Reading Silas Marner Day 3: Do you have the right channels?

rose
Iceberg Rose on the back wall 8 May

Today I’m continuing my slow read of  Silas Marner …we’re in Chapter 1.  If you want to read from the beginning search for the tag  ‘Silas Marner’. You’ll find an online version here.

Now we move in closer to Silas himself. Read slowly, read aloud:

It was fifteen years since Silas Marner had first come to Raveloe; he was then simply a pallid young man, with prominent short-sighted brown eyes, whose appearance would have had nothing strange for people of average culture and experience, but for the villagers near whom he had come to settle it had mysterious peculiarities which corresponded with the exceptional nature of his occupation, and his advent from an unknown region called “North’ard”. So had his way of life:–he invited no comer to step across his door-sill, and he never strolled into the village to drink a pint at the Rainbow, or to gossip at the wheelwright’s: he sought no man or woman, save for the purposes of his calling, or in order to supply himself with necessaries; and it was soon clear to the Raveloe lasses that he would never urge one of them to accept him against her will – quite as if he had heard them declare that they would never marry a dead man come to life again. This view of Marner’s personality was not without another ground than his pale face and unexampled eyes; for Jem Rodney, the mole-catcher, averred that one evening as he was returning homeward, he saw Silas Marner leaning against a stile with a heavy bag on his back, instead of resting the bag on the stile as a man in his senses would have done; and that, on coming up to him, he saw that Marner’s eyes were set like a dead man’s, and he spoke to him, and shook him, and his limbs were stiff, and his hands
clutched the bag as if they’d been made of iron; but just as he had made up his mind that the weaver was dead, he came all right again, like, as you might say, in the winking of an eye, and said “Good-night”, and walked off. All this Jem swore he had seen, more by token that it was the very day he had been mole-catching on Squire Cass’s land, down by the old saw-pit. Some said Marner must have been in a “fit”, a word which seemed to explain things otherwise incredible; but the argumentative Mr. Macey, clerk of the parish, shook his head, and asked if anybody was ever known to go off in a fit and not fall down. A fit was a stroke, wasn’t it? and it was in the nature of a stroke to partly take away the use of a man’s limbs and throw him on the parish, if he’d got no children to look to. No, no; it was no stroke that would let a man stand on his legs, like a horse between the shafts, and then walk off as soon as you can say “Gee!” But there might be such a thing as a man’s soul being loose from his body, and going out and in, like a bird out of its nest and back; and that was how folks got over-wise, for they went to school in this shell-less state to those who could teach them more than their neighbours could learn with their five senses and the parson. And where did Master Marner get his knowledge of herbs from–and charms too, if he liked to give them away? Jem Rodney’s story was no more than what might have been expected by anybody who had seen how Marner had cured Sally Oates, and made her sleep like a baby, when her heart had been beating enough to burst her body, for two months and more, while she had been under the doctor’s care. He might cure more folks if he would; but he was worth speaking fair, if it was only to keep him from doing you a mischief.

Two chunks in this paragraph – first the continuation of the general observation about Raveloe’s response to strangers, then a specific instance of something that is actually odd about Silas. He’s come from ‘Northard’, he doesn’t join in village social activity and he is not up for marriage, all (more or less) reasonable reasons for the villagers not to welcome him in.  But when we read that the  village girls would ‘never marry a dead man come to life again’, we have to wonder what they are talking about. And in an extraordinary sentence, George Eliot tells us.

This view of Marner’s personality was not without another ground than his pale face and unexampled eyes; for Jem Rodney, the mole-catcher, averred that one evening as he was returning homeward, he saw Silas Marner leaning against a stile with a heavy bag on his back, instead of resting the bag on the stile as a man in his senses would have done; and that, on coming up to him, he saw that Marner’s eyes were set like a dead man’s, and he spoke to him, and shook him, and his limbs were stiff, and his hands clutched the bag as if they’d been made of iron; but just as he had made up his mind that the weaver was dead, he came all right again, like, as you might say, in the winking of an eye, and said “Good-night”, and walked off.

Silas Marner is subject to cataleptic seizures. This long sentence is in the voice of the narrator, but after the word ‘averred’ that voice becomes almost the voice of Jem Rodney, and  certainly the emotion of his excited telling enters the prose: it sounds like a testimony in court or the pub, told many times over. All those ‘ands’ show us to the breathlessness of Jem in his worried excitement.

Ever seen someone having such an episode? The strangest thing is the ‘coming back’, as if nothing has happened, just as happens here ‘as you might say, in the winking of an eye’. I read on:

All this Jem swore he had seen, more by token that it was the very day he had been mole-catching on Squire Cass’s land, down by the old saw-pit. Some said Marner must have been in a “fit”, a word which seemed to explain things otherwise incredible; but the argumentative Mr. Macey, clerk of the parish, shook his head, and asked if anybody was ever known to go off in a fit and not fall down. A fit was a stroke, wasn’t it? and it was in the nature of a stroke to partly take away the use of a
man’s limbs and throw him on the parish, if he’d got no children to look to. No, no; it was no stroke that would let a man stand on his legs, like a horse between the shafts, and then walk off as soon as you can say “Gee!” But there might be such a thing as a man’s soul being loose from his body, and going out and in, like a bird out of its nest and back; and that was how folks got over-wise, for they went to school in this shell-less state to those who could teach them more than their neighbours could learn with their five senses and the parson. And where did Master Marner get his knowledge of herbs from–and charms too, if he liked to give them away? Jem Rodney’s story was no more than what might have been expected by anybody who had seen how Marner had cured Sally Oates, and made her sleep like a baby, when her heart had been beating enough to burst her body, for two months and more, while she had been under the doctor’s care. He might cure more folks if he would; but he was worth speaking fair, if it was only to keep him from doing you a mischief.

So we see how gossip and malice and self-importance twine together to ruin a man’s character. Mr Macey is  ‘clerk of the parish’ therefore he has some standing and some level of education. He’s believable! And he can argue.

But there might be such a thing as a man’s soul being loose from his body, and going out and in, like a bird out of its nest and back; and that was how folks got over-wise, for they went to school in this shell-less state to those who could teach them more than their neighbours could learn with their five senses and the parson.

Silas Marner, Macey is arguing, is some kind of witch.Horribly accurate this report of false argument, and the twisting of something good into part of the proof of Silas being bad. He has a knowledge of herbs, and can cure you better than the doctor. You’d think in a small village with lots of poor people this would be a commendation (and remember earlier, it was sort of commended by the parents of the boys who torment Silas, because it saves them money?) So Silas’s medical powers, which might be wholly innocent, are brought to bear in evidence of his being involved in the black arts. He might do harm as well as good, Macey argues, best not speak ill of him.

It was partly to this vague fear that Marner was indebted for
protecting him from the persecution that his singularities might
have drawn upon him, but still more to the fact that, the old
linen-weaver in the neighbouring parish of Tarley being dead, his
handicraft made him a highly welcome settler to the richer
housewives of the district, and even to the more provident
cottagers, who had their little stock of yarn at the year’s end.
Their sense of his usefulness would have counteracted any repugnance
or suspicion which was not confirmed by a deficiency in the quality
or the tale of the cloth he wove for them. And the years had rolled
on without producing any change in the impressions of the neighbours
concerning Marner, except the change from novelty to habit. At the
end of fifteen years the Raveloe men said just the same things about
Silas Marner as at the beginning: they did not say them quite so
often, but they believed them much more strongly when they did say
them. There was only one important addition which the years had
brought: it was, that Master Marner had laid by a fine sight of
money somewhere, and that he could buy up “bigger men” than
himself.

Reasons to read slowly. I said  at the beginning that some of the syntax is hard. Look at this circular sentence:

Their sense of his usefulness would have counteracted any repugnance
or suspicion which was not confirmed by a deficiency in the quality
or the tale of the cloth he wove for them.

We’re talking about richer citizens who have linen they want Silas to weave into cloth.  He is useful to them, and this usefulness counteracts any repugnance they might feel, so long as the weaving is good. The social unease is thus bookended by practical necessity.  Round it goes, mirroring the unease and the need. Need a weaver, weaver weird, but good cloth! This is social psychology, anthropology through sentence structure. But this is hard to read fast. Slow down, especially when you come to one of those most puzzling sentences! Next chunk is not puzzling and flows easily – we all know how fifteen years can solidify a habit. And we all know weird fellows and misers are supposed to have a lot of money hidden in their houses. I read on:

But while opinion concerning him had remained nearly stationary, and
his daily habits had presented scarcely any visible change, Marner’s
inward life had been a history and a metamorphosis, as that of every
fervid nature must be when it has fled, or been condemned, to
solitude. His life, before he came to Raveloe, had been filled with
the movement, the mental activity, and the close fellowship, which,
in that day as in this, marked the life of an artisan early
incorporated in a narrow religious sect, where the poorest layman
has the chance of distinguishing himself by gifts of speech, and
has, at the very least, the weight of a silent voter in the
government of his community. Marner was highly thought of in that
little hidden world, known to itself as the church assembling in
Lantern Yard; he was believed to be a young man of exemplary life
and ardent faith; and a peculiar interest had been centred in him
ever since he had fallen, at a prayer-meeting, into a mysterious
rigidity and suspension of consciousness, which, lasting for an hour
or more, had been mistaken for death. 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 wilful
self-exclusion from the spiritual significance that might lie
therein. Silas was evidently a brother selected for a peculiar
discipline; and though the effort to interpret this discipline was
discouraged by the absence, on his part, of any spiritual vision
during his outward trance, yet it was believed by himself and others
that its effect was seen in an accession of light and fervour.
A less truthful man than he might have been tempted into the
subsequent creation of a vision in the form of resurgent memory; a
less sane man might have believed in such a creation; but Silas was
both sane and honest, though, as with many honest and fervent men,
culture had not defined any channels for his sense of mystery, and
so it spread itself over the proper pathway of inquiry and
knowledge. He had inherited from his mother some acquaintance with
medicinal herbs and their preparation–a little store of wisdom
which she had imparted to him as a solemn bequest–but of late
years he had had doubts about the lawfulness of applying this
knowledge, believing that herbs could have no efficacy without
prayer, and that prayer might suffice without herbs; so that the
inherited delight he had in wandering in the fields in search of
foxglove and dandelion and coltsfoot, began to wear to him the
character of a temptation.

Now, suddenly, we move from outside estimates of Silas, to inward. This is the great subject matter of George Eliot’s best work: the inside of a human. Here we learn that Silas is, in fact, far from an oddball, a typical case – once our perspective is bigger than the village in this sleepy unvisited corner of rural England. Marner seems to be  a living illustration of a general law:

Marner’s inward life had been a history and a metamorphosis, as that of every
fervid nature must be when it has fled, or been condemned, to
solitude.

I’m relieved to read that there is inward life in Silas and that it has been going through ‘a metamorphosis’ – suddenly I feel as if something really interesting is happening in this story.  Next, I get interested in George Eliot’s general law: he is an example of something that affects ‘every fervid nature when it has fled’. What! There’s a big back story. And what does ‘fervid’ mean?’ It means passionate, strong of feeling. So here’s in a half sentence Silas ‘s story – passionate nature, fled or condemned.

His life, before he came to Raveloe, had been filled with
the movement, the mental activity, and the close fellowship, which,
in that day as in this, marked the life of an artisan early
incorporated in a narrow religious sect, where the poorest layman
has the chance of distinguishing himself by gifts of speech, and
has, at the very least, the weight of a silent voter in the
government of his community.

I’m struck by how different this is the life of the village of Raveloe. Raveloe seems to be in the past, but this ‘narrow religious sect’ seems part of the contemporary world, not just for George Eliot, but also for us. It is in the largest sense of the word, modern, full of ‘movement and mental activity’ and there is a kind of democracy here, as opposed to the village. in Lantern Yard every man may have a view, every man has a vote.  Yet there is a connection in the similarity of both’s communities’ response to his catalepsy, though those responses  go in different directions (in Raveloe he is some kind of witch, in Lantern Yard some sort of spirit guide). No visions take place, but all the same, Silas is seen as spiritually marked out by his trance:

A less truthful man than he might have been tempted into the
subsequent creation of a vision in the form of resurgent memory; a
less sane man might have believed in such a creation; but Silas was
both sane and honest, though, as with many honest and fervent men,
culture had not defined any channels for his sense of mystery, and
so it spread itself over the proper pathway of inquiry and
knowledge.

Not sure what this sentence means. I notice it falls into three sections, with the hinges marked by the words ‘but’ and ‘though’. So, taking it slowly – someone else might have claimed there were visions and even believed in them, but not Silas, who was ‘both sane and honest’. Next hinge, ‘though’ – there’s a clarification coming. Silas has not been exposed to ‘culture’ (music, art, philosophy, literature? or even a profession such as medicine – I’m thinking of Lydgate, the young doctor in Middlemarch whose sense of mystery is what propels him into his profession.) So, no channels for Silas, therefore mystery floods and ‘spreads itself over the proper pathway of inquiry’. It is a kind of superstition in  the very place where he might have built knowledge. This is interesting to me, because I  have met a lot of people who didn’t have ‘channels’ for their powers. We need such channels, otherwise, short-circuits, floods, stuckness.

For Silas this stuckness takes the form of questioning a gift and his inheritance: he is a sort of doctor; he has knowledge of herbs, he has ‘inherited delight’ from mother in the collection of  such herbs. Think on, these are the days well before modern medicine. But Silas’s lack of culture (education) means he begins to doubt this very wholesome activity. Almost to think it sinful.

Time to stop. But how important education is turning out to be in these opening pages. What are we? We are what we have potential to be and we are what experience, and we are what we learn. What Silas may have learned in the ‘narrow’ sect that is the church in Lantern Yard awaits us.

I think a rule is  emerging. Whenever there is a really hard sentence, something very interesting is happening. Stop there.

5 thoughts on “Reading Silas Marner Day 3: Do you have the right channels?

  1. A C.M.H.P., H.V. May 8, 2017 / 8:10 am

    Hi Jane,
    What can I say, this feels so real.
    Being isolated from a group is something I have first hand knowledge of. Think it boils down to miss communication, between all parties.

  2. Jamie May 8, 2017 / 12:06 pm

    It was interesting reading this with a young person – relating it to how a person in school might me cut off from the school community because they stand out in some way, how other children begin to fear and ridicule them and make their isolation worse.

  3. loubyjo May 8, 2017 / 6:25 pm

    wow you are so right have to read this slowly and aloud is better (neighbours moved out so that ok ) I wonder what their re action would have been if had not been a weaver bit like putting up with someone cos as some mentioned me today ” everybody has some use ” !!!!
    I used to look after a boy who used to have like petit mal ( I think and hardly noticable and as stated like
    a bird going in and out of a nest that its exactly, as someone who has lots of these so called strange episodes so to speak and not kidding you remember nothing at all of it !!!
    I am impressed with the way Silas did not make up a vision which could have upped his popularity status reminds me slightly of the pentecostal type churches were they say “overcome by the spirit !!
    Need a cuppa so will leave u in peace !!! but 1 more thing have no idea how this spans out but will be somewhat umm miffed if this turns out to be a fairy tale for adults !!! lonely man finshes off surrounded by friends and family and roses round his cottage door !!!! ( sorry )

    • drjanedavis May 9, 2017 / 8:36 am

      Maybe some roses ahead….but plenty of thorns too

      • loubyjo May 9, 2017 / 1:16 pm

        oh thats stopped me worrying !!!! ( slightly !!!!!!!!!!!!

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