Study Guide

Silas Marner Isolation

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There were the calls of hunger; and Silas, in his solitude, had to provide his own breakfast, dinner, and supper, to fetch his own water from the well, and put his own kettle on the fire; and all these immediate promptings helped, along with the weaving, to reduce his life to the unquestioning activity of a spinning insect. (1.2.3)

Aside from the association between Silas and spiders—see "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more about this—this quotation suggests that being alone too much can turn you into a man-machine—or something worse. It's basic human nature to be social. Silas is pretty much one bad experience away from sticking letter bombs in the mail.

Every man's work, pursued steadily, tends in this way to become an end in itself, and so to bridge over the loveless chasm of his life. (1.2.3)

In Middlemarch, Eliot shows how obsession isolates people. Here, a decade before Middlemarch, she spends a little time thinking about just the same thing. By obsessing over his weaving, Silas manages to isolate himself. Sure, it's partly Raveloe's fault for being a little narrow-minded—but it's also Silas's fault, for not knowing how to find a balance between work and life. How modern.

Thus it came to pass that his movement of pity towards Sally Oates, which had given him a transient sense of brotherhood, heightened the repulsion between him and his neighbours, and made his isolation more complete. (1.2.6)

Silas tries to reach out by using his herb-knowledge to help a sick woman, but the villagers misinterpret his skill as magic. When he refuses to sell fake charms, they promptly reject him. Sucks for Silas, but look at it this way: if they'd accepted him at first, he might never have been so lonely and might never have taken in Eppie—so maybe you (or the soul, if we're going with allegory) do need to go through a period of isolation.

Subtle and varied pains springing from the higher sensibility that accompanies higher culture, are perhaps less pitiable than that dreary absence of impersonal enjoyment and consolation which leaves ruder minds to the perpetual urgent companionship of their own griefs and discontents. (1.3.37)

What Eliot seems to be saying in this confusing sentence is that poor people are worse off if they're isolated, because they don't have the culture and sensibility to be company for themselves. In other words, Godfrey would be better off than Silas in the same situation. Poor people need community more than the wealthy—just like they seem to need religion more, too. Hm, Eliot's kind of leaning toward the 1% here, isn't she?

Silas spent his Christmas-day in loneliness, eating his meat in sadness of heart, though the meat had come to him as a neighbourly present. In the morning he looked out on the black frost that seemed to press cruelly on every blade of grass, while the half-icy red pool shivered under the bitter wind; but towards evening the snow began to fall, and curtained from him even that dreary outlook, shutting him close up with his narrow grief. And he sat in his robbed home through the livelong evening, not caring to close his shutters or lock his door, pressing his head between his hands and moaning, till the cold grasped him and told him that his fire was grey. (1.10.54)

If Silas were in Misers Anonymous, this would be his story of hitting rock-bottom. After all Dolly's kind efforts and the neighbors' gentle attempts to reach out to him, he's still sitting alone on Christmas. To rejoin the world, it'll take a miracle—a miracle in the form of a golden-haired child.

As the child's mind was growing into knowledge, his mind was growing into memory: as her life unfolded, his soul, long stupified in a cold narrow prison, was unfolding too, and trembling gradually into full consciousness. (1.14.35)

This sentence pulls out a hammer and hits you over the head to make sure you're paying attention: a child's maturation is similar to Silas's rejoining community. It emphasizes, or insists on, a reading of the novel as an allegory of the soul's growth by making Silas's character growth seem to match Eppie's physical and mental growth.

He listened docilely, that he might come to understand better what this life was, from which, for fifteen years, he had stood aloof as from a strange thing, wherewith he could have no communion[.] (1.14.48)

Now that he's responsible for Eppie, Silas meekly follows the directions of the villagers. He's determined to be like everyone else for Eppie's sake. This sentence also emphasizes that Silas is growing up. The word "docile" is strongly associated with childhood, and children are supposed to be "docile," unless you actually want to raise a pack of hellions. The fact that Eliot uses the word to describe Silas suggests that she wants us to think about him like a child learning how to be part of the world.

And if you could but ha' gone on trustening, Master Marner, you wouldn't ha' run away from your fellow-creaturs and been so lone. (2.16.40)

Here, Dolly pulls up an armchair and diagnoses Silas's psychological problems: he lacks trust. If he'd trusted just a little more when he first came to the village, he wouldn't have rejected the community. Gee, if only his very best friend and lover hadn't both betrayed him, maybe he'd have had an easier time trusting people.

The tender and peculiar love with which Silas had reared her in almost inseparable companionship with himself, aided by the seclusion of their dwelling, had preserved her from the lowering influences of the village talk and habits, and had kept her mind in that freshness which is sometimes falsely supposed to be an invariable attribute of rusticity. (2.16.44)

This sentence stands out because it kind of contradicts what Eliot has spent the last two hundred pages emphasizing. It turns out that Silas isn't totally part of his new community. In fact, he and Eppie still stand a little apart from the village. They are a "secluded," almost isolated, part of the village but not absorbed into it. Is this the model that Eliot is recommending?

On the fourth day from that time, Silas and Eppie, in their Sunday clothes, with a small bundle tied in a blue linen handkerchief, were making their way through the streets of a great manufacturing town. (2.21.7)

It's cliché to talk about being isolated in a big city, but that's exactly what's going on here. The city that Silas grew up in has changed so much that he's completely lost. The way of life that Raveloe offers is an idealized dream, but the alternative, the crowded-yet-lonely life of the city, seems almost like a nightmare. What's left for reality?

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