Silas Marner starts out his life in Raveloe in isolation, an unknown in the community whose presence there is practical and transactional. In Rachel Hollander’s terms, it seems he initially elicits neither sympathy nor hospitality in the townspeople, instead occupying an enigmatic, marginal place in the community. Marner appears content with this, living for fifteen years set apart from everyone, with no change in his relationships. It is this (potentially) shifting notion of change that I am curious about. What makes Silas willing to embrace change later in the novel, when early in the novel he is so afraid of it, when change is almost a personified “stranger”?
In a horrible moment in the novel, Marner walks back to his cottage, unaware that his fortune has been stolen from his home. We, the readers, know the revelation that awaits Marner when he gets home, and this knowledge makes it all the more painful to read that while Marner walked home, “his mind was at ease, free from the presentiment of change” (35). The narrator explains to us that Marner is a creature of habit; he is a man “who saw no new people and heard of no new events to keep alive in him the idea of the unexpected and the changeful” (36). Marner’s “ease” of mind is directly related to the fact that he does not anticipate change. I am intrigued by what Eliot is doing here. On the one hand, the novel draws us into Marner’s perception of change as undesirable. As readers we know that change has, in fact, come, and that Marner is right to fear it. On the other hand, we know that seeing “no new people” and hearing “no new events” is an unhealthy lack of change, a position of isolation.
How, then, do we, does Marner, interpret the changes that unfold in the novel, specifically the relational changes that move him away from isolation? When Marner discovers he has been robbed, his equation of change=fear is substantiated. Yet the role of change evolves and unfolds, and I find myself wishing I could see a bit more of Marner’s interior life in order to see his shifting view of change and of the unexpected. I am curious, in particular, about two different instances of relational change in the novel. One is when Dolly comes to deliver cakes to Marner, and we are told that “Silas had inevitably a sense, though a dull and half-despairing one, that if any help came to him it must come from without” (72). The second is right after Marner discovers Eppie in his home, and she inexplicably draws up feelings of his life before Raveloe, in Lantern Yard. Marner gets the feeling that Eppie is “somehow a message come to him from that far-off life,” and her presence stirs “fibres that had never been moved in Raveloe—old quiverings of tenderness—old impressions of awe at the presentiment of some Power presiding over his life” (100).
What does the narrator want us to feel towards Marner as we watch him go through these shifts? Are we meant to celebrate his opening up? Are we meant to critique the townspeople for living with him as a complete unknown for fifteen years, and only coming into his world when he begs for help? And while the situation with Eppie brings up “old quiverings of tenderness” from life before Raveloe, this reference can’t help but makes us think also of Marner’s wrongful accusation and of all that he lost. In Marner’s reactions to both Dolly and Eppie, the narrator gives us just enough of a glimpse into his psychological and emotive responses, showing us reactions that are vague, suggestive, and directed outwards. In the case of Dolly’s visit, the narrator indicates to us that something is shifting in Marner: “he showed no impatience, as he would once have done, at a visit that had been unasked for and unexpected” (72). And on the night of Eppie’s arrival, the narrator gives us a striking parallel, first stating that it was Marner’s loss of consciousness at the door which made him “unaware of any intermediate change” (99), and then going on to describe how Marner tends to Eppie’s needs “almost unconsciously” (100). This parallel of lack of consciousness, described on either side of the enormous change brought on by Eppie’s appearance, is compelling to me.
If we think of these two situations, Dolly’s visit and Eppie’s arrival, through the lens of Hollander’s construction of sympathy vs. hospitality, it seems that Eliot is intentionally complicating what on the surface could appear to be a simple story. I don’t think we can read Silas Marner as a straightforward progression from isolation to community, nor do I think that Marner’s trajectory can be boiled down to a movement from change=fear, to change=necessary, to change=good. Hollander argues that Eliot’s novels before Daniel Deronda display a “theory of sympathy that acknowledges difficulty but still counts as sympathy” (27), and goes on to say that only in that final novel does Eliot “move to an alternative model of ethics as hospitality” (27). But I wonder if perhaps Eliot, in Silas Marner, is giving us a more nuanced look at the distinctions between sympathy and hospitality. It seems that perhaps the relationships between Silas and the townspeople after the robbery is one of sympathy. The people of Raveloe take notice of Marner, for the first time interacting with him beyond the transactional relationship of business. But Marner still seems to be, at least initially, more of an “object” of their sympathy, rather than a “subject” in his own right. With Eppie, however, it seems that from their first meeting, both Silas and Eppie remain distinct subjects; they are unknown, they are change to each other, they are “other” in age, gender, and ability, yet from the beginning they live together in a relationship of care.
Maybe Marner’s embrace of change, manifest in his adoption of Eppie, is due to the mutuality of that relationship. He is a subject to her, not an object of her sympathy (since she is too young for that anyway). They are foreign to each other, yet they form a bond of care almost immediately. I wonder if Eliot wants us to view the change over the course of the novel not so much as the surface-level hermit and miser transforms into active member of society but instead as the reality that truly acknowledging the distinct otherness of another person, honoring his or her uniqueness and individuality, is deeply influential. I still have a lot of questions about what Eliot is trying to do in this novel: Do the townspeople really “see” Marner now? Are we meant to absolve them from their lack of care for Marner over his first fifteen years in Raveloe? Does Marner experience himself as “subject” in relationships other than his one with Eppie (and maybe Dolly)? In the midst of these, I do think that Silas Marner goes beyond being simply a tale of sympathy, and towards offering a suggestion of hospitality as change-maker.