Printer Friendly

Hoarding motherhood in Silas Marner.

Human beliefs, like all other natural growths elude the barriers of system. George Eliot

The doctrine of separate spheres has long served a double function: as historical master narrative and as a set of ideas that has proven especially useful to feminist critics and scholars of the nineteenth century. Domestic ideology, as this post-eighteenth-century doctrine came to be known, split the social world of Great Britain into a public sphere--a realm of commerce, education, politics, and the professions--and a domestic sphere, that of hearth and home (see, e.g., David 9). By about 1840 popular educational treatises, religious manuals, sermons, conduct books, novels, scientific articles, and even philosophical tracts had defined man and woman as ascribable to differing spheres by virtue of differing natures. To him, it followed, went the world of competition and work. "To her went authority over the household, leisure time, courtship procedures, and kinship relations, and under her jurisdiction the most basic qualities of human identity were supposed to develop" (Armstrong 3).

However persuasive as history and however useful for critique, domestic ideology has been complicated lately by gender critics who question the stability of gender as a category (see, e.g., Fuss; Butler) and by literary historians who contend that the doctrine of separate spheres was not as monolithic as its adherents proposed and its early scholarly articulation attests. It is now clear, for instance, that English women did not make up a single sex class during the nineteenth century, despite the proliferation of writings which either presumed that they did or argued that they should. Quite a few women labored outside of the home, especially working-class women, who therefore had to reconcile wage-earning and domestic lives. Similarly, the middle-class women who labored in domestic industry did not comply with polarized sex roles by virtue of working alongside their husbands or other family members. Aristocratic women, for their part, often pushed against (even through) the elaborate set of prescribed attitudes, behaviors, and norms governing domesticity, particularly when living in cosmopolitan centers. In general, critics intent on complicating domestic ideology have focused on femininity rather than masculinity, its relational anchor. As part of engaging their work, I will consider the cross-gendered role of men in mothering and of women in agricultural management, concurrent preoccupations of Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe (1861), a George Eliot novel which treats motherhood as other than a woman's embodied responsibility. Throughout, I will argue that her novel wryly contests domestic ideology even as such an ideology is asserting its authority. A kind of gender critic "foremother," Eliot shows that raising a child to adulthood is not dependent on mothers or woman's nature and is actually a task that even an aging, hearing-impaired, mentally distracted, visually challenged, masculine miser can do. (1)


Enthusiastically received in its day, Silas Marner has traditionally been read for either its fairy-tale or its romantic qualities. Fairy-tale readings tend to emphasize the spells that Silas undergoes, his hoard of gold, and the orphan child who arrives miraculously at his hearth (see, e.g., Stewart). From a fairy-tale perspective, the novel's most miraculous aspects are his dramatic decline and subsequent regeneration through parenting. By contrast, those who see romantic influences in Silas Marner tend to focus on its setting, an agricultural valley in the Midlands; its epigraph from Wordsworth's "Michael"; its villagers, with their rustic occupations; and especially its interiorized drama (see, e.g., Easson). Eliot provided evidence for these competing literary-historical readings by writing to John Blackwood, her publisher, and explaining in a 24 February 1861 letter how the idea for the novel emerged:
   It came to me first of all, quite suddenly, as a sort of legendary
   tale, suggested by my recollection of having once, in early
   childhood, seen a linen weaver with a bag on his back; but as my
   mind dwelt on the subject, I became inclined to a more
   realistic treatment. (3: 382)

This part of the letter acknowledges legendary (i.e., fairy-tale) and romantic (e.g., the rustic linen weaver) influences but suggests Eliot went on to contain them within realism. Such a multigeneric effort would logically be unrealistic, if not proto-postmodern, if she were any less adept at weaving the differing settings, periods, and character types of her narrative. (2)

Eliot situates Silas Marner between the French Revolution and the first Reform Act--just after, in other words, "the vast upheavals in rural life which typify the 1790s" (Goode 19) and just prior to the difficult economic times following 1815. (3) By situating her novel in this way, she holds at bay the competitive forces of modernity so as to attribute to her locale a kind of fairytale timelessness. There is no evidence, for instance, that the rustic villagers have thought about the French Revolution or encountered the enclosure movement as the book begins. Indeed, Raveloe is both prosperous and protected from contemporary influences, since it resides "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" (53). The primary reasons for its prosperity are, however, political and topical. The war years, which the locals misread as a sign of Providence rather than history, as permanence rather than temporality, have raised commodity prices to the point where farmers can farm badly and yet live well. The resulting "careless abundance" (64) diffuses from master to tenant and then throughout the artisanal community. Agricultural systems that work for all legitimate the "attitudinal and behavioral norms associated with paternalistic deference hierarchies" (Hadley 15) that govern rural life. It follows that Raveloe's tenants and townsfolk do not question the authority of those whom they perceive to be elites. Hence the vertical antagonism that arose in England following 1815, when economic groups competed for scarce resources, will not be much in evidence.

The opening sentence of Silas Marner treats domestic labor as its point of departure. Women work their spinning wheels in farmhouses, since they must do so to produce clothing, "and even great ladies" play on "toy spinning wheels" at their estates. Both kinds of women are, from the first, ironically contrasted to itinerant linen weavers, those "pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny countryfolk, looked like remnants of a disinherited race" (51). Himself a weaver, Silas spent the early years of adulthood selling his labor to a wholesale dealer of linens. When not weaving and, the novel implies, being poorly paid for it, he was devoted to a Calvinist religious sect. Later, having been betrayed by one of the sect's members and cast out for heresy, he loses his faith, best friend, fiancee, community, and reason for being. The background exposition ends when the "pallid young man, with prominent, short-sighted brown eyes," emigrates to Raveloe, whose citizens need his craft, now that the artisan who lived in the adjacent parish has died. Despite his value to the community, Silas fails to be accepted. The young women of the village, responding to his physiognomy and uncommunicativeness, go so far as to equate him, neo-Platonically, to "a dead man come to life" (54).

Silas is both alien to the countryfolk, who are characteristically suspicious of newcomers, and alienated from himself. Not given to reflection, constitutionally incapable of "independent thought" (62), he suffers alone. "Minds that have been unhinged from their old faith and love," Eliot's omniscient narrator comments, "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" (62-63). Silas is thus positioned as a man without a past, since "its symbols have all vanished," much of a "present," or even a future. His economically fortunate emigration devolves into internal exile as he holes up in the cottage he rents and works all but unremittingly. Minimally attending to his bodily needs, he hunches over his loom and so "reduce[s] his life to the unquestioning activity of a spinning insect" (64-65). As fifteen years pass in solitude, Silas shifts from being peculiar to being repulsive.

Despite Raveloe's idyllic remove, the village has other compromised characters whose psychological natures are in question. Squire Cass, the greatest landowner in the area and the second figure to receive extended authorial comment, is of the type of "men whose only work was to ride around their land, getting heavier and heavier in their saddles, and who passed the rest of their days in the half-listless gratification of senses dulled by monotony" (79). The Squire does not labor, since the squirarchy which he represents is maintained from rents paid by tenants. By failing to monitor his property adequately, he fails to respond to competitive pressures, a point that Eliot, having read Charles Darwin closely, underscores. Worse, the Squire's three sons have been marked by their father's "hereditary ease" (81). Godfrey Cass, Silas's godless narrative foil, is singled out for comment. At twenty-six years of age, the locals agree, "Mr Godfrey didn't look half so flesh coloured and open as he used to" (73). Naturally irresolute and a moral coward--strong denunciations in Eliot's universe--he has entered "into a secret marriage, which was a blight on his life. It was an ugly story of low passion, delusion, and waking from delusion" (80).

A young man and first-born son, Godfrey should be at the peak of his powers. He is poised to inherit the family estate and become the most successful landowner in the area. Moreover, Nancy Lammeter has signaled an interest in him; as the youngest daughter of the village's other prominent family, she would make a smart match. Unfortunately, his many character lapses and "degrading marriage" (80) to Molly Farren, a laudanum addict, have already compromised his existence. Uncertain what to do, Godfrey allows himself to be blackmailed by his younger brother Dunstan. An habitual, dull-minded drunk, Dunstan is jealous and sadistic. The early chapters of the novel show him betraying his brother and stealing the gold that Silas has accumulated, before disappearing.

With Silas established in Raveloe, the novel's plot doubles. One follows Silas; the other, Godfrey. Both plots use the discourse of degeneration (4) to explain the characters whose actions they represent. For his part, Silas is pallid and deformed--in a word, "disinherited"--because of his excessive laboring. Less enervated than mechanical, he is shrunk and bent into the shape of a man at his loom. Because he is the more fairy-tale-like of the two main characters, he earns a fanciful comparison to a weaving, which is to say, unthinking, spider. Where the scientists who formulated degeneration theory following Benedict-Augustin Morel would situate a hoarder who has regressed symbolically to the developmental state of an arachnid must elude us; still, Eliot's discourse of decline, which began with the Wordsworth epigraph, is unmistakable. As the more realistic character, Godfrey receives the more realistic representation. His physiological state results from his behavior, especially as it pertains to his "secret marriage," whose "low passion" blights his body. The telling agricultural metaphor should not mask the fact that Godfrey's diagnosis derives from nineteenth-century medicine. He is ill by virtue of his excessive sexuality, his many failures of self-restraint. Marriage has not degraded him, although his is characterized as "degrading"; passion has led to "delusions"--i.e., to his mind's being compromised as well as his body. An educated reader of the period would have recognized that the highborn Cass family is low living and that science is being used here for social criticism. But Eliot's use of degeneration theory does more than signal her antagonism to the listless squirarchy or mark the decline of her characters: it encloses the fairy tale and romantic elements of the novel in a properly realistic frame, since realism is itself linked historically to naturalism and its basis in French medicine, and it reiterates the embodiment of human psychology. Thus even the novel's most imaginative elements are marked by Eliot's will to history. (5)

While the evidence for Silas and Godfrey's decline is powerful, the novel suggests that their degeneration may also derive from insufficient domesticity, since the absence of mothers in Silos Marner is conspicuous. Silas's own mother died long ago, and the memory of her has faded. The Cass's fine Red House is also motherless. So too is the Lammeter household, home to Nancy, Godfrey's love interest, and Priscilla, her broad-shouldered, plain-speaking sister. Godfrey's neglected wife--herself described as a barmaid-mother--has little contact with her husband and will die just after the novel's midpoint. Refusing to note the absence of mothers would be a double refusal, since the nineteenth-century novel often construes absent mothers as leading to disastrous effects on daughters. Dorothea's inability to choose a husband wisely, among other problems in Middlemarch, is a case study from Eliot's own work. More than a significant obstacle to overcome in a marriage plot, the lack of a mother can even prove tragic, as Emma Bovary's meticulously established self-degradation indicates.

Recognizing the domestic absences in Silos Marner, Jeff Nunokawa criticizes how Eliot represents family life:
   What could be simpler than Silas Marner's support for family values?
   Forsaking her customary tact, Eliot fills the story with simple
   maxims and paeans promoting a life with wives and children, and
   emphatic caveats about a life without them. A faith in the family
   she is elsewhere content confiding to the implications of her
   narrative is here urged, and urged again, as conspicuous doctrine.

The "conspicuous doctrine" in question is the doctrine of separate spheres. Relying on domestic ideology, presuming its presence in Eliot's novel, Nunokawa's criticism is impassioned and incantatory. The words it repeats (e.g., "simpler" and "simple") are themselves doubled by demeaning synonyms ("maxims," "paeans," "caveats").

Given Eliot's noteworthy use of narratorial omniscience and its structural relevance to her realism, we would expect to see the incomplete families criticized in Silas Marner and family itself being idealized--if a diagnosis of compromised Victorian domesticity were relevant to this pre-Victorian setting. To be sure, the narrator allows that there are consequences to a motherless hearth. Because the Squire is unmarried, "the Red House was without that presence of the wife and mother which is the fountain of wholesome love and fear in parlour and kitchen." Here the narrator's domestic editorial uncharacteristically stops in mid-thought, since the absence of a Cass-wife-mother-love fountain does not cause the ill effects that we would anticipate, in terms of either character or incident. Rather, we immediately learn, her absence merely "helped to account" for food at holiday celebrations being more abundant than skillfully prepared; for the Squire spending the time he did at the Rainbow, a local tavern; and "perhaps, also, for the fact that his sons had turned out rather ill" (72; emphases added). The Lammeter household, by instructive contrast, is motherless and successful, "for the Lammeters had been brought up in that way, that they never suffered a pinch of salt to be wasted, and yet everybody in their household had of the best, according to his place" (73).

Even if we grant that a new mistress would help the Red House, as the novel implies, the Cass family's troubles are better traced to the head of household that it has than to the mother it lacks. Again, the comparison with the Lammeter family is telling. Its father is dignified; he is a "spare but healthy person" with a "high featured firm face, that looked as if it had never been flushed with excess," unlike "the Squire's" (153). Because the narrator does not identify who has "brought up" the Lammeter children successfully or how this has been done, we are left in the realm of speculation. Perhaps a mother was not necessary to child rearing in that particular family (or in families more generally). It might be that two daughters may raise themselves more easily than three sons. Unlike the negligent Squire, Mr. Lammeter, "the soberest and best man in that country-side" (144), could have assumed the mothering responsibilities, and thus be now among the best women, too. The Lammeter family may even owe its success to an anti-mothering maxim their patriarch offers: "breed was stronger than pasture" (153). By ironically juxtaposing a declining, motherless family with a rising one, then, Eliot does not so much idealize a mother's role as qualify it. Comparing the fathers, but not the absent mothers, lets the mothers escape responsibility, and leaves us with the hard fact that only one of our two upper-class families has idle and degenerated offspring. It follows, first, that domestic success is achievable by other than conventional families; and second, that qualified assertions about excess food and unnamed agents of parenting are not compelling indices of a determinative ideology.

Not content to represent motherless households, Silas Marner also prepares us for the arrival of unlikely mothers. The first of these is Molly Farren. Eliot holds off introducing her until Silas's decline has become seemingly permanent. Bereft, separated from years of labor-intensive earnings, the now-impoverished weaver takes to standing on the cottage's threshold, hoping his stolen gold will miraculously return. As he waits, the wife whom Godfrey will not acknowledge walks to Raveloe, bitterly meditating on how she will interrupt the Red House's annual New Year's Eve party. Wearing "her dingy rags, with her faded face, once as handsome as the best, with her little child that had its father's hair and eyes," she plans triumphantly to "disclose herself to the Squire as his eldest son's wife" (163-64). With the habitual indolence and confusion of the addict, our unlikely mother-degenerate has set off late, in a snowstorm, carrying her two-year-old daughter. Now, wet and lost, Molly needs more drugs but hesitates to take them. "In that moment the mother's love pleaded for painful consciousness rather than oblivion," the narrator editorializes, "pleaded to be left in aching weariness, rather than to have the encircling arms benumbed so that they could not feel the dear burden" (164). Molly empties her phial of drugs and soon falls to the snowy ground. The phial has triumphed over the momentary feeling of motherly virtue and, revealed as vile, Molly dies.

The unnamed child wakes, disengages from her dead mother, and totters through the snow to a beckoning light and a live, adoptive mother-to-be. Retraumatized by the loss of his golden hoard, Silas stands, half-crazy, in a cataleptic fit. The child walks through the threshold and past the unmoving Silas. Here, by moving her focus from an unlikely birth mother to an even more unlikely adoptive mother-father, Eliot calls us to compare the two dead-to-life figures. For her part, Molly is a melodramatic character, rather than a fairy-tale or romantic type. Her marked decline is traceable to venereal disease, a diagnosis that is less made than indicated by her neglected beauty and occupation. Character, in her case, is tied to biology and biology to character, and both to station. We are meant to see her as a bitter and vindictive working-class mother, the lure in a blackmail scheme, who has been left to her own devices by an immoral, upper-class husband and his blackmailing brother. Tellingly, her mind is a "poisoned chamber, inhabited by no higher memories than those of a barmaid's paradise of pink ribbons and gentlemen's jokes" (164). As hardworking and masculine as the feminine Molly is indolent, Silas is nevertheless her scarcely conscious double; if possible, he is even more bereft of human care. He too is related to the Cass family economically, since he rents its cottage. Like Molly, moreover, he is scarcely able to tend to himself, let alone anyone else.

While mothering is a form of labor, and Silas has proven himself capable of extended bouts of work, he brings to the task little of what domestic ideology required. As nineteenth-century conduct books argued, mothering calls for consistent sympathy, fineness of perception, optimism in the face of disenchantment, passionate gentleness, pleasure in self-denial--in a word, for the psychological characteristics of innate femininity. (6) Silas's domestic industry is weaving, not child rearing, and weaving is no index of femininity. He hears poorly and sees so badly that he confuses the young child's curls, before the hearth, with the return of his gold. An artisan without resources, he has no servants to raise a child and no money for them. Much of Eliot's description, to this point, has concentrated on his perverse, and ultimately self-defeating, miserliness. How can a suddenly impoverished human spider, seemingly bereft of feminine sentiment, comparatively strong and active rather than weak and passive, possibly overcome his circumstances and nature to care for another? In a real, rather than a fairy-tale, word, he probably could not do so without considerable effort.

Eliot demonstrates Silas's unlikely resolve to be other than himself by crossing the two strands of her parallel plot at this point. Silas, having carried the child to the Red House, announces Molly's death and his claim to the little girl. He then takes Godfrey and his uncle to the woman's body. Lying on Silas's bed, the "emaciated" Molly (175) is a silent indictment of her husband Acting indifferently, Godfrey refuses to acknowledge his child, as he has multiply refused to acknowledge his wife, and asks Silas to "take the child to the parish" for raising. Because of Godffey's status as landlord, the asking is a performative speech act. Indeed, the novel does not simply give the child to Silas; he must, in effect, speak "sharply" to Godfrey, thereby refusing to comply with the paternalistic deference that orders rural life. Although the two-year-old belongs with her father at the Red House, she will come to live, in comparative poverty, at the Cass rental cottage with the "old bachelor" (176). The plot strands now diverge again, as Godfrey and his uncle ignore the tragedy they have seen to discuss wet shoes and disagreeable dancing. Back at the party, his wife not yet buried, Godfrey turns to wooing Nancy. He will care for his child and "never forsake it," he thinks; "he would do everything but own it" (177), a metaphorical afterthought that criticizes his class and its ability to make another's loss its gain.

Having concentrated on dead mothers and a self-absorbed, indifferent father, Silas Marner turns to live mothers and an other-directed man. As part of that transition, the narrator remarks that sympathy and advice came to Silas from two kinds of women in Raveloe:
   Notable mothers, who knew what it was to keep children "whole and
   sweet"; lazy mothers, who knew what it was to be interrupted in
   folding their arms and scratching their elbows by the mischievous
   propensities of children just firm on their legs, were equally
   interested in conjecturing how a lone man would manage with a
   two-year-old child on his hands, and were equally ready with their
   suggestions: the notable chiefly telling him what he had better do,
   and the lazy ones being emphatic in telling him what he would never
   be able to do. (178)

The remarkable arrival of what the villagers call the "tramp's child" (178) occasions both gossipy conjectures and emphatic instruction. Conjecturing that "a lone man" cannot manage a child is a marriage-centric, deeply gendered view. Instructing Silas on what he would "never" accomplish is condescending. Because the narrator's taxonomy of mothers is weighted towards less idealized figures of parenting, the narrative commentary is both aggressive and funny. It is aggressive because the mothers are protecting the authority that derives from the social domain that they manage. It is funny--an infrequently discussed aspect of Eliot's realism--because the women's assumptions are mistaken. Here, we would do well to recall Eliot's letter of 24 February 1881. It explains to Blackwood that Silas's story was told in prose, not verse, so that "the psychology of Silas" might receive "an equal play of humor" (3: 382).

Humor increases in due measure as Eliot's emphasis on degeneration shifts to regeneration through parenting. The best of the notable mothers, Dolly Winthrop, becomes Silas's teacher. She is an illiterate, wheelwright's wife, who fills the many epistemological holes in her existence by likening them to mysteries that folk like her are not supposed to understand. Unerringly well-intentioned, Dolly is "in all respects a woman of scrupulous conscience, so eager for duties that life seemed to offer them too scantily unless she rose at half-past four, though this threw a scarcity of work over the more advanced hours of the morning" (133). When people suffered in Raveloe, she sought them out to "pasture her mind upon them" (134), an ironic conflation of nature and culture that chides her doll-like abilities by comparing them to Lammeter's well-born awareness. Earlier, Silas's lost hoard had called to her sense of service, and off she went, bearing gifts for someone whom others at best tolerated. The arrival of the child that will become his new treasure occasions a visit and advice as well--some of which Silas will follow. But before she can help Silas mother, she must, as a notable mother herself, set aside her tautological view of gender, which posited that "men would be so." By this characteristically vague assertion, Dolly means that men are embodied creatures who resemble "animals whom it had pleased Heaven to make naturally troublesome, like bulls and turkey cocks" (134). By putting these words in Dolly's mouth, Eliot's narrator asserts that nature determines masculine behavior and, through humor, prepares to contradict the assertion.

While the first two-thirds of Silas Marner posed characters in a state of decline (i.e., the Casses, Silas, Molly, and, potentially at least, her child) against those who were prospering (i.e., the Osgoods and the Lammeters), the final one-third of the novel turns to the healing powers of community. With Molly dead, Godfrey marries Nancy, and she of the rigid-code-in-all-things puts the Cass household in due order. Separated from degenerative influences, Godfrey changes. Largely gone is the person who willed his first wife's death so that he might engage another. Feminine care thus raises him up. Ironically, it is through the feminine, as domestic ideology asserts of child rearing, that he will become prepared for the public sphere and masculine responsibility. His irresolution does not disappear entirely; the improved pasture does not do away with breed, since he keeps his abusive past a secret. But now he is an improved man who responds to changing economic conditions deftly, as the Squire did not. The cost of his early degradation is that Nancy and he share a profound regret: childlessness. However orderly, then, their hearth is not the home that complying with domestic ideology promises.

Raising Eppie brings Silas out of himself in more ways than one. First, her delight in sense perception "called him away from his weaving, and made him think all its pauses a holiday, reawakening his senses with her fresh life" (184). The man whose life was defined by his labor now works less and takes his primary pleasure from a relationship. Memories and thoughtfulness return in force. Eppie, the narrator emphasizes, leads Silas to these developments. So too does mothering cause him to change--for the better and through the feminine. Now it is he who suffers from, rather than lives in, separation, who "trembled at a moment's contention with [Eppie], lest she should love him the less for it" (186), and who holds and gives her "half-sobbing kisses" (187). Unable to punish or otherwise master his child, Silas remakes his domestic industry and the sphere where it occurred: "The stone hut was made a soft nest for her, lined with downy patience; and also in the world that lay beyond the stone hut for her, she knew nothing of frowns and denials" (189). His feathering of their cottage is significant, when seen from the perspective of Eliot's period, since mothers supervise offspring and decorate the home. Victorians typically viewed fathers, by contrast, as mere domestic amateurs, often responding to their child-rearing interventions with ambivalence or anxiety (Nelson passim).

Mothering introduces the men who do it to the company of women, and those women to new ideas. Silas's success raising Eppie, for instance, causes notable and lazy mothers alike to think about the entrenched belief that a man could not be "father and mother" (200) to a child. To make sense of his counterintuitive example, they must at least allow the possibility that domesticity is not femininity embodied and enacted. It follows that masculinity too might be separated from its natural grounding. In effect, the women of Ravaloe look to Silas and his child and consequently achieve a kind of distance on their own, self-held views. Thus comparative analysis undoes rather than reinscribes commonsense notions of difference. What strikes a reader, reading almost two centuries after the days in which the novel was set, is how easily such a transition is made by mothers of both genders.


It is tempting to see Silas's masculine-feminine shift as either a fairy-tale/romantic anomaly (i.e., as portraying a miraculous child who fathers the man) or as the heroic accomplishment of an incomplete figure who realizes himself by awakening his female self. Either view might persuade, were the conjunction of Silas's past and his accomplishments with Eppie less jarring. Despite Silas's new acceptance by his neighbors, we must remember that he was, and is, freakish--a kind of dwarf Frankenstein without the sutures or aggression. Indeed, Silas began as so unlikely a parent--at once alien, alone, emotionally crippled, male, and repulsive--that his example astonishes. We would need to look long and hard through the history of the novel to find another character as ill-adapted to mothering and as successful at it. Complicating matters further, this "other" produces Eppie, who, as a young woman, is femininity exalted. It follows, therefore, that Silas's adoptive mothering shows natural kinship to be a fiction (see, e.g., Berger) and cannot help but undermine the commonplace view that nurturing ability is "an instinctive capacity determined by women's biology alone" (Novy 51). The stability of binary gender, in the face of Silas's example, is thus compromised.

The suggestion that Eliot is a kind of gender critic foremother would be as freakish as Silas himself if Eliot's novel represented him as the lone figure who works at odds with domestic ideology and thereby destabilizes gender categories. However, as the novel nears its close, Eliot directs our attention to a complementary feminine-masculine transformation. Priscilla, Nancy's blunt sister, does not marry, nor consider herself superfluous or lacking as a result. From her introduction, she has made her view of domestic life clear:

"As I say. Mr. Have-your-own-way is the best husband, and the only one I'd ever promise to obey. I know it isn't pleasant, when you've been used to living in a big way, and managing hogsheads and all that. to go and put your nose in by somebody else's fireside, or to sit down by yourself to a scrag or a knuckle; but, thank God! my father's a sober man and likely to live; and if you've got a man by the chimney-corner, it doesn't matter if he's childish--the business needn't be broke up." (94)

Priscilla makes this speech in the presence of Nancy and the Miss Gunns as each young woman puts the final touches on her appearance before the New Year's Eve party. Thus, at the novel's turning point, Silas waits for his money, Molly staggers through the snow, Godfrey indecisively imagines wooing Nancy, and Priscilla holds forth on marriage--all, by implication, intricated. (Only Priscilla will remain steadfast.) Observing the eldest Lammeter sister, Mrs. Osgood concludes that she "always thought Niece Priscilla too rough" (94), which means insufficiently feminine, given her station. Eliot's narrator agrees only to a point. The clause that introduces Priscilla's views ("As I say") marks the views as familiar; at least some members of the audience have heard them before. The speech itself turns on homely, and funny, paradoxes: the only man Priscilla will obey is someone whom she has already determined will obey her, and "managing hogsheads" qualifies as "living in a big way"--bigger, apparently, than being a wife "by somebody else's fireside." Given a choice, she chooses her sober father and his "business" over "fretting and stewing about what they'll think of you from morning till night" (149). Men appear little more than a problem best avoided.

Unblinking, Eliot's narrator characterizes her as "square-shouldered, clumsy, high-featured Priscilla" but also as "good natured" and commonsensical. In contrast to Nancy's elaborate internal monologues on the subjects of constancy, love, and propriety, which get undercut ironically, Priscilla's views get a measure of narratorial respect, even when she exclaims, "I like to see the men mastered!" (150). And master the master she does: Lammeter has her drive his gig, supervise his servants, and oversee his land. When Godfrey discusses "the increasing poor rate and the ruinous times" with Lammeter, and Nancy asks her father to tea, Mr. Lammeter directs her to Priscilla, saying, "She manages me and the farm too." In effect, the elderly man cedes his masculine authority to his daughter. Priscilla's explanation for her unconventional authority is another paradox: she manages so that Mr. Lammeter will not blame himself "if anything turns out wrong, as it can't but do in these times." It follows that the best way of being master is "to let somebody else do the ordering, and keep the blaming in your own hands. It 'ud save many a man a stroke, I believe" (153). What Mr. Lammeter believes goes unsaid.

Here, it is hard not to appreciate Eliot's wry critique of woman's innate domesticity, written while domestic ideology was asserting its authority powerfully, if incompletely. Priscilla's part in the critique has been verbal and behavioral, insofar as Priscilla more than proves herself capable of "outdoor management" (214), a synonym for domestic industry. She has assumed the family business from "the soberest and best man in that countryside," which positions her, logically, as the new best man. Moreover, because the former "'best man," her father, may also have been the "best woman," she may have inadvertently wrested that title from him too. Priscilla's accomplishments are even greater when compared to Nancy's. As the forces of history intrude on romantic Raveloe, Nancy, the "presiding spirit" (211) of the Red House, broods about the child that her marriage lacks and takes brief walks in the garden. Domesticity is unfulfilling, despite her assertions to the contrary. Priscy, who is decidedly not prissy, sees that the family land is properly tenanted and counsels Nancy to welcome the happiness that attends dairy farming. However blunt-spoken, she is a figure that women and men alike would have recognized in nineteenth-century Great Britain.

Eppie, too, "masters" her father from an early age, despite the fact that "he," as father, is the sanctioned economic authority, as well as the "she"--that is to say, mother--who governs the family's leisure time, courtship procedures, and kinship relations. It is unlikely indeed that a young child would exercise jurisdiction over how these behaviors affect her own and her adoptive father's identity; but theirs is an unlikely family, and exercise them she does. Sandra M. Gilbert misses this fact by seeing Eppie as an object of exchange rather than as the subject who negotiates the conditions under which she will live with her father and her eventual husband. Crucially, Eppie resists Aaron's marriage proposal until he agrees to live in her father's home and support Silas. Thus she is not passed, exogamously, from one patriarchal household to another; it is her husband who must travel to her universe if the marriage plot is to be resolved. While unlikely, this is the family universe of Silas Marner. However much scholarly ink has been split in its interpretation, the novel's regeneration allegory has been mistyped Not a fairy tale, not a biblical fable, not a legend, not even a displaced account of George Eliot's experience as alien to her gender and community, Silas Marner is instead a sly comedy about how domestic ideology tries, and fails, to hoard mothering. To hoard, of course, is to create imaginary and unsustainable value. Those who hoard remove themselves from the public sphere and attempt to possess what cannot be possessed. Hoarding is thus inevitably a barren, self-defeating set of behaviors, as Silas and examples from biblical and literary history show. By replacing Silas's hoard with the treasure of Eppie, Eliot collapses the two kinds of value. By showing Silas's success as a mother, she then demonstrates that men may treasure their children and may adopt mothering themselves. Finally, by multiplying--rather than vilifying--her cross-gendered characters, she suggests that notable and lazy mothers alike have been compromised by the very ideology that would treat mothering as hoardable But I would go still further: limiting mothering to women--ascribing mothering to biology--is potentially degenerative, insofar as the meanness of opportunity that women confront in the home qualifies their development, both intellectual and experiential, in ways that lead to a decline in mother-knowledge itself. Fortunately, as Eliot's epigraph to this essay asserts, human beliefs escape the constraints of system, a reaction to restraint that Eliot herself embodied and that the novel, with its penchant for representing and extending the social, would take as its reason for being during the nineteenth century and beyond.


Arata, Stephen. Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siecle. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Beer, Gillian. George Eliot. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.

Berger, Courtney. "When Bad Things Happen to Bad People: Liability and Individual Consciousness in Adam Bede and Silas Marner." Novel 33.3 (2000): 307-29.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

--. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004.

David Deirdre. Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.

Dawson, Terence. "'Light Enough to Trusten By': Structure and Experience in Silas Marner." George Eliot's Silas Marner. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea, 2003. 105-31.

Easson, Angus. "Statesman, Dwarf and Weaver: Wordsworth and Nineteenth-Century. Narrative." George Eliot Silas Marner 63-78.

Eliot, George. Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe. 1861. Ed. Q. D. Leavis. New York: Penguin, 1967.

--. The George Eliot Letters. Ed. Gordon S. Haight. 9 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1954-78.

--. "Prelude." Middlemarch. Ed. W. J. Harvey. New York: Penguin, 1965. 25-26.

Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature & Difference. New York: Routledge. 1989.

Gallagher. Catherine. The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form, 1843-67. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Gilbert, Sandra M. "Life's Empty Pack: Notes toward a Literary Daughteronomy." George Eliot. Ed. K. M. Newton. New York: Longman, 1991. 99-130.

Goode, John. "Adam Bede." Critical Essays on George Eliot. Ed. Barbara Hardy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970. 19-41.

Hadley, Elaine. Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Marketplace. 1800-1885. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995.

Leavis, Q. D. "Introduction." Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe. New York: Penguin, 1967. 7-43.

Nelson, Claudia. Invisible Men: Fatherhood in Victorian Periodicals, 1850-1910. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1995.

Novy, Marianne. "Adoption in Silas Marner and Daniel Deronda." Imagining Adoption: Essays on Literature and Culture. Ed. Novy. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001. 35-56.

Nunokawa, Jeff. "The Miser's Two Bodies: Silas Marner and the Sexual Possibilities of the Commodity." The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner. Ed. Nahem Yousaf and Andrew Maunder. New York: Palgrave, 2002. 163-87.

Staten, Henry. "Is Middlemarch Ahistorical?" PMLA 115.5 (2000): 991-1005.

Stewart, Susan, "Genres of Work: The Folktale and Silas Marner." New Literary History 34.3 (2003): 513-34.

Thale, Jerome. The Novels of George Eliot. New York: Columbia UP, 1959.






(1) Eliot's reluctance to make her support of women's rights public has long perplexed feminists. Still, readers would do well to attend closely to Eliot's allegorical "Prelude" to Middlemarch, which sees "domestic reality" as being responsible for "a meanness of opportunity" that was powerfully at odds with women's ambitions (vii). See Beer for fine observations about Eliot's "intense movement towards differentiation, expansion, lateral kinning, fostering, and foster-parenting" (54).

(2) Q. D. Leavis observes that "there is a multiple typicality about the case of Silas Marner" (41), an influential assessment that also relates to what Eliot says about the novel in her letters and journal. For an assessment linking the separates halves of the double plot to realism and pastoral, see Thale (59).

(3) Dawson remarks that "Silas Marner begins in late November or early December of about 1803, with a description of Silas as a recluse and a miser, and it ends in May or early June of about 1819. with an account of Eppie's marriage to Aaron" (107).

(4) Eliot's realism takes several forms, one of which emphasizes naturalism's foundational ties to degeneration. For a succinct account of the biological and critical foundations of degeneration theory, see See Arata.

(5.) For historical readings of Eliot, see Gallagher. and Staten's fine rejoinder.

(6) A belligerent logic marked the writings of Sarah Ellis, Horace Bushnell, John Ruskin, and so many others who insisted upon the propriety of woman's subordination. As importantly, Ellis and her ilk both vilified persons who did not know, their proper, which is to say gendered, places in the social structure and papered over the examples of those who, through talent, grit, accident of birth, response to death, or combination of these, demonstrated qualities not attributable to a single domain. Eliot's own circumstances have been discussed at such length that the), need not be referred to here, except to repeat the now-familiar observation that the "meanness of opportunity" which constrained her heroines did not succeed in constraining her. Given the rhetorical intensity that defined so many of the writings that established the doctrine of separate spheres, and given the example of George Eliot, Victorian Sage. I read the narrator's enthusiasm for a mother's authority in Silas Marner as lacking.
COPYRIGHT 2005 West Virginia University, Department of Foreign Languages
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe
Author:Shillock, Larry T
Publication:West Virginia University Philological Papers
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2005
Previous Article:A perfect murder: mother/daughter relations in Pavlova's A Double Life.
Next Article:The mythical theory of impregnation in Zola's Madeleine Ferat and L'assommoir.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |