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.
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 curls.it 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.
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