Realism and fairy tale in Silas Marner
How can broadly Christian principles continue to inform a commercialising society that is losing its faith?
The most recent meeting in our book club discussion series How to Read a Novel was about Silas Marner by George Eliot. This week’s essay has my thoughts about Eliot’s combination of fairy tale tropes with realistic writing to investigate how broadly Christian principles can continue to inform a commercialising society that is losing its faith.
Silas Marner uses many tropes of fairy tales, but in a realistic setting. That sounds like a contradiction. Morality tales are less concerned with social realism than with illustrating general principles. But Eliot is investigating the way moral beliefs and choices affect communities. She uses aspects of fairy tales to illustrate this, without succumbing to the sort of simplistic moral lessons associated with those genres.
Eliot does this because stories — not arguments — are the best way to persuade people to new moral ideas. As she wrote in The Natural History of German Life:
Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.
A trope is a device or motif that recurs. Once upon a time is a classic opening trope of fairy tales, for example. The two opening paragraphs of Silas Marner play on this trope.
In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses…
In the early years of this century, such a linen-weaver, named Silas Marner…
Immediately, she undermines the trope. Fairytale characters are archetypes. The wicked old woman. The wandering Prince. Eliot immediately takes us into the realism of a particular weaver in a particular place. In fairytales, good looks denote good morals. In Eliot, no character is entirely good or bad. She uses the tropes and structures of fairytales to show that morality is complicated, contingent, and social.
Eliot is investigating how broadly Christian principles can continue to inform a commercialising society that is losing its faith.
The plot is typical of a fairytale. The baby arriving at Silas’s door is like the wished-for baby in Rapunzel being delivered as if by magic to the married couple unable to have a child. The arrival in winter of a child who redeems us is the ultimate Western trope, which Eliot wants to show us can still be powerful outside of its religious setting. Concealed identity is a major overlapping trope between fairytales and Victorian novels generally, but in this case it is fundamental to the plot as an expression of morality.
Although there is no room for magic in realism, Silas’s cataleptic fits have a sense of the mystical. Eliot was working from observation, but Marner’s fits of pausing have a sense of the timeless. As do the two biggest fairy tale tropes of all: the pot of gold and the wicked brothers.
None of this makes Silas Marner unrealistic. Early reviewers were impressed with scenes like the one in the pub when Eliot presents real, individuated characters as they actually spoke and thought. These people are not cliches or types, as they would have been in Fielding. Nor can we imagine people of such a class in a novel by Jane Austen.
The Saturday Review said,
This writer can picture what uneducated villagers think and say… the gift is so special, the difficulty is so great, the success is so complete, that the works of George Eliot come on us as a new revelation of what society in quiet English parishes really is and has been.
And The Times:
She has given dignity to the life of boors and peasants in some of our own bucolic districts, and this not by any concealment of their ignorance, follies, and frivolities… but a plain statement of the everyday life of the people.
Eliot reinvents morality tales for a new literary era of realism and commercialism. She is a genius of metaphor and analogy, two tropes of the novel. The New Year’s party at the Squires’ house is a classic trope of the novel — how else to get everyone in one place? — which recurs in Fielding, Austen etc. It is also the classic trope of a story like Cinderella.
You will not find any glass slippers or magic mirrors in Eliot, but you will find an appreciation of the sense of magic and mystery ordinary people have. Psychology is real even if magic isn’t.
Eliot also achieves the fairytale-realism effect with her topography. Silas lives in “a stone cottage that stood among the nutty hedgerows near the village of Raveloe, and not far from the edge of a deserted stone-pit.” Utterly realistic, but a setting we can well imagine in a fairytale.
The questionable sound of Silas’s loom, so unlike the natural cheerful trotting of the winnowing-machine, or the simpler rhythm of the flail, had a half-fearful fascination for the Raveloe boys, who would often leave off their nutting or birds’-nesting to peep in at the window of the stone cottage, counterbalancing a certain awe at the mysterious action of the loom, by a pleasant sense of scornful superiority, drawn from the mockery of its alternating noises, along with the bent, tread-mill attitude of the weaver.
The industrial revolution brought a sense of the unknown. Of course people felt suspicious of someone like Marner. New technology has a magical, fearful effect. You will not find any glass slippers or magic mirrors in Eliot, but you will find an appreciation of the sense of magic and mystery which ordinary people have. Psychology is real, even if magic isn’t.
There is no magical forest, but the stone pits will play an important, coincidental role in the plot, emphasising that there are places our imagination fears to run to. Realistic fiction, with its ability to integrate observation, philosophy, and narrative is taking over from divination, prognostication, and fairytales as the major fictional mode of social analysis.
Making an honest living in the context of community and family life is the ideal of this novel.
As with a fairytale, Eliot is preaching that all that glitters is not gold, that wealth can corrupt, the real value in life is in continuity of community, and so forth. But she is by no means against industrialisation. Why make Silas the redeemable hero if she was? She is investigating how broadly Christian principles can continue to inform a commercialising society that is losing its faith.
Eliot favours honesty. Silas is not wrong to make money but to venerate it. Something must replace religion and its impulses but it cannot merely be gold. You might say the gold casts a spell over Marner, similar to the way his religion had brainwashed him, and, as in a fairytale, he must break the spell and return to reality. The really immoral character when it comes to money, though, is the Squire, who has got rich on wartime tariffs and restrictions, which has corrupted and degraded him. Making an honest living in the context of community and family life is the ideal of this novel.
Silas Marner by George Eliot
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