Silas Marner, Hospitality, and the Gothic Imagination of Raveloe

What happens when the other is welcomed in and becomes known?

Silas Marner’s austere behavior, strange trances, and herbal concoctions with seemingly miraculous powers set him up for a reputation as a stranger and even a “dead man come to life” (4) despite his living and working among the people of Raveloe for over fifteen years. Eliot’s narrator frequently uses Gothic conventions in portraying the townspeople’s perceptions of Marner. It is therefore a crucial juxtaposition when the most overtly Gothic conversation in the book—that of the men in the Rainbow Tavern debating the existence of ghosts—comes just before the mysterious Marner bursts in and reports the loss of his gold. At Marner’s entrance into the tavern, the men are already thinking about otherworldly creatures, and the omniscient narrator tells us that they perceive him as an “apparition,” a “ghost” with “strange unearthly eyes” (48).

It is at this point, despite fear and misgivings, that the landlord breaks the “dead silence” and extends a gesture of hospitality towards Marner, “under the habitual sense that he was bound to keep his house open to all company” (49). After asking Marner what he wants and observing his panicked response, “the idea of a ghost” fades away for the host, who now thinks Marner is simply crazy (49). Marner, however, remains in an accusatory posture, “fixing strange eyes on the suspected man” (49) and creating additional fear in Jem Rodney and the farrier.

However, when the landlord, at the urging of the other men, finally “force[s] Marner to take off his coat, and then to sit down on a chair aloof from everyone else, in the centre of the circle and in the direct rays of the fire,” Silas submits to this second hospitable (albeit compulsory) act (50). The “transient fears of the company [are] now forgotten in their strong curiosity” (50). Forcing Silas into the position of a guest changes the atmosphere, and the ghoulish aura surrounding Marner finally dissipates in the light of the host’s warming fire.

Up until this point, Gothic language has primarily been used to describe other characters’ perceptions of Marner. Since the scene is primarily focused on the perspective of the men in the tavern, men whose thoughts and conversation readers have been exposed to for the entire previous chapter, their views of him as the feared stranger are most prevalent. But what about Marner’s experience as the Gothic stranger? Is he also affected by an encounter with hospitality? The narrator does describe the effect of hospitality upon Marner: “This strangely novel situation of sharing his trouble to his Raveloe neighbours, of sitting in the warmth of a hearth not his own, and feeling the presence of faces and voices which were his nearest promise of help, had doubtless its influence on Marner, in spite of his passionate preoccupation with his loss” (50).

It appears that the change effected in this scene is not merely in those who fear, but also in the object of their fear. But a question still remains as to whose actions are responsible for these changes. Ultimately, the elements that appear to make the difference for both Marner and the men of the tavern are the landlord’s forceful extension of hospitality, Marner’s assuming the position of guest, and finally, Marner’s sharing of his troubles. Is this sharing a part of the role of the guest? It is possible, since part of becoming a guest is allowing one’s needs to be met by the host.

On the other hand, is it possible Eliot is portraying a sort of mutual hospitality whereby Marner functions as both a physical guest and an emotional host? Marner allows the men of Raveloe, who are knocking on the door of his self with their curious questions, entrance into the pain of his loss. As a result of this vulnerable act, Marner becomes sympathetic to some of the townspeople, not merely to the reader. By inviting Marner in, the landlord and his guests take the first step in creating a connection with the stranger of Raveloe, but he in turn must take the opportunity to dispel some of the mystery and fear surrounding his character by opening up and inviting them to partake of his human distress. This need for mutual agency could be Eliot’s way of illustrating the difference between hospitality as a shared experience with the other, and sympathy as a private experience within the self. Whatever the logistics of the enactment of hospitality in this scene, the result is a shift in perception. The men at the Rainbow see Marner in a new light, and he sees them as potentially helpful—one might even say sympathetic—to his plight.

But if the mutual act of hospitality allows for changed perceptions, and for Eliot the Gothic is present in perception*, what happens to these Gothic elements once hospitality allows for the dispelling of (at least some) of the fear and strangeness they inhabit? It could be that the Gothic simply fades away as Marner, aided by further acts of hospitality such as his reception of visitors and his adoption of Eppie, becomes more connected to Raveloe residents. Indeed, descriptions of Marner trend away from the Gothic as the story goes on, and the narrator explains that “the repulsion Marner had always created in his neighbors was partly dissipated by the new light in which this misfortune had shown him” (68).

But perhaps Eliot has other purposes for the Gothic elements as the novel unfolds. Perhaps the other is not so easily dispelled. As Marner tells his story, the focal point of the characters’ supernatural imagination shifts to the “mysterious character of the robbery” (50), placing Marner within the circle and situating him with them against the new stranger and object of fear—an imagined ghostly burglar. In retaining Gothic language in this context, Eliot may be choosing to highlight a tricky dynamic of hospitality and acceptance—that even when the outsider, like Marner, is embraced and gradually becomes known, there will always be someone outside the host’s circle of hospitality, unknown and feared, whether Marner, the mysterious burglar, or the secret wife and child of Godfrey Cass. Although Marner participates in hospitality and his Gothic appearance is effaced in Raveloe’s imagination, the novel still seems to haunt and be haunted by characters who refuse to participate in hospitality. Perhaps Eliot is hinting that the Gothic imagination never fully disappears; its focal point merely recedes into the next unknown.

*Cf. Willis, Martin. “Victorian Realism and the Gothic: Objects of Terror Transformed.” The Victorian Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion, edited by Andrew Smith and William Hughes, Edinburgh University Press, 2012, pp. 15–28. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt3fgt3w.5.

 

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