Reading Silas Marner Day 4: Feeling and Thinking

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Rose and Clematis almost overpowering a support at Calderstones 8 May

Continuing my slow read of  Silas Marner …we’re in Chapter 1.  If you want to join this Shared Reading  from the beginning search for the tag  ‘Silas Marner’. You’ll find an online version here. We pick up at this point, where George Eliot is explaining Silas’ back story:

Among the members of his church there was one young man, a little
older than himself, with whom he had long lived in such close
friendship that it was the custom of their Lantern Yard brethren to
call them David and Jonathan. The real name of the friend was
William Dane, and he, too, was regarded as a shining instance of
youthful piety, though somewhat given to over-severity towards
weaker brethren, and to be so dazzled by his own light as to hold
himself wiser than his teachers. But whatever blemishes others
might discern in William, to his friend’s mind he was faultless; for
Marner had one of those impressible self-doubting natures which, at
an inexperienced age, admire imperativeness and lean on
contradiction. The expression of trusting simplicity in Marner’s
face, heightened by that absence of special observation, that
defenceless, deer-like gaze which belongs to large prominent eyes,
was strongly contrasted by the self-complacent suppression of inward
triumph that lurked in the narrow slanting eyes and compressed lips
of William Dane. One of the most frequent topics of conversation
between the two friends was Assurance of salvation: Silas confessed
that he could never arrive at anything higher than hope mingled with
fear, and listened with longing wonder when William declared that he
had possessed unshaken assurance ever since, in the period of his
conversion, he had dreamed that he saw the words “calling and
election sure” standing by themselves on a white page in the open
Bible. Such colloquies have occupied many a pair of pale-faced
weavers, whose unnurtured souls have been like young winged things,
fluttering forsaken in the twilight.

Two members of an extreme sect, uneducated but committed to their faith, one more extreme in his views than the other, certain of his place in paradise because of his dream, and his belief in that dream. Silas essentially a ‘self-doubting’ man, William ‘self-complacent’. I feel worried! There’s something particularly worrying about this relationship being mixed up in the sectarian belief, as if emotions from different parts/modes/arenas of life are bleeding into one another. I read on. The next paragraph is a very long one, so I am going to break up into chunks:

It had seemed to the unsuspecting Silas that the friendship had
suffered no chill even from his formation of another attachment of a
closer kind. For some months he had been engaged to a young
servant-woman, waiting only for a little increase to their mutual
savings in order to their marriage; and it was a great delight to
him that Sarah did not object to William’s occasional presence in
their Sunday interviews.

Of course I am  nervous because of the opening words – Silas is ‘unsuspecting’ – but of what?  That his friendship had suffered ‘no chill’ despite him forming a greater attachment. If William Dane is secretly made cold to Silas  because Silas has a lover then a serious problem is brewing, and  it is:

It was at this point in their history that
Silas’s cataleptic fit occurred during the prayer-meeting; and
amidst the various queries and expressions of interest addressed to
him by his fellow-members, William’s suggestion alone jarred with
the general sympathy towards a brother thus singled out for special
dealings. He observed that, to him, this trance looked more like a
visitation of Satan than a proof of divine favour, and exhorted his
friend to see that he hid no accursed thing within his soul. Silas,
feeling bound to accept rebuke and admonition as a brotherly office,
felt no resentment, but only pain, at his friend’s doubts concerning
him; and to this was soon added some anxiety at the perception that
Sarah’s manner towards him began to exhibit a strange fluctuation
between an effort at an increased manifestation of regard and
involuntary signs of shrinking and dislike. He asked her if she
wished to break off their engagement; but she denied this: their
engagement was known to the church, and had been recognized in the
prayer-meetings; it could not be broken off without strict
investigation, and Sarah could render no reason that would be
sanctioned by the feeling of the community.

William, who is ‘self-complacent’ is the only member of the sect who believes Silas’ trance the work of the devil. This has got to be connected to the  threat  to their friendship from Silas’s engagement. but this isn’t just about loss of friendship. It’s about William, who had previously been the recipient of ‘divine favour’ in the vision of the Bible, being shifted from the centre of attention – Silas’ attention, or the community’s attention.

At this time the senior
deacon was taken dangerously ill, and, being a childless widower, he
was tended night and day by some of the younger brethren or sisters.
Silas frequently took his turn in the night-watching with William,
the one relieving the other at two in the morning. The old man,
contrary to expectation, seemed to be on the way to recovery, when
one night Silas, sitting up by his bedside, observed that his usual
audible breathing had ceased. The candle was burning low, and he
had to lift it to see the patient’s face distinctly. Examination
convinced him that the deacon was dead–had been dead some time,
for the limbs were rigid. Silas asked himself if he had been
asleep, and looked at the clock: it was already four in the morning.
How was it that William had not come? In much anxiety he went to
seek for help, and soon there were several friends assembled in the
house, the minister among them, while Silas went away to his work,
wishing he could have met William to know the reason of his
non-appearance. But at six o’clock, as he was thinking of going to
seek his friend, William came, and with him the minister. They came
to summon him to Lantern Yard, to meet the church members there; and
to his inquiry concerning the cause of the summons the only reply
was, “You will hear.” Nothing further was said until Silas was
seated in the vestry, in front of the minister, with the eyes of
those who to him represented God’s people fixed solemnly upon him.
Then the minister, taking out a pocket-knife, showed it to Silas,
and asked him if he knew where he had left that knife? Silas said,
he did not know that he had left it anywhere out of his own pocket–
but he was trembling at this strange interrogation. He was then
exhorted not to hide his sin, but to confess and repent. The knife
had been found in the bureau by the departed deacon’s bedside–
found in the place where the little bag of church money had lain,
which the minister himself had seen the day before. Some hand had
removed that bag; and whose hand could it be, if not that of the man
to whom the knife belonged? For some time Silas was mute with
astonishment: then he said, “God will clear me: I know nothing
about the knife being there, or the money being gone. Search me and
my dwelling; you will find nothing but three pound five of my own
savings, which William Dane knows I have had these six months.” At
this William groaned, but the minister said, “The proof is heavy
against you, brother Marner. The money was taken in the night last
past, and no man was with our departed brother but you, for William
Dane declares to us that he was hindered by sudden sickness from
going to take his place as usual, and you yourself said that he had
not come; and, moreover, you neglected the dead body.”

I’m reading the story fast here, noticing as much as I can, but this mainly plot, and easy to follow, so I am speeding up.

“I must have slept,” said Silas. Then, after a pause, he added,
“Or I must have had another visitation like that which you have all
seen me under, so that the thief must have come and gone while I was
not in the body, but out of the body. But, I say again, search me
and my dwelling, for I have been nowhere else.”

The search was made, and it ended–in William Dane’s finding the
well-known bag, empty, tucked behind the chest of drawers in Silas’s
chamber! On this William exhorted his friend to confess, and not to
hide his sin any longer. Silas turned a look of keen reproach on
him, and said, “William, for nine years that we have gone in and
out together, have you ever known me tell a lie? But God will clear
me.”

“Brother,” said William, “how do I know what you may have done in
the secret chambers of your heart, to give Satan an advantage over
you?”

Silas was still looking at his friend. Suddenly a deep flush came
over his face, and he was about to speak impetuously, when he seemed
checked again by some inward shock, that sent the flush back and
made him tremble. But at last he spoke feebly, looking at William.

“I remember now–the knife wasn’t in my pocket.”

William said, “I know nothing of what you mean.” The other
persons present, however, began to inquire where Silas meant to say
that the knife was, but he would give no further explanation: he
only said, “I am sore stricken; I can say nothing. God will clear
me.”

On their return to the vestry there was further deliberation. Any
resort to legal measures for ascertaining the culprit was contrary
to the principles of the church in Lantern Yard, according to which
prosecution was forbidden to Christians, even had the case held less
scandal to the community. But the members were bound to take other
measures for finding out the truth, and they resolved on praying and
drawing lots. This resolution can be a ground of surprise only to
those who are unacquainted with that obscure religious life which
has gone on in the alleys of our towns. Silas knelt with his
brethren, relying on his own innocence being certified by immediate
divine interference, but feeling that there was sorrow and mourning
behind for him even then–that his trust in man had been cruelly
bruised. _The lots declared that Silas Marner was guilty._ He was
solemnly suspended from church-membership, and called upon to render
up the stolen money: only on confession, as the sign of repentance,
could he be received once more within the folds of the church.
Marner listened in silence. At last, when everyone rose to depart,
he went towards William Dane and said, in a voice shaken by agitation–

“The last time I remember using my knife, was when I took it out to
cut a strap for you. I don’t remember putting it in my pocket
again. _You_ stole the money, and you have woven a plot to lay the
sin at my door. But you may prosper, for all that: there is no just
God that governs the earth righteously, but a God of lies, that
bears witness against the innocent.”

There was a general shudder at this blasphemy.

William said meekly, “I leave our brethren to judge whether this is
the voice of Satan or not. I can do nothing but pray for you, Silas.”

Poor Marner went out with that despair in his soul–that shaken
trust in God and man, which is little short of madness to a loving
nature. In the bitterness of his wounded spirit, he said to
himself, “_She_ will cast me off too.” And he reflected that, if
she did not believe the testimony against him, her whole faith must
be upset as his was. To people accustomed to reason about the forms
in which their religious feeling has incorporated itself, it is
difficult to enter into that simple, untaught state of mind in which
the form and the feeling have never been severed by an act of
reflection. We are apt to think it inevitable that a man in
Marner’s position should have begun to question the validity of an
appeal to the divine judgment by drawing lots; but to him this would
have been an effort of independent thought such as he had never
known; and he must have made the effort at a moment when all his
energies were turned into the anguish of disappointed faith. If
there is an angel who records the sorrows of men as well as their
sins, he knows how many and deep are the sorrows that spring from
false ideas for which no man is culpable.

Poor Silas! And how serious it is , ‘little short of madness’. I said yesterday that I was going to make myself concentrate on the most difficult sentences – and there is one in the section above that needs some time:

To people accustomed to reason about the forms
in which their religious feeling has incorporated itself, it is
difficult to enter into that simple, untaught state of mind in which
the form and the feeling have never been severed by an act of
reflection.

We, George Eliot’s readers, are assumed to be  people ‘accustomed to reason about the forms in which their religious feeling has incorporated itself’.

If I was reading this a room with an actual group of people, I’d definitely be stopping here to open a conversation about  what part reason plays in our religious feeling – whether that be absolute atheism or  devout religious belief. Whatever our state of belief, it is likely that most of us have thought about it. But Silas and other members of the Lantern Yard sect have not applied rational thought to their beliefs.  They live in a ‘simple, untaught state of mind in which the form and the feeling have never been severed by an act of reflection’. Can we, as modern, educated people, imagine that?

Where would such an  act of reflection even begin? It is hard enough to think  outside of your normal box when you know there are boxes. But in Silas’s world, there is only the belief of the Lantern Yard church.  If you go outside  – what will there be? Nothing. Yet something does begin to make Silas think.

Earlier, when he was awaiting judgement by the drawing of lots, he had begun to apply rationality to his situation, and that rationality arises in feeling:

Silas knelt with his brethren, relying on his own innocence being certified by immediate divine interference, but feeling that there was sorrow and mourning
behind for him even then–that his trust in man had been cruelly
bruised.

Key words here are ‘relying’ and ‘feeling’. The relying is to do with his belief, crumbling even as he kneels, that God takes an active part in the doings of men and in particular of men in Lantern Yard. But as he kneels there, he has no faith in that belief: his feeling is one of mis-trust. He is ‘feeling that there was sorrow and mourning behind for him even then’. His trust is, quite rightly, located in his own direct experience. He knows he is innocent. Now his belief in the church of Lantern Yard must go. And with it, everything he holds dear.

And now we come to the hardest part of today’s reading:

We are apt to think it inevitable that a man in
Marner’s position should have begun to question the validity of an
appeal to the divine judgment by drawing lots; but to him this would
have been an effort of independent thought such as he had never
known; and he must have made the effort at a moment when all his
energies were turned into the anguish of disappointed faith. If
there is an angel who records the sorrows of men as well as their
sins, he knows how many and deep are the sorrows that spring from
false ideas for which no man is culpable.

Marner doesn’t ‘question’, he ‘feels’.

I think this is one of the key contributions George Eliot makes to human understanding- that feeling is the genesis of  potential consciousness. (Nearly ten years later, in Middlemarch, George Eliot will write, ‘if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’)

It starts here with feeling, but it can take a long time to work its way up into consciousness and perhaps never does. For Silas there is only the feeling (the feeling is: this is not good and is hurting me) possible thoughts about that feeling are too painful. He cannot reconcile them because he can’t bear the thought. It is too much to ask, too suddenly, and at point where he is broken: ‘to him this would have been an effort of independent thought such as he had never known; and he must have made the effort at a moment when all his energies were turned into the anguish of disappointed faith.’

I’m thinking of instances where I have felt broken, and how difficult, perhaps impossible rational thought is at such times. I suffer the feelings I am feeling, and  only later will I have the thoughts. Perhaps those thoughts will come from someone else in the first instance. someone may talk to me. Am I even able to hear what they are saying? Not in the thick of painful feeling.  I may be incapable of hearing, thinking, understanding because of  the brokenness.

I believe this often happens to people in ordinary real life, and that one of the reasons we have so much in the way of poor mental health (as a general population) is that we are not good at connecting the reality of feeling with the emergence of consciousness or the process of thought. We have our feelings but we can’t match them up with what we believe about reality. This leads me to think of  a very useful bit of thinking from the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, but  I’ll write about that tomorrow.

Time’s up.

I’m conscious that by including Silas Marner text in these postings, the length of the blog post becomes huge.  I’d be glad of feedback as to whether  this is working. Let me know.

7 thoughts on “Reading Silas Marner Day 4: Feeling and Thinking

  1. Hw May 9, 2017 / 8:40 am

    It is totally working for me.

    Each day is like a domiciliary master class in shared reading, and the thoughts/feelings generated feed me through the next 24 hours and beyond. You must do what is right for you, as Lou said, it’s your blog, but as a daily, early reader I personally am getting a huge amount from this.

    Thank you so much. I hope you don’t feel you ‘have’ to do this, or that it would somehow be some failure if there was no blog some days- that would be fine (we’d get used to it..) – but the blogs, particularly Silas, are subtly affecting me. It’s not only like attending a How To masterclass of shared reading, it’s also like being part of a serious shared reading group.

    Thank you.

    • drjanedavis May 9, 2017 / 9:03 am

      Thank you. I don’t feel I have to do it for any external reason but there is an inner imperative! I need the practice! Grateful to have readers alongside me – what a bonus.

  2. A C.M.H.P., H.V. May 9, 2017 / 9:18 am

    Hi Jane,
    I agree with the above poster Hw, my ownly problem​ is that I follow the blog on my phone ( no comp with internet access) so on a small screen it’s difficult scrolling up and down. But the content of the blog is fine, though I was really enjoying the poetry.

    Learning a lot from this,
    Good blog
    Carry on.

    • drjanedavis May 9, 2017 / 1:27 pm

      Think I will come back to poems of the time… just wanted to get fully into this before I switched…

  3. loubyjo May 9, 2017 / 7:02 pm

    wow geting into it now !!! you can feel william actually turning into a green eyed monster as the attention turn to silas and no surprise at all when it was he him who found the knife with the statement “The knife wasnt in my p ocket the villagers just seeing it as a freudian slip ( think ) .
    I agree with u entirely about mental health and feeling but cant be bothered putting any more than that as the subject matter is far to big !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ( well for this moment in time )
    ha anuses me greatly that u ask is this working for us the reader at the same time asking for what wqe think but can see why asking this I would not like to read this on a phone !!! and must admit read it first earlier in the day and then came back to it and wanted to read over and over certain bits
    Their will people who are really missing your poems , perhaps u could do that at weekends bit worried if u go back to poetry like for a certain lengh of time we will miss out on the essence of this !!!!!!
    BUT as hw says up to u what do u feel is best , I have been reading faustus most people like it but one person did not and said be back when finshed yer no worries !!!!!
    It is impossible to please everybody so u shld follow my example and please yourself !!!!!!!!!!!!!! ( sorry)

  4. A C.M.H.P., H.V. May 10, 2017 / 9:36 am

    Hi Jane,
    Re, ” the roar… on the other side of silence”, reminds me of “hyper vigilance” .

    Sorry my comments are going to be economical. 😥
    It takes forever typing on phone and is highly frustrating.🌋

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