“Harmless” Greed in Silas Marner

In the early days of Silas Marner’s tenure in Raveloe, he develops the miserly habit of counting his gold, finding a rapturous delight in its character and form. Each night, Silas “spread [the coins] out in heaps and bathed his hands in them” and “felt their rounded outline between his thumb and fingers” (Eliot 19). The value he attributes to the gold is not primarily monetary but social. The narrator describes the coins as Silas’ “familiars”, not to be exchanged for other coins of equal worth. The coins are also described as Silas’ lone source of “companionship”, in the stead of neighbors, friends, or family (Eliot 17).

While his nightly indulgence takes on an interpersonal significance to Silas, who has imbued his gold with a perverse sort of personhood, it is also intensely private, performed out of sight of the Raveloe community. “He closed the shutters,” the narrator reports, “and made fast his doors, and drew forth his gold” (Eliot 18). So, while this ritual draws him into relationship with his money, it also reinforces his isolation from his neighbors.

This attribution of personhood to inanimate gold, especially in conjunction with Silas’ neglect of neighborly relationships, seems pretty clearly condemnable. However, the narrator argues that Silas’ obsession with his money is not inherently harmful to the Raveloe community. The narrator claims that “few men could be more harmless than poor Marner,” and goes on to explain that, “in his truthful simple soul, not even the growing greed and worship of gold could beget any vice directly injurious to others” (Eliot 37). But sin—a category in which greed surely enjoys membership (Luke 12:15, Matthew 6:24, Proverbs 15:27)—is usually presented as inherently harmful, both to oneself and one’s community. How are we to understand the narrator’s insistence that Silas’ greed is not “directly injurious”? Do the consequences of Silas’ greed extend beyond the walls of his cottage? And if they do, who are the victims of Silas’ antisocial, miserly conduct?

One possibility is that the purpose of the narrator’s claim is not to suggest that Silas’ greed has no effect on Raveloe, but rather, to clarify the nature of his greed’s effect. Perhaps, in claiming that Silas’ greed is not “directly injurious” to others, the narrator means to leave open the possibility that his greed is indirectly injurious. Or, to put it another way, it is possible that while Silas is not actively harming the community by cheating, stealing, or lying for gain, he is passively harming Raveloe through his failure to participate in the communal life from which he benefits.

A closer examination of the sentence in question further complicates the matter. The narrator writes that “not even the growing greed and worship of gold could beget any vice directly injurious to others” (Eliot 37, emphasis mine). This serves to distinguish greed from some absent vice which might be harmful if, in fact, it were present. More precisely, the sentence establishes a causal relationship between them—that is, the narrator says that greed could reasonably be expected to beget a vice which would be harmful to others, but in the case of Silas, such a vice has not been begotten. In one sense, this could support the reading offered in the previous paragraph. This reading holds that greed and the worship of gold, which are themselves vices, though inert, fail to produce the more obvious and outward vices listed earlier (cheating, stealing, lying, etc.).

In another sense, however, the distinction drawn between greed and vice downplays the sinfulness inherent to greed in some troubling ways. In other words, the distinction could imply that greed, unaccompanied by direct imposition on the rights of others, is of little moral concern. Even if we accept the premise that Silas is the primary victim of his own avarice, it seems out of place to call his greed “harmless.” There can be little doubt that Silas suffers from his own sinful avarice during the novel’s first half, especially as it is contrasted with the fullness of community he enjoys once his gold is stolen and Eppie comes into his life. The narrator describes the effect of the gold on its owner, writing, “His gold, as he hung over it and saw it grow, gathered his power of loving together into a hard isolation like its own” (Eliot 37). It is difficult to untangle his sin and his suffering here—his vice and his victimhood.

In addition to Silas himself, there do seem to be a few secondary victims of his greed. At risk of generalizing, the Raveloe community as a whole benefits from his labor but suffers from his lack of social engagement. Specifically, Mrs. Winthrop is deprived of his friendship during Silas’ early years, though I realize that this claim is vulnerable to the critique that she couldn’t have suffered too badly for a friendship she didn’t yet know to miss. Jem Rodney, too, suffers a brief and irrational aspersion on his character when the greedy Silas discovers the robbery and is desperate for someone to blame. Each of these potential victims, though, suffers only briefly and secondarily, if at all.

Perhaps, then, the narrator’s assertion of Silas’ harmlessness can best be reconciled to his greed as an expression of amazement at its containment—amazement that a sin which so often lends itself to the abuse of others would be so nearly limited to the abuse of the sinner himself.

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