Silas Marner: A Study of Transition
Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe was first published by George Eliot in 1861. For most critics, it stands apart from her other novels in the perceived thinness of its characterizations, the arbitrariness of its plot (which often partakes of the miraculous), and the simplicity of its conclusions. Many have called it her "moral fable." However, it is precisely because of the bare, allegorical nature of the novel that the relationships of plot, character, and symbolism can most easily be discerned. For the story is by no means a fantasy, but a compact and serious work, wherein the issues of class, industrialization, and religion are realistically addressed in the context of the author's time through a series of contradictory parallels. Through both the structure and content of the novel, Eliot' refutes the common belief of the latter 19th century (held most strenuously by many of the upper classes) that membership in the upper classes indicated moral superiority, makes the implicit argument that industrialization dehumanizes and alienates workers, and suggests a "religion of humanity" founded on community as a substitute for the failure of organized religion.
The novel's main body of action takes place at the turn of the 19th century in the English rural community of Raveloe. However, the story goes back briefly to the 1780's to fill in the reasons Silas Marner moves to the provincial, isolated community, located in the English Midlands, from an industrial town in the north. Thus, the novel is set during what Marx identified as the time of transition from a feudal system of industry, with artisan guilds, to a manufacturing system (Elster's Karl Marx Reader, pg. 226). One learns Silas is a weaver and has been since a young man. A weaver at this time is an independent artisan who either works for himself and carries his spinning wheel and supplies on his back, if traveling from town to town, or who works in conjunction with other weavers, if settled in a stable community, and works often as a combination of the two. While living in this industrial town, he was also a highly thought of member of a little Dissenting church, (the word Dissent is used to describe the many fundamentalist, Protestant groups that sprung up in the18th and 19th centuries that opposed, for various reasons, the state-sanctioned Anglican Church of England). Silas was engaged to be married to a female member of the church and thought his future happiness assured. However, due to the betrayal of a fellow parishioner, who blamed him for a theft he did not commit, Silas was expelled from the congregation and he finds out later that his former fiancee married the man who had betrayed him.
Bereft and disillusioned, Silas comes to Raveloe and settles, though for fifteen years he has as little as possible to do with the community. His lonely exclusion from any community contributes to an obsession with money, and as the years progress, he amasses a horde that is his only pleasure. However, at the commencement of the story, he is robbed by a son of Squire Cass, the town's leading land owner (though Silas doesn't know the identity of the robber), and Silas' despair precipitates him into seeking help from the villagers. This begins a slow reintegration into society for Silas that is accelerated by his finding an apparently abandoned infant girl at his door a few weeks later. The readers know, however, that the child is the unacknowledged daughter of another of the Squire's sons, who keeps his marriage a secret because the child's mother is of a lower class and is an opium addict. When Silas decides to keep the child, Godfrey Cass, the child's real father, recognizes her as his own, but does not acknowledge her because the mother's unexpected death then frees him to marry a prominent young woman of his own class.
The story then jumps to around 1815, when the girl, Eppie, is grown and about to marry. Godfrey Cass has married the girl of his choice but their marriage is childless. In the meantime, Godfrey's brother, who stole Silas' money, and who has been missing since the theft, is found dead at the bottom of a local swamp when it is drained and Silas' money is recovered. Finally, in an attempt to rectify his "moral misjudgements," Godfrey Cass goes to Silas and Eppie and admits he is Eppie's father and offers her his home and affection, as well as the advantages of his class. Eppie, however, rejects him in favor of the father who raised her and the novel ends with Eppie's marriage to a local boy of the working class.
The most prominent structural feature of the novel is its dual story line. Silas' story, his loss of humanity and faith and his gradual recovery, is kept entirely separate from the relating of Godfrey Cass' story, i.e. his secret marriage, second marriage, etc., until the climax of the novel when Eppie must choose between the father who reared her and her biological father. Not only do the dual story lines structurally mirror class divisions, but Eppie's choice between Silas Marner and Godfrey Cass at the conclusion symbolizes a moral choice between the values purveyed by each.
Another formal device to stir sympathy for the peasantry is the fact that the gentry are not even introduced until well into the story, leading the reader to identify with Silas and those of his own class first. In addition, the working class/peasantry, the title character of Marner being the most prominent, are portrayed in a favorable light, whereas the landed gentry are unanimously cast unsympathetically. Squire Cass is shown to be typical of his class in his "extravagant habits and bad husbandry" (pg. 71), and his only comment on public affairs is that he hopes the war with France (the Napoleonic Wars) continues because he is making money due to the resultant high prices (pg. 121), indicating his concern with profits rather than with his fighting countrymen . One of his sons, Dunstan, is characterized as having a "...taste for swopping and betting" (pg. 72), as well as being unusually cruel. Of course, Dunstan is the son who steals Silas' money for gambling purposes, and though Godfrey is said to be the most upright of the Squire's sons, he is tellingly summed-up in the statement, "His natural irresolution and moral cowardice were exaggerated by a position in which dreaded consequences seemed to press equally on all sides..." (pg. 77).
The picture that emerges of this leading family of the community is one of laziness, waste, and moral bankruptcy. It is also significant that the author does not allow these characters to go unpunished. Dunstan drowns in the swamp immediately following his theft, and Godfrey pays the price of childlessness in his marriage for refusing to acknowledge Eppie as his daughter. In contrast, the portrayal of the working class is extremely sympathetic. Silas is portrayed as a quiet, unassuming man with a "loving nature" (pg. 61), and the other prominent villagers, like Dolly Winthrop and Mr. Macey, are highlighted by the charity and fellowship they extend to Silas and Eppie, and to others of the community in need. Because Silas chooses to adopt Eppie, when her own father, Godfrey, does not, Silas is rewarded by love and community support, and the recovery of his gold. Eppie's final choice to stay with Silas and marry someone of her own class is the final, ironical statement of the greater morality of the working class and is a simultaneous rejection of the bourgeous passion to rise socially. In her treatment of class in this novel, George Eliot decisively refutes the assumption that morality is related in any way to class, whether in the form of the common and long-held belief that "noble" blood meant noble character or expressed in the attempts of some to use Darwin's recently published theories in a social context to justify class distinctions. This novel makes clear that the only distinctions between classes are economic and there is no moral justification for such divisions.
The second set of parallel but opposing worlds dealt with in the novel is that between the growing industrial urban centers of the early 19th century and the relatively untouched rural, agrarian communities. Though Silas is"self-employed," professional weaving was a product of the growing, mass industrialization of textiles as opposed to former, local production. As Marx contends, (Elster, pg. 37), the very professionalizing of an activity, the commodification of what had formerly been a craft, creates alienation. To the people of Raveloe, professional weaving was an alien way of working, producing "pallid, undersized men who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race" (pg. 51). The novel shows an understanding of how mechanization imposes on the worker in that Silas is described as working in his loom, not on it, which eventually turns him into a component of the machine, "so that he had the same sort of impression as a handle or crooked tube, which has no meaning standing apart" (pg. 69). The years of weaving have given his body a "bent treadmill attitude" and have ruined his eyesight. His appearance of physical deformity generates suspicion in the people of Raveloe who recognize the difference between mechanical aids and mechanized industry. The rhythms of their machinery are more natural, "the cheerful trotting of the winnowing machine and the simple rhythm of the flail," (pg. 52), and do not impose on the worker. The machinery is their servant. This comparison clearly highlights the dehumanization of machine toil. Silas no longer looks "human" because of the kind of work he does.
The final opposition posed in the novel, which ties in with the theme of Marner's loss and recovery of a sense of human community, is that between a narrow, religious sect of town-dwelling Dissenters, and the pagan, superstitious, but more honest religion of neighborliness in Raveloe. Though Raveloe's citizens belong to the Anglican Church, they do not practice any type of dogmatic Christianity. In fact, they are shown to be ignorant of the meaning of common Church rituals and rely on old-fashioned common-sense and a community spirit to guide them in their moral decisions. Yet this basic "religion of humanity" proves to be more beneficial than the pettiness of the urban sect's dogmatic strictures. The fact that the sect wrongly convict Silas of a theft shows they are not guided by compassion, understanding, or forgiveness. The process of dehumanization begun through his alienating form of work is completed when Silas is cast out from this narrow community. In contrast, the secular neighborliness shown by the people of Raveloe is proven a truer spirituality in the end. Through Eppie, Silas is reconnected to the community because of the townspeople's committment to help him raise her "rightly." The standard of the countryside is closely founded on a communal mentality peculiar to a rural way of life where cooperation, rather than competition, is fostered. Mutual helpfulness is necessary for survival and because of freedom from doctrine, these spontaneous expressions of community are exactly the type of atmosphere that is able to restore Silas to human society. In this juxtaposition, Eliot demonstrates the ineffectuality of organized religion in contrast to simple, human sympathy which transcends all religions.
Silas Marner focuses on 19th century England as a time of transition: political power moved from a dominant landowner class to a dominant bourgeous class, agrarian economies were replaced by urban industrialization, and Christianity became increasingly diluted and secular. All of these transitions were largely complete by the end of the century, yet many like George Eliot recognized that much was being lost. The fact that Silas must leave the city and the growing fanaticism of religious frenzy and physically return to a rural, older way of life to maintain his humanity indicates that the pace of transition, and the modes of transition, were extremely harmful for many. However, the fact that Silas is permanently deformed foretells that industrialization would be an increasingly deforming fact of life.
The novel is realistic in the Marxist sense in that it not only demonstrates the alienating effects of industrialization and urban life along with the fanatical religious groups they spawn, and points out the immorality of the petty bourgeous landowning class while asserting the value of rural, communal life that need not be religious to be virtuous, but it deals with these issues together because they did, in fact, historically work in conjunction. The formal aspects of a dual story line and juxtaposed settings serve the content by bringing these tensions into even sharper relief. Thus, the novel both highlights the major cultural transitions and contradictions of its own time and prophetically pinpoints the forces of class, capitalist industry, and Protestantism as the forces that would change the face and nature of future society. These forces dominate the cultural landscape much more intensely in the late 20th century and the effects are commensurately alienating and dehumanizing as Eliot first portrayed almost a century and a half ago. But one difference between her time and ours is that there are few if any meaningful remnants of an older way of life to return or escape to. Instead, we are forced to move forward and perhaps reimagine and recreate a society in which respect for nature and community are highly valued once again.
© 1993 Shirley Galloway
Back to Lit List