“Some folks ’ud say”: Narrative Scorn at the Sign of the Rainbow

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

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.

 

Godfrey Cass’s Character and His Dealings with Molly Farren

The narrator in Silas Marner offers frequent commentary on Godfrey Cass’s thoughts and actions, while also continuing to portray him in a generally favorable and sympathetic light despite his failures as a father. One area of little direct narratorial commentary, though, is Godfrey’s relationship to his first wife. Godfrey’s thoughts about Molly are almost entirely negative. In her first introduction, Dunsey reveals her substance abuse, referring to her as Godfrey’s “drunken wife” and suggesting that she may one day overdose on laudanum and die (23-24). The narrator explains that Godfrey finds that Molly “became more odious to him every day” (29). In contrast, the narrator offers a more ambivalent depiction of Molly that allows for some sympathy despite an emphasis on her desire for vengeance and the problems of her opium addiction. Eliot’s narrator explains, “It is seldom that the miserable can help regarding their misery as a wrong inflicted by those who are less miserable. Molly knew that the cause of her dingy rags was not her husband’s neglect, but the demon Opium to whom she was enslaved, body and soul, except in the lingering mother’s tenderness that refused to give him her hungry child” (96). Throughout Chapter XII, Molly’s addiction and her desire to care for her child are at odds, and her vindictive nature is portrayed as somewhat justifiable.  She is not an endearing character, but her predicament and pain are portrayed as deserving of sympathy.

The narrator gives readers an interpretation of Molly that complicates the Cass brothers’ earlier narratives. How does the narrator’s reading of Molly shape readers’ interpretations of Godfrey Cass? He shows little to no sympathy for Molly, while the narration implies that the readers should. What of his responsibility to his wife? This question receives little direct attention from the narrator, but the narrator’s sympathetic portrayal of Molly gives cause for further analysis of Godfrey’s shortcomings as a husband to a woman suffering from addiction. Additionally, the few references to her after her death suggest varying levels of expected responsibility and varying levels of regret for the way Godfrey handled the situation.

It is Nancy Lammeter Cass who notes that the facts of the marriage between Godfrey and Molly and Molly’s death might be problematic when she tells Godfrey that the revelation of his paternity should happen over time “because she felt strongly the painful light in which Eppie must inevitably see the relation between her father and mother” (148). Though the specific reasons are not directly stated, the passage may imply that Eppie will recognize that her father’s absence and the circumstances of her mother’s death indicate an unhappy and loveless marriage. The Cass family sees this as undesirable because they want Eppie to join their family and a negative view of Godfrey’s behavior toward her mother could ruin their chances of parenthood. However, nothing in this passage directly suggests that Godfrey should have acted differently toward Molly.

When the narrator gives readers insight into Godfrey’s thoughts concerning the situation, he seldom considers his duties to his deceased wife and only focuses on how he can act honorably toward his child without revealing the undesirable marriage. His desire to marry Nancy is not seen as a dishonorable one, even though he is already married. The option of marital reconciliation with Molly is not suggested as a possibility and the question is only whether or not Molly will die soon enough for him to marry Nancy. Molly receives no sympathy from him and only serves as a complication. As he journeys toward the Stone-pits, he fears that she is actually alive. As he considers how he will act in either situation, the narrator notes, “Deeper down, and half-smothered by passionate desire and dread, there was the sense that he ought not to be waiting on these alternatives; that he ought to accept the consequences of his deeds, own the miserable wife, and fulfil the claims of the helpless child” and that he feels guilt that he feels compelled to take the irresponsible course (105). His main concern is his convenience and happiness, and the narrator makes his selfish reasons for his behavior apparent. Additionally, his sense of responsibility for Eppie seems entirely divorced of a sense of responsibility to Molly.

One moment does indicate a possible sense of responsibility to Molly, and though he does not fulfill his duty to her, as evidenced by her “pauper’s burial” and “unwept death,” he experiences some guilt (108). The description of Godfrey’s memory of viewing Molly’s body indicates the haunting that comes with regret: “He cast only one glance at the dead face on the pillow, which Dolly had smoothed with decent care; but he remembered that last look at his unhappy hated wife so well, that at the end of sixteen years every line in the worn face was present to him when he told the full story of this night” (105-106). This scene indicates no love for Molly, but at least the circumstances of her death have troubled him for as long as he kept the secret from others. In this passage, it seems that when he tells Nancy that Eppie is his daughter, he cannot forget Molly, which indicates some feeling of responsibility or regret.

From the passages relating to Godfrey’s relationship to his first wife and their child, the narrator reveals Godfrey’s flaws as father without making much of his flaws as a husband to his first wife. Yet, through the sympathetic portrayal of Molly, readers can determine that perhaps Godfrey was also not fair to her. The description of his final glance at his dead wife raises questions about the extent to which he felt responsibility for his wife, despite his repeated neglect. The text does not directly hold him responsible for what happened to Molly and does not directly fault him for his handling of his first marriage, but the few passages that refer to Molly do leave further questions about Godfrey’s character and the extent to which his actions towards his first wife should complicate his otherwise good nature.

Eliot, George. Silas Marner. Edited by Juliette Atkinson, Oxford UP, 2017.

Questions about Glue

While George Elliot’s Silas Marner is running to the Rainbow  to report his missing gold to that august community, Mr. Macey is soliloquizing on the problem of language and meaning.  He describes how, at Mr. Lammeter’s January wedding, the parson had warmed himself with a bit of brandy and “when he come to put the questions, he put ‘em by the rule o’ contrairy, like, and he says, ‘Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded wife?’ says he, and then he says, ‘Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded husband?’ says he” (Loc 857.)  No one noticed, however, and the two still said “yes” as if nothing were odd about it.  But poor Mr. Macey was like a “coat pulled by the two tails, like” (Loc. 863).  And from this distress we receive the following observations:

“‘Is’t the meaning or the words as makes folks fast I’ wedlock?’ For the parson meant right, and the bride and bridegroom meant right. But then when I come to think on it, meanin goes but a little ways in most things, for you may mean to stick something together and your glue may be bad, and then where are you? And so I says to mysen, ‘It isn’t the meanin’, it’s the glue’” (Loc 866).

Basically, Mr Macey is asking how it is that sentences do what they do, and what is the glue that sticks a sentence to its action.  Nor is he the only one concerned with this problem in this novel, yet looking at all the instances of language accomplishing or not accomplishing it’s goal (the lies at Lantern Yard, the neighbors comforting Marner, the Cass’ attempt to retrieve Eppie etc.) simply breeds confusion. Sometimes language works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

But the parson provides a solution to Mr. Macy’s original question; “It’s neither the meaning nor the words – it’s the regester does it – that’s the glue” (Loc. 871) that sticks the married couple together.  In the case of marriages, “the regester” is the glue or the thing that accomplishes the aciton

But what is the “regester”?  It could mean two things.  It’s probably the signing of the church register that actually makes a marriage.  If this is the case, it provides interesting implications for the way in which language acts.  Is Elliot suggesting that written language is more powerful than spoken language?  Is it more powerful in this case because it is in a book?  What does that mean for the book that we are currently reading?

But it could also mean the “register” of the voice.  In this case it would mean the intonation and the context and the “thee and thou” language that makes the vow effective.  Again, though, this boils down to similar questions as the first meaning – sentences become effective by means of their context – whether it’s in a particular tone in front of a church, or written in a particular book.  Language’s effectiveness depends on it’s situation.

Granted, Elliot may not be of the same opinion as her parson.  But the implications for the situation of the sentences of the book she has given her reader is still fascinating.  We have already discussed Elliot’s opinion that novels should make us feel as we ought about our nearest neighbors, so we can be fairly certain that she expects the language of this novel to accomplish a particular task. That this conversation should take place just as Marner is on his way to bind himself to his neighbors because of his trouble is a little too intentional to be overlooked.  Perhaps Elliot hopes that the sentences of this novel should also bind us to our neighbors, and if it does this through the situation and context of the language, then perhaps we should be noticing how language works in particular locations and situations in the novel. Of special interest is the contrast between the lies of Lantern Yard (representing a dim, brief, human-formed light)  and “in the Rainbow yard” (representing a colorful, divine, promising light) which offers its congratulations to the newly married couple at the end of the novel.

“Light enough to trusten by”

God did not, as the Bible says, make man in His image; on the contrary man, as I have shown in The Essence of Christianity, made God in his image.”  ― Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion

Less than a decade before writing Silas Marner, George Eliot began the arduous task of translating Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity into English. In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach claims that God is merely an idea created by man, a projection of man’s nature. While Eliot never states these ideas explicitly in the novel, pieces of this philosophy are evident in Marner’s relationship with religion.

In the first chapter, we are introduced to Marner as a pious young man, actively involved in the community of Lantern Yard. When he is falsely accused of a crime, Marner insists that he is innocent and that God will save him. However, his God and, perhaps more importantly, his friends and community let him down. Silas loses his faith and begins a life of isolation in Raveloe.

At this point, Marner has two faiths—a faith in God and a faith in man. Both of these are shaken after his realization of his friend’s betrayal and his false conviction from the casting of lots. The narrator states, “Poor Marner went out with that despair in his soul—that shaken trust in God and man, which is little short of madness to a loving nature” (Eliot 14). These deep feelings of betrayal and injustice cause Marner to forsake all forms of religion because for him, “the form and the feeling [of religion] have never been severed by an act of reflection” (Eliot 14). Later, when Dolly Winthrop encourages Marner to go to church, Marner cannot summon any religious feeling and sees no use in participating in what he sees as meaningless forms. He has been disappointed by God and humanity.

It is only when Marner’s faith in humanity is restored that he is capable again of having religious faith. Through Eppie, he is able to become part of a community again, and his love for her teaches him of a greater love. Though he doesn’t fully understand the significance, he is even willing to participate in the ceremony of baptism out of love for Eppie. Now his religion is inextricably tied to his love of people.

It seems that this concept of religion is the one that lasts, in Eliot’s view. Toward the end of the novel, Marner goes back to visit his old town and finds that the chapel has been replaced by a factory, and he cannot get closure for the events of his past. Dolly commiserates with him, telling him that there are many things that people like them will remain in the dark about. But, Marner responds, “‘No; that doesn’t hinder. Since the time the child was sent to me and Ive come to love her as myself, I’ve had light enough to trusten by; and now she says she’ll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die’” (Eliot 179-80). His trust in Eppie allows him to trust in a sort of divine providence. And this faith, unlike his previous faith, is one that will last.

Silas Marner and the Limitations of Experiential Knowledge

The peaceful ending of Silas Marner, and the weaver’s ardent declaration that “I think I shall trusten till I die” seem tidy, neat, redemptive. However, I can’t help but feel/think that something is missing. I feel unsatisfied, and I think that George Eliot has intentionally left some loose ends. We are not meant to feel comfortable with Silas’s ultimate “redemption” because his closing affirmation highlights a textual problem: the uncertainty of experiential knowledge and the limits of experience.

The “Christianity” in this novel (as a few of my colleagues have pointed out) is inherently unsatisfying. If (as Megan says) Eliot’s “Christianity” is an excuse for easy endings and problematic moral platitudes, or (as Mackenzie says) Silas is redeemed not by Christianity at all, but by community– we still run up against the same problem. The knowledge and trust of Marner and the other characters in Eliot’s novel is based entirely on feeling and experience, with no basis in reason or understanding of the faith they blindly affirm.

For Christians and non-Christians alike, Silas’s last affirmation of faith should be troubling because it is faith without basis. At the beginning of the novel, Silas’s past faith has been shattered by his experience (being cast out), so that “Nobody in this world but himself knew that he was the same Silas Marner who had once loved his fellow with tender love, and trusted in an unseen goodness. Even to himself that past experience had become dim” (86). The community that he shared in his former chapel no longer shapes his beliefs; thus, experience of people’s irrational, unjust, and contradictory actions is enough to destroy his moral core.

When Silas becomes a part of the Raveloe church, it is almost as if he has converted to an entirely different religion: “He was quite unable, by means of anything he heard or saw, to identify the Raveloe religion with his old faith; if he could at any time in his previous life… it must have been by the aid of a strong feeling… rather than by a comparison of phrases and ideas” (125). The religion of Raveloe looks so different to Silas because his perception of religion is based on his differing experiences of the people in Raveloe. He has not looked into the religion itself; he instead places his trust in the good faith of the people around him, creating a dangerous, blind “groupthink” effect. Nobody is actually able to say what the community of Raveloe believes, beyond a general morality and the trappings of religion (christening, going to church regularly, etc).

The theft of Silas’s gold perhaps mirrors the first theft of Silas’s faith. He does not lock his doors against Dunstan Cass because “the sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction” (41). Silas is secure in his first community because it is habit. Likewise, as soon as he is “secure” in the habit of community again in Raveloe, he does not concern himself about what– or who– exactly he is trusting. Rather, he has a “feeling”: “There’s good i’ this world– I’ve a feeling o’ that now; and it makes a man feel as there’s a good more nor he can see, i’ spite o’ the trouble and the wickedness” (145). His trust is not based on revealed knowledge of God, God’s actions, or God’s character– things just “seem to work out” and so (of course) he feels like there must be a god of some sort who wants what’s best in the long run. This affirmation reminds one (uncomfortably so) of Candide’s “best of all possible worlds” philosophy. And this belief is closer to Moral Therapeutic Deism than Christianity.

Who’s to say that Silas’s experience, his “redemption,” will be permanent? Silas’s final affirmation (“Now she says she’ll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die”) has a dangerous condition: it depends on the continuation of his present experience, just like his blind trust did in his previous community. What happens if Eppie dies young of a brutal illness? What happens if the fickle townspeople decide to cast Silas out of community again? Silas even admits, “if I lost you, Eppie[,] I might come to think I was forsaken again, and lose the feeling that God was good to me” (166). The novel ends before this happens, of course, but is Silas’s “redemption” a “happy ending” after all? Can any ending be happy when faith rests on such shaky ground?

Perhaps this question is what Eliot wants us to wrestle with.

Fits of an Other

This was my second time reading Eliot’s Silas Marner, though, regrettably, I can’t remember my first impressions of it. It would have been interesting to compare my thirteen year-old self’s encounter with the short novel/folk tale/fable with my reading as a graduate student familiar with George Eliot’s background (and gender!) and other work. I’d imagine my middle-school self, fan of Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, quite enjoyed this charming tale of the rejected old man plagued by a course of events set against him and redeemed by the love of an adopted daughter. Over ten years later, pinning down my reaction is not quite as easy. One shaping influence of my reading is the theme of our previous Victorian prose course, “the stranger.” Eliot depicts Silas Marner as the clearest of strangers—first rejected by his own community of Lantern Yard, and then unaccepted by those of Raveloe. From the opening chapter where Eliot (quite heavy-handedly) depicts the social landscape facing an outsider, Marner is presented as an Other that—until the last third of the novel—cannot find a home. I’d like to consider how Eliot chooses to depict this otherness, namely through Marner’s “fits.” Also referred to “catalepsy” several times in the novel, this ailment of Marner’s seems to be an intriguing overlap of emotional, social, spiritual, and physical impairment.

Our first introduction to his affliction serves as our introduction to his character through the eyes of the Raveloe community. Jem Rodney, the mole-catcher, comes across Silas in a fit—stiff and seemingly dead, and yet standing upright—which the man then comes out of quite casually, saying goodnight and walking away. The community’s opinion of this—as voiced through Mr. Macey, clerk of the parish—is that Silas is an abnormality, an Other. Indeed, Mr. Macey initially rejects a physical explanation, speaking in all of his wisdom that “a fit was a stroke, wasn’t it?” but “no stroke would let a man stand on his legs, like a horse between shafts, and then walk off” (8). But then he seems to conflate it with a spiritual origin. He wonders if Marner’s soul had separated from his body, giving as support for this spiritual explanation his doubts as to where “Master Marner [got] his knowledge of herbs from.” Puzzlingly, even as this hints at a dark, spiritual origin, at the same time it turns attention back to the physical nature of his fits. Marner is known for healing the townspeople—even as they distrust him for it, and thus Eliot offers an interesting interpretation/critique of the overlap between the spiritual and physical. She seems to ask readers to consider in this othering of Marner the space between the two occupied by the medical field of the time (which is interesting to set alongside her concern for the political aspects to the field as depicted in Middlemarch).

The potential spiritual component to his ailment is further emphasized as Eliot reveals that Marner’s initial ostracization stems from a fit in church, “ a mysterious rigidity and suspension of consciousness, which, lasting for an hour or more, had been mistaken for death” (9). This description closely aligns with the traditional view of the illness catalepsy (often used in horror tales of Poe and like to induce fear at the prospect of being buried alive, Re: “The Fall of the House of Usher”). Indeed, Eliot labels it as such a few paragraphs later. And yet, the narrator emphasizes the anti-medical stance of both Marner and the minister, again highlighting a tension between in the medical field between the physical and spiritual. Marner views the knowledge of “medicinal herbs and their preparation” with apprehension, “believing that herbs could have no efficacy without prayer, and that prayer might suffice without herbs” (10).

And yet, one cannot neglect the social and emotion component to Marner’s ailment as well. These fits clearly alienate Marner from both communities. Dane capitalizes on the people’s distrust of this othering illness to cast suspicion on his ‘friend’ for stealing the gold, ultimately ousting him and stealing his fiancé. Further, Marner’s own emotional state (and thus our understanding of this character) also seems closely connected to these episodes, as he has fits in his distress following the loss of his own gold. Clearly I haven’t the space to fully develop this overlap of social, emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects of Marner’s affliction, as well as its function within the novel and its social critique, but I will end this by returning again to the overall theme of the stranger. The plight of the Other is a clear concern of the novel, and I believe considering the manifold elements to Marner’s “fits” in light of this offers an interesting interpretation worth further unpacking.

The Things We Can’t Know…

In reading Silas Marner, I was struck by how many of the characters are hesitant to claim that they fully understand even their own situations; it is as if they can’t comprehend their own realities. At the end of the narrative, when Godfrey’s long-buried secrets are finally revealed, Nancy and Godfrey are especially careful in claiming authority in knowing about their own situation. When Godfrey looks upon Nancy (before telling her his awful secret), he “turned toward her with a strange unanswering glance, as if he saw her indeed, but saw her as a scene invisible to herself” (221). He sees her as if she cannot see herself, as if she is not even present for this discussion. Here Godfrey tries to imagine her reaction to the news; though they have been married for over a decade, she looks at her without being certain of what she will say and do. He is “unequal to the considerate skill” with which he wants to speak, but the reality of the situation itself—the fact of what has happened and what will happened—it is so far beyond his comprehension that he cannot envision what to tell her will look like (221). True, he is thinking about a future event, but throughout the scene, he seems incapable of absorbing the his own “realism,” like life itself is beyond what he can take in.

Godfrey’s character here presents a simplified version of what I admire most about Eliot’s writing of people and the realism she depicts. Her characters sometimes stop to imagine (alongside her more explicit narrator) that they have only glimpses of their own lives—ultimately, life itself is beyond their own understanding. This ties in directly with how George Levine explains Eliot’s understanding of her own vocation:

Getting it right was for her no simple matter of recording external fact precisely, but of making herself capable of the most complete possible honesty by opening her mind and feelings to the otherness of things and people […] The point is not that she always succeeded, but that for her realism was a vocation. (9)

I try to imagine the way Eliot thought, and in reading her letters this week I was struck by how she approaches the “facts” of knowing things, how seldom she claims to know anything for certain. It is as if “realism” for Eliot includes unknowing, or living in a haze, even if it develops at points.

Interestingly, after Godfrey’s revelation in the previous passage, Nancy also admits that they cannot know the whole of situation. She knows situations more intuitively than her husband (as women as wont to in Victorian novels, it seems). She also pauses to take in the reality of what has happened and to reflect: “she was pale and quiet as a meditative statue, clasping her hands on her lap” (223). But all of these stages do not ward off the uncertainty of what might have been and what they might be missing out on: “our life might have been more like what we used to think it ‘ud be” (224). She explains that “Nothing is so good as it seems beforehand,” as if the world has shifted slightly and left her with a “faint sad smile” (225). They courageously go to Silas Marners to try to do their “duty,” but it is not because they understand their own lives entirely. To me this chapter exemplifies an important part of Eliot’s realism: characters do not seem to understand themselves or their own situations entirely, let alone each other. Their duties and sympathies include this “unknowing,” as if it is part of being human.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Redeeming Raveloe

Although, as I argued last week, Eliot manages to accurately present the socioeconomical Other (if not the national Other) in Middlemarch (1874), she seems to deviate entirely from her intended purpose in her 1861 novel Silas Marner. This book was published a mere five years after her essay “The Natural History of German Life,” in which she suggests that “Art is the nearest thing to life” and that, as such, the artist has a special responsibility to present the Other accurately (110). However, Eliot seems to have entirely forgotten that responsibility in writing Silas Marner. The novel’s idealized portrait of working-class life seems much more like that found in the “social novels” which “profess to represent the people as they are” but whose “unreali[stic] … representations [are] a great evil” than that found in the true, near-to-life works that Eliot supports in her essay (110).

Though it may seem that Eliot has thus deviated from her theory of art in Silas Marner, knowing the little that I do about Eliot’s convictions about reality and art, I am led to question whether or not this reading is accurate. Is Eliot really deviating from the purpose of the social novel in Silas Marner? Or is she perhaps attempting to create not a social novel but something else entirely?

I think the key to answering this question lies in the transformation that comes over Silas when Eppie first appears on his hearth. Though he was before consumed in his gold, worshipping it “in close-locked solitude” away from the community of Raveloe, after that gold has been replaced by the human child Silas becomes a part of the community that he before rejected (125). At the beginning of a lengthy passage contrasting the death-like condition in which Silas had lived when his object was lifeless gold to the very-much-alive condition into which he is forced when his object is the human child, the narrator explains, “the child created fresh and fresh links between his life and the lives from which he had hitherto shrunk continually into narrower isolation” (125). Thus, Eppie draws Silas out of himself and into community with the people of Raveloe, bringing him salvation through that community.

At the end of the chapter explaining the transformation that came over Silas after he adopts Eppie, the narrator parallels that transformation with the results of angelic intervention of the “old days” (131). She writes, “We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads then forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s” (131).

It is in this passage that I find an answer to the question of why Eliot deviates from her criteria of art as nearness to life. In paralleling the power of human community with biblical divine intervention (Eliot nods at the story of Lot’s escape from Sodom and Gomorrah in this particular passage), Eliot suggests the former as a replacement for the latter. That is, she proposes that though the Bible may no longer be a source of salvation, community is a valid replacement for the rejected narrative. Salvation is found no longer found in Christ, but in community.

Because this appears to be the purpose of Eliot’s novel, I suggest that she is in this particular case not attempting to paint an accurate picture of life. She has temporarily laid aside her intention of creating art that is near to life in order to offer a narrative to replace that of the Bible. Rather than showing the people of the working class as they are, she is instead showing them as they ought to be in order to fulfill their salvific role. Though she is in the process (inaccurately) illustrating the working class, I think that she would perhaps count the people of Raveloe with the “Opera peasants” who “are surely too frank an idealization to be misleading” (“Natural” 110). The people of Raveloe are meant not to show life as it is, but life as it ought to be: a journey “towards a calm and bright land” made hand in hand with those of the community in which one lives (Silas 131).

 

 

Works Cited

Eliot, George. “The Natural History of German Life.” 1856. George Eliot: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings. Ed. A. S. Byatt. New York: Penguin, 1990. 107-139. Print.

—. Silas Marner. 1861. Ed. David Carroll. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print.