I’ve been reading Silas Marner intermittently here on the blog and am picking up today where I left off last time, in chapter XI, where Molly, the wife of Godfrey Cass’s secret marriage, an opium addict, and a desperado, is making her way in the snow towards the Cass family Christmas party to expose her husband and demand money, security, vengeance. George Eliot perhaps expects her readers to be somewhat shocked at Molly’s desire for revenge: she’s what people thought of as a fallen woman. There’s a great equality of expectation in George Eliot, but the moral balance always takes account of the strength and innate power – perhaps education – of each person. Thus Molly is perhaps judged less sternly than Godfrey, even though she is of violent spirit and he is merely weak :
He was well off; and if she had her rights she would be well off too. The belief that he repented his marriage, and suffered from it, only aggravated her vindictiveness. Just and self-reproving thoughts do not come to us too thickly, even in the purest air, and with the best lessons of heaven and earth; how should those white-winged delicate messengers make their way to Molly’s poisoned chamber, inhabited by no higher memories than those of a barmaid’s paradise of pink ribbons and gentlemen’s jokes?
The key word here is ‘us’, which creates a universal moral standard of some sort. we are all to be judged, we are all in it, all of us have requirements placed on us by our humanity. and it is a shared responsibility. What each of us knows in the privacy of our own failing hearts illustrates what we know and can know about others.
These are slow sentences. If you are reading in a Shared Reading group it is important not to rush them, and to help your group really slow down to extract all the juice. Isolate this part of the sentence and ask people to rewrite it in their own contemporary language: what does it mean to us?
Just and self-reproving thoughts do not come to us too thickly, even in the purest air, and with the best lessons of heaven and earth;
Lucky people, not trapped in addiction, in debt, in desperation, those of us living an easy life in the ‘purest air’ and with the highest levels of education, still don’t find it easy to discipline or judge ourselves.
Find an example from yourself, use it.
Because only with your example, offered in trust, will other members of the group be able to make the leap to their own identification with this demanding thought: actually, for all of us, there is more we can ask. We’re thinking about the psychological stresses of addiction here, so make it easy – think about sugar, about smoking, about addiction to Grazia magazine. those easy, normal addictions might make it more possible for readers to make the connection with Molly, with any opium/heroin/crack addict. After all, writes George Eliot, if we find it so hard, why should it be easy for someone with so much less:
how should those white-winged delicate messengers make their way to Molly’s poisoned chamber, inhabited by no higher memories than those of a barmaid’s paradise of pink ribbons and gentlemen’s jokes?
I wonder why ‘just and self-reproving thoughts’ are called ‘white-winged delicate messengers’? – as if they were fairies or angels? They are easily brushed away, perhaps, easily ignored? they are like butterflies. They are not dangerous! They can be ignored. We’ve certainly seen Godfrey Cass ignoring them, brushing hard to force good impulses of brutal honesty away…
And I’d also want to ask, what kind of person is Molly? How educated is she? What has life taught her? The highest she can hope for is ‘pink ribbons and gentleman’s jokes’… Perhaps oddly this is making me think of the Rotherham child abuse scandal which recently came to UK telly in the form of a drama-documentary, Three Girls. some vodka and a kebab, a free ride in taxi – not great rewards but in a world of the lowest expectation, in the first instance, worth having. If we were updating Silas, would Molly be one of those girls?
She had set out at an early hour, but had lingered on the road, inclined by her indolence to believe that if she waited under a warm shed the snow would cease to fall. She had waited longer than she knew, and now that she found herself belated in the snow-hidden ruggedness of the long lanes, even the animation of a vindictive purpose could not keep her spirit from failing. It was seven o’clock, and by this time she was not very far from Raveloe, but she was not familiar enough with those monotonous lanes to know how near she was to her journey’s end. She needed comfort, and she knew but one comforter–the familiar demon in her bosom; but she hesitated a moment, after drawing out the black remnant, before she raised it to her lips. In that moment the mother’s love pleaded for painful consciousness rather than oblivion–pleaded to be left in aching weariness, rather than to have the encircling arms benumbed so that they could not feel the dear burden. In another moment Molly had flung something away, but it was not the black remnant–it was an empty phial. And she walked on again under the breaking cloud, from which there came now and then the light of a quickly veiled star, for a freezing wind had sprung up since the snowing had ceased. But she walked always more and more drowsily, and clutched more and more automatically the sleeping child at her bosom.
The area I’d want to concentrate on here is Molly’s need for comfort, and the battle inside her for comfort for self or child. Molly ‘knew but one comforter’: her drug, opium. I wonder if the name ‘comforter’ was in use at this time for Christ? If so, this makes George Eliot’s use of the word dangerous, doesn’t it?
Would George Eliot ( Marian Evans in real life) have read Marx? ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’
My resident expert tells me probably not. Still, I’d probably want to raise this famous quotation of 1844, and the idea of Christ as comforter. (Silas Marner was published in 1861). Is the function the same? Was religion a kind of opium to Silas? Is there anyone in this book for whom religion is not opium but consciousness?
And I’d want to notice what it is that weakly fights the instinct for false comfort here.
In that moment the mother’s love pleaded for painful consciousness rather than oblivion–pleaded to be left in aching weariness, rather than to have the encircling arms benumbed so that they could not feel the dear burden.
A mother’s love might bring on ‘painful consciousness’, arms might prefer ‘the dear burden’ of carrying the heavy toddler to the benumbing nothing of the drug. Might. but the need for comfort in Molly is too strong. She’s her own baby, must have the comfort.
I’d want to set some of these thoughts against the experience of Godfrey Cass, there even as Molly stumbles in the lane, in the Squire’s Christmas party, drinking himself out of consciousness. The novel seems to ask us to compare one after another human action, always looking for the moment where we, ‘us’ , our collective and personal selves, provide a measuring stick and judgement place. How does this moment measure up? And this? and this ? It’s painful, consciousness. Are you willing to have it?
Questions – not answers – are the clue to a full reading of Silas Marner. You’ve got to spot them, be willing to ask them, not worry too much about the answers.