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 at the end of chapter two, and reading a paragraph that begins,
This is the history of Silas Marner, until the fifteenth year after he came to Raveloe. The livelong day he sat in his loom, his ear filled with its monotony, his eyes bent close down on the slow growth of sameness in the brownish web, his muscles moving with such even repetition that their pause seemed almost as much a constraint as the holding of his breath. But at night came his revelry: at night he closed his shutters, and made fast his doors, and drew forth his gold.
By day, for fifteen years, Silas’ lives as a machine, ‘his muscles moving with such even repetition that their pause seemed almost as much a constraint as the holding of his breath’. By night, something else happens: he comes to life.
I stop to think about the passage of fifteen years. In a period of time like that a major portion of a human life passes. I taught English in Continuing Education at the university for fifteen years. It was long enough for my underlying rhythm-watcher to feel: this is it, my life. (I’m thinking of Derek Mahon’s poem ‘Dog Days’. (And yes, that is the whle poem. A great poem for a shared Reading group.) Of course I didn’t know it was a fifteen year period at the time, that only became apparent at the end, when things changed. During what will later turn out to be fifteen year period, it feels as if you are in the thick of ordinary and you don’t imagine anything will happen to disrupt the habit of life.
And all this time, Silas’ life was two-sided, like a coin. By day, part-machine part-machine operator, by night, ‘revelry’!
What an amazing word to have chosen to describe the flip-side of his being. It is so human, so physical, companionable. I look it up here. Yes, joy, merriment, lively pleasure, even rebellion. It is as if all Silas’ human being goes into the relationship with the coins. He loves them with every bit of his humanity, as if they were human:
He loved the guineas best, but he would not change the silver–the crowns and half-crowns that were his own earnings, begotten by his labour; he loved them all. He spread them out in heaps and bathed his hands in them; then he counted them and set them up in regular piles, and felt their rounded outline between his thumb and fingers, and thought fondly of the guineas that were only half-earned by the work in his loom, as if they had been unborn children–thought of the guineas that were coming slowly through the coming years, through all his life, which spread far away before him, the end quite hidden by countless days of weaving.
Like the broken water pot we saw in the previous paragraph, the coins have faces, and seem like persons. Coins he doesn’t yet own are like ‘unborn children’ to him. This is an immense love. Strange that while George Eliot is spinning a wonderful fairy tale (for that is what it feels like here, isn’t it?) she’s also telling us something profound about the human need to love and to have, to live, our humanity, even when it seems to have gone.
I am thinking about being in a Shared Reading group with a man in a hostel, a street man, a man who smelled and had matted hair. I cannot remember what we were reading, but the man spoke about losing his sense of himself at a very precise point: he knew when it happened: he or his life-force had made a decision. He said ‘I threw my passport and my ISA away and I thought; he’s gone now.’
I was forced by his moving speech to recognise that I had not thought of this man as the same as me, because of his smell and his matted hair. Did I need to be told this man once had a passport and a savings bond to realise he was as human, as living, as complex, as I was? I am grateful to say that reading with this man compelled me to realise my fellowship (to use a George Eliot word) with him. As we read on together that day, I thought about how it would be to be him, not seen as human on the streets most of the day. Seen as dirty, seen as matted, seen as smelly, seen as bad teeth. But not seen, by most of us, a fellow-creature. I imagined him with a beggars notice: Yes! I once had an ISA just like you!
Yesterday at five pm as I walked from the Cunard Building on Liverpool Waterfront to Lime Street Station, a mile perhaps through the city centre, I passed three such men, each living in his own doorway. One lay stretched out on a piece of cardboard deeply engrossed in a book. Another had taken off his shoes and was massaging his left foot, as anyone might. Further on, round the side of Marks and Spencer, three battered-looking women were sitting on the pavement in a patch of sunlight drinking from cans, two of them arguing. Each time, I had to think: these are people like me. And in the back of my mind: what are you going to do about this, Jane? I tell myself someone else is doing something, but that doesnt seem a good answer.
Though The Reader has for many years read in hostels and rehabs, and I think we have done some good work there, I can’t help feeling our efforts would be best directed at the children who are growing up into lives of trouble and difficulty. The problems that get most people to the streets are psychological, spiritual, inner. If the gold had been tins of lager… if Silas had turned at night to whisky…
But I’ve drifted far from the text – get me back to it!
No wonder his thoughts were still with his loom and his money when he made his journeys through the fields and the lanes to fetch and carry home his work, so that his steps never wandered to the hedge-banks and the lane-side in search of the once familiar herbs: these too belonged to the past, from which his life had shrunk away, like a rivulet that has sunk far down from the grassy fringe of its old breadth into a little shivering thread, that cuts a groove for itself in the barren sand.
So here’s a life that has shrunk from its ‘old breadth into a little shivering thread.’ There were once other activities, the herbs, the healing, but these are quite lost. Thing about a river though, is that it can shrink and come back to fullness. Funny to contrast that ‘little shivering thread’ of Silas’ current life with ‘revelry’ we’ve seen him enjoy with his coins ? Or is it? Is the night-time ‘revelry’ the flip-side of the inhuman empty life of day? Are the two connected? If the coins were crack, he’d be thoroughly enjoying himself, reveling. But however much he reveled, his life would still be shrunken.
But to press on: a change is going to come for Silas:
But about the Christmas of that fifteenth year, a second great change came over Marner’s life, and his history became blent in a singular manner with the life of his neighbours.