Continuing my slow reading of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. You’ll find a whole e-text here and previous posts can be found by typing ‘Silas Marner’ into the search box.
We are in chapter two, and reading a paragraph beginning ‘Silas now found himself and his cottage suddenly beset’, which is giving us an account of how Silas became completely cut-off from his neighbours. People think he can work magic cures:
But the hope in his wisdom was at length changed into dread, for no one believed him when he said he knew no charms and could work no cures, and every man and woman who had an accident or a new attack after applying to him, set the misfortune down to Master Marner’s ill-will and irritated glances. Thus it came to pass that his movement of pity towards Sally Oates, which had given him a transient sense of brotherhood, heightened the repulsion between him and his neighbours, and made his isolation more complete.
I’m interested in the second sentence here, ‘thus is came to pass…’ which points to another in a series of misfortunes which have hit Silas and broken his life. Silas has suffered expulsion from his original community on Lantern Yard, now without ever having been properly connected to them Silas is increasingly cut off from his neighbours in Raveloe. The fact that he has had a ‘transient sense of brotherhood’ and lost it again is painful, and may be part of that strong word, ‘repulsion’ – which is not one way – Silas feels it as much as the villagers.
The next paragraph takes on the analysis of the growth of habit. Silas weaves to comfort himself and is paid in gold, and he ‘loves’ the gold as a kind of companion. Is it impossible to imagine how man might come to love coins? George Eliot asks us to look at our own habits and extrapolate from what we do know:
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 in the very beginning of their hoard, showed them no purpose beyond it.
It’s interesting that her analysis of a habit is ‘repetition has bred a want’, which I think is almost exactly what contemporary psychology believes about the formation of habit. I’ve been reading Charles Duhig’s book Habit, (don’t have it with me as I write so can’t look it up) a really fascinating account of what habits are and how they form and may be broken. Becoming a miser, George Eliot seems to be saying, is not about deliberate will, based in imagination (I want to be….) but rather more like becoming an alcoholic. The repetition creates a need, which becomes the habit.
Marner wanted the heaps of ten to grow into a square, and then into a larger square; and every added guinea, while it was itself a satisfaction, bred a new desire. In this strange world, made a hopeless riddle to him, he might, if he had had a less intense nature, have sat weaving, weaving–looking towards the end of his pattern, or towards the end of his web, till he forgot the riddle, and everything else but his immediate sensations; but the money had come to mark off his weaving into periods, and the money not only grew, but it remained with him.
Something lovely about the golden faces of the coins breaks up the robotic compulsion to weave. ‘The money had come’ and the money ‘remained with him.’ They very fact of not losing it, it being a constant in Silas’ broken life, creates an emotional bond for him:
He began to think it was conscious of him, as his loom was, and he would on no account have exchanged those coins, which had become his familiars, for other coins with unknown faces. He handled them, he counted them, till their form and colour were like the satisfaction of a thirst to him; but it was only in the night, when his work was done, that he drew them out to enjoy their companionship.
Of course the loom is not conscious of him and neither are the coins: that attribution of consciousness is a kind of love, an animation of inanimate objects into companions, or to use George Eliot’s word, ‘familiars‘. He is not a witch, and yet the word is used in both its senses here – they are members of his family, they are his intimate associates. And they are in some sense his creatures that do his bidding. They stack up. They make patterns. They are an external manifestation of something within Silas.They provide order. This makes a sort of life.
So, year after year, Silas Marner had lived in this solitude, his guineas rising in the iron pot, and his life narrowing and hardening itself more and more into a mere pulsation of desire and satisfaction that had no relation to any other being. His life had reduced itself to the functions of weaving and hoarding, without any contemplation of an end towards which the functions tended. The same sort of process has perhaps been undergone by wiser men, when they have been cut off from faith and love–only, instead of a loom and a heap of guineas, they have had some erudite research, some ingenious project, or some well-knit theory.
Here we come to a sort of nub – remember a few days ago I wrote about ‘what counts?’ ‘Faith and love’ affect life and without them, all lives, not just the lives of simple men like Silas become ‘reduced’ to mere ‘functions’. Those ‘functions’ may look more interesting or respectable, ‘some erudite research, some ingenious project, or some well-knit theory’ but the mechanical ‘pulsation of desire and satisfaction that had no relation to any other being’ is the problem, not the nature of the work. ‘Faith and love’ and ‘any other being’ are the key components George Eliot recognises here as part of the character of a fulfilled life. Silas’ life is ‘narrowing and hardening itself’ into one channel.
One of the things George Eliot is almost obsessed by is how, as in this part of the story, small daily actions lead to big life-breaking consequences. I’m suddenly struck, as I read this morning, with the thought that Silas is himself like something caught in a web. Gradually, he is losing the ability to move – or be moved by anything but his gold. But not quite:
Yet even in this stage of withering a little incident happened, which showed that the sap of affection was not all gone. It was one of his daily tasks to fetch his water from a well a couple of fields off, and for this purpose, ever since he came to Raveloe, he had had a brown earthenware pot, which he held as his most precious utensil among the very few conveniences he had granted himself. It had been his companion for twelve years, always standing on the same spot, always lending its handle to him in the early morning, so that its form had an expression for him of willing helpfulness, and the impress of its handle on his palm gave a satisfaction mingled with that of having the fresh clear water. One day as he was returning from the well, he stumbled against the step of the stile, and his brown pot, falling with force against the stones that overarched the ditch below him, was broken in three pieces. Silas picked up the pieces and carried them home with grief in his heart. The brown pot could never be of use to him any more, but he stuck the bits together and propped the ruin in its old place for a memorial.
So, objects seem to have expressions and attitudes and to call up emotions:the pot ‘had an expression for him of willing helpfulness, and the impress of its handle on his palm gave a satisfaction mingled with that of having the fresh clear water’. Silas is still alive to feeling and when he sticks the bits back together it is almost an act of love or of thanks or gratitude. He props the ruin ‘in its old place for a memorial’. If he has human friends, so he would mark their passing.
If we were together in a group now, we would spend some time thinking about ways in which we imbue objects with personality ? Does your mug seem friendly, does your sink full of dishes look accusing? And what does this mean for the human tendency/necessity for ‘relationship’?