Silas Marner By George Eliot Summary and Analysis Part 1: Chapter 2

Summary

Silas' life at Raveloe is so unlike that at Lantern Yard that it seems almost a dream. The countryside is different, the church has little in common with that of his old sect, and even the old Power he has trusted in seems far away here.

Work claims all of Silas’ attention until he receives his first money. Then the coins seem to offer companionship. Silas comes to look forward to the evenings, when he can take pleasure in the brightness of his gold.

From his mother, Silas had learned the medicinal properties of herbs, and once he uses his knowledge to bring relief to a sick woman. For some time after that, he is beset by villagers wanting charms against disease or other evils. Silas knows of no such charms, but his refusal is taken as mere ill-temper, and after that he is more alone than ever.

His work and his gold draw Silas ever farther from contact with his neighbors. Only once does anything happen to show that he has any affection left: Silas drops his old pot and saves the pieces as a memorial of its long service. After that, there is only his money and his loom, and thoughts of them when he is away from home. He forgets his herbs; his life shrinks into the compass of his room.

Analysis

Once again Eliot uses a general beginning, presenting the proposition that "minds that have been unhinged from their old faith and love have perhaps sought this Lethean influence of exile, in which the past becomes dreamy because its symbols have all vanished, and the present too is dreamy because it is linked with no memories." This statement is addressed directly to the reader. Such authorial addresses are a regular part of Eliot's technique, and they serve an important function in the novel. They are intended to guide the reader's response to the actions and characters and to channel the reader’s thoughts in the desired direction. They are rarely intrusive, for it has been evident from the first that this is a "told" story. Eliot makes no attempt to hide behind the scenes. This openness is a standard technique of Victorian fiction, and it is a useful technique when used with the skill that Eliot shows. The remarks draw the reader into the novel by connecting the fictional world with the real through the person of Eliot. They account for the "contemplative" air of the novel, for we are presented not only with the raw event but with the results of a long process of thought on the events.

Silas' life is set as a test of the proposition that Eliot has presented. His old life at Lantern Yard is contrasted to the new life at Raveloe, where he feels "hidden even from the heavens." The "unquestioned doctrine," the hymns, all the old "channels of divine influences" have been closed; the symbols of the past have vanished. The present is certainly dreamy, for it takes no account of the life going on outside.

This period is the crux of Silas' life for the next fifteen years: "There was nothing that called out his love and fellowship toward the strangers he had come amongst." Eliot implies that such love might have saved him: this sentiment is the meaning of the long passage on Silas’ one sympathetic contact, the time he brought herbs to ease a woman suffering from heart disease. This incident is seen from Silas' point of view, to show his reasons for refusing to aid other people who wanted charms and cures. We have already been shown that his reasons were not accepted by the community. The human contact that might have drawn Silas out finally isolates him completely. It is this lack of companionship which turns him from his work to his gold as the interest of his life. Note that he does not desire wealth. To Silas, coins are friends to enjoy.

So Silas withers. Recall from the first chapter the "bent, treadmill attitude" he assumes. He becomes almost a machine himself, certainly little better than a machine: "His life had reduced itself to the mere functions of weaving and hoarding"; it is "a mere pulsation of desire and satisfaction." That image pictures the essence of Silas' life, his heartbeat, his driving force, as a mechanical process of desiring and getting. The only sign of any human feeling left in him is his saving the bits of his ruined pot as a memorial, yet this is a hopeful sign.

A contrast that Eliot emphasizes is that between the religious customs of Lantern Yard and of Raveloe. This contrast will be elaborated in later chapters, but already it is apparent that religion here is slack. There is a church "which men gazed at lounging at their own doors in service-time." The women "seemed to be laying up a stock of linen for the life to come," as though hoarding in this life would help lay up treasure in Heaven.

Note the nature images that Eliot uses. These compare a man to a tree or an insect, or the natural world to human society. Such images help to define the quality of the life of a person or of the community. For example, in Raveloe, even the orchards look "lazy with neglected plenty." Silas seems to weave, "like the spider, from pure impulse, without reflection." His cloth is a "brownish web," yet "the sap of affection was not all gone" — as though affection should give sustenance as sap sustains the tree.

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