To have sought a medical explanation for this phenomenon would have been held by Silas himself, as well as by his minister and fellow-members, a willful self-exclusion from the spiritual significance that might lie therein.
This passage, from Chapter 1, describes the reaction of Silas’s religious sect in Lantern Yard to one of his cataleptic fits. The worshippers in his chapel interpret Silas’s fit as divinely inspired, a sort of holy trance, and their respect for him grows as a result. The passage addresses the issue of faith, one of the central themes of the novel. The description suggests that the sect members’ faith in the “spiritual significance” of Silas’s fit requires a denial of any factors that might complicate it. In other words, the beliefs predominant in Lantern Yard do not allow for complexity or ambiguity and require that one develop intellectual blinders.
Eliot does not hesitate, in this chapter and elsewhere, to label this sort of belief primitive. There is a note of condescension in Eliot’s description, a wink, shared with her contemporary readers, at these simple folk from the past who ascribe supernatural causes to anything the least bit unusual. The humor lies in the phrase “willful self-exclusion,” which, Eliot implies, is exactly what Silas and his fellow worshippers depend upon to maintain their belief. It is important to keep in mind that Eliot writes as someone who had once believed quite passionately in similar teachings but had since broken from them. Thus, her view of the sect is that of someone who has both experienced and rejected similar comforts and tenets.
Strangely Marner’s face and figure shrank and bent themselves into a constant mechanical relation to the objects of his life, so that he produced the same sort of impression as a handle or a crooked tube, which has no meaning standing apart. The prominent eyes that used to look trusting and dreamy, now looked as if they had been made to see only one kind of thing that was very small, like tiny grain, for which they hunted everywhere; and he was so withered and yellow, that, though he was not yet forty, the children always called him “Old Master Marner.”
From Chapter 2, this passage creates in Silas a portrait of the dehumanizing effects of commodified labor that Karl Marx had written about a few years prior to the publication of this novel. Silas’s mechanical way of life and his worship of money make him into an almost grotesque parody of what Marx dubbed “the commodification of labor.” In this way Silas serves as a harbinger of industrialization for sleepy Raveloe. For Marx, industrialization inevitably leads to a dehumanization of labor, as workers are reduced to nothing more than the amount of money that their labor is worth. Workers’ social positions and ties to particular places are eliminated to create a vast, mobile labor force. In this passage, Silas is described as similarly disconnected, his humanity degraded to the status of a mere machine. He is prematurely aged, “withered and yellow,” and has shrunk and bent to fit to his loom—so much so that he looks like a part of the loom, “a handle or a crooked tube, which has no meaning standing apart.”
We learn that even Silas’s eyesight has been damaged by his constant work. His inability to see things that are far away, is a handicap that takes on metaphorical overtones in this passage. His ability to see only “one kind of thing that was very small, for which [his eyes] hunted everywhere” shows the money-obsessed narrow-mindedness into which Silas has fallen. At this point in the novel, Silas can see only one kind of thing, gold, in everything he does. His money is the only thing that gives meaning to his life. Here, as elsewhere, Silas’s physical deterioration parallels a spiritual one. Later, after Eppie brings Silas back into the community, we see another description of his eyes and learn that by then they “seem to have gathered a longer vision.”
This strangely novel situation of opening his trouble to his Raveloe neighbours, of sitting in the warmth of a hearth not his own, and feeling the presence of faces and voices which were his nearest promise of help, had doubtless its influence on Marner, in spite of his passionate preoccupation with his loss. Our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us any more than without us: there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud.
Here, in Chapter 7, is the first moment since his banishment from Lantern Yard that Silas is in any way part of a community. He is at the Rainbow, having gone there to seek help after he is robbed. The tavern-goers sit Silas down by the hearth and make him tell his story from beginning to end. As he does so, unbeknownst even to him, Silas begins to experience the first stirrings of a sense of solidarity with his neighbors. Everything about the experience is “strangely novel” for Silas: he has never been to the Rainbow and has not in a very long time been inside anyone’s house but his own. More important, he has not in fifteen years had the experience of feeling reassured by the presence of others.
In describing these beginnings of a change, Eliot relies, as she often does, on a metaphor drawn from the natural world. Here, Silas is compared to a budding plant in the late winter, when the sap has started to circulate but before there is any outward sign of life. This image of rebirth suggests an idea of community as something natural and organic, as opposed to the unnatural, deforming isolation from which Silas is beginning to emerge.
Godfrey was silent. He was not likely to be very penetrating in his judgments, but he had always had a sense that his father’s indulgence had not been kindness, and had had a vague longing for some discipline that would have checked his own errant weakness and helped his better will.
Here, in Chapter 9, Godfrey is weathering a severe tongue-lashing from his father, Squire Cass, after confessing that he lent Dunsey rent money from one of his father’s tenants. The Squire complains that he has been “too good a father” and has spoiled his sons. In this regard, the Cass household provides a counterpoint to the domestic life Silas and Eppie later create. Both Godfrey and Eppie grow up motherless—the former in circumstances of great plenty, the latter with little. Both fathers indulge their children, but while the Squire does so out of negligence, Silas does so out of love. Eppie never doubts Silas’s love for her, whereas Godfrey, in this passage, has precisely that doubt about his father. Eliot implies that this crucial difference is the reason Godfrey has grown up weak-willed and cowardly, while Eppie possesses a strong sense of values. This contrast is all the more striking since Eppie is in fact Godfrey’s natural daughter.
The passage also highlights the perspective that Eliot’s narrator takes throughout the novel. This omniscient narrator is not constrained simply to report what is seen and heard. Here, we go inside Godfrey’s head and have access to ideas that he thinks but does not express aloud. The narrator takes this even one step further, not only divulging what Godfrey is thinking, but passing judgment on Godfrey’s general intelligence. At the same time, however, judging from the Squire’s behavior, the conclusion at which Godfrey gropingly arrives is correct. This sort of narration—omniscient, judgmental, but ultimately sympathetic toward the characters—is an important characteristic not only of this novel, but of all of Eliot’s works.
I can’t say what I should have done about that, Godfrey. I should never have married anybody else. But I wasn’t worth doing wrong for—nothing is in this world. Nothing is so good as it seems beforehand—not even our marrying wasn’t, you see.
Nancy gently upbraids Godfrey with these lines in Chapter 18, after he confesses that he is Eppie’s father and has hidden that fact from Nancy for eighteen years. Nancy’s reaction is not one of anger, but instead one of deep regret that Godfrey had not claimed Eppie long ago, so they could have raised her themselves. When Godfrey responds that Nancy would never have married him had she known of his secret child, she responds with these lines, a gentle condemnation of Godfrey’s act and the thinking that justified it.
The quote brings Nancy’s “unalterable little code” of behavior into confrontation with Godfrey’s slippery, self-justifying equivocation. While Nancy and her code are portrayed as occasionally arbitrary and even illogical, Eliot leaves no doubt that Nancy is a deeply moral person. In taking Godfrey to task for simply molding his actions to contingency, Nancy is passing Eliot’s judgment, as well. Here, as elsewhere, Eliot’s narrative punishes those who, by allowing ends to justify means, ignore basic questions of right and wrong.