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Silas Marner | Context

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Realism and Psychological Analysis

Although Silas Marner is a fable—and one with a happy ending—it is also a work of realism. Eliot defined realism as "the doctrine that all truth and beauty are to be attained by a humble and faithful study of nature, and not by substituting vague forms, bred by imagination on the mists of feeling." The realism that she aimed for was a truthful depiction of feelings and the world. Eliot stated her belief in realism in her essay "The Natural History of German Life" (1856):

Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot. All the more sacred is the task of the artist when he undertakes to paint the life of the People. Falsification here is far more pernicious than in the more artificial aspects of life. It ... is serious that our sympathy with the perennial joys and struggles, the toil, the tragedy, and the humour in the life of our more heavily-laden fellow-men, should be perverted, and turned towards a false object instead of a true one.

Her characters were ordinary people leading ordinary (even dull) lives, but her fiction showed readers that even ordinary, apparently dull lives are full of drama. The weaver Silas Marner, for instance, suffers the loss of his past; through no fault of his own, he is cut off from his social and religious roots in Lantern Yard. When he moves to Raveloe, his solitary indoor occupation results in his isolation from the community there. This isolation and his ultimate incorporation into the life of Raveloe create the main conflict and resolution of the novel.

By seeking to view the world through the eyes of her characters and explore the drama in their ordinary lives, Eliot became a pioneer of the psychological novel. This type of writing would come into its own in the 20th century with the work of Modernist writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, for whom characters' emotions and thoughts were often more interesting than their actions. To understand Eliot's characters, readers must interpret them with reference to their social context—both in time (tradition) and in place (community). Despite the allegorical nature of Silas Marner, its characters are not two-dimensional. They are not black or white, not good or evil. They are human and have human instincts and human weaknesses. It is out of this humanity that their actions arise.

Cottage Industry: Weaving

Silas Marner is a weaver who works at home. This means that he is an artisan engaged in a cottage industry that was dying out during the years in which the novel's events take place.

During the European Middle Ages, rural peasants, whose main occupation was farming the lands of the local lord of the manor, often used their spare time to earn extra income through home-based crafts. In the 1500s, a process known as protoindustrialization took place. Networks of cottage industries were established and tended by middlemen, who constantly traveled the networks. These middlemen provided the workers, who often lived in remote areas, with the necessary raw materials for their work. Later, they returned to collect and pay for the products. Semifinished products, such as yarn and woven woolen cloth, were redistributed; finished products, such as worsted fabric (which is tightly woven and has a smooth, slightly shiny finish) and fulled woolen cloth (which is thick and dense) were marketed, usually in the cities.

The most common cottage industries were spinning and weaving, and England became famous in the 1500s for its woolens and worsteds. Worsteds were made from the wool of long-haired sheep and were not fulled. Woolens went from the weaver to a fulling mill. There, the cloth was washed and then fulled. Fulling involved pounding the cloth with fulling stocks while it was submersed in a mixture of water and Fuller's earth (a fine clay) or some other substance that would remove fats and oils and regularize the color. This process cleaned and shrank the cloth, making the weave tighter and more weatherproof. After fulling, the cloth was rinsed and then stretched on racks to dry in the sun, which also bleached it. Finally, the cloth was combed to raise the nap, which was then trimmed off by hand with large shears.

Despite the growth of manufacturing and cities during the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain around 1760, cottage industries continued—albeit on a lesser scale. Silas Marner wove linen, which was less common in England than weaving woolens or worsteds. Linen was not woven from wool but from flax, a fibrous plant. Flax was harvested by pulling rather than cutting. The harvested flax was dried in bundles and then combed to remove the seeds. Next, the outer fibers were separated from the inner, woodlike stalks. Finally, the flax was subjected to a series of combing processes that eventually yielded clean, glossy, flexible fibers ready for the spinning wheel. Spinning flax was similar to spinning wool; likewise, weaving flax was similar to weaving wool, though the fibers were much finer than yarn. Linen was not fulled, but either bleached or dyed. Although Marner lived and worked in England, it was Irish weavers who became famous for their linens.

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