Welcome and Estrangement

Silas Marner is a book of many movements and transitions, a book driven by changes in relationships and changes in persons. This blog post examines an important movement in the book: the change of the town’s perception of Silas as total stranger to Silas as (a somewhat odd) member of the community. This change, of course, does not occur all at once, and much of it occurs through the companionship of Eppie. However, Eliot makes it clear that this change begins in earnest substantially before the arrival of Eppie. In fact, Marner’s status as a stranger begins to shift almost immediately after the robbery.

At first glance, the transformation of Marner into an accepted, though odd and pitied, member of the community occurs merely as a result of the robbery. Eliot explicitly states that “He was not utterly forsaken in his trouble. The repulsion Marner had always created in his neighbors was partly dissipated by the new light in which this misfortune had shown him. Instead of a man who had more cunning than honest folks could come by, and, what was worse, had not the inclination to use that cunning in a neighborly way, it was now apparent that Silas had not cunning enough to keep his own. He was generally spoken of as a ‘poor mushed creatur’; and that avoidance of his neighbors, which had before been referred to his ill-will and to a probable addiction to worse company, was now considered mere craziness.” (72) This statement is in and of itself interesting, as it suggests Marner’s loss was in some sense necessary to awaken the hospitality and sympathy of the townsfolk. However, if one reads the preceding account of the investigation into the theft, one discovers a further aspect to the partial welcoming of Marner.

Upon investigation of the area around Marner’s house, the villagers come upon a tinder box (57). Mr. Snell, Raveloe’s innkeeper, connects the tinder box to a peddler that passed through about a month earlier. Mr. Snell’s description of the man is striking. He “had a ‘look with his eye’ which fell unpleasantly on Mr. Snell’s sensitive organism . . . he didn’t say anything in particular . . . but it isn’t what a man says, it’s the way he says it. Moreover, he had a swarthy foreignness of complexion which boded little honesty” (58).  The villagers soon ‘recall’ that the man had ear-rings, a sure sign of foreignness, and some even say that the ear-rings were “in the shape of the young moon” and disturbing in character (58). A large percentage of the villagers conclude that this peddler was the guilty party and conclude that “it was a wonder the peddler hadn’t murdered him [Marner]; men of that sort, with rings in their ears, had been know for murderers often and often” (59). Another portion of the villagers seem inclined to the idea that the loss of the gold was the work of supernatural forces (71), but Eliot spends significantly less time on this dynamic than the one described above.

The character of this episode is striking, especially in a novel threaded with themes of hospitality and sympathy. There seem to be at least two elements to the beginning’s of Marner’s acceptance by the people of Raveloe. First, there is the simple fact that Marner is wronged, weakened, injured. The people of Raveloe simultaneously show greater hospitality towards Marner and less fear of Marner’s uncanniness after it becomes clear that Marner can be harmed. Does this harming bring out pity or sympathy? Does this harming suggest that Marner might be safe as a guest or as a member of the community? Eliot’s choice to use the harming of Marner as the first stage of his acceptance by the community is striking, to say the least. It seems to suggest that hospitality and sympathy come not just from pity. The passage I quoted at the start of this essay makes it clear that pity is involved, but Eliot’s discourse suggests that sympathy is further elicited by a lack of threat, and this lack of threat (disturbingly) can be most readily acquired by the person in question being harmed.

Secondly, and most interestingly, the acceptance of Marner includes the shifting of strangeness and danger onto another character. Marner is not unilaterally accepted into the community. For many of the townspeople, Marner’s acceptance is simultaneous with the communal “discovery” of the dangerous peddler (who never actually appears as anything other than a jumbled memory within the narrative). This peddler is not merely suspected of the crime; he is first said to be foreign, then said to participate in uncouth foreign customs while in the town (the ear-rings), then finally described as a violent maniac on the verge of snapping. This transformation coincides with the transformation of Marner from a mysterious, powerful figure, unwilling to help and constantly at risk of lashing out and doing harm, into a small, pitiable, muddle-headed creature. There is almost a shifting of strangeness rather than a removal of strangeness. Eliot again complicates the movement of hospitality and the way in which her characters otherize other figures. Marner, in some sense, can become a familiar figure because someone else has taken his place as the foreboding other. How should we understand this movement? Is this simply the coinciding of two natural movements, the suspicion towards outsiders often engendered by crimes, and the arousal of pity for the now demonstrably vulnerable Marner? Or does Eliot mean for these two movements to be integrally connected? By juxtaposing, and possibly connecting these two processes, Eliot helps us to see the complicated nature of human hospitality and acceptance. We often embrace a stranger and welcome him or her while simultaneously (or even by means of) otherizing and fearing someone else. Humans weave tangled webs, and our hospitality is often not as pure as we tell ourselves it is.

Page citations taken from Eliot, George. Silas Marner and Two Short Stories. New York, NY: Barnes and Nobles, 2005.

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