George Eliot, Silas Marner: Vol. 1, Ch. 2

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CHAPTER II

Even people whose lives have been made various by learning, sometimes find it hard to keep a fast hold on their habitual views of life, on their faith in the Invisible, nay, on the sense that their past joys and sorrows are a real experience, when they are suddenly transported to a new land, where the beings around them know nothing of their history, and share none of their ideas—where their mother earth shows another lap, and human life has other forms than those on which their souls have been nourished. Minds that have been unhinged from their old faith and love, have perhaps sought this Letheanw influence of exile, in which the past becomes dreamy because its symbols have all vanished, and the present too is dreamy because it is linked with no memories. But even their experience may hardly enable them thoroughly to imagine what was the effect on a simple weaver like Silas Marner, when he left his own country and people and came to settle in Raveloe. Nothing could be more unlike his native town, set within sight of the widespread hillsides, than this low, wooded region, where he felt hidden even from the heavens by the screening trees and hedgerows. There was nothing here, when he rose in the deep morning quiet and looked out on the dewy brambles and rank tufted grass, that seemed to have any relation with that life centring in Lantern Yard, which had once been to him the altar-place of high dispensations.d The whitewashed walls; the little pews where well-known figures entered with a subdued rustling, and where first one well-known voice and then another, pitched in a peculiar key of petition, uttered phrases at once occult and familiar, like the amulet worn on the heart; the pulpit where the minister delivered unquestioned doctrine, and swayed to and fro,d and handled the book in a long accustomed manner; the very pauses between the couplets of the hymn, as it was given out, and the recurrent swell of voices in song: these things had been the channel of divine influences to Marner—they were the fostering home of his religious emotions—they were Christianity and God's kingdom upon earth. A weaver who finds hard words in his hymn-book knows nothing of abstractions; as the little child knows nothing of parental love, but only knows one face and one lap towards which it stretches its arms for refuge and nurture.

And what could be more unlike that Lantern Yard world than the world in Raveloe?d—orchards looking lazy with neglected plenty; the large church in the wide churchyard, which men gazed at lounging at their own doors in service-time; the purple-faced farmers jogging along the lanes or turning in at the Rainbow; homesteads, where men supped heavily and slept in the light of the evening hearth, and where women seemed to be laying up a stock of linen for the life to come. There were no lips in Raveloe from which a word could fall that would stir Silas Marner's benumbed faith to a sense of pain. In the early ages of the world, we know, it was believed that each territory was inhabited and ruled by its own divinities, so that a man could cross the bordering heights and be out of the reach of his native gods, whose presence was confined to the streams and the groves and the hills among which he had lived from his birth. And poor Silas was vaguely conscious of something not unlike the feeling of primitive men, when they fled thus, in fear or in sullenness, from the face of an unpropitious deity. It seemed to him that the Power he had vainly trusted in among the streets and at the prayer-meetings, was very far away from this land in which he had taken refuge, where men lived in careless abundance, knowing and needing nothing of that trust, which, for him, had been turned to bitterness. The little light he possessed spread its beams so narrowly, that frustrated belief was a curtain broad enough to create for him the blackness of night.

X [w] Lethean

Places

The ancient Greeks believed that upon when we died Charon rowed our shade, the disembodied yet recognizable I, across the Styx. The shade then drank from the spring Lethe, the water an amnesiac. Keats refers to Lethe in the opening lines of the "Ode to a Nightingale":

    My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
 
   My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
 
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
 
       One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk....

 

 

X [d] the altar-place of high dispensations.

Religion

Eliot is using "high dispensations" theologically: Lantern Yard thought itself obliged to proseletyze.  The Mosaic dispensation laid out the universal principles of the Jewish people, as did the Christian dispensation for followers of Christ. Lantern Yard in addition had its own.

X [d] uttered phrases at once occult and familiar, …

Writing & Reading

Lantern Yard is Pentecostal, which may involve speaking in tongues (as the Apostles did on the day of Pentecost, Acts, 2-11), may entail the minister's or congregants swaying to and fro and ritualistic ways of handling the Bible. Such practices could induce trances that were the religious variation on Marner's catalepsy.…

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X [d] And what could be more unlike that Lantern Ya…

Writing & Reading

The casting of lots has cast Marner out of church and town. Eliot may want us to recall the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. Marner, however, in going to Raveloe has entered a comparative Eden, a world of  "careless abundance," a community in which the church does not dominate daily life, and, we shall see, a place of competing strongly-held, individual views unlike Lantern Yard's required unanimity of thought.