George Eliot, Silas Marner

Silas Marner Silas Marner by George Eliot

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche derides George Eliot and the Victorian English intelligentsia as a whole for imagining that they could continue to promote Christian ethics—love of neighbor, valorization of the oppressed, humility, chastity, and more—though they no longer believed in Christianity:

G. Eliot. — They have got rid of the Christian God, and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality: that is English consistency, let us not blame it on little bluestockings à la Eliot. In England, in response to every little emancipation from theology one has to reassert one’s position in a fear-inspiring manner as a moral fanatic. That is the penance one pays there. — With us it is different. When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. For the latter is absolutely not self-evident: one must make this point again and again, in spite of English shallowpates. Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things. (Trans. R. J. Hollingdale)

While we could dismiss Nietzsche’s insult to Eliot (“little bluestocking”) as the raving of a misogynist, his thesis is echoed by later writers who can’t be dispatched so easily. For example, in her 1971 Preface to The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing explains her ambition to write a novel that sums up the whole of her epoch. She argues that this had not been done before in English letters, even though the Victorians shared the social realist aesthetic of their French and Russian counterparts:

To read The Red and the Black, and Lucien Leuwen is to know that France as if one were living there, to read Anna Karenina is to know that Russia. But a very useful Victorian novel never got itself written. […] George Eliot is good as far as she goes. But I think the penalty she paid for being a Victorian woman was that she had to be shown to be a good woman even when she wasn’t according to the hypocrisies of the time—there is a great deal she does not understand because she is moral.

Lessing, like Nietzsche, criticizes Eliot for moralism. She makes the feminist point that this authorial moralism was imposed on female writers in an era when middle-class women were expected to be the sentimental agents of socialization—granted, we are still in such an era—but she doesn’t use that to excuse what she sees as the failure of Eliot’s work to match the scope and acuity of Stendhal’s or Tolstoy’s. Closer to our own day, Joyce Carol Oates, reviewing Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, expresses similar dismay in more aesthetic terms:

As Eliot’s worldview seems, for many readers, to confirm some approximation of their own, so too does “My Life in Middlemarch” confirm the general, uncontested view of this great writer. There is something self-limiting if not solipsistic about focusing so narrowly on a single novel through the course of one’s life, as if there were not countless other, perhaps more unsettling, more original, more turbulent, more astonishing, more aesthetically exciting and more intellectually challenging novels—James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” to name one; Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” to name another.

Here Eliot, with what Oates later calls her “unwavering sanity,” is guilty of offering the reader the false comforts of an exhausted rationalism, and, what’s worse, she does so in relatively unexciting pre-modernist narrative forms. In his Complete Collected Essays, V. S. Pritchett sums up the whole anti-Eliot tradition: “There is no real madness in George Eliot.” This is why the indigenes of the mad 20th century, summoned into being by Nietzsche himself, could not read her:

The whole influence of psychology has turned our interest to what George Eliot would have called the downward path, to the failures of the will, the fulfillment of the heart, the vacillations of the sensibility, the perception of self-interest. We do not wish to be better than we are, but more fully what we are; and the wish is crossed by the vivid conflicts set up in our lives by the revolution that is going on in our society.

As Mead’s 2014 memoir attests, this anti-Eliotism has abated somewhat in the 21st century; the guilty liberals of an unequal society find their anxieties and atonements mirrored in their Victorian precursor, and the literati, under the influence of popular culture and the social justice movement, have rediscovered the particular pleasures of evangelical art.

There is, moreover, a certain hubris in dismissing an author as formidably learned and intelligent (these are not the same thing) as the author of Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. She was a scholar, as Stendhal and Joyce were not, and if there are aspects of human existence Nietzsche saw that she didn’t, neither could Nietzsche have written the scene in Middlemarch where Dorothea Brooke sobs over her disastrous honeymoon in Rome as “the red drapery which was being hung for Christmas [spread] itself everywhere like a disease of the retina.”

For the better part of a century, however, readers were introduced to Eliot not through the cathedrals that were her late masterpieces, but rather through the 1861 sentimental novella Silas Marner, long a prescribed high school text—though not anymore, as today’s students would likely find Eliot’s sentences too challenging and her pace too slow—and a text that does tend to validate the charges leveled above by Nietzsche, Lessing, Oates, and Pritchett.

Silas Marner is set in the English village of Raveloe in the early 19th century. The title character, a weaver by trade, has fled to Raveloe from his native place, a Puritan religious community in the north of England, after his best friend framed him for theft and then married his fiancée. Marner is a man of profound but inarticulate and untutored religious sensibility, as evidenced by his tendency to what Eliot’s narrator calls “catalepsy” or “cataleptic fits,” the first of which strikes him in a prayer-meeting. This mingling of medical language with hints of real religious devotion and rapture shows that Nietzsche was not wrong: Eliot does expect us both to accept a modern secular diagnosis (Marner has catalepsy) and its premodern spiritual meaning (he is saintly or a kind of holy fool) at the same time.

Once in Raveloe, Marner is bereft of family, community, and even religion (his false accusation dealt a blow to his faith). The small rural community, with what Eliot’s narrator observes again and again is its narrow-minded provincialism, allows him to settle and ply his trade there—he lives in a cottage near a stone quarry—but never really accepts him in his strangeness. With little to live for, he becomes a miser: he obsessively hoards and even fetishistically adores the pile of gold he’s made weaving garments for the community’s upper classes. Note the Christian allegory in the background of the realist narrative: without God, man will literally worship gold.

Meanwhile, the most powerful family in the village has its own troubles. The widowed Squire Cass runs a household without the Victorian blessing of female superintendence (his house “was without that presence of the wife and mother which is the fountain of wholesome love and fear in parlour and kitchen”), and his adult sons, Godfrey and Dunstan, have accordingly “turned out rather ill.”

Godfrey has secretly married Molly Farren and had a child with her, though she is of a lower station than himself—and he is moreover in love with the more class-suitable Nancy Lammeter, who has no idea that there is another woman, still less a wife, in his life. At least his sins are crimes of passion; Dunstan, on the other hand, is a mere brutal rogue (we know because he mistreats animals and is obsessed with weaponry). By the beginning of the novella, Godfrey has foolishly leant Dunstan money he collected as rent from his father’s tenants. Because Dunstan squandered this cash, both brothers are potentially in trouble with the Squire. After a few complications, Dunstan decides on his own to steal Marner’s beloved money while the weaver is away, and he absconds with it, never returning to the village.

Raveloe’s male community, centered on the Rainbow tavern, is comically ineffectual at investigating the crime committed against Marner. Eliot’s narrator again has a good time mocking provincial superstition and bigotry as the men divide their suspicions between an itinerant pedlar with “a swarthy foreignness of complexion” or, even less credibly, a ghost, never suspecting that the thief is a respected elite in the town. Marner, for his part, is shattered by this second loss, the loss of his substitute god; not even the charitable visit of the pious, simple Mrs. Winthrop (“a very mild, patient woman, whose nature it was to seek out all the sadder and more serious elements of life, and pasture her mind upon them”) restores him to the faith and social trust he had earlier enjoyed.

At the midpoint of the narrative, though, Godfrey Cass’s abandoned wife Molly trudges through a snowstorm with their baby daughter to accost him at a Christmas party where he, for his part, is busily professing his love to Nancy Lammeter. Molly, however, is debilitated by opium addiction and freezes to death; her child luckily toddles into Marner’s cottage while he is standing in the doorway again seized by catalepsy, a religious transport that now proves his redemption. Marner bonds with the child, whom he names Eppie after his mother Hephzibah. Her “little golden head” effectively replaces the lost gold coins as Marner’s idolatry reverses itself. He relearns to love not money but people:

Unlike the gold which needed nothing, and must be worshipped in close-locked solitude—which was hidden away from the daylight, was deaf to the song of birds, and started to no human tones—Eppie was a creature of endless claims and ever-growing desires, seeking and loving sunshine, and living sounds, and living movements; making trial of everything, with trust in new joy, and stirring the human kindness in all eyes that looked on her. The gold had kept his thoughts in an ever-repeated circle, leading to nothing beyond itself; but Eppie was an object compacted of changes and hopes that forced his thoughts onward, and carried them far away from their old eager pacing towards the same blank limit—carried them away to the new things that would come with the coming years, when Eppie would have learned to understand how her father Silas cared for her; and made him look for images of that time in the ties and charities that bound together the families of his neighbours.

The fable qua fable ends here, though the novella ties up its plot threads by advancing the action 16 years in its final third. Dunstan’s skeleton has been discovered with Marner’s gold in the stone quarry, which inspires Godfrey to come clean to his wife, Nancy, about Eppie’s parentage. The childless Godfrey and Nancy invite Eppie to be their child (and to ascend into their social class), but she remains loyal to the simple values of Marner:

“I shouldn’t know what to think on or to wish for with fine things about me, as I haven’t been used to. And it ’ud be poor work for me to put on things, and ride in a gig, and sit in a place at church, as ’ud make them as I’m fond of think me unfitting company for ’em. What could I care for then?”

Eppie’s loyalty to Marner and to the lifeworld of the village poor raises a troublesome question, however. Eliot has hardly portrayed everyday life in Raveloe as a teacher of moral blessings; she has, rather, refused to romanticize rural working-class existence. Instead, her omniscient and sardonic narrator speaks with the voice of the metropolitan anthropologist-intellectual anatomizing the delusions of the countryside, and this narrator moreover emphasizes that Eppie’s owes her virtues to her isolation from the community:

The tender and peculiar love with which Silas had reared her in almost inseparable companionship with himself, aided by the seclusion of their dwelling, had preserved her from the lowering influences of the village talk and habits, and had kept her mind in that freshness which is sometimes falsely supposed to be an invariable attribute of rusticity. Perfect love has a breath of poetry which can exalt the relations of the least-instructed human beings; and this breath of poetry had surrounded Eppie from the time when she had followed the bright gleam that beckoned her to Silas’s hearth; so that it is not surprising if, in other things besides her delicate prettiness, she was not quite a common village maiden, but had a touch of refinement and fervour which came from no other teaching than that of tenderly-nurtured unvitiated feeling.

In other words, Silas, the religious cataleptic and weaver, provides “poetry,” which ties him to his poetic narrator and deviser. High and low—haughty author and humble protagonist—band together against the middle mind of the benighted village in a gesture typical of the progressive intelligentsia.

How poetic is this narrator, though? She uses a persistent animal idiom to describe almost all the characters, who are likened throughout the novella to insects, birds, goslings, guinea pigs, and more. This language, which looks beyond realism to the deterministic naturalist novels of the generation following Eliot’s, both dehumanizes the characters and aggrandizes the expertise of the narrator. Yet Eliot remains a Victorian: if Eppie was in her infancy compared to a gosling, the narrator later provides a different metaphor:

In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.

This inability to find a middle ground—to treat human characters as humans rather than animals or angels—strands Silas Marner between the clichés of two literary periods, between mid-Victorian evangelism and late-Victorian scientism. The narrator’s tonal swings from naturalist acerbity to religious sentimentality consequently read less like capaciousness of sensibility or complexity of perception and more like authorial confusion.

The novella’s gender politics are more persuasive and coherent. While Eliot endorses female authority on Victorian terms (i.e., the angel in the house) when she blames motherlessness for Godfrey and Dunstan’s failings, she nevertheless devotes the narrative to portraying male nurturance in the private sphere. Of Silas’s “maternity,” Mrs. Wintrhop observes:

“Why, there isn’t many lone men ’ud ha’ been wishing to take up with a little un like that: but I reckon the weaving makes you handier than men as do out-door work—you’re partly as handy as a woman, for weaving comes next to spinning.”

Note that gender is here defined not by biology but by labor: men work outdoors, women indoors, and Silas, being an indoor worker, is akin to a woman. Moreover, the narrative vindicates spiritual over biological family when Eppie elects to stay with Silas, rather than going away with her “real” father Godfrey. Eliot, in short, preserves gender distinction but demands no “natural” locus for masculinity or femininity, a view that aligns her with 21st-century ideology. Yet, as if proleptically replying to Nietzsche’s critique with a pragmatist’s “so what?”, she asserts that even after the nuclear family we will still be answerable to its values, centered symbolically on the hearth:

For Silas would not consent to have a grate and oven added to his conveniences: he loved the old brick hearth as he had loved his brown pot—and was it not there when he had found Eppie? 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.

All and all, if you only read Silas Marner among her works, you might conclude that Eliot’s critics, quoted at the outset of this piece, were correct: her religiosity contradicts her naturalism, her moralism intrudes too much on the narrative, her omniscient narrator is too sane and self-assured (we might say smug) to do anything but condescend to the extremes of life and to the people forced to live it. Nevertheless, even in this slight and early production, the formidable intelligence that makes Middlemarch the paragon of English realism can be found, especially in the narrator’s stray observations:

The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened, is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent.

For those who have never read Eliot, though, they should skip this old schoolbook, at least for now, and go straight to the masterpiece.