The narrative structure of Silas Marner seems crafted to draw the reader in and hold the reader at a distance; to create sympathy and to facilitate an alienating sense of otherness, in alternating scenes of rushing suspense and of dispassionate narrative. Reading the novella in light of Hollander’s Narrative Hospitality suggests that these shifts are either reflective of or contributors to changing Victorian philosophies about the Self and the Other, about sympathy and hospitality. Even given that understanding, however, Chapter VI is jarring.
Chapter Six opens in the midst of building tension as Silas discovers his gold has been stolen, then rushes off the to pub to declare his grievance. But then, in a sudden change in tone, the narrative screeches to a halt, the chronological sequence goes into retrogression, and the perspective is wrenched from a singular intense focus on Silas’s distress to a dispersed comic scene among the rustic personages gathered at the Rainbow. The narrator refuses to offer continued narrative drama and chronological continuity just when readers most want them, pursuing an unrelated side-track for nine pages before deftly weaving together the villagers’ stories about ghosts with Silas’s uncanny appearance. However, even though the thematic connection via tales of the supernatural is clear, the chapter-long divergence appears to damage the compelling forward momentum of the story. Might it serve to heighten suspense by postponing the moment of dramatic satisfaction? Might it serve a subtly didactic function, frustrating the readers’ desire to know something on a small scale as a metonym for general epistemological uncertainty?
A closer examination of the passage in question reveals other problematic elements in addition to the postponement of narrative satisfaction. It is not clear what the narrator’s (or the author’s) stance is on these “lower-class” characters. The narrative tone, the phonetic presentation of dialogue, the absurd content of their conversation, and the caricatured portraiture combine to give the impression that the narrator holds them in great scorn. For instance, the conversation begins with an argument ostensibly about a cow, but really about these neighbors’ faith in one another’s word. Mr. Snell, the landlord, opens proceedings by asking: “Some folks ’ud say that was a fine beast you druv in yesterday, Bob?” (40). The spelling, diction, and grammar suggest a working-class dialect quite different from the narrator’s smooth, sophisticated, sometimes facetious prose. This continues in Bob’s answer: “And they wouldn’t be fur wrong, John.” This apparent mockery is not confined to dialogue. The narrative descriptions read like satire. The landlord considers people “beings who were all alike in need of liquor,” and Bob is “not disposed to answer rashly” (pausing a long time to smoke his pipe), and the farrier looks around “with some triumph” after making an inane remark. These techniques leave this reader in some doubt whether the narrator (or Eliot herself) is writing for pure fun, or out of gentle love, or from a sense of social superiority. This ambiguous attitude calls into question the narrator’s hospitality; is s/he Othering these people to the extent that they are outside the readers’ range of sympathy?
The setting is also jarring, causing the reader’s re-orientation to the novella’s spatial and environmental elements. A police station, courtroom, or other official functionary location would seem more suited to Silas’s tale of crime, at least to a 21st-century reader. This shift of setting is also concurrent with—or perhaps the cause of—a change of generic features. Chapter V suggested that the story was becoming a mystery novel, but then Chapter VI suddenly presents a scene of rustic realism in stark contrast. Questions about hospitality remain, as the reader is thrust into the setting and genre that have hitherto been inhospitable to Silas and whose borders he has been unable to cross. But at the same time, the narrator’s troubling inhospitality continues towards the very people whom the reader has hoped would welcome Silas into their community. This is perplexing indeed.
There are several possible solutions to this dilemma about a troubling shift in setting, genre, and narrative perspective. One is to take the suspension of narrative closure in the Rainbow as a foreshadowing of the sixteen-year postponement to come. Just as the reader is frustrated by having to slog through a whole chapter of casual neighborhood chat while chaffing to know how Silas will be received, so the theft of Silas’s money and the mystery of Eppie’s paternity remain unsolved for sixteen years. This narrative frustration mirrors Godfrey’s refusal to let down his boundaries to his father, brother, and Nancy—and both are examples of the failure to fully open up to community and to strangers when the chance is first offered.
A second possible reading considers the weaving together of narrative threads. This is a macrocosmic metaphor of Silas’s microcosmic literal weaving. The story presents first a single-stranded thread: Silas in Lantern Yard. After following this thread for a time, it shifts to a double- or triple-stranded thread: Godfrey’s, Dunstan, and perhaps Molly’s situations. Finally, in the chapter in question, the third many-stranded thread of the whole Raveloe community is braided together with the others. These men in the tavern will be Silas’s friends once Eppie unites him to them. Hospitality is thus enacted in the text as his life is woven together with theirs, raveled together in Raveloe when he thinks his life has unraveled.
However, neither of these readings explains the apparent scorn in the narrator’s tone or what seems to be Eliot’s mockery of lower-class characters. It may be that she did consider herself superior to uneducated villagers, or it may be that she is teasing out the reader’s own prejudices, revealing our unwillingness to spend time in a common pub with these folks, encouraging the reader to open mental doors and welcome these rustic characters in with intellectual and readerly hospitality. Perhaps the very frustration this scene raises is meant to create general epistemological uncertainty—can we ever truly know another human being?
~ Sørina Higgins