Painful consciousness or oblivion? You choose: Silas Marner, Day 21

agapanthus in Kotor Bay.jpeg
Agapanthus in Kotor Bay, Montenegro 13 July

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.



8 thoughts on “Painful consciousness or oblivion? You choose: Silas Marner, Day 21

  1. harulawordsthatserve July 13, 2017 / 8:00 am

    What an inspiring and interesting post. I’ve not read Silas Marner, but I’ve just downloaded the free ebook. Thank you so much for your astute and thought provoking reflections. I’m looking forward to meeting Molly! With gratitude, Harula x

    • drjanedavis July 14, 2017 / 5:38 am

      You are welcome! thank you.
      – but I’m sorry, Molly isn’t with us for long… if you want to meet an extended character with similar but more fully explored problems, it’s Gwendolen Harleth you need to read, the heroine (anti-heroine) of Daniel Deronda.

      • harulawordsthatserve July 14, 2017 / 6:30 am

        How kind – thanks! I’ll check that one out out too 🙂

  2. A C.M.H.P., H.V., V.H.A., R.A. July 13, 2017 / 9:53 am

    Hi Jane,

    In regards to “Just and self reproving thoughts…..”, and the difficulties thereof.

    Self analysis and judgement of our less than glorious thoughts and actions, is perhaps one of the most difficult endeavours one can undertake, within the privacy of our own mind their is nowhere to hide or decieve our own self righteousness and self deceptioness of our thoughts and actions.

    Our own internal Ego/ self awareness, like water, in the main follows the path of least resistance, when interacting with external entities impositions and judgementalism.

    Who for instance, would hammer their way through a 10 metre thick stone wall, when a open doorway exists within the wall?

    Those that “buck the trend” are glorified and villyfied in equal measure.

    In vindication of Molly’s vindictiveness.

    Is it not Just that Molly (the injured party in the marriage contract) seeks redress of her rightful dues, from Squire Cass the other contractual partner?
    Or does Molly’s motivation to harm Squire Cass’s reputation nullify her claim? ( i.e. two wrong does not make a right.)

    Sorry have I gone of track here.

    Currently reading: I am Right you are Wrong, Edward D Bono.

    • drjanedavis July 14, 2017 / 5:50 am

      I think George Eliot always wants us to ask whether two wrongs can ever make a right – Godfrey Cass is certainly wrong, lazy, self-indulgent, dishonest etc. Molly is in some sense right to want her part of the marriage contract – but her problem is not essentially money or even Cass, it is her addiction. How we going to sort that out? Well, we’re not.

      There’s another ‘wronged’ woman, Mrs Glaisher, in another, later novel, Daniel Deronda. Worth reading and at some point, way into the future, perhaps can look at her here.

  3. karen July 13, 2017 / 7:56 pm

    I belive molly new her battle with addiction was over and I don’t think she wanted reveage she just wanted security for her child.

    • drjanedavis July 14, 2017 / 5:46 am

      I can see why you’d want to think that – it would be good if she was acting for for the child. I can imagine someone writing Molly’s story from that point of view – but in the text we have here it does say she wanted revenge. I didn’t quote the whole passage the other day so you might have missed it :

      This journey on New Year’s Eve was a premeditated act of vengeance which she had kept in her heart ever since Godfrey, in a fit of passion, had told her he would sooner die than acknowledge her as his wife. There would be a great party at the Red House on New Year’s Eve, she knew: her husband would be smiling and smiled upon, hiding her existence in the darkest corner of his heart. But she would mar his pleasure: she would go in her dingy rags, with her faded face, once as handsome as the best, with her little child that had its father’s hair and eyes, and disclose herself to the Squire as his eldest son’s wife. It is seldom that the miserable can help regarding their misery as a wrong inflicted by those who are less miserable. Molly knew that the cause of her dingy rags was not her husband’s neglect, but the demon Opium to whom she was enslaved, body and soul, except in the lingering mother’s tenderness that refused to give him her hungry child. She knew this well; and yet, in the moments of wretched unbenumbed consciousness, the sense of her want and degradation transformed itself continually into bitterness towards Godfrey.

      She’s not acting for the child but as part of the playing out of their very broken relationship…she does have ‘the lingering mother’s tenderness that refused to give him her hungry child…’ I wondered about ‘him’ in that sentence – assume it meant ‘ the demon Opium’ – in other words,at least she wasn’t giving opium to the child.

  4. loubyjo July 15, 2017 / 4:14 pm

    addiction is a fascinating subject and alot of it do with brain chemicals mainly dopamine just going in to a shop and finding a bargain leads you to it again !! The choices we make lead to change witch people on the whole dont like. Meryl streep said in the madisons coutry
    film we are the result of the choices we have made in life so every choice you make to day lead to be were u might be tomorrow . As someone with I suppose an addictive personality it so difficult to stop doing the thing that is actually destroying u suppose small steps is the answer not large strides !!!!!!!

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