The function of imagery in everyday speech or writing is, primarily, to explain some point, or to make more vivid an idea or sentiment. Imagery helps to heighten the atmosphere and to develop a theme. Many of these images may symbolise for the author some significant occasion or thought that is not so easy to grasp by the reader. The following ideas may help in developing a deeper understanding of the events and characters which make up this novel.
In ‘Silas Marner’ nature imagery is used extensively. Eliot compares the Lantern Yard sect and its interminable discussions on salvation to ‘young, winged things fluttering forsaken in the twilight’. It is a vivid image of the misguided young people who seek without success a way to God.
Silas’s life in Raveloe is compared to a spider weaving ‘from pure impulse, without reflection’. This conjures up a vision of a creature in mental semi-darkness working to a fixed pattern without joy or without understanding of what he is doing. Later, his life is described as an ‘insect-like existence’: he sits weaving ‘towards the end of his web’. The spider image suggests an unlived-in, musty, dusty, soul-less house. In the Rainbow Inn the farrier tells him that his eyes are like an insect’s so that he can’t see much at a time.
Godfrey, should the Squire disinherit him, would be ‘as helpless as an uprooted tree’. We are given the idea of dead wood, useless for anything but burning, unable to grow or develop.
In Chapter II Eliot contrasts the rich world of Raveloe with the frugality of Lantern Yard: ‘orchards looking lazy with neglected plenty’, ‘careless abundance’.
Silas’s love of his earthenware pot shows that ‘the sap of affection is not all gone’. He gives life to the pot; it has been ‘his companion’, ‘always lending its handle to him’, wearing an expression of ‘willing helpfulness’. This personification sadly emphasises how starved of human affection Silas is.
The presence of a wife and mother in the home is described as ‘the fountain of wholesome love and fear in parlour and kitchen’. This suggests the continuous outpouring of love and fear of God given as a kind of nourishing food.
Nancy Lammeter is equated with the sun – the Lammeter household is ‘sunned’ by her smile. She would have drawn Godfrey safe to the green banks where it was easy to step firmly, but he allows himself to be dragged back ‘into the mud and slime’ by his association with Molly. The contrast is vivid.
The loss of Silas’s gold left his soul ‘like a forlorn traveller on an unknown desert’. The desert may be associated by contrast with the plant images – growth and fruitfulness – that occur regularly in the story.
In relation to Silas’s first visit to the Rainbow Inn and his involvement with the villagers, Eliot says, ‘Our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us any more than without us; there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud.’
In connection with Godfrey’s reliance on Chance, Eliot says of Chance that ‘the evil principle deprecated in that religion (i.e. Chance) is the orderly sequence by which the seed brings forth a crop after its kind’. This is an image of the Biblical notion that bad seed brings forth bad fruit.
Eliot introduces the notion of Eppie’s mind growing into knowledge and Silas’s mind growing into memory. This is a striking image of the future and the past growing towards one another; she clings to him, he to her.
The Squire’s anger is compared to ‘fiery volcanic matters that cool and harden into rock’. It is an excellent image of a man who decides explosively in anger and will not change his decisions even though reason tells him he is wrong.
In spite of Dolly’s efforts to befriend him, Silas is still the ‘shrunken rivulet’ with only this difference, ‘that its little groove of sand was blocked up, and it wandered confusedly against dark obstruction’. This is an excellent image as it helps us to see him in terms of the rise and fall of a river. It also points to the flood that will be released with Eppie’s coming.
The story of Eppie’s arrival and Silas’s new relations with the villagers is shown by Dolly in the imagery of Nature: ‘…..It’s like the night and the morning, the sleeping and the waking, and the rain and the harvest – one goes and the other comes, and we know nothing how or where.’
In Chapter XVII when Nancy’s attention has been drawn to the people heading towards the Stone-pit, she looks out on the churchyard. Her uneasiness is compared to the raven ‘flapping its slow wing across the sunny air’. It is a realistic image; the raven is a symbol of death and disaster.
There are some remarkably descriptive nature images in the novel, e.g. in Chapter II there is the picture of the Raveloe world. In Chapter X there is a striking picture of Christmas Day.
IMAGERY OF GOLD
The image of gold is important. As money it represents the downfall of Silas; in the form of Eppie’s golden hair it brings about his salvation. The story commences with the theft of the money from Lantern Yard and Silas’s loss of faith in God and his fellow-men. In Raveloe his future is all dark: ‘the little light he possessed spread its beam so narrowly, that frustrated belief was a curtain broad enough to create for him the blackness of night’. Later we read that his future was all dark, for ‘there was no unseen love that cared for him’. This darkness will be replaced by the shining life of his new God – gold! ‘How the guineas shone!’ When he loses his new god he will be dark again until the real gold – Eppie – will save him. He loves his gold for itself, not for what he can buy. When it is stolen he has nothing left. It had given him a purpose; it had been a ‘clinging life’.
There is an image of a locked casket with its treasure inside to describe Silas before the theft. Now the casket is empty and the lock broken. A casket keeps things in and his heart is imprisoned with his gold. The empty casket shows that his love has fled, but it also leaves a way open for his love for Eppie.
His first sight of Eppie is startling. Before his fit he has been thinking of his gold; the first thing he sees when he recovers is gold. ‘Gold! – his own gold brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away!’ A contrast is made between the soft warm curls of the child and the hard coins. He believes that the child has come instead of the gold – that the gold has turned into the child.
Later, Eliot contrasts the dead world of Silas with his gold and Eppie’s living gold which forces his thoughts onwards. The gold demanded that he should stay increasingly longer at his monotonous weaving; Eppie calls him from it. Money is no longer important since Eppie has replaced it.
The finding of the gold in the quarry infects Godfrey and Nancy with such a feeling of shame that Dunstan has been a thief. It has already caused Dunstan’s death.
Silas admits to Eppie that, at times, he had missed the gold, but that now it means nothing, so when Godfrey tries to use it as a lever to persuade Silas to surrender Eppie, he is doomed to failure on this point.
It is only at the end Godfrey realises that he himself had rejected the most precious gold of all.
IMAGERY OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS
Light and darkness have a symbolic meaning in the novel. The symbolism is uncomplicated. It first appears in Eliot’s description of the young men in Lantern Yard as young birds ‘fluttering forsaken in the twilight’ – people who have lost their way in the semi-darkness. In Lantern Yard the blackness of the night may symbolises Silas’s ‘frustrated belief’ – suggesting a kind of hell on earth. Even the future is all dark because, paradoxically, there is no Unseen Love that cares for him.
The description of Squire Cass’s parlour with the fading grey light falling dimly on the walls may symbolise the decadence of the Cass family and the absence of the guiding hand of a mother and wife.
Eliot prepares us for the theft of Silas’s gold by her description of the mist turning to rain. Dunstan’s dark deed is in contrast to the bright fire in Silas’s cottage. The darkness will hide him, but it will also make his way so hazardous that he will slip. The light from the cottage may symbolise the gold that has tempted him. Light will later save Silas from his greed.
When the child, Eppie, crawls towards the light in Silas’s cottage she is leaving the blackness of Molly’s life as well as the darkness outside. She may symbolise the light she will bring to Silas so that he, too, can leave his darkness. The end of the snowfall and the parting of the clouds may symbolise the beginning of the break in the clouds that have overhung his life.
Dolly says of Eppie’s coming – ‘it’s like the night and the morning’ – the one goes, the other comes and ‘we know nothing how or where’. Eliot contrasts the dead world of Silas and his gold with Eppie’s m world of life – the former has been hidden in the darkness and the latter loves sunshine. There is also a contrast between the brightness in Silas’s eye and the light of the candle that falls on the gold (after the gold has been found). The light in his eye is an inner light; the candle-light is dim by comparison.
On the visit to Lantern Yard, Eppie is uneasy at the darkness of the place. This may also symbolise the lack of spiritual light there. When they return to Raveloe, Silas says that he has had ‘light enough to trusten by’. Light has overcome darkness.
Some of the characters and many of the things in the story may have a symbolic function, e.g. the broken piece of pottery that Silas puts together may symbolise the spark of affection that still exists within him. We have already dealt with light and darkness as symbols.
Among the characters, Eppie may symbolise salvation. Dunstan – evil; Squire Cass – the decadence of the landed gentry; Dolly Winthrop – faith. The villagers in the Rainbow Inn may symbolise certain types in our own world.
Lantern Yard may represent the gloom in the lives of the members of the sect. The proximity of their place of worship to the jail may also stand for the restrictions and lack of freedom there.
When the child, Eppie, is carried to the Red House by Silas there is a symbolic and prophetic rejection of Godfrey by the child and an acceptance of Silas when she looks away from Godfrey and slowly turns to Silas.
The furze-bush where her mother had been found is a symbol to Eppie of her own past and also perhaps of her mother. The furze is thorny, as Molly’s life had been.