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Silas Marner, Threads, and Weaving [an excerpt]

Repetition and storytelling are bound in the novel’s representation of weaving, a theme that exemplifies the manner in which Silas Marner deftly moves between fable and realism. Classical mythology and fairy tales are crowded with weavers. Silas’s insect-like activity (he is reduced ‘to the unquestioning activity of a spinning insect’ and ‘seemed to weave, like the spider, from pure impulse, without reflection’ (p. 14)) calls to mind the myth of Arachne, who boldly challenged a goddess to a weaving contest. In the version given by Ovid in Metamorphoses, the goddess Athena recognizes Arachne’s superior skill but, enraged, transforms her into a spider. The myth presents Arachne’s weaving as a source of tremendous artistic power, but other tales underscore the confinement of weaving: in the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin, for example,a miller’s daughter is imprisoned and forced to spin straw into gold after her father’s careless boast. In Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’, published in 1832, both creativity and imprisonment are suggested by the mysterious figure who ‘weaves by night and day’. Eliot was sufficiently intrigued by such tales to compose, sometime between 1873 and 1876, the elegiac poem ‘Erinna’ about the Greek poetess who, at the age of 19, supposedly died after having been chained by her mother to a spinning wheel. Here, too, the weaver is condemned ‘to spin the byssus drearily | In insect labour’; unlike Silas, however, ‘the passion in her eyes | Changes to melodic cries’. Erinna develops a creative vision in spite of, not thanks to, the weaving.

Although Silas’s weaving provides him with a numbing occupation rather than a creative vision, the novel nonetheless plays with the many affinities between weaving and writing, anticipating the narrator who, in Middlemarch, has ‘so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven’. The Latin etymology of the word ‘text’, textus, evokes ‘that which is woven, web, texture’ (OED). The language of storytelling is replete with similar associations, as indicated by Silas who recognizes that the Lantern Yard brethren have ‘woven a plot to lay the sin’ at his door (p. 11), or the farrier who, in the Rainbow, is shown ‘taking up the thread of discourse’ (p. 40). The narrator’s comment on ‘the only clew’ that Silas’s ‘bewildered mind could hold by’ (p. 126) evokes the dual significance of ‘clew’: a solution, but also a ‘ball of thread or yarn’, like that with which Ariadne leads Theseus out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth (OED). There are similarly suggestive links between storytelling and counting. To ‘tell’ is to narrate, but it is also to enumerate or count—Silas, for example, works ‘far on into the night to finish the tale of Mrs Osgood’s table-linen’ (p. 14). The unproductive, materialistic ‘telling’ of Silas’s coins contrasts with Eliot’s view of storytelling as an outward-looking mode that sheds light on the web-like nature of society and produces sympathetic ties. Silas Marner is interested in the slippage between the figurative and the literal; Silas loses his heap of coins, but Eppie becomes a far more valued ‘new treasure’ (p. 121). As Mary Poovey explores, in this work ‘metaphor trumps such literalness’, just as the bonds Eppie forges with Silas make him more of a father to her than her ‘literal’ parent Godfrey.

The fairy-tale and mythical affinities of Silas’s weaving are counterbalanced by a far more realist preoccupation with weaving. The Raveloe community attaches mysterious powers to string, and compares Silas to the Wise Woman of Tarley who ‘tied a bit of red thread round the child’s toe’ to ‘keep off water in the head’ (p. 16). But Silas, whose livelihood depends on thread, has much more practical uses for it: his door closes with a latch-string, and in order to cook a piece of pork he ties it with string passed through a door-key. He relies on cloth as a child-rearing method, attaching Eppie to his loom with an umbilical-like ‘broad strip of linen’ (p. 115) that Eppie cuts. This attention to detail reflects Eliot’s careful rendering of the lives and economic status of weavers at the turn of the nineteenth century. The novel’s depiction of Silas’s labour echoes a number of nineteenth-century studies, such as Philip Gaskell’s The Manufacturing Population of England (1833), which describes the period between 1760 and 1800 as the heyday of domestic manufacture, when ‘the cottage every where resounded with the clack of the hand-loom’, a carefully tended garden was ‘an invariable adjunct to the cottage of the hand-loom weaver’, and the labour was deemed respectable and both financially and physically comfortable. In 1841, the report of the Royal Commission on the Condition of the Handloom Weavers lamented the degraded condition of handloom weavers who by then were in decline, and contrasted it with that of an older, happier, generation.

Eliot puts the language of weaving and threads to still further use by drawing upon it to explore the emotional lives of her characters. Silas’s personality is one that seeks attachments: his life as a miser ‘had been a clinging life; and though the object round which its fibres had clung was a dead disrupted thing, it satisfied the need for clinging’ (p. 67). This need finds a more rewarding outlet in Eppie, and Eliot returns to the language of fibres to trace this new connection, as her presence ‘stirred fibres that had never been moved’ (p. 100); he is later compared to an ‘affectionate Goliath’ who has got ‘himself tied to a small tender thing, dreading to hurt it by pulling, and dreading still more to snap the cord’ (pp. 114–15). In contrast, Godfrey is presented as a character who strains against personal ties, and finds the ‘chain’ of his wife Molly ‘all the more galling’. Nancy offers the promise of healthier bonds, but ‘Instead of keeping fast hold of the strong silken rope by which Nancy would have drawn him safe to the green banks where it was easy to step firmly, he had let himself be dragged back into mud and slime’ (p. 28). It is singularly appropriate that, when Godfrey and Nancy are dancing at the ball, the Squire steps on her dress, ‘so as to rend certain stitches at the waist’ (p. 94)—precisely at the moment when Silas forges a new bond with Eppie, Godfrey’s ties with Nancy threaten to become unravelled. When Silas interrupts the dance with Eppie, Godfrey hears his child and ‘felt the cry as if some fibre were drawn tight within him’ (p. 104). Unlike Silas, however, Godfrey represses the impulse so that, many years later, childlessness remains the ‘one main thread of painful experience in Nancy’s married life’ (p. 137). Such imagery is not applied rigidly or obtrusively, but on the contrary quietly brings together the different facets—mythical, social, and psychological—of this deceptively simple novel, revealing the profound artistry of a work as touching to discover as it is endlessly rewarding to revisit.

Featured image credit: “Thread, Weaving” by HeungSoon. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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