Social Commentary in Silas Marner

By, Scott Grinsell

In George Elliot's lifetime England went through a series of tumultuous cultural, social, and economic changes. By the time that she wrote Silas Marner in 1861, the moderately industrial, though primarily rural, Britain of her youth had completely vanished, and the Britain of her parents' youth only lingered like a partially forgotten reverie in her mind. Elliot's Britain was dominated by economic dynamism and the heartlessly pragmatic capitalist spirit. The introduction of industrial machinery combined with the mindset generated by England's unusually old free-market, transformed farm-hands into factory workers, and coated Baroque cities with indelible soot stains. In the process of incorporating masses of people into a gargantuan economic machine, the lower classes were stripped of their individuality, their passions, and their humanity.

George Elliot's Silas Marner is more than a witty fairy tale; embodied in Marner is the consciousness of the British during the latter part of 19th century. After his expulsion from Lantern Yard, his life became consumed by the mechanistic task of weaving on his loom, for the singular purpose of amassing an immense pile of guineas. As a result, Silas Marner was reduced to being a moving part of his machine, just as the British people were consumed by their economy. Elliot exhorts the British in her gentle, artful way, through Marner's story. She reminds us that only through the introduction of love and friendship is he re-humanized and made into something more than a moving part of his economic machine.

Silas Marner turned to the hypnotizing labors of weaving to fill the emotional void created by his exile from Lantern Yard. He found solace in the rapidity, predictability, and monotony of his work. He used his loom-representative of the industrial equipment that slowly, and stealthily reshaped British culture in the early 19th century-to weave himself a new culture, religion, and existence . After Ms. Osgood's purchase of some of his goods, monetary gain eventually became the impetus for the mechanization of his life, just as the pursuit of wealth lead British entrepreneurs to mechanize their economy. Acting as a canvas on which George Elliot could express her views on wealth, Silas's existence degenerated into the crude process of action and gratification.

Do we not wile away moments of inanity or fatigued waiting by repeating some trivial movement or sound, until the repetition has bred a want, which is incipient habit? That will help us to understand how the love of accumulating money grows an absorbing passion in men whose imaginations, even at the very beginning of their hoard, showed them no purpose beyond it.

-pg. 19

Weaving no longer filled the voids in his existence created by his virtual solitary confinement; they were filled with the glistening contents of Silas's two leather bags. After nightfall, he worshipped his money as an idol, representing the omnipotence in his life. His horde of golden guineas became his God. They literally controlled every movement of his hand, every thought that ran that precipitated in his mind and every avaricious glance of his eyes.

Silas's process of degeneration is mirrored in his hometown, Lantern Yard, underscoring the connection between his story and the industrial revolution. When the reader is first introduced to it, Lantern Yard is imbued with a sense of idleness, faith, morality, and kindness. Elliot describes Marner's life there as "filled with the movement, the mental activity, and the close fellowship, which, this that day as in this, marked the life of an artisan early incorporated in a narrow religious sect"(pg. 9) Lantern yard sounds like the paragon of the a small, rustic, British village. Yet, when Silas returned there with Eppie at the end of the book, the town has been completely industrialized-scarred by the soot stains of a Dickensian landscape. Just like Silas Marner, the town became injected with the tainting influence of greed. And like Silas's life, the town was thus emptied of even the most imperceptible drop of humanity. This little unexpected ripple in Elliot's literary canvas underscores the connection between Silas's metamorphoses and the industrial revolution.

George Elliot uses Silas's emotional, psychological, and social rebirth to transform her social commentary into constructive criticism. In a very literal way, the young child that came into Silas's life replaced his gold as the definitive force in his world. When Silas Marner first saw Eppie, he assumed that she was actually his lost Gold, and was thrilled to have it back. "The heap of gold seemed to glow and get larger beneath his agitated gaze. He leant forward at last, and stretched forth his hand; but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered soft warm was a sleeping child."(pg. 110). Here, in highly symbolic language, George Elliot is telling the reader that if he wants to escape the suffocating grasp of the industrial capitalistic contagion, he must replace his "gold" with human relationships. In the process of rearing her, Silas was able to reexamine his life, and ultimately replace his solitude with friendship, his emotional emptiness with love and his pecuniary idolatry with religion. He essentially revived the life that he had left behind in Lantern Yard with all of the friends, emotion, love that characterized his existence there. As a result, his life became robust, and meaningful again. "Eppie called him away from his weaving, and made him think all its pauses a holiday, reawakening his senses with her fresh life, even to the old winter flies that came crawling forth in the earthly spring sunshine, and warming him into joy because she had joy."(pg. 125) Silas was no longer a moving piece of machinery, feverishly generating more, and more guineas to worship; he was human again.

It is extremely easy to speed through the pages of Silas Marner, and see it in the way that Elliot's contemporaries saw it-as nothing more than a lovely tale about rural England. This is a mistake though, because George Elliot's subtextural message is as relevant now as it was in post-industrial revolution England. American culture and society are money-driven institutions. Too often, do we measure our self-worth in dollars and see our relationships as business connections. Before we can break free from our golden chains, we need to fill our souls with affection for others, and follow in the path of Silas Marner.

Back to Writing
Main Page