In the opening forty lines of her novel, George Eliot introduces the reader to the lifestyles of 19th century workers, peasants and villagers within the Victorian society in England. She starts unfolding the story of a local enigmatic linen-weaver who’s alienated from society by his appearance which is shown through the use of certain dictions. The extract has a fairytale quality to it which foreshadows a typical fairytale story meaning there will be an upcoming conflict which will be resolved near the end of the novel as the characters live “happily ever after”. Rhetorical questions and the diction also aid in the foreshadowing of a conflict between the linen-weavers and the villagers. With these elements, George Eliot has been successful at writing an intriguing introduction that connects with the reader, creates enigmas, offers background information of the setting as well as society and most importantly foreshadows a conflict.
When a novel starts with “in the days when” (l.1) or “in the early years of” (l.41), it usually remind us of a fairytale and it is possible for it to be interchangeable with “once upon a time”. Such phrases suggest that this novel is a fairytale because of such fairytale qualities. Often a story of such kind has elements and ideas that are implausible because they are highly exaggerated even thought they might be amusing and interesting. Silas Marner possesses such elements and ideas.
One example is the existence of the “alien-looking men” (l.7) in the “village of Raveloe” (l.43). This is a strange metaphor because we don’t know what aliens actually look like and whether or not they exist so the author is comparing the men to creatures that only exist in media world which is what fairytales do. When coming across this concept of “alien-looking men”, it quickly reminds the readers of the Disney story “Beauty and the Beast” because there is a similar contrast of beautiful and normal people against unwonted people in this novel. In the opening sentence of the novel, we are first introduced to “great ladies clothed in silk and thread-lace” (l.2) and then to “pallid undersized men” (l.5) that [look] like the remnants of a disinherited race” (l.6).
It is possible that the main character Silas Marner falls in love with one of the ‘great ladies’ and the conflict is that people are afraid of him because of his appearance and he cannot be accepted by society nor by the ladies. This contrast also shows the different social classes in the Victorian society; from pale and weak linen-weavers who weave for a living to impressively dressed ladies who weave just for fun.
The conflict could include the problems between the different social classes and how hard it is for Silas Marner to get the attention of the middle-class lady. This is all part of the background information that an introduction to a novel must have so that the reader gets familiar with the context of the story. The novel not only has a fairytale opening but it also has a fairytale ending. Coincidently the last sentence of the novel is “what a pretty home ours is! I think nobody could be happier than we are.” This ‘happily ever after’ ending gives us another justification that the novel can also be categorized as a relatively modern fairytale. Most importantly this is how George Eliot can connect with the readers because it is something that the readers are accustomed to and familiar with.
Rhetorical questions are used to get the reader thinking about an obvious answer and it could be used as another form of a metaphor. George Eliot uses rhetorical questions as metaphors in the opening of the novel and they all related to the concept of the “alien-looking men”. “For what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag?” (l.8-9) The ‘figure bent’ is a linen-weaver carrying thread and the rhetorical question implies that even dogs won’t look at such ‘alien-looking men’ (l.7).
Their appearance is highly exaggerated and also the rhetorical question assumes that the weavers are weak because they are walking bent when only carrying thread needed to weave. Another rhetorical question that the author uses to expand the idea of the ‘alien looking men’ is “how was a man to be explained unless you at least knew somebody who knew his father and mother?” (l.19-20) Here the rhetorical question implies that the linen-weavers appeared out of nowhere and people don’t know where they came from. They are characterized to be unwonted just like aliens because people who believe in aliens assume that they come and go to earth from distant planets. These rhetorical questions emphasize the fact that the linen-weavers are distinct people or creatures as the villagers of Raveloe might say.
The diction in the opening paragraphs of Silas Marner is very effective in creating visual imagery of the lifestyle of the people in Raveloe, England. The poor linen-weavers are oppressed by the people which is shown through the diction. They are described as “pallid, undersized men” (l.5), “alien-looking men” (l.7), “pale men” (l.9) and as “aliens” (l.37) and they are related or compared to “the remnants of a disinherited race” (l.6), “the Evil One” (l.15), being “unwonted” (l.16), and “[belonging] to a state of loneliness” (l.38-39).
The situation for the weavers is a bit hazy and pitiful because the diction clearly indicates that the society doesn’t accept the linen-weavers so they are alienated and desolated. They are even compared to the “Evil One” which is probably Satan or the devil; they are being accused of working together with the devil just because they look different. The diction doesn’t only emphasize the appearance of the linen-weavers but it also highlights the thick-headedness of the villagers and peasants.
“The world outside their own … was a region of vagueness and mystery” (l.20-21). This shows that the villagers don’t know anything outside their village and anything outside Ravole was a “conception as dim as the winter life” (l.23). They are also described as “not overwise or clever” (l.29) and they are suspicious of anyone who was clever or anyone who had acquired a special skill. Even though they are described as being “honest folk, born and bred in a visible manner”, if “dexterity of any kind were acquired [it] was so wholly hidden.” (l.34) These ideas suggest that since the villagers lack dexterity, they see the linen-weavers as “aliens” and they are too dumb to realize the reasons why they are who they are.
For example they could be so pallid because they work indoors in farmhouses most of the time so they are not exposed to the sun. Also the reason why they are undersized and weak is because they are just weavers and they might not have enough money to spend on nutritious food and they probably work all day so they don’t get enough energy from things like food and sleep. Such things are common sense which the villagers don’t get and because of this, conflicts could arise between the linen-weavers and the villagers.
With the use of fairytale qualities that foreshadows conflicts, rhetorical questions that explain the situation of the linen-weavers and the diction that creates visual imagery of the village of Raveloe which also foreshadows conflict, George Eliot has been very effective in writing this opening to the novel Silas Marner. These paragraphs have everything that a good opening should have which are enigmas that leaves us pondering if this novel is going to be a fairytale or not, connections are made with the reader, background information of the setting and foreshadowing of a possible conflict that involves the distrust and tension between the villagers and the linen-weavers.