Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

On Superstition and Prejudice in the Beginning of Silas Marner*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

On Superstition and Prejudice in the Beginning of Silas Marner*

Article excerpt

In the opening of Silas Marner, the narrator uses the term "superstition," illustrates several kinds of it, and presents its damaging effects. His conception of superstition and the way his criticism is carried out will be the object of this essay. Further, I would like to demonstrate that the narrator opposes superstition to religion and implicitly suggests the latter's positive aspects.

The story takes place in rural England at the beginning of the nineteenth-century.1 The village of Raveloe, outside of which the weaver Silas has lived for fifteen years now, is by no means a poor village. It is not, indeed, "one of those barren parishes lying on the outskirts of civilisation" (5), but rather is it located "in the rich central plain of what we are pleased to call Merry England" (5). Superstition,2 however, was then still persistent among the peasants:

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. (3)3

Silas Marner was just one of those "unwonted" persons when he came to settle in Raveloe after he left his hometown, very disappointed by men and having lost his faith in God. First, he was physically different. He was a "pallid undersized" man compared to the "brawny country-folk" (3). The ironic remark about the dog is interesting:

The shepherd's dog barked fiercely when one oí these aüen-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. (3)

This is one kind of superstition which the narrator presents in the free indirect speech or, as Ann Banfield calls it, in a "represented thought."4 The represented thought of the dog ("alien-looking," "for what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag?" and "that mysterious burden") is not only comic because of the anthropomorphism, but also because of the implicit reverse phenomenon of placing the shepherd on an equal footing with his dog. The expressions "alienlooking" about the hawking weavers and "mysterious burden" about their bags are the represented thought of the dog as well as its owner. Both the owner and the dog, without any good reason, distrust strangers or people who look different. This comparison makes the shepherd, who represents the prejudiced country folks of Raveloe, all the more stupid and mean because he knows who those hawkers are, but his dog does not:

The shepherd himself, though he had good reason to beüeve that the bag held nothing but flaxen thread, or else the long roUs of strong Unen spun from that thread, 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. (3)

The weaving job is associated in the mind of these people with the Devil. The shepherd, who is just an ordinary inhabitant of Raveloe - not backward folks relatively speaking, as we have noticed above - , knows very weU that the weaving trade is "indispensable," but stUl distrusts the weaver, just because he is superstitious. This detail, however, should not make us think of Silas Marner as a kind of fairy tale.5 This novel is overall another "reaUst" novel by George Eliot - , reaUsm in the sense she understood it.6 There are obviously mythical and symboUc elements in Silas Marner, but we these are found in Eliot's other novels as weU. These elements can be part of a "realist" novel.

To return to our superstitious shepherd, we have seen that the narrator criticizes him for being as ignorant and bothersome to a stranger as his dog is. Implicitly, the narrator is asking the people who are like the Raveloe people: what about hospitality, this basic moral duty? In other words, superstition hurts. The humanist narrator describes this attitude towards foreigners in another powerful FIS7: "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? …

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