Thursday, April 26, 2018

Some Thoughts on George Eliot's Silas Marner

As a young man, Silas Marner was betrayed and ostracized, leaving him with deep psychic wounds. His consciousness of the world narrows to a routine of weaving and lovingly counting a small but growing horde of money. From anything connected to the past,
... his life had shrunk away, like a rivulet that has sunk far down from the grassy fringe of its old breadth into a little shivering thread, that cuts a groove for itself in the barren sand.
The money serves as a beloved object and safe, if very poor, substitute for a connection to other people. Regarding Marner's work as a weaver, Eliot writes:
Every man's work, pursued steadily, tends in this way to become an end in itself, and so to bridge over the loveless chasms of his life.
Without love, you often see obsessive behaviors, addictions, and compulsions take root.

Marner's life and heart expand again after he adopts a child whose mother he has found dead near his home. (The immediate environs of Marner's home are depicted as a place where death is near, especially in the dark, underscoring his vulnerability but also making him reminiscent of a Hades-like figure with his horde of precious metal.)

Even though it's a shorter novel (compared to Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda) and tells a relatively straightforward story, there's a lot of richness in Silas Marner.

Marner's love for his adopted daughter, Eppie, is written with sensitivity and insight into some of the differences between love and possessiveness. There was a danger of Marner seeing Eppie as more or less a substitute for the gold and not a person in her own right. However, he doesn't hide her from the world and keep her from forming relationships with other people. He seeks out advice on how to raise her, and he makes sure she can fit in comfortably at Raveloe, the village where he's lived on the outskirts for years as a reclusive and suspicious figure. He wants what's best for her and at one critical moment allows her to make a decision that might very well lead to her leaving him; he gives her this choice, because he doesn't want to stand in her way of making the best decision for herself. To love someone is to want to see them truly flourish, even at a keen personal cost.

Marner also refuses to use any method of discipline that would cause Eppie physical pain or fear. In other novels, especially of Eliot's time period, the author would probably have made the point of showing the child spoiled as a result. Here, there's no such thing. Eppie grows up loved and able to feel love and devotion. There's no room for harshness in love, and love is a refuge from a harsh world.

Events seem to conclude tidily in this book, with an unseen force of justice at work. Marner loses everything only to gain everything that's meaningful to him. A robber of gold meets a certain end, and Eppie's biological father has a bittersweet fate. But even in this straightforward narrative, the question of 'why' surfaces - why this outcome and not another? Eppie, for instance, is the product of a union that's deeply regretted by the man and woman in it, and yet she carries no taint of that rancor. She lives a good life, experiencing joy and bringing it to others. How did this come to be? Was it thanks to some mix of Marner's parenting and her own nature? Had people known of Eppie's parentage when she was first discovered as a toddler, in what ways would she have turned out differently? Would people's preconceptions and rigid social codes have thwarted her chances of growing up happy?

Dolly Winthrop, a local woman who becomes Eppie's godmother, is Marner's friend and advisor in how to raise a child. They have discussions about how to make sense of life. Dolly trusts to faith and is comfortable with the idea that certain things are beyond understanding and control. She deals capably with the practicalities of birth, death, child-raising, and other aspects of life and doesn't spend much time considering the 'why' of it all. Because even as the 'why' persists, life continues to unfold, whether one is ready to face it or not.

With his gold, Marner feels a false sense of control. He keeps the gold hidden, and it comes out to be counted when he wills it to. Once he adopts a daughter, he regains the ability to give power to other people and to larger forces. His happiness rests with Eppie, and Eppie's well-being is tied to their acceptance into a larger community. He can't make sense of the 'why' of his life, but he can finally belong to something larger again and not live with the sharpness and hollowness of his solitude, in which no questions were answered anyway.

This novel probes at the difficulties or limitations of reasoning about one's life and its chain of events. But it's not as if Eliot endorses a lack of reasoning abilities. She even makes wry observations about the way the Raveloe locals think:
Justice Malam was naturally regarded in Tarley and Raveloe as a man of capacious mind, seeing that he could draw much wider conclusions without evidence than could be expected of his neighbours who were not on the Commission of the Peace.
Just a final observation - I like how Eliot explores the way a particular environment can imprint itself on people's character. One of the reasons Marner stays distant from people when he moves to Raveloe is that the local area is so different from where he used to live. It's a sedate corner of the country, blessed with an abundance of food and natural lushness. The people move in the same circles for decades, repeat conversations comfortably, and are content with materialism. Church is more a matter of form than fiery conviction. It's a sluggish place, a quality reflected in the rhythm of people's lives and the pattern of their thoughts.

Similarly, people's jobs and the possessions they value can get imprinted on their psyche, as with Marner and his weaving:
The light of his faith quite put out, and his affections made desolate, he had clung with all the force of his nature to his work and his money; and like all objects to which a man devotes himself, they had fashioned him into correspondence with themselves. His loom, as he wrought in it without ceasing, had in its turn wrought on him, and confirmed more and more the monotonous craving for its monotonous response. His gold, as he hung over it and saw it grow, gathered his power of loving together into a hard isolation like its own.
We develop intense relationships with other people and with the surrounding world, its activities, and objects. Eliot explores the nature of these relationships and their effects on character.

I read this for the Classics Club Challenge.