Silas Marner: The Novel of Gentle Fetishism

The heap of gold seemed to glow and get larger beneath his agitated gaze. He leaned forward at last, and stretched forth his hand; but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered soft, warm curls.” 

Silas Marner

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“The gods of the hearth exist for us still; and let all new faith be tolerant of that fetishism, lest it bruise its own roots.”

“Fetishism” was an interesting choice of words for Eliot, I thought. As I read Silas Marner I realized that what the novel really concerns itself with is not, perhaps, obsession, but fetishism, or even addiction.

Marner spends every evening poring over his gold. Dunsey spends his energy hurting others, actively thinking — as not many villains do so explicitly– how best to harm others, even without anticipated gain for self. Godfrey’s time and energy spends itself in regret, wondering how he came to be married to the poor Molly, who is attached to the novel’s most damaging addiction — opium. And lastly, even Eliot’s novel is the unwinding of a fetish, a drawing of the pastoral, the pure, and the redeemed.

Eliot’s own fetish is highlighted most when she typifies her pastoral women. Nancy, Dolly, and Eppie are all of the same strain; pure and blushing without false coquetry, lively and intelligent, though uneducated, loyal, maternal, and child-like. The men are similar as well, though they differ greatly in age; men are seen less in appearance than they are in shared concerns of the outside world and economy. Men share the burden of provision for self and others, of mistaken trust and betrayal, of a carnal knowledge of the world that robs men of a natural gaiety and purity that must be restored by the feminine.

In this way Eliot’s novelistic youthfulness emerges, though the prose and characters are unique and enjoyable enough to justify its success. Silas Marner is not the novel to delve deeply into the flaws of its hero; Marner’s love of gold is the pitiable result of a disappointed life. The opium addict, a woman who nearly murders her child through her own neglect and obsession, is given an entire chapter of Eliot’s kindness. Eliot, in Silas Marner, resembles Dickens’ later work in many ways. It features a brief, fairly thorough sketch of a character whose core being, whether good or evil, is sustained throughout the novel, with foibles rather than the deep flaws one finds in the people Eliot later writes.

The phrase I wrote earlier — and then reconsidered — was “gentle fetishism.” And, perhaps, that’s the only fetishism of which we can accuse dear Eliot, her lively and uneducated women, and her sad, worried men.

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.