I’ve been reading Silas Marner intermittently here on the blog and am picking up today where I left off last time, in chapter XII, where Molly has just drunk the last of her opium and is about to fall into a stupour in the snow:
…complete torpor came at last: the fingers lost their tension, the arms unbent; then the little head fell away from the bosom, and the blue eyes opened wide on the cold starlight. At first there was a little peevish cry of “mammy”, and an effort to regain the pillowing arm and bosom; but mammy’s ear was deaf, and the pillow seemed to be slipping away backward. Suddenly, as the child rolled downward on its mother’s knees, all wet with snow, its eyes were caught by a bright glancing light on the white ground, and, with the ready transition of infancy, it was immediately absorbed in watching the bright living thing running towards it, yet never arriving. That bright living thing must be caught; and in an instant the child had slipped on all-fours, and held out one little hand to catch the gleam. But the gleam would not be caught in that way, and now the head was held up to see where the cunning gleam came from. It came from a very bright place; and the little one, rising on its legs, toddled through the snow, the old grimy shawl in which it was wrapped trailing behind it, and the queer little bonnet dangling at its back–toddled on to the open door of Silas Marner’s cottage, and right up to the warm hearth, where there was a bright fire of logs and sticks, which had thoroughly warmed the old sack (Silas’s greatcoat) spread out on the bricks to dry. The little one, accustomed to be left to itself for long hours without notice from its mother, squatted down on the sack, and spread its tiny hands towards the blaze, in perfect contentment, gurgling and making many inarticulate communications to the cheerful fire, like a new-hatched gosling beginning to find itself comfortable. But presently the warmth had a lulling effect, and the little golden head sank down on the old sack, and the blue eyes were veiled by their delicate half-transparent lids.
The movement from Molly to the child is like the panning of camera as it moves from concentration on the mother to the child sleeping – and soon waking – in her arms. We see close-up Molly’s fingers unbending and then her arms falling open, and the child, ‘accustomed to be left to itself for long hours without notice from its mother’ getting up and toddling off towards the light it sees in what we discover is Silas’ cottage. And where is Silas? He has been getting up to open his door all evening and is standing there now in a cataleptic trance, the child was wandered in while he has been ‘away’:
Turning towards the hearth, where the two logs had fallen apart, and sent forth only a red uncertain glimmer, he seated himself on his fireside chair, and was stooping to push his logs together, when, to his blurred vision, it seemed as if there were gold on the floor in front of the hearth. Gold!–his own gold–brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away! He felt his heart begin to beat violently, and for a few moments he was unable to stretch out his hand and grasp the restored treasure. The heap of gold seemed to glow and get larger beneath his agitated gaze. He leaned forward at last, and stretched forth his hand; but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered soft warm curls. In utter amazement, Silas fell on his knees and bent his head low to examine the marvel: it was a sleeping child–a round, fair thing, with soft yellow rings all over its head. Could this be his little sister come back to him in a dream– his little sister whom he had carried about in his arms for a year before she died, when he was a small boy without shoes or stockings? That was the first thought that darted across Silas’s blank wonderment. Was it a dream? He rose to his feet again, pushed his logs together, and, throwing on some dried leaves and sticks, raised a flame; but the flame did not disperse the vision– it only lit up more distinctly the little round form of the child, and its shabby clothing. It was very much like his little sister. Silas sank into his chair powerless, under the double presence of an inexplicable surprise and a hurrying influx of memories. How and when had the child come in without his knowledge? He had never been beyond the door. But along with that question, and almost thrusting it away, there was a vision of the old home and the old streets leading to Lantern Yard–and within that vision another, of the thoughts which had been present with him in those far-off scenes. The thoughts were strange to him now, like old friendships impossible to revive; and yet he had a dreamy feeling that this child was somehow a message come to him from that far-off life: it stirred fibres that had never been moved in Raveloe–old quiverings of tenderness–old impressions of awe at the presentiment of some Power presiding over his life; for his imagination had not yet extricated itself from the sense of mystery in the child’s sudden presence, and had formed no conjectures of ordinary natural means by which the event could have been brought about.
Silas can’t see properly – so the child’s hair looks at first like gold, there on the hearth where it used to be. when he realises it is a child his first thought is of his baby sister, a child he has loved and cared for in his boyhood. The psychological reality of Silas’s response here is tremendous – both shock and surprise, feelings of love, glad ness of the gold and then the memories of his childhood, his baby sister, his own poverty:
It was very much like his little sister. Silas sank into his chair powerless, under the double presence of an inexplicable surprise and a hurrying influx of memories.
The memories are of love, something Silas has not felt all the time he has been in Raveloe. He is thrust back to old feelings he had in his old life in and before Lantern Yard, feelings almost bordering on belief:
within that vision another, of the thoughts which had been present with him in those far-off scenes. The thoughts were strange to him now, like old friendships impossible to revive; and yet he had a dreamy feeling that this child was somehow a message come to him from that far-off life: it stirred fibres that had never been moved in Raveloe–old quiverings of tenderness–old impressions of awe at the presentiment of some Power presiding over his life;
There are elements of Silas Marner that seem like fairy-tale. This transition from Molly, to child to Silas is one of those moments. But it’s also powerful realism – the child, waking up, begins to move about in what we’d all recognise as real life in a real toddler: she moves
with a pretty stagger that made Silas jump up and follow her lest she should fall against anything that would hurt her. But she only fell in a sitting posture on the ground, and began to pull at her boots, looking up at him with a crying face as if the boots hurt her.
Similarly, when we reach the end of the chapter, and find, with Silas, the mother, Molly, dead, in the snow, we are thrust back into an awful reality. Yet even as Molly dies of her addiction, Silas seems to be coming back to life through the presence of her child…