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consumed in his gold, worshipping it “in close-locked solitude” away from the community of Raveloe, after that gold has been replaced by the human child Silas becomes a part of the community that he before rejected (125).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.

 

 

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