George Eliot’s Shorter Fiction, including Silas Marner

  • Alan W. Bellringer
Part of the Macmillan Modern Novelists book series (MONO)


Of George Eliot’s six shorter prose-tales only Silas Marner is developed into a full novella with a double plot. The others conform to Henry James’s notion of the short story as anecdote, where a single situation is carefully elaborated.1 They all contain interesting narrative effects, like the two dialogue scenes run into the one chapter (Ch. 3) in ‘Amos Barton’, the rendering of Dempster’s consciousness in a state of delirium tremens in ‘Janet’s Repentance’ (Ch. 23) or the large time gaps in Silas Marner. In none of these tales do the chapters have titles or mottoes in aid of contemplation. If narrative haste is scarcely a quality to be associated with George Eliot, since she gives over so much space to narratorial comment, yet she can also use unexpected deaths and brief, suspenseful chapter-endings like Dunsey Cass’s exit, ‘So he stepped forward into the darkness’ (Silas Marner, Gh. 4), to cut the content, though not the substance, of her stories. But what distinguishes each one of her shorter works is the impression given of a strong theme delicately handled. Behind the presentational cover of sympathy for commonplace people experiencing unromantic incidents in average communities set in ordinary landscapes, where there is ‘nothing to break the flowerless monotony of grass and hedgerow but an occasional oak or elm, and a few cows sprinkled here and there’ (Janet’s Repentance’, Ch. 26), there is a nudging towards implicit radical analyses of complex and sensitive issues.


Short Story Delirium Tremens Uninformed State Defensive Optimism Short Fiction 
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  1. 4.
    U. C. Knoepflmacher, in George Eliot’s Early Novels: The Limits of Realism (Berkeley and Los Angeles, Calif.: University of California Press, 1968), p. 56, argues that George Eliot idealises Milly Barton excessively as an ‘angelic mate’, dropping irony and indirection in favour of hortatory sentimentality. T. A. Noble, whom Knoepflmacher aims to refute, is surely nearer the mark in defending George Eliot’s sure ‘sense of reality’ in this tale’s scenes of pathos (see his George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965, pp. 113–15).Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life, ed. T. A. Noble (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), p. 9, n. 8.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Dianne F. Sadoff, Monsters of Affection: Dickens, Eliot, and Brontë on Fatherhood (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), pp. 66–67. The daughter, encouraged by the dying mother to replace her, ‘reaps the structural rewards of familial desire’ as substitute wife and housekeeper. Hence George Eliot’s first story ‘obscures its sexual meaning’.Google Scholar
  4. See also S. Marcus, ‘Literature and Social Theory: Starting in with George Eliot’, in Representations: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: Random House, 1975), pp. 183–213.Google Scholar
  5. 14.
    Letters, vol. IE, p. 371. Letter to J. Blackwood, 12 January 1861; the story came across other plans ‘by a sudden inspiration’; it was finished in four months, ibid., p. 387. Letter to John Blackwood, 11 March 1861. Several critics have commented on the economy of means in the composition of Silas Marner. R. Speight, in George Eliot (London: Arthur Barker, 1954), p. 66, says, ‘one feels that she has put into it exactly the right weight of writing’, andGoogle Scholar
  6. L. Haddakin, in ‘Silas Marner’, in B. Hardy (ed.), Critical Essays on George Eliot (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 64, remarks, ‘when you turn back to the book itself you are surprised by its brevity’.Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    Still the most severe analysis of George Eliot’s underlying theme in Silas Marner is Richard Simpson’s in ‘George Eliot’s Novels’, Home and Foreign Review, III (October 1863), pp. 522–49. He argued that the tale contained an ironic apology for Providence in a ‘specious defence of the truth’ which was achieved by ‘planting opinions’ which George Eliot wished to eradicate. The irony consists in ‘making Marner’s conversion depend altogether on human sympathies and love, while he, simple fellow, fails to see the action of the general law of humanity, and attributes every thing to the “dealings” which regulate the accidents’, p. 529.Google Scholar
  8. See D. Carroll (ed.), George Eliot: The Critical Heritage (London: Roudedge & Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 229.Google Scholar
  9. 18.
    Henry James, ‘The Novels of George Eliot’, Atlantic Monthly, vol. XVIII (October 1866), p. 482.Google Scholar
  10. 21.
    L. C. Emery, in George Eliot’s Creative Conflict: The Other Side of Silence (Berkeley and Los Angeles, Calif.: University of California Press, 1976), p. 71; she finds in the ending evidence of a disguised Oedipal wish with Silas perhaps representing ‘the return of the repressed’, p. 77.Google Scholar

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© Alan W. Bellringer 1993

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  • Alan W. Bellringer

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