Stoner by John Williams – A Belated Review

 

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Better late than never I suppose!  But then it seems I’m in good company!  My son suggested Stoner as part of my required reading on a recent week of rest and relaxation, good food and daily rambles by the sea.  His only comments were that it was achingly sad and that it came with a glowing imprimatur from John McGahern.  He was right – it is a stunning page-turner of a book, depicting the life, and indeed the death, of William Stoner, who lived his life in the quad and in the rooms and classrooms adjacent to Jesse Hall in Columbia University, Missouri.  Stoner’s time at the fledgling University, as student and as instructor and finally professor, spans a half century from 1914 and the outbreak of the Great War until the mid-nineteen fifties when another war, the Korean War, threatens to thin the ranks in Columbia’s hallowed halls for a third time in the one century.

John Williams’ novel is a deceptive masterpiece of writing – he manages by inference and sustained inner dialogue and by being confessional to evoke an era and to allow us close as he suffers the slings and arrows of a life which has been enriched by the study of literature.  His lack of confidence in his own ability as a teacher, his constant self-doubt and soul-searching in his own ability, struck a resonant chord with me – the hours of preparation, the repetition of courses, the grading of tests, the hours of mentoring and supervising post grads as they finalise their dissertations and theses, all necessary but removing him from his own specialisation, Renaissance Literature.

William Stoner is an unglamorous, hardworking academic who marries badly, is estranged from his child, toils manfully teaching sophomores and freshmen, year in year out, as his parents before him toiled in the arid, unproductive soil of their Missouri farmholding. Then he dies and is forgotten: a failure, an anti-hero.

A feature of the novel for me was the seamless continuity, the effortless move from one life period to the next as the story unfolds. We pass from Great War to The Roaring Twenties to the Wall Street Crash to Depression to World War as the backdrop to a humdrum life lived well.  Stoner’s life is ordinary, he doesn’t achieve a great deal, nor is he remembered often by his students or colleagues. Stoner isn’t a novel about a man achieving great heights or altering the world, it’s far more personal than that. The novel examines the quiet moments of a person’s life, their small victories and crushing defeats. A life may seem unremarkable on paper, but look a little closer and you will always find hidden depths. John Williams is, in effect, exploring the concept of heroism in twentieth century America.

As we read we find ourselves, then, to use Heaney’s phrase, ‘gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’ as the story unfolds, or to use Stoner’s phrase, we become aware of, “the epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words.” I can only vouch for the fact that there are moments in its reading when the hairs on the nape of my neck stood on edge and I was transported to glimpse eternity through the darkening view from an office window on a winter’s evening as the shades of night come down.

 The novel’s values seem old-fashioned, and William Stoner is cocooned within the university milieu, cloistered would probably be a better description.  He finds his calling and labours conscientiously with little acclaim or recognition.  There are echoes of C.S. Lewis’s work in Oxford here and I also find echoes of Steinbeck and Salinger in John Williams’s depiction of a world view which no longer exists but is attractive for its simplicity and old world charm.

At times in my reading, I was left with the nagging suspicion that the novel is autobiographical and depicts and mirrors Williams’s own academic odyssey. I don’t know enough about John Williams’s life to support or refute this theory but if true his wife, his ‘Edith’, must be glad that the novel has remained obscure and neglected!  It definitely is a paean to his idea of a university and he extols the virtues of university life, a life sharply juxtaposed with the shortcomings and periodic savagery of the world outside the hallowed halls. I am also reminded of Heaney’s beautiful ‘Villanelle for an Anniversary’, commissioned for the three-hundredth anniversary of Harvard University, which evokes the pioneering work of the founder of that great university:

A spirit moved. John Harvard walked the yard,

The atom lay unsplit, the west unwon,

The books stood open and the gates unbarred.

The novel is a kind of masterclass in creative writing.  At times it is subtle and at other times – in its structure, for example – it can be almost brutal, cruelly juxtaposing characters, indeed at times tending to caricature rather than characterise.   For me, the craftsmanship is reminiscent of George Eliot or Dickens.  The juxtaposition of the two women in Willaim Stoner’s life is a very good example of this.  There are no shades of grey here!  Edith and Katherine Driscoll are cruelly juxtaposed as in a melodrama. Edith, has been raised in an emotional vacuum, taught only useless ornamental skills, sheltered as wholly as possible from reality, and “her moral training … was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual” – effectively cultivated to become a brittle, conniving hysteric. Also, to add to the unsubtlety of the novel’s structure, two of Stoner’s antagonists are disfigured and maimed: Hollis Lomax, Stoner’s bête noir and academic adversary and Lomax’s protégé, Charles Walker.

Stoner isn’t an easy read – not because it’s dense or abstruse but because, as I’ve mentioned earlier, it’s so painful and achingly sad. In a vengeful act, Stoner’s wife, Edith, undertakes a deliberate campaign to separate him from his daughter, the one person he truly loves. Later on, after his daughter has been lost to him, Stoner finds real love again with a young student, Katherine Driscoll, his intellectual equal – and once again an enemy, seeing his happiness, sets out to take it from him. At the university, his superior, Hollis Lomax, contrives to make his teaching life a hell, a horrendous endurance test, a battle of wills.  Williams contrives to forcibly deprive his hero of happiness in his marriage, his daughter, his lover, even his vocation. Here again, there are echoes of Silas Marner and it all feels grindingly inevitable, like the notion of the gods in Tennyson’s ‘Lotus Eaters’ or a Greek tragedy.

Part of the novel’s greatness is that it sees life whole and as it is, without delusion yet without despair. The confessional inner dialogue is sustained and Stoner realises at the last that he found what he sought at the university not in books but in his love and study of them. His life has not been in vain, he has had a Pauline conversion and has discovered the joys of literature and he has also loved and lost in his relationships with his parents, his wife, Edith, his daughter, Grace, and his lover, Katherine. The book’s conclusion, such as it is, is that there is nothing better in this life. The line, “It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial,” in reference to his own published text on Renaissance Literature, could be seen as the novel’s own epitaph. As he slips quietly towards oblivion he gives us one of the most beautiful sentences in the novel, as his book falls from lifeless fingers into silence:

“The fingers loosened, and the book they had held moved slowly and then swiftly across his still body and fell into the silence of the room.”

 Every word is perfect.

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After finishing Stoner, my son thrust the Vintage copy into my hands and told me I just had to read it straight away.  Now, days later having finished it myself, I sit here at my laptop desperately trying to find the right words to describe how John Williams’ novel Stoner has affected me.  I’m speechless, I’m in awe,  I’m wide awake, and all I know for sure is that my head is buzzing way too much for me to get to sleep.

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Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’

 

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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.

NATURE IMAGERY

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.

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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.

 

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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.

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SYMBOLISM

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.

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Themes in ‘Silas Marner’

 

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  1. Theme of Redemption

This theme may be divided into two parts, (a) the salvation of Silas Marner from the mental and spiritual disintegration which is taking place within him because of his disillusionment with and rejection of God, and because of his miserliness and withdrawal from society, and (b) the salvation of Godfrey Cass from spiritual destruction because of his secret marriage to Molly Farren and, later, his decision to disown his own child.

There is the notion of the purging of a tragic hero through suffering in the case of both of these characters, but one of them – Godfrey – is, in the end, denied what he demands most.  Yet both of them come to acquire self-knowledge.  Silas says, ‘I’ve had light enough to trusten by; and now she says she’ll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die.’  Godfrey, too, has consolation, ‘And I got you Nancy, in spite of all, and yet I’ve been grumbling and uneasy because I hadn’t something else – as if I deserved it.’

Eliot may be trying to point out that, without contact with other human beings, the heart dries up.  Silas rejects the notion of a loving God and of belief in his fellow-man as a result of his experiences in Lantern Yard.  God turned from him in the drawing of the lots; William Dane and Sarah betrayed him at the human level.

In Raveloe ‘there was nothing that called out his love and fellowship toward the strangers he had come amongst, and the future was all dark, for there was no Unseen Love that cared for him.’  Even his simple impulse to help Sally Oates rebounds on him, and he becomes more isolated.  Money now becomes his new God.  What affection he has left is bestowed on inanimate things – a small brown pot and his gold.  He becomes a miser.

The theft of his gold is the beginning of his salvation.  It brings the sympathy of the villagers – especially Dolly Winthrop.  He feels conscious of ‘dependence on their goodwill.’  The coming of Eppie (perhaps an Act of God) brings him consolation for his suffering.  He begins again to trust a human.  He accepts Dolly’s advice that Eppie should be christened, although he does not know what this means.  With Eppie he lives again.  When he brings her to the village he is met with ‘smiling faces and cheerful questioning.’  She has replaced his gold.  He has been out of touch with Nature as he was in Lantern Yard.  It is Eppie who brings him back to it.  There is no more betrayal.  When Godfrey asks Eppie to come with him, she stands with Silas.

Godfrey’s faults are the result of his weakness of character.  He has a ‘natural irresolution’, ‘moral cowardice’, and is ‘indecisive’.  His marriage to Molly is a result of weakness but also of pity for her.  His motives for concealing the marriage are selfish – fear of discovery, his father’s anger, the loss of his inheritance and of Nancy.

His silent reaction to the news that Molly is dead is a sinful fear that she may not be dead.  His rejection of Eppie is a spoken one.  He disowns his moral and paternal obligations and lacks the moral courage to give up Nancy.  He is now living a lie and tries to justify it by assuring himself that he is thinking only of Nancy’s happiness.  He is punished by a childless marriage.  He has, however, a conscience about Eppie and almost accepts his childlessness as a punishment.  Further punishment and suffering come with the shame of Dunstan’s theft, but he accepts God’s will for the first time and admits his secret to Nancy.  He bitterly realises that Nancy would have gladly accepted Eppie had she known the situation.  He is further punished by Eppie’s rejection of him. His redemption comes in his realisation of the truth that ‘there’s debt we can’t pay like money debts.’  He has suffered, but recognises the injustice of it.  He, too, has some consolation in Nancy.

  1. Theme of Isolation and Communication

The degrees of isolation and communication through which the central character – Silas – passes are extreme.  One might divide his life into four distinct parts – distinct because he is subject to a change of disposition each time.

  1. There is his period in Lantern Yard.
  2. Then his first fifteen years in Raveloe during which he becomes dedicated to his gold and so more isolated.
  3. Next comes the short period after the theft of his gold when he is deprived of any comfort and has only limited communication with the people of Raveloe.
  4. Finally, Eppie arrives and Silas is no longer isolated.

In Lantern Yard he is immersed in the life of the sect.  He shares the rigid, Calvinistic society of his fellow-believers, the companionship of William Dane and the company of Sarah.  His self-doubting is offset by William’s certainty – although in the end of this period God seems to desert him.  William falsely accuses him of theft and Sarah deserts him, he has been relatively contented.

When he arrives in Raveloe he is a stranger and, so an object of suspicion.  He hates ‘the thought of the past’; there is ‘nothing that calls out his love and fellowship towards the strangers in the village.’  He contributes to his own isolation in his failure to invite anyone to visit him and his failure to mix with others except on business.  The riches of Nature are in contrast with the narrow, frugal life (physical and spiritual) of Lantern Yard.  There is no ‘Unseen Love’ that cares for him.  The children fear him and the villagers wonder at his solitary isolation.  The results of his impulsive desire to help Sally Oates are disastrous. He refuses to exploit the villagers and they drive him back to isolation.  His attempt to establish a relationship has, through no fault of his own, driven a wedge between the villagers and him.  Money now becomes his god.  He still retains a spark of affection but it is for inanimate things like his broken pot.  When his gold is stolen, the disaster seems worse than that of Lantern Yard.  His soul is ‘like a forlorn traveller on an unknown desert.’  Yet his impulse is to go for help.  He goes to the Rainbow Inn.  It is here that he communicates with others.

Afterwards the neighbours try to ‘get through’ to him.  He is not yet one of them, but is affected by their anxiety to help.  He feels that people might help him.  Their kindness may spring from their recognition of suffering – ‘pain and mishap present a far wider range of possibilities than gladness and enjoyment.’  Although he still feels desolate he is now aware that he depends on others.  Yet he is not cheered by Dolly as ‘human love and divine faith have not yet been released in him.’

The coming of Eppie changes everything.  It makes the villagers more actively sympathetic.  She unlocks the door to his happiness within the community when he determines to meet the neighbours for her sake.  He acquires knowledge of life from his new acquaintances.  As he grows older, his eyes ‘seem to have gathered a longer vision as is the way with eyes that have been short-sighted in life.’  This may be symbolic of his spiritual outlook.  Eliot says that a sense of presiding goodness and human trust come with all pure peace and joy.  The human trust is important; he had lost it after Lantern Yard.

He has a bad moment when Eppie speaks of marriage.  Is his gold again being stolen?  But she reassures him.  His final trial comes when Godfrey arrives to ask for Eppie.  Silas’s decision not to stand in her way is heroic, but he has no need to fear; he will never again be isolated.

Godfrey Cass may be included as one whose failure to communicate contributes to his unhappiness.  The Red House atmosphere is not conducive to communication, as love does not exist within it.  His lack of true communication with Nancy prevents him getting to know her until it is almost too late.  He is afraid to tell Squire Cass of his marriage to Molly, a social inferior, because he fears the Squire’s reaction and because he feels that he will lose Nancy.  He again fails to communicate when he denies knowledge of Molly and then rejects his child.  When he finally tells Nancy of the marriage, she tells him that she would have accepted Eppie.  He now realises that his reticence has been for nothing.

Again, when he calls Silas to surrender Eppie, he shows his inability to understand Silas by speaking in terms of bodily warts and money and by painting Eppie’s future as a lady and contrasting it with the rough life before her if she remains with Silas.  It is only when he faces the truth and accepts the justice of his punishment that he is saved.  He now knows himself and is rewarded when Nancy’s eyes and his ‘meet in trust’.

  1. Theme of Chance

In Chapter XI Eliot personally intervenes to comment on Chance – ‘In this point of trusting to some throw of fortune’s dice, Godfrey can hardly be called old-fashioned.  Favourable Chance is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in.’  she personifies Chance as a deity, ‘the mighty creator of success and its worship is a religion of these people.’

Godfrey is always hopeful that something will turn up to save a dangerous situation.  As a result he finds it hard to make a decision about anything.  So he falls back on ‘casualties’ (accidental happenings).  He fails to admit his marriage to Molly Farren because he feels that, the longer the interval before revelation, the more chances there are of deliverance from some of the unpleasant consequences to which he may have subjected himself.  When Dunstan fails to return from the sale of Wildfire, Godfrey asks himself why he should cut off his hopes by his own admission of his misdeeds.  If Dunstan fails to return soon everything may blow over.  When the Squire tells him to propose to Nancy with the half-threat that the Squire may himself speak to Nancy’s father he flies to ‘his usual refuge, that of hoping for some unforeseen turn of fortune, some favourable chance which would save him from unpleasant consequences – perhaps even justify his insincerity by manifesting its prudence’.  Not until Eppie rejects him does he face the truth and accept the consequences.

 Silas Marner, too, at one stage leans on Chance.  He, like the Lantern Yard brethren, believes that Chance in the form of ‘trial by lot’, reflects God’s judgement.  When his innocence is not borne out, he rejects God.  Later, after Eppie’s coming, he agrees with Dolly that there is good in the world.  He feels that the ‘lots’ were compensated for by Eppie.  ‘There’s dealings with us – there’s dealings.’  Eppie, too, has arrived by Chance.

  1. Theme of Love

Love runs through the novel as a recurring motif.  It is associated with other themes.  Its absence may be noted in Lantern Yard where the devotees have been taught that they are miserable sinners, so that they are prepared to believe in the sinfulness of their brethren and to punish it without an impulse of charity or human pity.  Each thinks only of his own salvation.  Lantern Yard also suppresses Silas’s love of Nature.

Yet, in Raveloe, Silas feels ‘a rush of pity’ for Sally Oates.  He also shows grief for his broken pot, but his affection is for inanimate things.  At first the villagers in Raveloe, because of their superstition, contribute to Silas’s loveless life by withholding whatever neighbourliness they might normally bestow on a fellow-human.  His miserliness saps his love for other human beings; gold is his true love.

His love is rekindled, albeit slowly when his gold is stolen.  He feels pity for Jem Rodney whom he accuses of the theft, realising the injustice of the accusation. (This is an echo of what befell himself in Lantern Yard).  His apology is, in effect, a gesture of love.  The kindness of the villagers to someone in trouble is an indication that love is there if he can meet it half-way.  Dolly Winthrop is in the vanguard of human compassion; she is ‘mild and patient’ and helps those who need help.  This is true love.

The coming of Eppie brings true love into Silas’s life; not alone the love she gives to him and the love which he bestows on her, but also the friendship and sympathy of the villagers.  Her pranks and naughtiness make him realise that love makes claims on him, yet he cannot really find it within himself to punish her.  After sixteen years with her he has acquired the ‘mild, passive happiness of love-crowned age in his face.’  Eliot says that, because of his love and the seclusion of his cottage, she has been preserved from the coarseness of village talk and habits, so that she has a touch of refinement.  In the end his love for her is repaid by her declaration of love for him and her rejection of Godfrey.  He now asserts his trust in God.

Godfrey and Dunstan have been deprived of love since their mother’s death.  Their father is weak in character and self-indulgent.  He rules his household by fear.  He lacks courtesy and makes no attempt to understand his sons.  Dunstan has no saving graces; he is entirely lacking in love.  Godfrey shows his weakness in marrying Molly Farren, but he is conscious of the harm he has done to her.  He loves Nancy Lammeter and sees her as his loving wife, but even in his love he has no real knowledge of her and so postpones admitting to her his unfortunate marriage.

Eliot says ‘…..the yoke a man creates for himself by wrong-doing will breed hate in the kindliest nature’, and that the affectionate-hearted Godfrey is becoming bitter and subject to cruel wishes (presumably for the early death of Molly).  When he hears that she is dead, his fear is that she may not really be dead.  He then rejects his own child – Eppie.  This is the antithesis of love.  There is happiness and love in his marriage to Nancy, although it may be asked if Nancy falls short of love in her refusal to adopt the child.  When Godfrey finally admits to his marriage to Molly, their eyes meet ‘ with awe in them, as at a crisis which suspended affection.’  Is there a temporary cessation of love here on Nancy’s part?  She speaks of a chance lost of having a child to love her.  After their abortive attempt to persuade Eppie to live with them, they again look into one another’s eyes.  It is now that, although Eppie has rejected him, he knows that Nancy truly loves him, ‘And I got you, Nancy, in spite of all.’

 5. Theme of Nature

Eliot believed that Nature is an influence in developing the human person.  Silas rejects Nature in Lantern Yard, briefly returns to it to aid Sally Oates and then, under the influence of Eppie, finally returns.  Eppie’s wish is for a garden.  This may indicate her simplicity and that Nature is sufficient for her.  It is also possible to discuss human nature under this theme.  (See further notes on Nature Imagery here.)

 

  1. The Theme of Knowledge

The theme of Knowledge has some importance in the novel.  There is a suggestion that knowledge of oneself and others, or the lack of it, plays an important part in both characterisation and plot.  Eliot, speaking of the Lantern Yard sect with its constant discussions on the possibility of salvation, says it resembles ‘young winged things fluttering forsaken in the twilight.’  This suggests a misdirected search for knowledge that is in contrast with Dolly Winthrop’s certain trust in ‘Them above’.

The superstition of the villagers in Raveloe that helps keep Silas in isolation is a result of their fear that Silas possesses knowledge that they do not have, and their belief that knowledge and skill come from the devil.  When his gold is stolen, the villagers see him as without knowledge and so, godly.

With the coming of Eppie, Silas acquires knowledge from his now sympathetic neighbours. His discussions with Dolly also help him towards religious contentment.  He also gains self-knowledge when Godfrey cannot begin to understand why Silas might not wish to part with Eppie.  Yet Eliot says that it is only the want of sufficient knowledge that allows him to be deliberately unkind.

Godfrey also undergoes a journey towards self-knowledge.  You might try to map this journey yourself using the incidents in the novel.

 

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Just a thought …… about Harper Lee’s Maycomb, Alabama and other related settings….

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Middle Earth, Narnia, and Wessex are all examples of exotic, or parallel-world settings created by novelists to base their stories in.  Novelists have always created these imaginary worlds for their own purposes.  Middle Earth is the fictional universe created by Tolkien for his best loved works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  C.S. Lewis goes to great rounds to create another fictional realm for his seven Narnia books which make up his  Chronicles of Narnia.  Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Novels are situated in a ‘partly real, partly dream country’.

Being a Harper Lee fan I’ve been awaiting Go Set  a Watchman with eager anticipation since the old PR machine kicked into gear earlier in the year.  For the purposes of this blog, however, I just want to focus for a little while on the setting of both novels, and novels in general, and it is clear to me that the real life Monroeville, Alabama of her youth becomes the fictional Maycomb, Alabama of her novels.  Lee sets her novels here for a reason: she deliberately selects her setting, and in effect the fictional Maycomb becomes another Narnia or Middle Earth – a microcosm of all that is good and bad in 1930’s America.  She tells us that one went to Maycomb, ‘to have his teeth pulled, his wagon fixed, his heart listened to, his money deposited, his soul saved, his mules vetted’.  She describes it as an isolated place, in effect it is an Everyplace – the town, ‘had remained the same for a hundred years, an island in a patchwork sea of cotton fields and timber land’.  It is, in effect, a remote backwater bypassed by progress, the perfect playground of her youth, and the perfect cauldron for change.

In Go Set a Watchman she says that Maycomb County is, ‘a wilderness dotted with tiny settlements’, it is, ‘so cut off from the rest of the nation that some of its citizens, unaware of the South’s political predilection over the past ninety years, still voted Republican.’  It is so remote, ‘no trains went there’.  In fact Maycomb Junction, ‘a courtesy title’, was located in Abbott County twenty miles away!  However, she tells us that the, ‘bus service was erratic and seemed to go nowhere, but the Federal Government  had forced a highway or two through the swamps, thus giving the citizens an opportunity for free egress.’  However, Lee tells us that few took advantage of this opportunity!  Then in one of those Harper Lee epiphany moments, one of those lightening bolts she releases now and then, she perceptively describes her hometown as a place where, ‘If you did not want much, there was plenty.’

In To Kill a Mockingbird she continues in the same rich vein.  Maycomb is, ‘a tired old town’. People moved slowly, ‘they ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything’.  She tells us that, ‘There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County’, a scenario somewhat reminiscent of modern day Greece!

The setting of George Eliot’s novel, Silas Marner,  has many echoes of Maycomb in Eliot’s fictional depiction of Raveloe.  Eliot tells us that it, ‘was a village where many of the old echoes lingered, undrowned by new voices.’  She further describes it as being, ‘Not …. one of those barren parishes lying on the outskirts of civilization — inhabited by meagre sheep and thinly-scattered shepherds: on the contrary, it lay in the rich central plain of what we are pleased to call Merry England’.  However, like Maycomb it was off the beaten track,  ‘it was nestled in a snug well-wooded hollow, quite an hour’s journey on horseback from any turnpike, where it was never reached by the vibrations of the coach-horn, or of public opinion’.   Much of this abundance is of course meant to contrast with Silas Marner’s previous place of residence in Lantern Yard.  Whereas Lantern Yard had been austere, white-walled, and filled with serious and devout Puritans, Raveloe is a place of lazy plenty, pints at the local tavern, and carefree religion on Sundays.  Chapter One declared it to be a place where bad farmers are rewarded for bad farming!

This description of Raveloe also holds great echoes with The Village as depicted in Jim Crace’s  latest (and last?) novel, Harvest.  The narrator, Walter Thirsk  tells us that, ‘these fields are far from anywhere, two days by post-horse, three days by chariot, before you find a market square.’  Harvest  dramatises one of the great under-told narratives of English history: the forced enclosure of open fields and common land from the late medieval era on, whereby subsistence agriculture was replaced by profitable wool production, and the peasant farmers dispossessed and displaced. “The sheaf is giving way to sheep”, as Crace puts it here, and an immemorial connection between people and their local environment is being broken – their world is crumbling around them.  Great changes are coming and, as everyone knows by now, the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies!

Brian Friel’s use of Ballybeg (small town) as the setting for many of his plays and short stories is also similar in vein to these others.  In Philadelphia Here I Come, Gar Public tells us that Ballybeg is, ‘a bloody quagmire, a backwater, a dead-end’.  Friel, like Lee, and Eliot and Crace is deceptive because he is dealing with familiar things and familiar characters – shopkeepers, housekeepers, and parish priests – a very familiar rural Ireland fixed in its own time.  Friel’s use of the alter ego – Public Gar and Private Gar – allows us the opportunity to see behind the superficiality of so much of this world of small-town life.

In many ways Friel’s major theme is the failure of people to communicate with each other on an intimate level.  In this play especially we are introduced to the typically Irish practice of verbal non-communication!  He, like Harper Lee, George Eliot, and Jim Crace, forces us to examine the nature of society.  In Ireland our society in the 40’s and 50’s was dominated by the church, the politician and the schoolmaster.  Ultimately the world that Gar is leaving has failed him and his generation.  But Friel is too subtle to allow us to imagine that the world Gar is about to enter in Philadelphia will be any better.

These meandering rambles are an attempt to place myself at the beginning of a work of fiction, to stand for a moment in the author’s shoes, so to speak, and see the world from their point of view.  From my limited reading it seems to me that many authors deliberately choose a world untrodden, less travelled as the setting for their novel.  I have mentioned some here in this piece but I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg and you will be able to reference many examples from your own reading.  Ideally the setting is always remote, secluded, off the map or often off the mainland, cut off from change and advancement.  This microcosm is then filled with characters and fictional dilemmas, action and inaction.  I have always been truly fascinated and overawed by each author’s unique ability and ingenuity in  creating and  imagining these hidden places and thus allowing us the privilege of entering the world of their texts.

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