Silas Marner Day 14: False hope, real shock


Albertine Rose Buds and the Sky at 6.00am, 4 June

I had a marvellous day of reading yesterday at  the Ashoka Headquarters on Old Ford Road,  Bethnall Green, London. twelve of us spent the day reading parts of Jeanette Winterson’s powerful memoir and meditation on inner life, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, and some poems by a favourite poet of hers, and mine, George Herbert.  It was  really pleasing at the end of the day to hear several group members talking about going off right now to find a bookshop where they could buy Winterson’s book. I think everyone enjoyed an intense reading experience and the personal reflection and reality thrown up by the Herbert poems and Jeanette’s memoir. I really began to think: we need a weekend of this, not just a day.

Thanks to all participants – I really enjoyed reading in your company! Thanks also to Ashoka, for hosting and to Camilla for staying with us and participating in such a lively and engaged way. Thanks to colleagues at The Reader who made it happen.

I’ll be doing a version of the day (same reading materials, though something different will happen because there will be different people present) here in Liverpool on 15th June.

Reading some Silas Marner today. Use the search box to find the back issues which lead us to this point. We’re in chapter three and learning about Godfrey Cass, who at twenty-six and with a bad life mistake controlling his future, is growing bitter.

The yoke a man creates for himself by wrong-doing will breed hate in the kindliest nature; and the good-humoured, affectionate-hearted Godfrey Cass was fast becoming a bitter man, visited by cruel wishes, that seemed to enter, and depart, and enter again, like demons who had found in him a ready-garnished home.

What’s the story? He got involved with woman who is an addict, and ‘a movement  of compunction’ prompted him to marry her (we presume she has had a child). Now he can’t marry the only person who could him  become a better man (Nancy Lammeter).  The mix of kindness, good humour, affectionate-heartedness and the thing that is not mentioned here – is  weakness or stupidity or bad luck? –  has created the second half of the sentence – bitter, cruel and demons.  this is a man who can’t now stand face to face with himself, so must be distracted and amused:

What was he to do this evening to pass the time? He might as well go to the Rainbow, and hear the talk about the cock-fighting: everybody was there, and what else was there to be done? Though, for his own part, he did not care a button for cock-fighting.

Chapter four opens with a  bit of horse dealing, and goes on to the death of Wildfire. I’m reading on, getting through the story, aiming for whatever the ‘what matters’ is, wherever it is looming up. Here’s Dunstan having sold, then lost the horse, walking home, a little inebriated by his flask of brandy, finding himself out side Silas Marner’s cottage, knowing the rumours of money in there. In he goes, no Silas… and Dunstan  takes the two bags of gold. I’m reading fast, reading through plot. It’s the story, and I’m following it but it is not asking me to think – it’s just pulling me along.

If we were reading aloud in a group now, I’d be going as fast as possible, checking everyone was with me but just  getting  on with  it. No need to stop and talk. I’m at the end of the chapter, and turn the page into the next. But now we are in stop, talk  and think territory right away. why has Silas felt o.k. about leaving his cottage unlocked while he was out on an errand?:

The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction, and for this reason it often subsists after such a change in the conditions as might have been expected to suggest alarm. The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened, is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent. A man will tell you that he has worked in a mine for forty years unhurt by an accident as a reason why he should apprehend no danger, though the roof is beginning to sink; and it is often observable, that the older a man gets, the more difficult it is to him to retain a believing conception of his own death. This influence of habit was necessarily strong in a man whose life was so monotonous as Marner’s– who saw no new people and heard of no new events to keep alive in him the idea of the unexpected and the changeful; and it explains simply enough, why his mind could be at ease, though he had left his house and his treasure more defenceless than usual.

I would ask people to think about habits, what happens when nothing happens, why we think the expanse of time where  nothing has happened  affects our thinking about whether something will. But I would be here for hours, I want to get on and reach the conclusion of this movement. And here it comes:

He rose and placed his candle unsuspectingly on the floor near his loom, swept away the sand without noticing any change, and removed the bricks. The sight of the empty hole made his heart leap violently, but the belief that his gold was gone could not come at once–only terror, and the eager effort to put an end to the terror. He passed his trembling hand all about the hole, trying to think it possible that his eyes had deceived him; then he held the candle in the hole and examined it curiously, trembling more and more. At last he shook so violently that he let fall the candle, and lifted his hands to his head, trying to steady himself, that he might think. Had he put his gold somewhere else, by a sudden resolution last night, and then forgotten it? A man falling into dark waters seeks a momentary footing even on sliding stones; and Silas, by acting as if he believed in false hopes, warded off the moment of despair. He searched in every corner, he turned his bed over, and shook it, and kneaded it; he looked in his brick oven where he laid his sticks. When there was no other place to be searched, he kneeled down again and felt once more all round the hole. There was no untried refuge left for a moment’s shelter from the terrible truth.

I’m interested in this sentence, ‘A man falling into dark waters seeks a momentary footing even on sliding stones; and Silas, by acting as if he believed in false hopes, warded off the moment of despair.’ The metaphor is such a terrible one – the man is about to drown – the sliding moving river-bed stones are no comfort at all, and I can imagine my feet on them, trying to find a footing, hoping, hoping. But in Silas’ case it is more than hoping , it is ‘by acting as if he believed in false hopes’. There’s a huge self-protecting trick playing out – he knows the hopes are false, but he’ll act as if he doesn’t, in order to gain some time before that shock has to hit him and collapse his world.  That’s a self-protective human reaction to terrible shock. I fear for him as he braves it.

More of chapter five tomorrow.


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