Silas Marner (1861) depicts a stolen hoard of glittering gold at a historical moment that saw an increasing displacement of coinage by paper money in one of the major developments of industrial capitalist modernity. Reading the novel as George Eliot’s aesthetic and ethical response to the modern processes of abstraction that absorbed nineteenth-century thinkers from Auguste Comte to Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx, I suggest that Silas Marner consoles for a potentially impoverishing process of abstraction by refiguring it as an opportunity for a new form of value, one that transcends material limitations and depends upon human networks for its realization. Associating the “abstraction” of gold with the creation of a post-Malthusian modern economy in which giving has little personal cost and, on the contrary, produces collective, practical benefit, Silas Marner reflects the possibilities for abundance, surplus, and shared wealth that could be glimpsed in England at the outset of the 1860s. As the novel shifts from describing money as an unchanging, inanimate object to describing it instead as an exchange-value whose meaning is expressed in relation to the natural growth and repeating cycles of human experience, George Eliot offers a historically relevant fable of moral progress dependent on the abstractions common to material exchange, social sympathy, and narrative itself.
Stealing the “Parson’s Surplice” / the Person’s Surplus: Narratives of Abstraction and Exchange in Silas Marner
Ilana M. Blumberg, Associate Professor of Humanities at James Madison College, Michigan State University, is author of the memoir Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman among Books (2007), winner of the Sami Rohr Choice Award. Her book Victorian Sacrifice: Ethics and Economics in Mid-Century Novels is forthcoming in 2013 from Ohio State University Press.
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Ilana M. Blumberg; Stealing the “Parson’s Surplice” / the Person’s Surplus: Narratives of Abstraction and Exchange in Silas Marner. Nineteenth-Century Literature 1 March 2013; 67 (4): 490–519. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncl.2013.67.4.490
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