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Silas Marner: Moralistic Work Essay, Research Paper
Silas Marner: A Moralistic Work
In Silas Marner by George Eliot the moral themes are relative of the current social issues of the Victorian Era and play a crucial formitive role in the development of individual characters. Eliot’s introduction of realism in literature, “an approach that attempts to describe life without idealization or romantic subjectivity” creates the natural appeal of the characters in the novel. “Realism has been chiefly concerned with the commonplace of everyday life among the middle and lower classes where character is a product of social factors” (Realism). Published in 1861 during a time when social, political, and religious movements flourished, Silas Marner focuses on the issues of social class separation, working class conditions, respectable marriages, morals of gentlemen, sexual repression, industrialization, and the loss of faith. These social factors are the basis for each characters personal obtainment or awareness of knowledge which in turn creates a moralistic lesson for each individual.
The characters of Dunstan and Godfrey Cass serve as a significant representation of the idea of the gentlemen in the Victorian Age. With the social classes of England newly reforming and redistributing, the hierarchical order was changing rapidly. The increase in wealth among more and more people and the attainability of rank seemed to change the standards that people imposed upon the Victorian “gentleman”. “Originally, the gentleman was a moral as well as a social category. Embodied in the idea of a gentleman were also gentleness, sympathy, a fine disposition and a fine imagination. A true gentleman was a mirror of desirable moral and social values, a cultural goal” (Werenberg). Despite the Cass brothers’ birth into a noble family they were at first paltry examples of “gentlemen”. Dunstan is so absorbed in his own difficulties he does not consider the consequences of his rash actions. His theft of Silas Marner’s gold is a speedy solution to his problems while requiring little or no effort at all. Similarly Godfrey’s secret marriage to a drunken wife and his pursuit of another woman violates societies strict moral codes. “[Gentlemen] wouldn’t think of using their (so called) power for undeserving goals more than they would endure themselves to forget strict self-control” (Arriaga). Through the brothers’ deceitfulness, scandals, and abuse of power they create a contradictory to the ideal image of the Victorian gentleman. In the end Dunstan’s inevitable death becomes the result of his malicious behavior. Godfrey on the other hand strives for gentility and reaches new heights as a noble and honest man following his confession of his previous marriage to his new wife Nancy. Through Eliot’s manipulation of Dunstan and Godfrey’s character and her use of realism during the novel, she cleverly reveals an important and realistic theme that exposes the true nature of many “gentlemen” during the Victorian age.
Another theme and social issue the Cass brothers along with Silas Marner introduce during the novel is that of social class separation. “Different social classes can be distinguished by inequalities in such areas as power, authority, wealth, working and living conditions, lifestyles, life-span, education, religion, and culture” (Cody). Silas is a depiction of almost all these inadequacies together, while Dunstan and Godrey represent the typical “upper class”. “It came to pass that those scattered linen-weavers (Silas Marner)-emigrants from the town into the country-were to the last regarded as aliens” (Eliot, 4). Marner’s lifestyle and poverty have caused his isolation from the community of Raveloe. Along with his unusual living conditions Marner is scrutinized through his religious persecutions. His excommunication with the church creates a greater separation for himself from the rest of society. Marner’s lack of power and authority makes him a prime target for ridicule, loneliness, and a means of profit. Dunstan sees Silas as a quick and easy solution to his problems and unjustly seizes his small fortune only thinking of himself and not the effect his actions will have on Marner. After the thievery Silas Marner draws further away from the community believing he can trust no one. Similarly Godfrey concentrates on his personal interests and well-being over Marner’s. Feeling envious of Silas Marner’s parenthood, Godfrey and his new wife want the opportunity to satisfy their desire as parents. They have no disregard for Marner’s love for Eppie nor do they consider the best interests of the child simply because they are of the upper class. Their needs come before anyone else’s especially those with lesser social status even if it means harming others along the way. Eliot’s use of characters and their interactions with one another effectively illustrates the use of social class separation occurring throughout the novel and relative of the time period.
Silas Marner is a perfect symbol of the working class and portrays the conditions and separation from society those of the lower classes endured during the eighteenth century. The picture that emerges [of the lower classes] is of men and women who are materially very poor by contemporary standards, who are uncomplaining in their poverty, who lead lives of hard work but rarely expect to find fulfillment from it, and for whom the family, interpersonal relationships, and relationships with God are centrally important. Their intellectual and cultural horizons are strictly limited: very few concern
themselves with national events or politics, even with local trade union or labour movements; they are uninterested in material acquisition or achievement as such; they are not socially mobile and barely conscious of class beyond a recognition that the masters constitute a different order of society into which they will never penetrate. Their aspirations are modest to be respected by their fellows, to see their families growing up and making their way in the world, to die without debt and without sin. Such happiness and satisfactions as life has to offer are to be found in social contacts within groups- the family, work-group, the chapel or, for a few, the public house; her meaningful relationships can be made, experiences exchanged, joys and sorrows shared (Burnett). “[Silas] invited no comer to step across his door-sill, and he never strolled into the village to drink a pint at the Rainbow, or to gossip at the wheel-wright’s: he sought no man or woman, save for the purposes of his calling, or in order to supply himself with necessaries” (Eliot, 7). Marner’s separation from Raveloe is based on the fact that he has no connection or affiliation with the rest of the community due to his social status. His eccentric behaviors and lifestyle has created a unbreakable barrier between himself and others. Marner find’s fulfillment with his perpetual weaving and his devotion to religion. When his religion was seized from him he superseded his faith with the accumulation and infatuation of money. “His life reduced itself to the mere functions of weaving and hoarding, without any contemplation of an end towards which the functions tended” (Eliot, 22). Eppie in turn creates another substitute for Marner’s loss of religion and money. He devotes himself to unconditionally caring for the child, creating another diversion from the world around him while in fact she becomes a link between Silas and
the community. Eliot forcefully establishes the subject of monotony among the lives of the working class through the devotion and motivation of Silas Marner’s persona.
The Victorian Era brought about the intense ideas of conformity and respectability. These conceptions were strongly forced upon marriages, sexual conduct, and family life. Godfrey’s marriage to Nancy Lammeter breaks the moral image of an acceptable union. While still being married, Godfrey must maintain strict sexual repression. “It was believed that the drive to revolt and sexual urge were somehow linked. In order to pacify people and keep them from revolting, they had to be sexually repressed. Sexuality was believed to be a powerful force that people could not handle. Therefore, a whole mentality of keeping your bodies to yourself and fighting off sexual urges became a standard value. Those who gave into sexual urges were perceived as lustful and evil” (Tynan). Godfrey does not conform to or obey by the moral obligations society imposes. He does however clear himself of any evil reputation by confessing his previous marriage to his new wife Nancy. Contrasting Nancy and Godfrey’s unconventional marriage, Eppie and Aaron portray a perfect and befitting marriage. Godfrey and Nancy’s noncompliance creates their lifelong struggle to find complete happiness in their marriage with their absence of parenthood. Aaron and Eppie symbolize the effects conformity produces by establishing their total and eternal love with one another. Eliot displays the effects conformity and respectability has on the lives of people through the images of marriage in Silas Marner. She cunningly displays the consequences these ideas can produce on the lives of those who choose to either obey or go against tradition.
One of the most important themes concentrated on in the novel is religion. Much of the novel is concerned with the role of faith in the lives of the characters, most importantly that of Silas Marner. “There is a religious divide in Silas Marner between the Nonconformism of the young Silas, and Anglicanism, the established religion of Raveloe (which is also the official religion or England). Non conformism had a great appeal to poorly educated working people, especially in the newly established northern industrial towns. Nonconformism was in part a chance for the poor to step outside the class structure of English culture” (Silas). Even through the rapid urbanization of the industrial revolution, religion, “the movement, the mental activity, and the close fellowship”, allowed Silas or any other of the “poorest layman the chance of distinguishing himself by gifts of speech” (Eliot, 9). Silas Marner had a close relationship with William Dane who had a solid and devoted faith compared to Marner’s own skepticism but earnest faith. At the time many Victorians began to question their own beliefs and religion.
“Many Victorian atheists and agnostics abandoned Christianity for a particularly Victorian reason: They found it immoral! Indeed in each life the dominant factor was growing repugnance toward the ethic implications of what each had been taught to believe as essential Christianity…” (Landow). George Eliot was one of the many Victorians that abandoned religion and this has a direct effect on her development of Silas Marner’s character. His continued doubt in faith is a constant battle he must face throughout the novel. When Silas is accused of stealing the money from Lantern Yard, he expects God to declare him innocent, and when he is persecuted Marner’s faith is shattered along with his trust of others. Once Marner’s religious faith is disturbed by his excommunication from the church and the objects that at one time were so familiar to him, he quickly replaces his religion with his love for money. He finds the same loyalty and passion for
faith through the gold coins he hoards. “He handled them, he counted them, till their form and colour were like the satisfaction of a thirst to him..” (Eliot, 22). It was this new found infatuation that also drew Silas Marner further away from religion. “Now for the first time in his life, he had five bright guineas put into his hand; no man expected a share of them, and he loved no man that he should offer him a share” (Eliot,19) Silas is released from the strict religious duties forced upon him and feels a sense of freedom from his new adoration. This new love is quickly lost when his stash of money is stolen again causing him to doubt his trust in God. In the rainy night there are no footprints to follow and Silas wondered if it “was a cruel power that no hands could reach, which had delighted in making him a second time desolate?” (Eliot, 52). With the loss of his money, again Silas is without the cherished coins that symbolized and served as religious mementos. His new found love for Eppie and dedication to his adopted daughter replaces his past faith in money. Silas learns that he can find happiness without the total concentration of religion. Eppie bring Silas closer to the community and allows him to realize the importance of becoming a part of Raveloe. “The established church in the village is the “glue” that holds the community together. Silas’s christening, his symbolic acceptance by the church, formalizes his inclusion into the village life” (Silas). Through Marner’s character Eliot creates the theme that the most devoted and outspoken Christian may not be the most holy, an issue that many Victorians were pondering themselves.
On the other hand Eliot does display the ideal Christian through the character of Dolly Winthrop. She is the ideal mother, and helps Silas with raising Eppie. Dolly’s religion is secure and she often reaches out to Silas in order to bring him back to his faith. Dolly insist that Eppie be baptized and by doing so Marner restores his confidence in religion and becomes a part of the community. Dolly is an example of what every person in the community should be. She is the symbol of the people who believed that if you “worked hard, went to church, and took care of your family than you were a good Victorian” (Tynan).
“Due to industrialization the Victorian Age was a time of chaos and great change which left people with a sense of disillusionment” (Werenberg). Silas Marner looked back at his old home and said, “Lantern Yard’s gone, It must ha’ been here, because here’s the house with the o’erhanging window-I know that it’s just the same; but they’ve made this new opening; and see
that big factory! It’s all gone-chapel and all” (Eliot, 222). The industries were moving in along with the new ideas and the countryside was disappearing. These rapid advances also brought about changes in people’s ways of thinking. The social issues and moral standards were being remolded, diversified, and modified. The standards of the Victorian “gentlemen” were lessening, sexual repression and conformity was fading, and religion was being questioned. George Eliot’s technique of realism creates a natural and truthful appeal to the characters in Silas Marner while introducing important themes that are relative of the Victorian era. The characters’ ability to change, learn, or face their consequences brings each individual full circle and by doing so they teach an important and truthful moralistic lesson.
Arriaga, Melissa. “The Gentleman.” n.pag. On-line. Internet. 27 Dec. 2000. Available WWW:
Bolt, Peter. “The Anglican Book of Common Prayer and Victorian Values.” n.pag. On-line. Internet. 11 Dec. 2000. Available WWW: http://landow.stg.brown.edu/victorian/ religion
Burnett, John. “Working-Class Attitudes: Stoicism and Acceptance.” 1974: n.pag. On-line. Internet. 7 Jan.2001. Available WWW: http://www.ppc.new.edu/home/stb/com
Cody, David. “Social Class.” Oct. 2000: n.pag. On-line. Internet. 7 Jan. 2001. Available WWW: http://landow.stg.brown.edu/victorian/history/ Class.html
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Werenberg, Camilla. “The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Age.”19 Dec. 1995: n.pag. On-line. Internet. 3 Dec. 2000. Available. WWW: http://sprog.auc.dk/ riber/expect.html
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