George Eliot, Silas Marner: Vol. 1, Ch. 1

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Silas Marnerd

PART ONE

CHAPTER I

In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhousesd—and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-laceh, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak—there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race. The shepherd's dog barked fiercely when one of these alien-looking men appeared on the upland, dark against the early winter sunset; for what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag?—and these pale men rarely stirred abroad without that mysterious burden. The shepherd himself, though he had good reason to believe that the bag held nothing but flaxen thread, or else the long rolls of strong linen spun from that thread,h was not quite sure that this trade of weaving, indispensable though it was, could be carried on entirely without the help of the Evil One. In that far-off time superstition clung easily round every person or thing that was at all unwonted, or even intermittent and occasional merely, like the visits of the pedlar or the knife-grinder. No one knew where wandering men had their homes or their origin; and how was a man to be explained unless you at least knew somebody who knew his father and mother?d To the peasants of old times, the world outside their own direct experience was a region of vagueness and mystery: to their untravelled thought a state of wandering was a conception as dim as the winter life of the swallows that came back with the spring; and even a settler, if he came from distant parts, hardly ever ceased to be viewed with a remnant of distrust, which would have prevented any surprise if a long course of inoffensive conduct on his part had ended in the commission of a crime; especially if he had any reputation for knowledge, or showed any skill in handicraft. 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: honest folk, born and bred in a visible manner, were mostly not overwise or clever—at least, not beyond such a matter as knowing the signs of the weather; and the process by which rapidity and dexterity of any kind were acquired was so wholly hidden, that they partook of the nature of conjuring. In this way it came to pass that those scattered linen-weavers—emigrants from the town into the country—were to the last regarded as aliens by their rustic neighbours, and usually contracted the eccentric habits which belong to a state of loneliness.d

In the early years of this century, such a linen-weaver, named Silas Marner, worked at his vocation in a stone cottage that stood among the nutty hedgerowsh near the village of Raveloe, and not far from the edge of a deserted stone-pit. The questionable sound of Silas's loom, so unlike the natural cheerful trotting of the winnowing-machine, or the simpler rhythm of the flail,w had a half-fearful fascination for the Raveloe boys, who would often leave off their nutting or birds'-nestingw 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 attitudeh of the weaver. But sometimes it happened that Marner, pausing to adjust an irregularity in his thread, became aware of the small scoundrels, and, though chary of his time, he liked their intrusion so ill that he would descend from his loom, and, opening the door, would fix on them a gaze that was always enough to make them take to their legs in terror. For how was it possible to believe that those large brown protuberant eyes in Silas Marner's pale face really saw nothing very distinctly that was not close to them,d and not rather that their dreadful stare could dart cramp, or rickets, or a wry mouthh at any boy who happened to be in the rear? They had, perhaps, heard their fathers and mothers hint that Silas Marner could cure folks' rheumatism if he had a mind, and add, still more darkly, that if you could only speak the devil fair enough,h he might save you the cost of the doctor. Such strange lingering echoes of the old demon-worship might perhaps even now be caught by the diligent listener among the grey-haired peasantry; for the rude mind with difficulty associates the ideas of power and benignity. A shadowy conception of power that by much persuasion can be induced to refrain from inflicting harm, is the shape most easily taken by the sense of the Invisibled in the minds of men who have always been pressed close by primitive wants, and to whom a life of hard toil has never been illuminated by any enthusiastic religious faith.d To them pain and mishap present a far wider range of possibilities than gladness and enjoyment: their imagination is almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope,d but is all overgrown by recollections that are a perpetual pasture to fear. "Is there anything you can fancy that you would like to eat?" I once said to an old labouring man, who was in his last illness, and who had refused all the food his wife had offered him. "No," he answered, "I've never been used to nothing but common victual, and I can't eat that." Experience had bred no fancies in him that could raise the phantasm of appetite.

X [d] Silas Marner

Writing & Reading

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X [d] In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed b…

Writing & Reading

Eliot's epigraph to the novel comes from Wordsworth's poem Michael (1802), which recounts the rejuvenation of an aged couple upon the surprising birth of their son. Eliot was a devoted reader of Wordsworth and shared with him an affection for nature, traditional types of labor, and the traditions, customs, and things that survived the centuries. …

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X [h] thread-lace

Things

Lace made of cotton or linen thread.

X [h] flaxen thread, or else the long rolls of stro…

Things

The flax plant produces fibers that are suitable to being woven into linen. The seed of the flax plant is linseed, which, when crushed, produces linseed oil, an ingredient in oil paints.

X [d] No one knew where wandering men had their hom…

Daily Life

There were no compulsory identity papers. Eliot shows in Adam Bede and here how the locals regard a town thirty miles away as a foreign country. Apart from the stranger's clothes and accent, which likely indicated his or her class, the villagers could know nothing about a stranger. He could be a criminal or a pregant, unmarried young woman who might become a financial burden on the parish. Why else would a person leave his or her home parish?…

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X [d] linen-weavers—emigrants from the town into th…

Things

Linen was a prized fabric of pre-historic origins and that subsequently used to wrap the Egyptian mummies and in ceremonial activites. In 1800 linen was used for table cloths, shrouds, and undergarments or lingerie, a word that comes from linen, as does lining, Weaving linen required skill, and a linen weaver was a desirable addition to the neighborhood.

X [h] nutty hedgerows

Things

Hedges took the place of fences and stone walls. Hedgers were skilled workers and weavers of a sort. They formed living barriers from blackthorn, willow, holly, hawthorn, beech, oak, willow, and hazel, which is likely that here. Hedgers were in demand owing to the Enclosure Acts (ReSearch) of the later 18th and early 19th centuries. 

X [w] winnowing-machine, or the simpler rhythm of t…

Things

The winnowing machine's spinning fan blades separated the grain from the chaff. The flail was a hand tool used to thresh or beat the straw so as to separate the grain.

X [w] birds'-nesting

Raiding birds' nests for the eggs.

X [h] tread-mill attitude

Things

The attached image shows the linen loom and the weaver, his feet on the pedals. 

X [d] really saw nothing very distinctly that was n…

Body

Silas is extremely near-sighted and can hadly discern what is more than a few feet from him. His myopia anticipates his obsessive focus on weaving in order to accumulate gold. 

X [h] cramp, or rickets, or a wry mouth

Body

Cramp is a skeletal deformity (often of the back); a wry mouth is twisted and misshapen. Both result from rickets, a deficiency of vitamin D.    

X [h] you could only speak the devil fair enough,

Implore the devil to assist.

X [d] A shadowy conception of power that by much pe…

Writing & Reading

Eliot approaches Raveloe as a cultural anthropolgist would and combines the roles of historian and novelist in the manner of her favorite, Sir Walter Scott. Scott and Eliot were so exacting in their recreation of the past that we might call their genre the anthro-historical novel. In their work the culture rivals in importance the characters and events and often drives both.…

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X [d] enthusiastic religious faith.

Religion

By "enthusiastic" (from the Ancient Greek, meaning "in God" or enraptured) religious faith, Eliot means the appearance in the 18th century of Wesleyanism/Methodism (you will find under ReSearch more on that and on Dissenter and Non-conformist) and other Protestant sects outside of Anglicanism. Many depended on a rapturous relationship with God. The "primitive wants" (primitive in b…

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X [d] their imagination is almost barren of the ima…

Daily Life

Centuries of artisanal labor and monotonously limited prospects, shadowed always by hardship have shrunk the inhabitants' imaginations and left them devoid of the imagery that is the basis of desire and hope. Their default position is "fear." Having abundant food on the table, not being …

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