and those briefly. Priscilla Lammeter reflects that she wishes her sister, Nancy, could have adopted “a child like [Eppie]” to distract her from the everyday business of “lambs and calves” (2733). Mr. Lammeter agrees, observing that adults need to have children to remind them that “the world’s the same as it used to be” (2733). Finally, Mr. Macey adds a blessing of sorts on Eppie and her new husband (2741). Again, the observers serve to reinforce the feeling of positive community and continuity. Even the outsiders at this ceremony think kindly, even admiringly, of those in the procession, and the reflections are meant to be beneficial to either themselves, their loved ones, or again, the community.

In Middlemarch, on the otherhand, most of the voices are harsh and judgemental; Mrs. Cadwallader describes Humphrey as “an ugly archangel” (307), Sir James evinces disgust of Vincy because he prefers using grey hounds instead of fox hounds, and Dorothea calls the funeral “a blot on the morning” (307). More, the commentary reveals a disjointed community. Dorothea reinforces that “we know nothing of our neighbors,” and Mrs. Cadwallader calls farmers who aren’t tenants “monsters” (306), hardly a unifying communal spirit. Rather than their observations being beneficial to anyone, these observations stay primarily observations. Some observations make the move to discuss community, reflecting on the character of Lowick, but these observations seem to be made primarily out of spite or for entertainment purposes.

What, then, do the differences in these two processionals tell us as readers? The processions and the observations on them are necessarily different, due both to the ceremonies from which they originate and to the people those ceremonies celebrate. Marriages are traditionally unifying and life-giving; funerals aren’t typically life-giving, anyway. Similarly, Peter Featherstone is cruel and petty, taking away provision and leaving behind “no love” (307), whereas Eppie is kind and brings life to Marner after he had become consumed by greed. However, their role in the communities and the observations on their ceremonies might also suggest that the way one behaves in one’s community can transform the tenor of the community, to some extent, to one of kind generosity or to one of petty amusement.

The Things We Can’t Know…

In reading Silas Marner, I was struck by how many of the characters are hesitant to claim that they fully understand even their own situations; it is as if they can’t comprehend their own realities. At the end of the narrative, when Godfrey’s long-buried secrets are finally revealed, Nancy and Godfrey are especially careful in claiming authority in knowing about their own situation. When Godfrey looks upon Nancy (before telling her his awful secret), he “turned toward her with a strange unanswering glance, as if he saw her indeed, but saw her as a scene invisible to herself” (221). He sees her as if she cannot see herself, as if she is not even present for this discussion. Here Godfrey tries to imagine her reaction to the news; though they have been married for over a decade, she looks at her without being certain of what she will say and do. He is “unequal to the considerate skill” with which he wants to speak, but the reality of the situation itself—the fact of what has happened and what will happened—it is so far beyond his comprehension that he cannot envision what to tell her will look like (221). True, he is thinking about a future event, but throughout the scene, he seems incapable of absorbing the his own “realism,” like life itself is beyond what he can take in.

Godfrey’s character here presents a simplified version of what I admire most about Eliot’s writing of people and the realism she depicts. Her characters sometimes stop to imagine (alongside her more explicit narrator) that they have only glimpses of their own lives—ultimately, life itself is beyond their own understanding. This ties in directly with how George Levine explains Eliot’s understanding of her own vocation:

Getting it right was for her no simple matter of recording external fact precisely, but of making herself capable of the most complete possible honesty by opening her mind and feelings to the otherness of things and people […] The point is not that she always succeeded, but that for her realism was a vocation. (9)

I try to imagine the way Eliot thought, and in reading her letters this week I was struck by how she approaches the “facts” of knowing things, how seldom she claims to know anything for certain. It is as if “realism” for Eliot includes unknowing, or living in a haze, even if it develops at points.

Interestingly, after Godfrey’s revelation in the previous passage, Nancy also admits that they cannot know the whole of situation. She knows situations more intuitively than her husband (as women as wont to in Victorian novels, it seems). She also pauses to take in the reality of what has happened and to reflect: “she was pale and quiet as a meditative statue, clasping her hands on her lap” (223). But all of these stages do not ward off the uncertainty of what might have been and what they might be missing out on: “our life might have been more like what we used to think it ‘ud be” (224). She explains that “Nothing is so good as it seems beforehand,” as if the world has shifted slightly and left her with a “faint sad smile” (225). They courageously go to Silas Marners to try to do their “duty,” but it is not because they understand their own lives entirely. To me this chapter exemplifies an important part of Eliot’s realism: characters do not seem to understand themselves or their own situations entirely, let alone each other. Their duties and sympathies include this “unknowing,” as if it is part of being human.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Redeeming Raveloe

Although, as I argued last week, Eliot manages to accurately present the socioeconomical Other (if not the national Other) in Middlemarch (1874), she seems to deviate entirely from her intended purpose in her 1861 novel Silas Marner. This book was published a mere five years after her essay “The Natural History of German Life,” in which she suggests that “Art is the nearest thing to life” and that, as such, the artist has a special responsibility to present the Other accurately (110). However, Eliot seems to have entirely forgotten that responsibility in writing Silas Marner. The novel’s idealized portrait of working-class life seems much more like that found in the “social novels” which “profess to represent the people as they are” but whose “unreali[stic] … representations [are] a great evil” than that found in the true, near-to-life works that Eliot supports in her essay (110).

Though it may seem that Eliot has thus deviated from her theory of art in Silas Marner, knowing the little that I do about Eliot’s convictions about reality and art, I am led to question whether or not this reading is accurate. Is Eliot really deviating from the purpose of the social novel in Silas Marner? Or is she perhaps attempting to create not a social novel but something else entirely?

I think the key to answering this question lies in the transformation that comes over Silas when Eppie first appears on his hearth. Though he was before consumed in his gold, worshipping it “in close-locked solitude” away from the community of Raveloe, after that gold has been replaced by the human child Silas becomes a part of the community that he before rejected (125). At the beginning of a lengthy passage contrasting the death-like condition in which Silas had lived when his object was lifeless gold to the very-much-alive condition into which he is forced when his object is the human child, the narrator explains, “the child created fresh and fresh links between his life and the lives from which he had hitherto shrunk continually into narrower isolation” (125). Thus, Eppie draws Silas out of himself and into community with the people of Raveloe, bringing him salvation through that community.

At the end of the chapter explaining the transformation that came over Silas after he adopts Eppie, the narrator parallels that transformation with the results of angelic intervention of the “old days” (131). She writes, “We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads then forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s” (131).

It is in this passage that I find an answer to the question of why Eliot deviates from her criteria of art as nearness to life. In paralleling the power of human community with biblical divine intervention (Eliot nods at the story of Lot’s escape from Sodom and Gomorrah in this particular passage), Eliot suggests the former as a replacement for the latter. That is, she proposes that though the Bible may no longer be a source of salvation, community is a valid replacement for the rejected narrative. Salvation is found no longer found in Christ, but in community.

Because this appears to be the purpose of Eliot’s novel, I suggest that she is in this particular case not attempting to paint an accurate picture of life. She has temporarily laid aside her intention of creating art that is near to life in order to offer a narrative to replace that of the Bible. Rather than showing the people of the working class as they are, she is instead showing them as they ought to be in order to fulfill their salvific role. Though she is in the process (inaccurately) illustrating the working class, I think that she would perhaps count the people of Raveloe with the “Opera peasants” who “are surely too frank an idealization to be misleading” (“Natural” 110). The people of Raveloe are meant not to show life as it is, but life as it ought to be: a journey “towards a calm and bright land” made hand in hand with those of the community in which one lives (Silas 131).

 

 

Works Cited

Eliot, George. “The Natural History of German Life.” 1856. George Eliot: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings. Ed. A. S. Byatt. New York: Penguin, 1990. 107-139. Print.

—. Silas Marner. 1861. Ed. David Carroll. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print.

 

 

Bothersome Desires

Dorothea seems at once inconsistent and also more passionate about consistency than many of the characters in Middlemarch.  (Consider Bulstrode and Rosamond, for some extreme examples of inconsistency.)  The narrator tells us early in the novel that, “The thing which seemed to [Dorothea] best, she wanted to justify by the completest knowledge: and not to live in a pretended admission of rules which were never acted on” (Loc. 700). The particular kind of consistency Dorothea desires is that between her rules and her actions.  But her inconsistent moments come when she is distracted by beauty, as in her change of mind over the jewels in the first chapter. And so perhaps the “seeming” inconsistency is due to a changing standard or object of consistency throughout the novel.

Consistency varies in both degree and object through the novel.  There is consistency between an individual’s action and societal expectations.  It is this standard that makes Dorothea appear inconsistent. For “…with such a nature struggling in the bands of narrow teaching, hemmed in by a social life which seemed nothing but a labyrinth of petty courses, a walled-in maze of small paths that led no whither, the outcome was sure to strike others as at once exaggeration and inconsistency”  (Loc 700).  This is the kind of consistency that Celia, and her uncle, and Middlemarch as a town value.  In their minds, to fail in one’s social expectations, to marry first a man old enough to be ones father and then a man young enough to be his son, is to fail utterly.  This kind of consistency is one which Dorothea rejects outright.

Instead, Dorothea initially desires a consistency between her own rules and her actions, but in a conversation with Will Ladislaw about half-way through the novel, this value seems to have altered slightly.  Her basic belief is, “That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil – widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower” (Loc 8112). Perhaps she pursues consistency of action to rule, but if this maxim is her basic rule, then it is a rule based mainly on feeling – on “desiring what is perfectly good.” This is also a rule that places knowledge in a secondary place to that desire, suggesting that perfect knowledge is not possible, but perfect desire is both achievable, more useful, and may perhaps be its own kind of knowledge.

Will’s basic belief is remarkably similar to Dorothea’s but replaces “desiring what is perfectly good,” with something more specific: “To love what is good and beautiful when I see it” (Loc. 8123). Rather than “desire,” Will requires “love” and makes “good” and “beautiful” nearly synonymous.  The effect of replacing “desire” with “love” is that it removes some of the active element.  For Dorothea, desire is an action.  For the far more passive Will, love is an admiration. It is this admiration for beauty in particular that distracts Dorothea initially, and then finally absorbs her entirely, replacing her desire for active usefulness as a good, with love of beauty.  And this replacement is not necessarily logically inconsistent with her early maxim.  It simply probes one step beyond her rule; She still values consistency between rule and action, but there is an added consistency between rule and interior feelings. The effect is a consistency between feeling and action.

This solution raises the question, however, of whether Dorothea’s inconsistency is actually a result of rationalizing. She does appear to be beginning with desire and ending with fact, and this is the classic progress of rationalizing.  However I suspect this not to be Eliot’s goal.  In my last blog post I noted that there is a certain kind of romantic idealism that Eliot tends to value – the kind that makes readers feel as they ought about others.  This is a kind of empathy which the novelist is better able to achieve than the philosopher. The story can make us desire the good of others and so create in us the first level of consistency between interior feeling and rule. It is then more natural for us to follow up our own newly shaped rules with actions.

Darling, You Disappoint Me

“No other woman exists by the side of her. I would rather touch her hand if it were dead, than I would touch any other woman’s living.” (Eliot, 537)

Excerpt from one of many charming speeches made by Ladislaw in Eliot’s Middlemarch

Victorian meme

After reading Middlemarch, my head swam with all the the stories, the novelistic achievement (for Eliot, not myself (though I may have patted myself on the back and eaten an ice cream after finishing)), and the OVERWHELMING ideas on gender and religion that Eliot seems to throw casually into her novel. Oh, you want Mary to wed Fairbrother? WELL TOO BAD. Oh, you think Ladislaw is an undeserving, over-emotional douchebag? TOO BAD, HE MARRIES THE HEROINE ANYWAY. Oh, you hope that Lydgate and Rosamond reconcile, or even part, and end up happy? TOO BAD, DEAD HUSBANDS MAKE HAPPY WIVES. Oh, you hope somebody –anybody! — achieves their goals in life? TOO BAD ITS CALLED REALISM FOR A REASON, BITCH!

In all seriousness, I suppose Middlemarch is a novel of disappointment. And I guess this is what makes it the only truly riveting, non-Bronte, Victorian-era novel I have read. We’re denied our heroines, we’re denied our heroes, and it all ends up alright if you’re ok eating five donuts from depression after reading Eliot’s Finale and realizing Fairbrother’s dead and Fred can rest easy, Mary’s post-pregnancy body is full and matronly, Lydgate died, and Dorothea becomes a non-entity, a saint never to fulfill her potential because she married “young Ladislaw,” the flirtatious, temperamental playboy-turned-activist.

What is fascinating is this idea that this novel leaves the reader with a deep sense of disappointment, and even resign, that the author cleverly plants in her readers. The women are both great and petty souls at turn, and yet they all remain secondary in their lives to their husbands, all of whom view themselves as deserving of love, as more concerned with their own well-being than that of their lovers. We cannot help but wish Dorothea had found an outlet for her greatness, that Mary occupied a role greater than that of Fred Vincy’s wife, that Rosamond had proved herself less vain, less coquettish, less shallow, unsupportive, and even cruel than she did. But we are disappointed, and this is because Eliot created characters who then acted like people. And we are disappointed in people.

#people #thestruggleisreal

And the question I came to at the end is how does this disappointment serve the novel? How does it work on the reader, and make Middlemarch such an engrossing read, even when Dorothea is annoyingly saintly and emotional, when Rosamond is a selfish twat, and when Mary chooses the sub-par playboy over the wonderful vicar, a man who appears like a guardian angel and saves all the young men from sure destruction? I think it connects to the idea that disappointment is the realm of provincial life, and — in Eliot’s view – of marriage (a very un-feminine take on marriage at the time, methinks).

And so we are left, weeping into our ice cream as we half-heartedly flip through a bridal magazine, pondering how a seminar paper might be written on the theme of disappointment.

 

“What Can I Do?”

I remember an exercise my elementary school teachers would have us complete to demonstrate the importance of inflection for understanding meaning. The teacher would write a sentence on the board, and we would read the sentence aloud repeatedly as a class, emphasizing a new word each time.

Something similar takes place in Chapter 58 of Middlemarch. Here we see the very different responses of Dorothea and Rosamond to marital disappointment. Dorothea’s depth of compassion is best understood in light of Rosamond’s shallowness.

In Chapter 58, we see Lydgate coming to terms with the seriousness of his financial situation. As he prepares to discuss possible changes with Rosamond, he thinks back on Dorothea’s reaction to Casaubon’s illness. Of course, there is no way Lydgate could know the extent of Dorothea’s disappointment in marriage, but as he calls her situation to mind, we as readers must think back on her sad circumstances.

At the time of Casaubon’s illness, Dorothea was at the peak of her misery. She had placed all of her hopes in Casaubon, thinking that she could be a great help to a great man. However, she had soon realized that Casaubon would no allow her to be a great help, and as she continued in her marriage, she came to the more terrible realization that he was not a great man. Still, in his illness, Lydgate remembered her plea, “Advise me—think what I can do—he has been all his life labouring and looking forward. He minds about nothing else—and I mind nothing else” (468). Despite her disappointment in her husband, Dorothea felt a deep sympathy for him. She was bound to him by more than law. She was bound by love. Perhaps this bore no resemblance to romantic love, but even so, her interests were tied up in his, and begged Lydgate to tell her what she could do make life better for her husband.

Poor Lydgate! Just after reminiscing about Dorothea’s devotedness, he is met with a much different response (though it consists of the very same words) from his own wife. In agony he does his best to make Rosamond aware of the direness of their financial situation, hating to give her news that he knows will hurt her. Rosamond, however, responds with the simple but terrible question, “What can I do, Tertius?” Inflection is everything. Unlike Dorothea, Rosamond is not asking how she can help her husband. She is not suggesting that her life or her happiness is bound up in his. Rosamond’s question is the rhetorical equivalent of a wedge which she continues to drive between them. The narrator states, “Rosamond’s thin utterance threw into the words ‘What can I do!’ as much neutrality as they could hold. They fell like a mortal chill on Lydgate’s roused tenderness” (470). Unlike Dorothea, Rosamond is incapable of sympathizing with her husband. She cannot move past her own disappointment to consider his. Later when Lydgate’s reputation is suffering, we are told, “Even this trouble, like the rest, she seemed to regard as if it were hers alone” (585).

In this scene, like in so many others, Eliot shows us how very small differences in manners or in speech indicate a great difference in feeling. Such a simple question, so much like that elementary school exercise, reveals Dorothea’s great sympathy and Rosamond’s unfortunate selfishness.