The main fairy-tale element in Silas Marner is found in the story of Silas and Eppie. Remember the paragraph which launches the main plot:
‘In the early years of this century, such a linen weaver, named Silas Marner, worked at his vocation in a stone cottage that stood among the nutty hedgerows near the village of Raveloe, and not far from the edge of a deserted stone-pit’.
This opening has some of the essential features we expect in a fairy-tale: its compactness, its air of authority, its establishment of essential detail. The location of Marner’s cottage and the suggestion of timelessness are other appropriate details. The ending, too, is a typical fairy-tale one, reminiscent of hundreds of endings in children’s stories, where the good characters live happily ever after:
‘O father’, said Eppie, ‘what a pretty home ours is! I think nobody could be happier than we are’.
The details, the style and the tone of these passages convey the impression that we are in the world of fairy story where the good characters, having been tested, emerge to live happily ever after. Between the beginning and end of the novel, numerous passages take us far away from anything we might expect to find in a realistic novel, and into the magical world of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson:
‘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!’
Fairy-tale elements are scattered freely throughout the novel and gold is a dominant influence on the action, as it is in so many fairy-tales: other features worth mentioning are the themes of loss and discovery, of death and rebirth, restoration, regeneration and transformation. The mystery of Eppie’s identity is also relevant here, as are the many secrets long hidden but at last revealed. The extremes of good and evil represented by some of the characters should also be noted, as should the motif of stolen, buried and recovered treasure. Finally, it is significant that Eppie appears on New Year’s Eve. This accords with the ancient superstition that luck commonly turned with the New Year. For Silas, Eppie’s arrival fulfils the old prediction of ‘third time lucky’. Two previous entrants to his home brought ill-luck with them; now Eppie is to transform his life for the better.
However, we have to agree that if Silas Marner were simply a fairy-tale, it would scarcely have achieved its classic status. It is, of course, much more than that. While the fairy-tale elements are numerous, it is the solid grounding of the story in the actual and familiar sights, sounds and events of everyday life that makes the story so credible. Raveloe and its immediate environs are compellingly presented in realistic detail:
‘…… orchards looking lazy with neglected plenty; the large church in the wide churchyard; which men gazed at lovingly at their own doors in service time; the purple-faced farmers jogging along the lanes or turning in at the Rainbow; homesteads, where men supped heavily and slept in the light of the evening hearth and where women seemed to be laying up a stock of linen for the life to come’.
The atmosphere of Raveloe is presented to us in concrete detail. Its inhabitants impress themselves unforgettably on our consciousness with their diverse personalities and rich, distinctive speech. The most striking instances of this are found in the Rainbow Inn scenes (Chapter 6). Here the leading personalities of the district drink, argue and gossip:
‘The pipes began to be pulled in a silence which had an air of severity; the more important customers, who drank spirits and sat nearest the fire, staring at each other as if a bet were depending on the first man who winked; while the beer drinkers, chiefly men in fustian jackets and smock-frocks, kept their eyelids down and rubbed their hands across their mouths as if their draughts of beer were a funereal duty attended with embarrassing sadness’.
Realistic scenes like this one are common throughout the novel where very real characters speak very realistically against a realistic background. George Eliot pays great attention to the thought processes of her characters and constantly renders these with great fidelity. One very good example of this is the way in which she traces the pattern of reflection forming in Dunstan’s mind as he enters Marner’s cottage and finds nobody there:
‘If the weaver was dead, who had a right to his money? Who would know where the money was hidden? Who would know that anyone had come to take it away?’
Her realistic treatment of the way in which people’s thoughts can be influenced is also very well illustrated in the affair of the pedlar’s earrings:
‘On the spread of enquiry among the villagers, it was stated with gathering emphasis that the parson had wanted to know whether the pedlar wore earrings in his ears, and an impression was created that a great deal depended on the eliciting of this fact. Of course, everyone who heard the question, not having any distinct image of the pedlar as without earrings, immediately had an image of him as with earrings, larger or smaller, as the case might be, and the image was presently taken for a vivid recollection, so that the glazier’s wife, a well-intentioned woman, not given to lying, and whose home was the cleanest in the village, was ready to declare, as sure as she ever meant to take the sacrament, that she had seen big earrings, in the shape of the young moon, in the pedlar’s two ears’.
George Eliot once argued that ‘a man or woman who publishes writings, inevitably assumes the office of teacher or influencer of the public mind’. In Silas Marner she has a stark lesson for her audience: there is a strong implication in the novel that the lives of the poor have a lot more to recommend them than those of the rich and also that the attitude of the poor towards the important issues of living are often more valid than those of their social superiors. There are also many contrasts made in the novel between the ‘high’ and ‘low’ characters. Silas and Godfrey Cass are both deeply involved in Eppie’s fate, but, while Silas makes all the right decisions, Godfrey, who should know better, makes all the wrong ones.
Finally, in dealing with Eppie’s choice of a humble marriage rather than the life of a lady in the Cass household, George Eliot combines realism with one other classic fairy-tale motif. This time, however, the usual fairy-tale ending does not quite materialise. If Eppie is Cinderella, she does not achieve the same result as her fairy-tale counterpart, and the reason for this lies in her own conscious choice. Her rejection of ease and privilege in favour of life with Silas and her working-class husband makes explicit her refusal to play the role of Cinderella:
‘I shouldn’t know what to think on or to wish for with fine things about me, as I haven’t been used to. And it ‘ud be poor work for me to put on things, and ride in a gig, and sit in a place at church, as ‘ud make them as I’m fond of think me unfitting company for ‘em. What could I care for then? …. I like to working folk and their victuals and their ways’.
The ideal fairy-tale ending generally implies that happiness and material wealth are synonymous. However, here we have a young heroine, Eppie, who can declare with great feeling:
‘I’m promised to marry a working-man, as’ll live with father, and help me to take care of him’.
Her arrival in the story may have carried strong associations from the world of fairy-tales, but the life she has eventually chosen for herself is clearly to be based in the real, everyday world.
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