A look at the Intertextual Elements of the Motif of Nature, and the Symbol of Light as seen in George Elliot’s novel Silas Marner, and William Wordsworth poem Michael, a Pastoral Poem. It is apparent in reading Silas Marner that the writing of William Wordsworth had a strong impact on George Elliot. This novel shares many similarities with the poem Michael by Wordsworth.
Both works share an ordinary simple working man as a protagonist, both works take place in an idyllic countryside setting, and both works feature and stress the importance of having children, and the hope and joy they can bring to a home; though, these two works share much more than just a similar protagonist, setting, and plot. The epigraph that opens George Elliot’s Silas Marner is from the poem Michael by William Wordsworth; this indicates a very high degree of intertextuality between the two works, in the elements of the recurring motif of nature, and the strong symbolic representations of light.
Nature in Silas Marner represents everything good and pure and wholesome. Elliot idealizes a simple natural life. We can see this in the way she describes the village of Raveloe, “it lay in the rich central plain of what we are pleased to call Merry England,” she goes on to say, “it was nestled in a snug well wooded hollow,” (Elliot 5). This admiration of nature can also be seen in the contrast between Raveloe – the village that is instrumental in Silas’ growth and healing, and Lantern Yard – his original home of which he was cast out, this event is the reason that he becomes the solitary miser we see in the beginning of the novel.
When Silas returns to Lantern Yard with Eppie, Silas is described as being “… ill at ease, besides, amidst the noise, the movement, and the multitude of indifferent faces. ” Eppie is also uncomfortable and remarks, “O, what a dark ugly place! ” (Elliot 172). The novel ends with the wedding of Eppie on a beautiful sunny day, surrounded by “lilacs and laburnums in the old fashioned gardens… ” (Elliot 174). We see the importance of nature not only in the way that Elliot describes the setting, but also in the way she describes the characters.
Silas is often compared to insects, “He seemed to weave like a spider, from pure impulse, without reflection. ” (Elliot 15) Here she likens Silas to a spider weaving his web, driven by instinct and nothing else. She continues with the metaphor in chapter seven when Silas goes to the rainbow after he has been robbed of his gold “… looking round at the company with his strange unearthly eyes. The long pipes gave a simultaneous movement, like the antennae of startled insects” (Elliot 53).
The insect comparison doesn’t end there, “Marner’s thoughts could no longer move in their old round, and were baffled by a blank like that which meets a plodding ant when the earth has broken away in its homeward path. ” (Elliot 74) Here Elliot compares Marner’s loss and confusion to an ant that is confused by something in its path blocking his way home. Silas is not the only character who is compared to a plant or animal, Eppie is compared to a “… little starved robin. (Elliot 119), she is also compared to a “precious plant to which he would give a nurturing home in a new soil” (Elliot 129). Nature also has a high level of significance in Michael. Silas Marner is set in an idyllic country side setting, so too is Wordsworth’s Michael. Wordsworth begins the poem by leading us to the pastoral lands that is Michael’s home, “yet having felt the power/of Nature,” (Wordsworth 28-29), nature here is not only seen as having great beauty but also as having great power.
Wordsworth highlights this not only by telling us, but by showing us in the capitalization of the word “nature”. We have seen in Silas Marner the power of nature to transform and change for the better. We see further the power of nature in how Wordsworth describes Michael, “these fields, these hills/Which were his living being, even more/Than his own Blood” (Wordsworth 75-76). Michael not only lives in nature, but has it in his very blood.
The effect that nature has on him can be seen in his longevity and physical strength, “his bodily frame had been from youth to age/Of an unusual strength. ” (Wordsworth (454 – 455). As nature has the power to change people for the better its absence has the opposite effect, one of corruption, as seen when Michael’s son Luke goes to the city, “Luke began/To slacken in his duty, and at length,/He in the dissolute city gave himself/To evil courses” (Wordsworth 442-445).
Away from the healing and positive power of nature, Luke is corrupted in the city and is forced to leave, to “seek a hiding-place beyond the seas” (Wordsworth 445). This evil and corrupting power of the city is reflected in Silas Marner’s Lantern Yard, where Silas suffers a blow to his faith and goodwill, and turns into the solitary, miserly, and sad creature he is in the beginning of the novel. Light in Silas Marner is a symbol of life, warmth, and home. In chapter ne, Elliot talks about Silas’ light, “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. ” (Elliot 15). The light here represents Silas’ life, and the curtain is his shattered faith, which causes him to live in solitude, here represented by blackness. As the light is an important symbol, so is the absence of it. The two most significant events that occur in the novel and help to further advance the plot happen due to the light of Silas’ hearth.
The first event is when Dunstan Cass is attracted to Silas’ home by the light of the fire, He found it out, however, by another circumstance which he had not expected – namely, by certain gleams of light, which he presently guessed to proceed from Silas Marner’s cottage. (Elliot 36). After inviting himself into Silas’ cottage, and warming himself by the fire, he decides to steal Silas’ money which he finds beneath the bricks of the Silas’ floor. This event is the catalyst that begins Silas’ transformation, as he seeks the aid of the villagers by going to the rainbow.
The second significant event occurs, is when a baby the daughter of Molly and Godfrey Cass, is attracted to the light of Silas’ fire, just as Dunstan was. She is dropped into the snow by her mother who overdosed on opium, and she “toddles” her way to Silas’ cottage and falls asleep in front of his hearth. Suddenly, as the child rolled downward on its mothers knees, all wet with snow, its eyes were caught by a bright glancing light it was immediately absorbed in watching the bright living thing running towards it, yet never arriving. Elliot 107). This event sets in motion Silas’ healing, and the first event made this possible. If Dunstan didn’t steal Silas’ gold, he wouldn’t have opened the door that night looking helplessly, hoping that his gold would be brought back to him, and the baby might have died of exposure in the winter night, with no light to help guide her to Silas’ hearth. Light is just as an important symbol in Michael as it is in Silas Marner, and also shares the same symbolic representations of life, warmth and home.
Wordsworth describes a lamp that is hung below the chimney of Michael’s cottage, and due to the location of the cottage, that light is visible to the whole village, “The light was famous in its neighbourhood,/and was a public symbol of the life” (Wordsworth 131-132). This light is a symbol of the good, simple and natural life that Michael and his wife lead, and is so “constant” and “regular”; it is named the Evening Star. There is also the imagery of the hearth, where Michael recalls hearing his son Luke’s first sounds, “when I hear thee by our own fire-side/First uttering without words a natural tune;” (Wordsworth 346-347).
This is also important for Silas, as by his fire-side, is where he discovers Effie. Another representation of light is the sun, “And in the open sunshine of God’s love/Have we all lived;” (Wordsworth 229-230). Here Wordsworth uses metaphor to compare the sunshine to the love of God. This is similar to Silas Marner, in that Elliot also uses a metaphor with the sun, in comparing Eppie’s need for love and affection and care, to that of a plant’s need for sunlight. (Elliot 129).
There certainly is a significantly high degree of intertextuality between the two literary works; Michael, and Silas Marner. This considerable similarity between the two goes beyond just nature as a major motif, and light as a key symbol. It also includes other motifs of domestic life, and class differences, and other symbols such as the hearth, and stones, all of which are prevalent throughout both poem and novel, though none of which are as vital as that of nature, and light.