“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.”
“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.