Trusting a Benign Power

In contrast to its cheerful and trusting ending, Silas Marner opens with a sense of mystery, strangeness, and suspicion, as the narrator describes how the villagers view each weaver and his “mysterious burden” as ticking time bombs that explode any moment (3). When explaining how that distrust centers on Silas, the narrator connects it to the villagers’ ingrained perception of the world: “Such strange lingering echoes of the old demon-worship might perhaps even now be caught by the diligent listener among the grey-haired peasantry; for the rude mind with difficulty associates the ideas of power and benignity. A shadowy conception of power that by much persuasion can be induced to refrain from inflicting harm, is the shape most easily taken by the sense of the Invisible in the minds of men who have always been pressed close by primitive wants, and to whom a life of hard toil has never been illuminated by any enthusiastic religious faith” (4). From the beginning of the story, then, we have a sense of not being quite at home with the invisible powers of the world. In other words, these people do not see the world (“world” here used as shorthand for the forces that control events and circumstances) as benignly hospitable. What sort of host, after all, needs to be convinced not to harm guests?

The villagers at first transfer a distrust of the mysterious world to Silas as an embodiment of the mysterious and strange. He also, however, struggles with trust and distrusts the world in general. He thus bears a double-portion of distrust: the villagers’ and his own.

What makes it worse (and evokes our sympathy) is that his distrust is founded on his personal experience, unlike the inherited superstition of the villagers. His best friend, to whom he opened himself completely, betrays him, and his community thrusts him out. If he or the community was a bit more suspicious of his friend, he could have been okay. And when in his new community he trustingly tries to help heal Sally, it blows up in his face. And so distrust seems confirmed as the right response in a world with “a God of lies, that bears witness against the innocent” (11). Fool me twice—but no more, Silas seems to say.

To me, these distrusts seem rather different: In one relationship (the villagers and Silas), it seems that more trust is needed; in the other (Silas and his friend), less. One is based on superstitions (that the reader is supposed to disagree with) and the other is founded on experience. (Even with Sally, perhaps Silas trusted too much in the villagers’ understanding.) Why, then, are the villagers’ and Silas’s distrusts brought so closely together throughout the text, with both being called into question? In the end, the finale of the text is both the villagers and Silas opening themselves up in a type of unqualified trust. The village accepts Silas, and Silas decides to “trusten” the good of the world despite a lack of understanding (159). Why is the solution to both portrayed as more trust?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the complicated connection between Silas and the invisible world. Silas as the village’s stranger-guest becomes the stand-in for that world and its powers, and in a way, then, Silas is identified with the very power he struggles to trust. So when the villagers trust him, perhaps they are trusting that power too, and calling him to trust it as well. (What could that odd merging do to our understanding of Silas?)

Another factor is that in this novel, sometimes the world uses pain to open up humans even more. Silas’s loss of the gold cracks his heart and leaves him open to Eppie’s influence and arrival. If we see that as the forces behind the world operating as an aggressive host to Silas, and making the guest more receptive to hospitality, then it seems that part of the hospitality of the world is, in fact, pain. The pain seems positive, for Silas grows in happiness and relationships due to it.

Yet this host’s ability and privilege of causing pain raises questions, especially since there is not much indication that the forces behind the world are affected in turn by humans. Is this ability to cause pain and remain a trusted host a privilege reserved for the invisible powers, with pain a burden falling solely on the human guests? How could the powers of the world take on pain and risk in this text that only mentions Christ in one carol? And is it still hospitality if the host is unaffected and reciprocity is lost?

From another angle: is the trust and openness potentially hollow, when the invisible powers can be touched and felt but not affected in the full way that humans can be? The happy ending seems to say no, but there is still “an open fence” to the happy garden on the last page (161). The abrupt changes in fate, the malicious thief in the dark, the killing cold, the disappearing homes, the stakes through a horse’s heart, the betrayals of friends and brothers, and unexpected revelations are all still in the text. Does the text really provide a secure reason that similar things should not erupt again, with this gate left open for their entry?

Readers, in fact, seem to have more assurance of the happy ending than the characters do, since readers have the narrative security of form and genre. The novel has ended, and on the happy note of marriage. As readers, we tend to trust the author to include the major events of these characters’ lives in the text. The characters have no such assurance in that final moment of text, and no mutual, reciprocal relationship with the forces that direct their lives. Without the assurance of such a truly hospitable relationship with a host, why should they trust, and why should this not simply be a temporary happiness?

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