"I've been robbed!": Breaking the Silence in Silas Marner

by Laura Emery , Margaret Keenan

November 30, 2000


Psychoanalytic ideas about trauma and mastery can enhance our understanding of Silas, of his creator, and of ourselves. Because Eliot gives such detailed attention to Silas's withdrawal, we can recognize it as a common response to traumatic loss. Silas's isolation, his hoarding, and his deadened senses are attempts at mastering loss, but they keep him numbed and incapable of healing. When events repeat the trauma, however, his old wounds reopen, providing the possibility of a new outcome. This time, by acknowledging--to others and to himself--the intolerable pain of loss, Silas begins to heal, initiating a return to relatedness and to life.


    Margaret Keenan and I have collaborated in recent years, leading discussions about trauma and mastery in the poetry of Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds, and more recently in the novels of George Eliot. Although our collaboration produced the ideas that follow, I express them in a singular voice.

    In returning to Silas Marner more than twenty years after having written George Eliot's Creative Conflict (Emery, 1974), my purpose is to show that psychoanalytic ideas about trauma and mastery can enhance our understanding of Silas, of his creator, and of ourselves. I use the word "trauma" broadly (but not lightly) to include devastating loss. About the word "mastery" I have some reservations because, as I shall try to show, it does not illuminate the most crucial moment in Silas's development.

    Because Eliot gives such detailed attention to Silas's withdrawal, we can recognize it as a common response to traumatic loss. Silas's isolation, his hoarding, and his deadened senses are attempts at mastering loss, but they keep him numbed and incapable of healing. When events repeat the trauma, however, his old wounds reopen, providing the possibility of a new outcome. This time, by acknowledging the intolerable pain of loss to himself and others, Silas begins to heal.

Silas's Reaction to Trauma

    On the outskirts of Raveloe, "not far from the edge of a deserted stone pit" lived Silas Marner, a weaver. He seemed, "like the spider," to weave "from pure impulse, without reflection" (Ch. 1). His hermit life, a self-imposed exile, cut him off from all connection with people. However, it had not always been so. Formerly living in another part of the country, Silas had been a member of the religious community of Lantern Yard. There, his best friend falsely accused him of robbery, his fiancée rejected him, and the entire congregation condemned him. Afterward, he took up residence in a stone cottage outside the unfamiliar town of Raveloe, his thoughts "arrested by utter bewilderment." The repetitive sounds and movements of weaving helped to numb his pain, but all his "affection seemed to have died under the bruise that had fallen on its keenest nerves" (Ch. 2). Apart from weaving and counting his gold, Silas's life was barren. He "saw no new people and heard of no new events to keep alive in him the idea of the unexpected and the changeful" (Ch. 4).

    However, the life of the withdrawn hermit does change--dramatically--after the theft of his gold. For a time, grief-stricken, he just keeps on weaving, without the meager comfort of handling and counting his treasure. On Christmas eve, however, opium-addicted Molly dies in the snow near his cottage. After her orphaned baby toddles through Silas's open door and falls asleep on the warm hearth, Silas the hermit becomes Silas the loving parent. He experiences a gradual transformation parallel to the development of the child he begins raising: "As the child's mind was growing into knowledge, his mind was growing into memory: as her life unfolded, his soul, long stupefied in a cold narrow prison, was unfolding too, and trembling gradually into full consciousness" (Ch 14). With the changes brought by Eppie, the story of the alienated hermit, hardened for self-protection, and cut off from self and others, becomes a story of regeneration. Silas returns to life after a death-like existence.

    Eliot's exposition deftly renders the narrow, closed life of a person suffering the effects of trauma. As readers, we enter into the psychic condition portrayed by the author. Eliot uses the image of the weaver as a vehicle for feelings of being locked in childhood trauma, and she explores those feelings in the story of Silas's isolation and recovery. Using the terms of Ferenczi, we see in Silas an "unbearable sense of injustice, helplessness, and despair" leading to withdrawal from others and from self-awareness (quoted by Kirshner, 1993, p. 238). In Lacanian terms, we can describe Silas's life after trauma as one of "psychic numbing, profound withdrawal, and addictive oblivion" (quoted by Kirshner, 1993, p. 238). Indeed, Eliot's hermit could be a case study, not only of the consequences of psychic trauma, but of the stages of recovery. Childhood trauma gets frozen and repressed. Forgotten but still powerful, it forces its way (or is forced by events) to the surface. To be resolved, the trauma must be acknowledged--named to self and others. The act of witnessing marks the trailhead: the beginning of the journey to reclaim the lost self and reestablish connection to the community. It is a journey back to love.

Eliot's Life and Loss of the Mother

    When the image of the weaver "thrust itself" upon her, Eliot created this story about loss and recovery. The creative process itself performed a therapeutic intervention, pushing her to work through deeply buried childhood losses. Her created character, Silas, allowed the author to find the way out of an old, imprisoning situation, never fully confronted or named before. This is a speculation on my part, but behind this hypothesis are psychoanalytic ideas concerning the relationship between trauma, object loss, and language.

    In The Transformation of Rage, Peggy Johnstone (1994) has shown that George Eliot did suffer the kind of early traumatic losses that can have enduring consequences. These included separation from her mother at sixteen months and separation from her parents and brother when she was barely five years old. Her mother, who never fully recovered from the birth and death of twin boys, was essentially lost to Marian as a toddler. The child's affections turned to her brother Isaac, but as soon as Marian turned five, her parents sent the two children to different boarding schools. With her multiple losses, Marian at school was intensely homesick, always cold and afraid of the dark.

    These traumatic events are reflected only indirectly in Silas Marner, but the story is weighted with them nonetheless. The landscape in the novel helps us to feel the repressed pain and loss from which the story promises recovery. A good example is the stone pit, where Mother Earth offers no holding and no softness. The earth, like the psyche of Silas, is broken here--hard, deserted, and lying waste. It is a dangerous place to some, but to Silas a kind of comfort--the outside world like the inside world.

    The qualities of that outside world remind us that trauma destroys what Winnicott (1986) calls "the holding environment," the psychic space that embraces, protects and comforts us like a mother. In Eliot's stony landscape, I feel myself uncomforted, exposed to the cold, and "held" in the hard, imprisoning environment of the stone pit, which is freezing and isolating rather than motherly. Silas lives nearby in a stone hut, as cold and hard as the pit itself, suffering from fits of frozenness in which he is still as death, without sensation, turning to stone as in a magical tale.

    Silas's "cataleptic fits," suggesting unnamed early traumas, metaphorically underscore a kind of psychic frozenness he experienced even before his life in exile at the stone pits. In Lantern Yard, he was "self-doubting," already cut off from part of himself, not noticing danger signs when they presented themselves. He missed--at least consciously--many clues about the shakiness of his personal relationships, clues that might have enabled him to anticipate the betrayal that was coming. He didn't notice the cooling of his friendship with William that followed his engagement to Sarah, and he didn't suspect that his fiancée and his friend were becoming close. His fits of "mysterious rigidity and suspension of consciousness," which could be "mistaken for death" (Ch. 1), functioned like the dissociation that protects the already traumatized psyche, fending off past and future pain. Silas's blacking out protected him, temporarily, from seeing a painful reality, but it also, paradoxically, facilitated his betrayal. It intensified his vulnerability, since he was already among those "whose unnurtured souls have been like young winged things, fluttering forsaken in the twilight" (Ch. 1, my emphasis). Given his unnurtured and forsaken state, Silas's losses in Lantern Yard produced extreme consequences, alienating him from other people and increasing his alienation from himself.

    We cannot know the unwritten story of Silas before Lantern Yard, but we can surmise that his ultimate isolation represents the author's reaction to both childhood and adult losses. Silas's return to life occurs when he is able to provide a "downy nest" for Eppie. If Eppie's loss of a mother represents Eliot's similar loss, we now have a complete picture, with the author's earliest loss split off from the main character, Silas, and his pain-induced withdrawal. By dividing aspects of trauma between two separate characters, the author's imagination splits up and mitigates the pain that might otherwise be overwhelming. The splitting blurs, somewhat, the relationship between loss of the mother and the loss of community through withdrawal into isolation, but the relationship remains significant. With the loss of "the good object" comes another great loss, that of the symbolic language that connects people. When Kirshner (1994) asserts that the "threat of destruction or loss of 'the good object'" is the essence of what psychoanalysts regard as traumatic (p. 235), he adds that it is not only what was done to the child, but "its lack of naming and consequent invisibility" that "constitute[s] the essential aspects of trauma" (Ferenczi, quoted in Kirshner, 1994, p. 236). If a child loses her mother and does not yet have the language skill to name her loss, then part of the trauma is the lack of acknowledgment--the linguistic vacuum--which leaves the child cut off from the world of symbols that constitutes the fabric of society. The child is then, like Silas Marner, unequipped to participate in social relationships or to develop the bonds that satisfy the need for community.

    From this perspective, the diminished character, Silas, reconnects the author psychologically with her childhood need for a mother's nurture and comfort. However, in Silas we do not see the writer simply getting in touch with the needy child she once was. There is more. Silas reconnects the author with an early traumatic loss that, as long as it remains unnamed, causes her enduring sensations of frozenness and disconnection. In the story, we hear the created character voicing the pain and loss that his creator has been holding in silence. Marian Evans was too young to put her experience into language when grief and ill health caused her mother to withdraw from her. She was bereft, and too young to name or understand what had happened. Later, as an adult author, she may not consciously have thought of Silas's losses as representing her own history. Nevertheless, the created world of Silas Marner gives the author's childhood trauma a voice and a new outcome, reconnecting the isolated self with the world.

    As long as such early loss remains unnamed, the incomprehensible experience persists as a powerful influence. It appears in symptoms or symptomatic acts that serve to repeat the trauma. The child become adult is unconsciously drawn back to the original loss--with the unconscious fantasy of making things turn out better this time. However, things don't usually turn out better without awareness of the repetitive pattern and the need that produces it. As the traumatized person keeps repeating the trauma, the result can be "inhibition, even an inability to deal with life," leading to the ego's withdrawal from reality (Kirshner, 1994, p. 238). When this happens, the creative process, like analytic therapy, seeks to restore the symbolic object.

Silas Interrupts George Eliot's Plans

    The story begins like this: "In the days when the spinning wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses . . . there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men who, by the side of the brawny countryfolk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race" (Ch. 1). As the remnant of a "disinherited race," Silas is given Biblical associations connecting him with themes of banishment as well as promise, the Biblical prophecy being that out of that remnant will come salvation. From the beginning, Silas is presented not just as a victim in need of rescue, but as one who is important to the future of the whole community. He comes to represent--for author and reader--not only a denied, banished part of the self or the past, but a denied part full of promise.

    The nature of his promise is not immediately apparent, however. At the beginning he is simply a stranger. Eliot's "alien-looking" figure "bent under a heavy bag" (Ch. 1) arouses a mixture of fascination and repulsion. We do not identify with him as readily as we might have with Adam Bede, Dinah Morris, or Maggie Tulliver, the central characters in George Eliot's earlier novels. Reading Silas Marner (1861) immediately after The Mill on the Floss (1860), as I once did, is something like culture shock. The fictional world suddenly shrinks, chills, and darkens. Maggie, the heroine of The Mill on the Floss, full of energy, passion, and temper, is visually powerful, with her unruly, abundant dark hair. She closely resembles the young Marian Evans, devoted to a disapproving brother and suffering from urges and intelligence that make her a misfit, measured by Victorian society's idea of the proper female. Silas, by contrast, is visually slight, a pale, silent man. Unlike Maggie, he has no passionate attachments and little mental activity. His heavy, intriguing burden, so prominent in relation to his pallor and small stature, stands out as symbolic. Any reader would have difficulty connecting him with the creator of Maggie. He seems to have come from a completely different source.

    Between the completion of The Mill on the Floss and the inception of Silas Marner, George Eliot must have been feeling extremely vulnerable. Her most autobiographical novel, The Mill on the Floss, had just exposed feelings to her readers that she had previously hidden from herself. The passion and childhood pain of Maggie revealed an intensely close connection between the author and her heroine. Eliot had created a raging river that drowned Maggie and the brother who could not accept her. The rage, although externalized in the river, surely felt threatening to the author whose brother had recently disowned her.

    At the same time, Eliot had just exposed her identity as Marian Evans to a disapproving Victorian public. The newly acclaimed novelist with the male pseudonym was now known to the world not only as a woman, but as a woman openly cohabiting with a married man. In a letter to her publisher, Eliot reported feeling as though she lived surrounded by "houses full of eyes" (Haight, 1954-55, p. 118; see Emery, 1976, p. 56).

    This was the author's situation when The Mill on the Floss was published. Her next project, as we learn from her letters, was not originally Silas Marner. She and Lewes had taken a trip to Italy during which he suggested that she write about the life of Savonarola, a fifteenth century religious leader. Soon after, she began doing research for that project. Its heroine, Romola, would be an idealized character, whose situation would be safely removed in time and space from any obvious connections to the author's life. Thus, the planned novel would create no further public exposure and would distance the author from the feelings of rage that surfaced at the end of The Mill on the Floss. Eliot delved into research on Savonarola and the Italian Renaissance, but though she worked at it, she couldn't write that story. Instead, the process of taming Maggie into Romola was interrupted by a sudden inspiration, "a sort of legendary tale" that "thrust itself" upon the writer and became Silas Marner. The new story centered on Eliot's "recollection of having once, in [her] early childhood, seen a linen weaver with a bag on his back" (Haight, 1954-55, p. 382).

    That childhood image of the burdened hermit seems to have been revived by Eliot's adult feelings of alienation and exposure. It interrupted her somewhat frozen writing process, as though it resonated to something stirring in herself. I believe the weaver image represented a repressed or dissociated experience from Eliot's childhood, one that for forty years may have been represented in her mind only by that image. If so, the Silas story allowed an alienated, neglected aspect of herself to break through her defenses and finally be heard. That aspect of herself--as Silas--emerged when Eliot's relationship with Lewes not only increased her sense of isolation and exposure but also provided her with new strength and support, enabling her to confront and work through her early traumatic loss.

The Causes of Regeneration in Silas Marner

    Silas's recovery, though traced in great detail, depends upon improbable intrusions of other characters into his stony isolation. These intrusions are partly responsible for the fairy-tale atmosphere of the story, an atmosphere distinctly different from that characterizing Eliot's typical novels of psychological analysis. Dunstan Cass, the black sheep of the sub-plot, is one intruding character. He steals Silas's gold, shattering the closed, defensive circle into which Silas has retreated. Another intruding character is Eppie, who miraculously replaces the gold and provides a more promising object for his affections.

    The fairy-tale atmosphere is something I find particularly engaging about Silas Marner. In a passage describing Silas's return to life, we are told that his senses awakened "even to the old winter-flies that came crawling forth in the early spring sunshine" (Ch. 14). This reminds me of the flies asleep on the walls in "Sleeping Beauty," a familiar tale in which love's first kiss brings back life. And when I imagine Silas weaving and weaving until his gold turns into Eppie, I remember Rumpelstiltskin. He can transform straw into gold, but what he wants is something else, and his story brings themes of naming and rage together with the threat of tearing a baby away from her mother. Such associations suggest that the depths of the Silas story are like those of myth, fairy tale, or dream, with both Silas and Eppie portraying the self of the author in different ways and to different degrees (as, indeed, may Dunstan Cass and other sub-plot characters). Eppie, then, joins Silas in reconnecting Eliot with childhood trauma.

    In this magical story, the orphaned toddler, Eppie, appears out of the snow. Loving her and creating a holding environment for her transform the numbed, alienated man. In the fairy-tale atmosphere of the story, the craft of weaving gives the death-in-life figure of Silas symbolic connection with creation and wholeness. It sets him apart from the agrarian residents of Raveloe: many may have spinning wheels, but very few are weavers. In myths, the weaver, like the writer creating a novel, is making a world. And so the weaver of Raveloe is not simply strange, alien, and lost, but (once again) promising. He is an artisan from whose depths surprising gifts--"unborn children" (Ch. 2)--will come. The special genius of Eliot's story-telling, here, is that it interweaves magic, symbol, and psychological discovery, providing details that reveal the arduousness of the regeneration process.

    Blending realistic with magical elements, Eliot creates the expectation that the regenerating power of love will be the cure for Silas's wounded spirit. Before Silas found Eppie on his hearth, the death of affection in him had not been absolute. In a "little incident" showing "that the sap of affection was not all gone," Silas was moved when his brown earthenware pot fell on the stones and broke into three pieces. He "picked up the pieces and carried them home with grief in his heart," setting them up again in their old place "for a memorial" (Ch. 2). Eliot tells us that the pot had been a familiar helper to him and that he had affection for it.

    Silas's greater affection for his gold coins does not receive equal approval from the narrator. There is, we learn, a negative side to Silas's affection for gold, for "as he hung over it and saw it grow" it "gathered his power of loving together into a hard isolation like its own" (Ch. 5). Nevertheless, long before the appearance of Eppie, Eliot shows us that Silas's hoarding of gold coins served the function of keeping his dormant affection alive: "He spread them out in heaps and bathed his hands in them; then he counted them and set them up in regular piles, and felt their rounded outline between his thumb and fingers and thought fondly of the guineas that were only half-earned by the work in his loom, as if they had been unborn children" (Ch. 2).

    Through this simile, Eliot suggests that Silas's dormant ability to love is a seed that springs back to life when the golden-haired Eppie replaces the gold guineas. For Silas, the child created a growing number of "fresh links" to the world and to other people, from whom "he had hitherto shrunk continually into narrower isolation." The gold was "hidden away" like Silas, "deaf to the song of birds," and "worshipped in close-locked solitude." But Eppie, because she was a "creature of endless claims and ever-growing desires, seeking and loving sunshine, and living sounds, and living movements," brought Silas into contact with life. The gold had "asked that he should sit weaving longer and longer, deafened and blinded," but Eppie's needs "called him away from his weaving." Her responses to life made him think all "its pauses a holiday, reawakening his senses with her fresh life, even to the old winter-flies that came crawling forth in the early spring sunshine, and warming him into joy because she had joy" (Ch. 14). Like those "old winter flies," Silas came back to life. Eliot shows that new life came to the pale weaver not through the magic of Eppie as an object replacing the gold, but through his awakening senses, his feeling of connection to another being, and ultimately through the love that revived in Silas as he cared for the child.

    Eliot portrays Silas's relationship to his gold as a kind of addiction. She calls it worship. The gold coins are shiny and solid. If one could only have those qualities oneself, there would be no empty feeling, no flaws in the self, no unhealed wounds, and no vulnerability. In Silas's addiction, as in all addictions, we see both the preservation of caring and hopelessness. The addictive object, which seems to provide something to count on, something to control and find comfort in, never satisfies the need. Gold for Silas is a saving object, but no amount of it can fill his inner emptiness. His gold coins allow repetitive relating and the promise of satisfaction, but they cannot fulfill that promise.

    When the gold is stolen, Silas's response is complex. On one hand, we see agony, the addict's withdrawal. Silas turns his cottage upside down in disbelief: "he searched in every corner, he turned his bed over, and shook it, and kneaded it; he looked in his brick oven where he laid his sticks. When there was no other place to be searched, he kneeled down again and felt once more all round the hole" (Ch. 5). In the weeks after the loss of his gold, Silas felt "the withering desolation of that bereavement"; his thoughts were "baffled by a blank like that which meets a plodding ant when the earth has broken away on its homeward path. The loom was there, and the weaving, and the growing pattern in the cloth; but the bright treasure in the hole under his feet was gone; the prospect of handling and counting it was gone: the evening had no phantasm of delight to still the poor soul's craving" (Ch. 10). In addition to creating such terrible pain, however, Silas's loss provided an opening for growth by giving access to his previous traumatic loss and freeing energies that could turn toward a new object. Once the gold was gone, "the fence was broken down," "the support was snatched away" (Ch. 10), and the freed self had new possibilities.

    Little by little, Silas became less impatient with visits from sympathetic neighbors. His heart, which had been like a "locked casket with its treasure inside" was broken. But it was also unlocked, and Silas had "a sense, though a dull and half-despairing one, that if any help came to him it must come from without" (Ch. 10). On a Christmas day spent "in loneliness, eating his meat in sadness of heart," he was desolate, but there was a new openness. He "sat in his robbed home through the livelong evening, not caring to close his shutters or lock his door, pressing his head between his hands and moaning, till the cold grasped him and told him that his fire was grey" (Ch. 10). Eliot tells us that Silas had a new habit of "opening his door and looking out from time to time, as if he thought his money might be somehow coming back to him" (Ch. 12).

    Something did come to Silas from "without," but only when the unlocked door of his ravaged heart had provided an opening through which love could reenter his life. On that Christmas evening, when he was about to close his cottage door in "the chill of despair," he had a cataleptic fit. Magic, or the "the invisible wand of catalepsy," as the narrator describes it, kept that door from being closed at the precise moment that the child, Eppie, came through the snow toward the lighted doorway. The man who had been robbed did not feel that there was anything of value "inside," but his heart had been made ready. Once his fit was over, Silas saw the golden-haired Eppie asleep on his hearth. At first he thought he was seeing his gold coins, but touching her changed that impression and brought back the long lost image of his little sister, who had died when he was "a small boy without shoes or stockings" (Ch. 12). Silas felt that Eppie was "a message" from the lost past. She stirred "old quiverings of tenderness" from those early days.

    Eventually, when Eppie was fifteen, she and Silas went to seek the truth about the robbery that had, in the past, driven him into exile. He thought he could find Lantern Yard if someone could tell him the way to Prison Street. Once there, "the grim walls of the jail, the first object that answered to any image in Silas's memory, cheered him with the certitude . . . that he was in his native place" (Ch. 21). Silas finds the spot where the community once was and recognizes the "grim walls of the jail" as signs of his origin. However, with no one left who can even remember Lantern Yard, the knowledge of what happened there is irretrievable.

    That fragile sense of connection to the lost past provided by Eppie becomes one thread in the restoration of Silas to life. It leads him to revisit the grim prison walls, erected against pain, but they are the only remaining signs of past trauma. He could never know exactly what happened, just as the author could never retrieve the memory of her earliest childhood loss, her separation from "a supremely loved object" (Ch. 12). As Johnstone (1994) explains, citing Mahler, the author's "descent into the 'unrememberable and unforgettable realm' of her mind" could not produce "lost details of her infancy" (p. 85). That limitation applies to all of us. But in her creation of the Silas story, Eliot went beyond a repetition of losing and regaining the lost mother. She went beyond the mastery of trauma to discover the mystery of recovering love.

Silas's Cry: Breaking the Silence

    Silas's recovery begins when he responds to the traumatic loss of his gold by crying out, "I've been robbed!"--thus acknowledging his pain and loss and breaking out of his withdrawal and silence. This is not just a cry of pain, it is a naming of what has happened to him. It creates an opening to others and brings back the vulnerability that makes love possible. As I see it, this cry reveals the unconscious depths from which Eliot's story emerges. With these words, Silas acknowledges his pain and loss, breaks out of his defensive withdrawal and silence, and becomes part of the social fabric of Raveloe. He appeals to his fellow men, who believe what he tells them and respond sympathetically. As the following passage suggests, their acknowledgment, combined with Silas's ability to express his sense of loss, allows the process of recovery to begin:

This strangely novel situation of opening his trouble to his Raveloe neighbours, of sitting in the warmth of a hearth not his own, and feeling the presence of faces and voices which were his nearest promise of help, had doubtless its influence on Marner, in spite of his passionate preoccupation with his loss. Our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us any more than without us: there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud (Ch. 7).

Adding the "sign of the bud" to earlier imagery of the dormant seed of affection, George Eliot presents Silas's encounter with the citizens of Raveloe as the beginning of his regeneration.

    I want to explore this moment further because without the explicit articulation of a particular, named loss and its acknowledgment by others, the traumatized self could not come back to life, and the regeneration through love could not occur. Silas had had an earlier opportunity to begin reconnecting with others, but he had been unable to avail himself of it.

    When Sally Oates's symptoms of heart disease reminded him of the "precursors of his mother's death" (Ch. 2), Silas responded sympathetically by giving her foxglove. He experienced a "transient sense of brotherhood," but he failed to achieve a lasting reconnection with others. After assisting Sally, he felt "beset" by people wanting help whom he drove "away with growing irritation" (Ch. 2). We are told that he refused them because he did not believe that he could help them and "he had never known an impulse towards falsity"; but Eliot's descriptions of his behavior suggest that he was also motivated by a strong aversion to other people, as though he were afraid of being overwhelmed by his connections with them. Eventually his neighbors disliked him even more than they had before, suspecting him of using dark powers to cause their troubles. In short, Silas's fear of others resulted in a repetition of the rejection he had experienced in Lantern Yard, the rejection that had made him so distrustful of people to begin with. George Eliot's descriptions make clear how dangerous connecting with others feels to the alienated self.

    Dori Laub (1998), who writes about the effects of trauma among holocaust survivors, explains that trauma breaks one's tie with "the other." This is what has happened to Silas, and a momentary movement of pity toward another could not, by itself, restore the tie. Instead, it created anxiety. To restore the tie, something more fundamental was needed. Laub calls it "witnessing," a process that involves acknowledgment and a listener who enables the unfolding of the story. This is exactly what Eliot dramatizes when Silas goes to the inn after he has been robbed. Earlier in the story, when he cured Sally Oates, Silas had his self-protective wall intact. After the robbery, however, his defenses were in ruins. With nothing left to lose, he was ready to risk reaching out to others.

    To explain more fully why I give Silas's acknowledgment of pain and loss such importance, I need to relate a recent experience. At a weekend workshop in Montreal, where psychotherapists and others gathered to discuss trauma and mastery in the creative process, Peggy Johnstone and I led a discussion of Silas Marner. I talked about the importance of Silas's accumulated gold, his treating the guineas as his companions and as his children. My purpose was to trace the steps toward Silas's regeneration by showing that his psyche managed to preserve a habit of caring. I described what happened when the theft broke through his isolated system, repeating and reviving the trauma that had sent him into lonely exile fifteen years earlier. Briefly recapitulating the events, I repeated aloud Silas's desperate outcry, "I've been robbed!" (Ch. 7). Then, in almost the same breath, I went on to emphasize that the retraumatization, by creating an opening toward others, led to Silas's return to community, to a reconnection with others that was impossible before the theft. Suddenly, a member of the audience spoke up, challenging what I had just said. "Wait!" she burst out. "You can't just pass over that. It's absolutely crucial. Look at what had to happen before the reconciliation."

    This contribution came from Josette Garon, a Montreal psychoanalyst who treats adult victims of childhood abuse. She described the situation she faces when such a client comes to her for help. Knowing what really happened to the child victim is sometimes impossible, she explained, but the healing of the victim depends absolutely on acknowledging that something traumatic did happen and did harm that child. The adult client sits in my office, Garon said, feeling frozen, plagued by depression, dreams, and flashbacks, and wondering how she can know what--if anything--happened to her. She is frozen because what happened has been denied and because the holding environment has been destroyed. Without its protection, the ego is overwhelmed. Whatever was done to the child--or left undone--the traumatic event and the harm were not acknowledged at the time, but hidden or denied by the adults involved (for their own reasons), and by the child victim, for her self-preservation. In that situation, when a therapist acknowledges the client's frozenness and expresses belief that something traumatic did happen, the therapist's acknowledgment helps the victim to acknowledge it, to feel and express the pain and thus begin to melt the frozenness that plagues her.

    If the victim can begin to feel the pain of whatever happened to her and then express it and be heard, she can begin to move out of the frozen state. Her recovery from the trauma will require enormous work, but the working through cannot begin until the original conspiracy of silence is broken. After acknowledgment, Garon explained, therapist and client can work on piecing together a story that makes sense (Garon, 1997).

    Yes, I thought. It is like that for Silas. He cannot simply start loving again, no matter what beautiful child appears on his hearth. He must first become unfrozen, which means that he must begin by bearing witness to his pain and loss. He must feel it and name it. He must be heard and have his loss acknowledged by someone. If the adult client Garon spoke of was traumatized as a very young child, she did not have the conceptual tools to name what happened. If the child was old enough to have those tools, she still would not speak but would be apt to take the blame herself rather than alienate the adults on whom she depended for love and sustenance. Denial would continue until, as Garon explained, the victim had a listener who would support her in being able to acknowledge the harm she had suffered. In the world of therapy and clients, this process often begins when the therapist becomes the first "other" to acknowledge that something had happened.

    In the world of the novel, the process begins when Silas exclaims, "I've been robbed!" and the listeners at the inn respond by believing him. At this moment of acknowledgment the healing process in the novel begins. To hurry past this detail, then, amounts to not understanding the process.

    What would have motivated me to hurry past this, I wondered. I was arrested by Garon's description, and when I looked back at my earlier work on Silas Marner, I found that I had not even quoted Silas's words, "I've been robbed!" Instead, I'd quoted the indirect description of his initial "wild ringing scream," contrasting its intensity with the quiet, controlled protest following the betrayal fifteen years before when, "in a voice shaken by agitation," Silas had simply uttered, "there is no just God that governs the earth" (Ch. 1). At that time, he did not cry out in blame, expressing or naming his feelings of betrayal. Instead, he carried a heavy burden of unexpressed rage for fifteen years, a burden that kept him isolated and frozen--the mysterious burden carried on the hermit's back.

    With the later theft of his gold, Silas's initial scream in response to the empty hole voices pain, but without putting the experience into words that tell what happened, and without communicating it to anyone. The wordless scream is impressive after fifteen years of silence, but it does not constitute witnessing. No one hears it. Instead, the crucial acknowledgment comes when he goes to the inn and cries out to the people gathered there, "I've been robbed!" With those words, Silas breaks through the silence that has kept him imprisoned. How frantic he must have been to be driven to proclaim his loss to the people he'd been avoiding for fifteen years! Eliot herself almost seems to cringe at the prospect, to distance readers from the intensity of Silas's words by creating a large gap between his discovery of the missing gold and those words declaring loss. The two are close in time but are separated by about six pages of miscellaneous conversation between people at the inn. The gap makes me think the author finds it difficult or threatening to say "I've been robbed!" (Ch. 7).

    I, too, find it difficult to say "I've been robbed!" That is probably why I was hurrying past the outcry and on to reconciliation--until Garon said "Wait! Look at what has to happen first." Before reconciliation, there is painful work to be done. Laub says that trauma destroys the tie with the other. For Silas, that tie was destroyed in Lantern Yard. Fifteen years before his gold disappeared, he'd been robbed not only of all his human relationships, but also of himself. He'd lost the ability to interact with the world around him and risk relationship with others. Without a sense of himself, he could only cling to his gold. Without the gold, he was frantic. However, when he could say "I've been robbed!" he'd found a way to begin life again.

    When Silas's pain produced the outcry that cracked open the wall of his isolation, the empathic response of others came like spring rain, reaching the dormant seed of love. This isn't a process I can think of as mastery. The moment of witnessing is a moment of giving over. The mastery has broken down and the man surrenders to pain. Is it now a process of regeneration through love? Exclaiming "I've been robbed!" may not seem like an act of love. The word "love," with all of our individual and collective experiences carried on its back, can obscure as much as it reveals. When Simone Weil defines love as "the belief in other human beings as such," I think "Yes!" but there is a great deal resting on the "as such." For love to be possible, other human beings cannot be seen merely as threats, as possible disappointments, or as sources of help or nurturing. Before the traumatized Silas can develop love, or belief in other human beings "as such," he must break the silence of isolation and recover a sense of his own worth as a human being. His exclamation, "I've been robbed!" comes from desperation, but that changes when an empathic listener responds. At the moment of receiving an answer, his outcry is transformed. It becomes a minute but creative act of self-love, restoring a bit of belief in himself. The sound of his own voice then becomes a thread that can be woven into the fabric of community.

    This process, discovered by the isolated weaver in his moment of greatest pain, brings Silas back to relatedness with others. It is a healing process for him and for Eliot and her readers. Her story does more than model trauma and mastery with a repetition of losing and recovering a "supremely loved object." It calls up the isolated, silent aspects of self walled off in each of us and speaks of coming back to relatedness and life.


Emery, L. (1974). George Eliot's Creative Conflict: The Other Side Of Silence. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Garon, J. (1997). Participant in Symposium: Trauma, Mastery and Literature: The Life and Creativity of George Eliot. Montreal, Quebec.

Haight, G. S. (1954-55). The George Eliot Letters. 7 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Johnstone, P. (1994). The Transformation Of Rage: Mourning And Creativity in George Eliot's Fiction. New York: New York University Press.

Kirshner, L. (1994). Trauma, the good object, and the symbolic: A theoretical integration. The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 75: 235-242.

Laub, D. (Speaker). (1998). Coming close: From traumatic absence to creative presences. [Conference: Lucy Daniels Foundation, Echoes of trauma: Psychic injury and creativity]. Raleigh, North Carolina.

Winnicott, D. W. (1986). Home Is Where We Start From. New York: Norton.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Laura Emery and Margaret Keenan ""I've been robbed!": Breaking the Silence in Silas Marner". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://www.psyartjournal.com/article/show/emery-ive_been_robbed_breaking_the_silence_in_. April 22, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: September 1, 2000, Published: November 30, 2000. Copyright © 2000 Laura Emery and Margaret Keenan