Study Guide

Silas Marner Tradition

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All cleverness, whether in the rapid use of that difficult instrument the tongue, or in some other art unfamiliar to villagers, was in itself suspicious.

To the villagers, anything unfamiliar is automatically bad news. They don't like people to be different, and they especially don't like big city folk coming in and stirring up trouble in their town. This is the bad kind of tradition, the kind that lets people excuse racism and sexism.

Our old-fashioned country life had many different aspects, as all life must have when it is spread over a various surface, and breathed on variously by multitudinous currents, from the winds of heaven to the thoughts of men, which are for ever moving and crossing each other with incalculable results. (1.3.2)

Don't be fooled into thinking that Silas Marner represents all village life across all of England in all times. Eliot insists that Raveloe's specific traditions and habits are different from those of other villages. She's interested in being particular rather than general. This is Eliot telling us not to take the allegory too literally, although it's sometimes hard to take her seriously about that.

The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened, is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent. (1.5.1)

Habit also makes people complacent. If something hasn't happened for a long time, that's reason enough to think it will never happen. By that logic, traditions that haven't changed can't change.

I says to myself, "Is't the meanin' or the words as makes folks fast i' wedlock?" For the parson meant right, and the bride and bridegroom meant right. But then, when I come to think on it, meanin' goes but a little way i' most things, for you may mean to stick things together and your glue may be bad, and then where are you? (1.6.38)

Here, the parish clerk is remembering the Lammeters' wedding, when the priest mixed up the language. He was—and years later, still is—super concerned that the wedding didn't "take" because the words weren't right. What matters, the meaning or the words? The feeling or the form? If it's the words that matter most, as Mr. Macey seems to think, then tradition is more important than what the priest meant to say. Saying the wrong words would make the wedding invalid.

It was the great dance on New Year's Eve that made the glory of Squire Cass's hospitality, as of his forefathers', time out of mind. This was the occasion when all the society of Raveloe and Tarley, whether old acquaintances separated by long rutty distances, or cooled acquaintances separated by misunderstandings concerning runaway calves, or acquaintances founded on intermittent condescension, counted on meeting and on comporting themselves with mutual appropriateness. (1.10.58)

The traditional New Year's Eve dance helps keep the community together by reinforcing social bonds among equals—in other words, it's like a yearly conference for, say, dentists to network and schmooze. What's kind of interesting is that Eliot describes the yearly ritual in terms that make it seem as though Raveloe exists outside of history in a kind of time loop: nothing ever happens, and nothing ever changes.

Miss Nancy had no sooner made her curtsy than an elderly lady came forward, whose full white muslin kerchief, and mob-cap round her curls of smooth grey hair, were in daring contrast with the puffed yellow satins and top-knotted caps of her neighbours. (1.11.5)

The "puffed yellow satins" and "top-knotted caps" refer to town, as opposed to country, fashions. Eliot seems to be suggesting that country dress, like everything else about the country, is traditional, while innovation and newness comes from the city. But check it out: the kerchief and mob-cap, traditional 18th-century country dress, are "daring." It's cool to be retro.

Time out of mind the Raveloe doctor had been a Kimble; Kimble was inherently a doctor's name; and it was difficult to contemplate firmly the melancholy fact that the actual Kimble had no son, so that his practice might one day be handed over to a successor, with the incongruous name of Taylor or Johnson. (1.11.35)

"Time out of mind" appears more than once in Silas Marner. The phrase emphasizes how Raveloe operates in a time-loop, and it also draws attention to the importance of family names. The tradition of having a certain family perform a certain role is more important than the individual who is currently occupying it. By the end of Silas Marner, Eliot has deflated that idea by letting Eppie choose her own family.

Already Mr Macey and a few other privileged villagers, who were allowed to be spectators on these great occasions, were seated on benches placed for them near the door; and great was the admiration and satisfaction in that quarter when the couples had formed themselves for the dance, and the Squire led off with Mrs Crackenthorp, joining hands with the rector and Mrs Osgood. That was as it should be—that was what everybody had been used to—and the charter of Raveloe seemed to be renewed by the ceremony. (1.11.61)

Another tradition of the New Year's dance is to allow villagers to watch the wealthier folk cavorting. Forget the rumblings of the 99%: these villagers are not only perfectly content for the rich people to party, they consider it proper and natural. Tradition dictates that everyone has a role to play.

For Silas would not consent to have a grate and oven added to his conveniences: he loved the old brick hearth as he had loved his brown pot—and was it not there when he had found Eppie? The gods of the hearth exist for us still; and let all new faith be tolerant of that fetishism, lest it bruise its own roots. (2.16.27)

Silas is so attached to his household objects that he worships a broken pot and refuses to upgrade his appliances. We're just speculating here, but maybe he clings to things because he had to leave all his friends and his childhood home.

Her code allowed no question that a father by blood must have a claim above that of any foster-father. (2.19.44)

Nancy believes that Godfrey has a greater claim on Eppie than Silas, even though Silas has been raising her for sixteen years. The claims of blood stem from a much older tradition than the family of choice that Silas and Eppie have created, but the novel doesn't end up supporting them. For all that tradition is so important in Silas Marner, Eliot doesn't seem to think much of it.

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