Thursday, July 2, 2009

At the end of sixteen years every line in the worn face was present to him when he told the full story of this night - time in Silas Marner

Nineteenth century fiction can be monotonously linear. Chronologically, I mean. The narrative might split up in other ways - we follow Esther Summerson for a couple of chapters of Bleak House, and then see what Detective Bucket is up to. But the reader always remains in the "present" of the novel. When past events affect the plot, they're told to us by someone in the present.

There are brilliant, freakish exceptions like the 18th century Tristram Shandy or Melmoth the Wanderer, and framed stories are common enough. But look at Wuthering Heights, where the frame at first seems fairly complex, but rapidly simplifies to Nellie Dean telling the story in the usual chronological fashion. To the reader used to Modernism, raised on Mrs. Dalloway and The Good Soldier, where the order of events is psychological, and often quite independent from real time, it can sometimes seem like a color is missing. Not a primary or secondary color. Mauve, maybe. Lots of nice things a painter can do with mauve; shame not to have it. Lots of nice things a writer can do with scrambled narratives.

I bring this up because of a single sentence in Silas Marner:

"Mr. Kimble went on, and Godfrey turned back to the cottage. He cast only one glance at the dead face on the pillow, which Dolly had smoothed with decent care; but he remembered that last look at his unhappy hated wife so well, that at the end of sixteen years every line in the worn face was present to him when he told the full story of this night." (Ch. XIII)

Eliot jolts me out of the present, for just a moment. The feckless Godfrey not only becomes a bit deeper at this moment, but we're shown the consequences. Eliot could have preserved more suspense ("when the full story came out," say), but she wants us to know, now, sixty pages in advance, that it's Godfrey himself who will tell someone (who - still some suspense there) about the last time he saw his first wife.

I believe it's the only such line in the novel. Elsewhere, near the end, she slips a couple of short conversations back in time, just slightly (Nancy and Godfrey discussing adoption, for instance), and at the very beginning, she tells us about how Silas Marner lives in the village of Raveloe "now" before jumping back a bit to tell us how he got there.

Even these conventional narrative usages do not seem to have been so common in Eliot's time. I suspect the compression of Silas Marner, only a third as long as Adam Bede or The Mill on the Floss, led the author to employ some new tools, although I should be careful. The Mill on the Floss has a couple of "outside of time" interruptions by the narrator, and there's a continual strain of water imagery that lets the attentive reader know how the novel will end.

And Adam Bede has one similar moment, when the narrator suddenly enters the story and tells us about her conversations with Adam Bede, hale and hearty, sixty years after the events of the novel, which tells us, at least, that in the remaining 500 pages Adam is probably not killed or transported to Australia or crippled in a terrible sledding accident. I mentioned this at The Valve last summer and was scolded for my anachronistic modernism - "Eliot is not Borges." Mm hmm. When I observe something particularly sophisticated in a George Eliot novel, I'm going to go ahead and give her credit.

A holiday note: For some reason, I don't write anything when I have a day off, and tomorrow is a firm holiday. Anecdotal Kurp posts every day, even when he's on vacation. I don't know why I let them boss me around, but I won't post anything new until Monday. Have a nice holiday, weekend, etc.


  1. Another great essay. You always get me thinking about books on a deeper level. I read Silas Marner fairly recently, enjoyed it much more than I did in high school, but I don't think I would have pulled out the time issue if you put a gun to my head.

    But maybe next time I read a 19th Century novel, I'll be looking for this kind of thing.

    Happy holiday weekend!


    I've springboarded from this to my own post about a couple of sentences in Revolutionary Road that jolted me out of the present.

    Is it terrible I'm making a habit of piggybacking your observations? You just notice the best stuff and I think I unconsciously look for those things in what I read.


  3. I read "Silas Marner" slowly (and thought it was brilliant) but I don't think I'd ever consciously notice something like this. It's fascinating (partly because, again, I'd never ever think of it) to think about. I second Rose City Reader's point. I'll try to pick up on something like this for my next 19th century read, but don't hold your breath.

  4. When I said raised on Modernism, I wasn't kidding. One trains oneself to keep an eye out for certain things. Particularly, what is the narrator doing? These so-called omniscient third person novels merely shift the problem a little.

    And, of course, a lot of what we don't consciously notice still has an effect on us. I would guess that for many readers Godfrey deepens a bit, or darkens, in this passage, even if they are not exactly sure why.