Silas Marner
George Eliot
Contributed by Harvey Landy

Silas Marner was published in 1861, at a kind of mid-point in Eliot’s career. Her longer, more well-known and epic works like Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda lay ahead of her. And Marner is similar in style to her earlier novels like Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss in that they all partake of a kind of "rustic realism" that Eliot had perfected. This kind of realism ran counter to prevailing pastoral styles for Eliot, although it appeared to have much in common with them. The pastoral is a genre in which the country-oriented life of the working classes is represented in either poetry or prose, and was popularized throughout the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century by poets like William Wordsworth and Thomas Gray. But Eliot wanted her writing to stand in opposition to these sorts of pastoralism, which she saw as romanticizing the peasantry -- showing scenes of shepherds frolicking bucolically alongside their herds, or of permanently giddy villagers. She wanted, instead, to represent the working classes more realistically -- to show them in all their "’coarse’" habits, she said. She didn’t, that is, want to smooth over the representations of such people.

This is not to say that all reviewers took kindly to Eliot’s project. In fact many of her contemporaries disdained Eliot’s depictions of such "’poor, paltry, stupid, wretched, well-nigh despicable’" characters. So Eliot was up against a fair amount of resistance from a public that was accustomed to glossed-over, cheery representations of the poor. And that’s not all that she was up to. Although Marner seems to be a more or less simple fable in the rustic realist tradition, there are moments in the novel when we see larger issues of mid-Victorian culture bleeding through. Look for the chapter at the Rainbow just prior to Silas’ entry and accusation of Jem Rodney. The entire chapter is a transcription of the gossip of the pub dwellers. Such dialogue might be said to represent some of the issues contemporary with the novel, such as questions about evidence and experience; these are larger issues that have to do with the rise of an enlightenment epistemology. The same holds true for Marner’s preoccupation with faith: the novel taps into debates about belief and theology that were raging as England became increasingly secularized.

Another issue that Marner raises quite eloquently and forcefully is the nexus of industrialization, commodification, and capitalism in general. Not only by focusing on Silas’s work and the transition of Lantern Yard from rural depot to manufacturing town, but also the attention the novel gives to Silas’s very preoccupation with gold itself, is representative of larger questions about how persons and things should be evaluated. As England transitioned from an aristocratic to a capitalist society, hoarding techniques such as Silas’s fall out of favor. Indeed, holding on to one’s gold is a kind of false attribution of value to the gold itself, when it is, instead, market practices through which value is produced. The degree to which Silas’s obsession with his gold is considered "unhealthy," might then be taken as representative of the atmosphere of mid-century England in general: with its interest in producing interest -- that is, of dissociating value from the coin itself, and moving towards a more credit-based, abstracted version of economics.

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