‘The longest and most charming love letter in literature’ – Virginia Woolf’s 'Orlando' ...
It would be difficult to find an example of classic literature devoid of symbolism. Objects, actions or motifs used to represent broader ideas serve an important purpose in prose, poetry and drama alike. Whether a mockingbird or a scarlet letter, symbols provide the reader with a recognisable image through which they can grapple with and interpret the more complex, and often abstract, concepts at play. Among the oldest and most powerful symbols are those of light and darkness. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Babylonian underworld is called the "palace of Irkalla, the Queen of Darkness, the house from which none who enters ever returns"; John records how Jesus told his followers that he was "the light of the world"; Romeo swoons that “Juliet is the sun”.
Growing up devouring the books in the library of Arbury Hall, the large Warwickshire estate of which her father was manager, George Eliot was well attuned to symbolism as one of the many literary devices utilised by great authors throughout history. Indeed, her first major work, a translation of Strauss' The Life of Jesus, adopts the allegorical language of light and darkness which represents good and evil in the Bible. This technique appears again and again across her corpus, from her first novel, Adam Bede, in which the heavenly Dinah advises Hetty that "it is sin that brings dread, and darkness, and despair: there is light and blessedness for us as soon as we cast it off", to her magnum opus, Middlemarch, whose protagonist believes that "we are part of the divine power against evil—widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower".
Nowhere, however, is the powerful contrast between light and darkness used to greater effect than in Silas Marner, a short novel published in 1861, centring on the lonely life of a weaver who lives on the fringes of a small rural community. Forced to leave a strict Calvinist sect in London, Silas Marner settles in the village of Raveloe, where his reclusive manner leaves him devoid of human contact. Over fifteen years, he amasses a hoard of gold which becomes his sole concern and pleasure, and which, when stolen, drives him into a deep depression. And yet soon after his treasure disappears, he finds an orphaned child who has made her way into his cottage. Adopting the young Eppie as his own, Marner learns the age-old lesson that the love of another human is more valuable than any material wealth.
Throughout the novel, Eliot uses the potent imagery of light and darkness to reflect both Marner’s emotional and physical journey. The religious community he originally lived in was named Lantern Yard, where he and his best friend were “regarded as a shining instance[s] of youthful piety, though somewhat given to... be so dazzled by [their] own light as to hold [themselves] wiser than [their] teachers”. Even the cataleptic fits that he suffered there were “seen in an accession of light and fervour” by the other inhabitants. Marner’s subsequent despair at being ousted from the society, and from thus from spiritual security, is described in just. the opposite terms: “the future was all dark, for there was no Unseen Love that cared for him”.
Silas’ move to Raveloe is marked by a literal and metaphorical gloom that gradually intensifies across the years. At first, “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”, until eventually his incessant work at the loom and his isolation from the day-to-day goings-on in the small village severely impair his eyesight. “The light of his faith quite put out” and all his friends gone, Marner turns to gold as the only thing that brings meaning and stability to his life. His stash of coins brightens his existence, their value described in terms of their physical brilliance: “How the guineas shone as they came pouring out of the dark leather mouths!”.
Here, Marner’s story interacts with that of the Cass family. Godfrey and Dunstan Cass, the two sons of the village Squire, are engaged in a heated dispute over 100 pounds, which the Godfrey had lent his younger brother from the rent of one of their father’s tenants. Since Squire Cass is beginning to enquire about the money, Godfrey insists that Dunstan repay his loan. The wayward and selfish Dunstan, however, refuses to do so, telling his brother to come up with the money himself, and threatening to reveal Godfrey’s secret marriage to an opium-addict, Molly Farren, to their father. Rather than allow this, Godfrey begrudgingly agrees to let Dunstan try and sell his beloved horse, Wildfire, to recoup the money.
After striking a deal with a buyer, Dunstan decides to take the horse out on one last hunt; an overly ambitious jump sees Wildfire impaled upon a spike and its rider thrown to the ground. Unhurt and seemingly unphased by the death of the horse, Dunstan begins to walk home, when “certain gleams of light” from Marner’s cottage, and the rumour of his hidden gold, catch his attention. He enters the little house, intending to elicit a loan from Marner, but upon discovering that the weaver is not at home, searches high and low for the legendary treasure. He finds it lodged beneath the floorboards under the loom, and without a second thoughts, seizes the two purses, disguises his tracks and vacates the cottage.
Upon leaving, he “closed the door behind him immediately, that he might shut in the stream of light: a few steps would be enough to carry him beyond betrayal by the gleams from the shutter-chinks and the latch-hole”. Like Macbeth, who commands the stars to "hide your fires / Let not light see my black and deep desires", the guilty Dunstan seeks to flee from the light that might expose his crime. The chapter ends as “he stepped forward into the darkness”, after which, he is not seen again.
When Marner discovers his loss, he is compared to “a man falling into dark waters”, “left groping in the darkness”, and for the following weeks he does nothing but mull over the theft, sitting “in his loneliness by his dull fire” while any “kindness fell on him as sunshine falls on the wretched—he had no heart to taste it, and felt that it was very far off him”. Without his gold, Marner’s life becomes a dark void, empty of meaning and value.
Sometime after the ruinous loss, Squire Cass and his guests are enjoying his annual New Year’s Eve party while, unbeknownst to Godfrey, Molly Farren is making her way through the snow to interrupt him at his merrymaking, indignant that he “would be smiling and smiled upon, hiding her existence in the darkest corner of his heart”. Like the thief Dunstan, the drunken and opium-addicted woman walks in darkness, although in her case, the gloom is punctuated by brief rays of light: “she walked on again under the breaking cloud, from which there came now and then the light of a quickly veiled star”. Molly, unlike Dunstan, is not alone; she carries with her the young daughter she shares with Godfrey.
After she collapses and loses consciousness, this child “rolled downward on its mother’s knees, all wet with snow, [and] its eyes were caught by a bright glancing light on the white ground, and, with the ready transition of infancy, it was immediately absorbed in watching the bright living thing running towards it, yet never arriving. That bright living thing must be caught; and in an instant the child had slipped on all-fours, and held out one little hand to catch the gleam. But the gleam would not be caught in that way, and now the head was held up to see where the cunning gleam came from. It came from a very bright place; and the little one, rising on its legs, toddled through the snow, the old grimy shawl in which it was wrapped trailing behind it, and the queer little bonnet dangling at its back—toddled on to the open door of Silas Marner’s cottage, and right up to the warm hearth, where there was a bright fire of logs and sticks”.
When Marner returns to his cottage, he is “unaware of any intermediate change, except that the light had grown dim”, when suddenly, “to his blurred vision, it seemed as if there were gold on the floor in front of the hearth. Gold!—his own gold—brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away! He felt his heart begin to beat violently, and for a few moments he was unable to stretch out his hand and grasp the restored treasure. The heap of gold seemed to glow and get larger beneath his agitated gaze. He leaned forward at last, and stretched forth his hand; but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered soft warm curls. In utter amazement, Silas fell on his knees and bent his head low to examine the marvel: it was a sleeping child—a round, fair thing, with soft yellow rings all over its head”.
These two paragraphs epitomise Eliot’s use of symbolism in Silas Marner. Drawn to one another by gleams of light, Silas and Eppie, as he names the toddler, are led out of darkness and into the comfort and security of a human relationship. “In cherishing this young life that had been sent to him out of the darkness into which his gold had departed”, Silas finds the true source of wealth and happiness. Gold bridges the gap between the natural and the artificial: after dedicating years of his life to accruing as much gold as possible, only to lose it, Silas finally finds meaning and purpose in a golden-haired child. He raises Eppie as his own and, through her, gradually integrates into Raveloe society. Many years later, Marner is reunited with his long-lost riches, when Dunstan's remains are found at the base of a quarry near the cottage, still accompanied by the full purses. They do not change his life in the way that Eppie had.
Prompted by the discovery of Dunstan and by his own guilty conscience, Godfrey finally confesses the truth about his previous marriage and explains that the sixteen year old Eppie is his child. When he offers to adopt her, however, she refuses, turning down the promised wealth and status in favour of the love and happiness she shares with Silas. Together, they make a trip to London to visit Lantern Yard, where “sallow, begrimed face[s] looked out from a gloomy doorway” and which Eppie declares “a dark ugly place”. The place that Silas remembered as a happy home has been replaced by a grim, industrial estate, bearing no traces of the faith or friendship that he had known there.
The upheavals, trials and triumphs in the lives of Silas, Eppie, Dunstan, Godfrey and Molly are reflected in the way they interact with, or shy away from, the light. Phrases such as “everything comes to light”, “throwing further light on this clue”, and "he had seen the matter in a wrong light" abound throughout the novel, creating a close link between light and understanding, or truth. Silas’ relationship with Eppie illuminates his world, helping him to see things for what they are. The final chapter ends with him explaining that “since the time the child was sent to me and I’ve come to love her as myself, I’ve had light enough to trusten by; and now she says she’ll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die.”’
The story of a weaver who exchanges the fruits of his loom for gold, and then eventually for a child who is not his own, has obvious parallels with the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin, the menacing imp who spins gold from straw on the promise of a firstborn child. The solitary, short-sighted weaver, who spends fifteen years hunched over his loom and counting his gold, could easily have been the villain of this tale, but instead Eliot offers a glimmer of hope to the lost and the lonely, showing how meaning and redemption may appear in the most unexpected of forms. In fact, in writing to her editor, Eliot hoped that the reader would “not find it at all a sad story, as a whole, since it sets--or is intended to set-in a strong light the remedial influences of pure, natural relations”.
Image: 'Eppie, at the age of three, has slipped out of the house while Silas Marner was busy, and amuses herself by the pond'. Illustration by Mary L.Gow (1851-1929) published 1882.
Credit: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo