Adam Smith and Silas Marner: Heaps of Gold

essay wealth of nations theory of moral sentiments greed morality literature money silas marner elizabeth hull george eliot industrialization labor industrial revolution gold family charity

by Elizabeth M. Hull for AdamSmithWorks

July 17, 2019
I have a Bookshelf of Shame. It’s a mental shelf stocked with all the books the “ideal man within my breast,” tells me I should have read. One of those books is George Eliot’s Silas Marner, a novel full of sharp social satire that rivals Jane Austen’s. But what it does more powerfully and more explicitly than Austen’s work is examine human isolation, love, industry, and money. In this first encounter with Silas Marner, Adam Smith’s ideas helped me to understand the role a skilled occupation and gold coins play in the novel and even perhaps see behind Eliot’s moral to an unexpected one.
We often characterize Smith’s thought as somehow divided between the economic and the moral, between The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Silas Marner seems similarly divided into two parts: first a sad tale about a betrayed man of faith who comforts himself in solitude with a sensual attachment to the gold coins he accumulates, until in part 2 he is saved by his affection for a helpless baby. Marner’s small faith community wrongly convicts him of stealing a bag of money. Exiled, he lives and works alone in a distant village which views the outsider’s skill with suspicion. Incessant toil earns him a hoard of gold coins: only when those are stolen from him does a toddler, orphaned in the snow, arrive to gradually lead him to a more social and happier life. Smith teaches us so much about Marner, though, that we can see more clearly how one love leads to the other, how Marner’s life as an artificer--a weaver--creates a thread that binds Marner’s life together, and makes possible the very satisfying, hard-won, happy ending.
The novel’s subtitle names Marner “the weaver of Raveloe,” and the story begins in the days when weavers “bent under a heavy bag” as they carried materials or finished goods along the lanes (5). Eliot makes Marner’s trade the center of his character when we first meet him. Even sixteen years later Marner’s shoulders are still bent from working his loom (138). Eliot says, “Marner's face and figure shrank and bent themselves into a constant mechanical relation to the objects of his life, so that he produced the same sort of impression as a handle or a crooked tube, which has no meaning standing apart” (20). WoN helps us see Marner as a true member of the artificers, a class characteristically “subject to some peculiar infirmity occasioned by excessive application to their peculiar species of work” (VIII). Marner’s labor has literally shaped him--physically through repetitive motion, and socially as an outcast. But in that he is not alone, however much he may seem isolated in Raveloe. Smith places him in the family of manufacturers.
But Eliot points out Marner’s isolation constantly. She even explicitly describes his vocation as isolating. Is her judgment valid? Smith would say no, and Smith would be right. When we look with Smith’s eyes we see that Marner has never been truly alone even in his daily life in Raveloe. Like the other artificers Smith observes, Marner cannot make his linen cloth without other skilled and unskilled laborers: he weaves, but does not spin, nor does he card, dye, or grow flax. As Smith says,
the weaver . . . with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. . . . The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner . . . (WoN I.i)

Eliot ignores all the transactions that connect Marner directly to the spinners and dyers and the transactions with the customers for his linen. But Smith would see that those transactions are interactive, and they satisfy both Marner and his customers. 
Eliot soft pedals the social intercourse Smith finds in trade, and that bag we saw Marner with is used merely as a marker of his profession, not as a part of his trade that takes him into human company. Eliot doesn’t make the bag’s connection to Marner’s profits explicit either. Smith would see it right away: product generates profit, and profit is naturally sent out “as a capital” going on through the hands of many others in the economy (WoN II.iii). If bags hold Marner’s product, it’s natural that when the profits from that product become large enough, Marner would use “thick leather bags” to hold the money he makes (21). But why would those bags have positive associations for Marner? Earlier in his life, Marner had been exiled from the close community of dissenting believers when he was falsely convicted of stealing a “little bag of church money” (12). And yet the bags of his own money signify a relationship far more intense and sensual than his relationship with his once-fiancée.
Eliot wants us to see Marner’s love for gold as complex, both an inadequate and insecure substitute for a more emotionally satisfying goal, and a defense against the suspicion of his neighbors. She’s gone out of her way to introduce Marner through the unjust conviction by his church for a theft he did not commit. She’s explained his physical strangeness as natural to weavers. Introducing the reader to Silas Marner when he has lost everything but his skill and his strength, and has moved from one unjust community to another, deliberately evokes the kind of moral sentiments Smith analyzes in TMS. Marner is grieving, which Smith tells us immediately affects the spectator with some degree of a like emotion. Readers are made to feel some part of Marner’s loss. As Smith notices, observers of fictions experience “joy for the deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us, . . . as sincere as our grief for their distress, and our fellow-feeling with their misery is . . . real” (I.i).
Smith warns us, though, that only the regulated expression of suffering calls forth unresisting sympathy, because we cannot feel more sympathy for another than we feel is warranted. “If we hear a person loudly lamenting his misfortunes, which however, upon bringing the case home to ourselves, we feel, can produce no such violent effect upon us, we are shocked at his grief; and, because we cannot enter into it, call it pusillanimity and weakness.” (I.ii). Marner’s inarticulate suffering prevents us from finding his pain disgusting or too painful to endure. Excommunicated, “he sat alone, stunned by despair,” and then buries himself in his work. He arrives in Raveloe uncomplaining about the injustice he suffered at the hands of those he loves. He is an ideal tragic figure in Smith’s terms: suffering a loss we can relate to our own experiences of betrayal, but not displaying disproportionate grief we cannot endorse.
And Raveloe offers him compensation for that loss: 
His earnings in his native town, . . . had been after a lower rate; . . . Now, for the first time in his life, he had five bright guineas put into his hand; no man expected a share of them, and he loved no man that he should offer him a share. . . . it was pleasant to him to feel them in his palm, and look at their bright faces, which were all his own: it was another element of life, like the weaving and the satisfaction of hunger, subsisting quite aloof from the life of belief and love from which he had been cut off. 

He had earned money in the past, but in those days put it to use; 
for twenty years, mysterious money had stood to him as the symbol of earthly good, and the immediate object of toil. He had seemed to love it little in the years when every penny had its purpose for him; for he loved the purpose then. But now, when all purpose was gone, that habit of looking towards the money and grasping it with a sense of fulfilled effort made a loam that was deep enough for the seeds of desire; and as Silas walked homeward across the fields in the twilight, he drew out the money and thought it was brighter in the gathering gloom. (17).
His love affair with gold grows as his hoard grows: 
at night came his revelry: at night he closed his shutters, and made fast his doors, and drew forth his gold. . . . How the guineas shone as they came pouring out of the dark leather mouths! . . . He loved the guineas . . . 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 finger. . . (21).
In his earlier home, much of Marner’s income “had gone to objects of piety and charity.” Marner didn’t love money for itself; “he loved the purpose.” Now the extrinsic purpose is gone: he seems to invest little in his equipment, hires no assistants, spends his income only for necessities. Gold is his physical desire. He is interested in merely possessing it, not in using it for tithes, investment, or exchange.
Like Eliot, Smith sees money as properly part of a relationship, as representing labor and as having a purpose, to purchase desire, not to be desire’s end. Manufacturers like Marner by a law of nature do not hoard but circulate profits: “That portion which he annually saves, as, for the sake of the profit, it is immediately employed as a capital, is consumed . . . but by a different set of people: by labourers, manufacturers, and artificers.” (WoN II.ii). But for Marner, the coins themselves are too precious to return to circulation, even to expand his business and his profits. They are desire itself. 

Eliot appeals to the sensualist in me. As a spectator I put myself in Marner’s place, and feel the rounded coins, see them glow like a warm fire, the cool gold that I know from my jewelry warms under my touch, like a living thing responding to me. I sympathize with Marner, but Smith does not see that as the natural relationship with gold.
Like Smith, Eliot suggests that hoarding gold is not natural: it isolates Marner even further from the real good of human life, mutual aid and love. Though he is as fond of his golden guineas as if they had been “unborn children,” growing daily, we discover that “His gold, as he hung over it and saw it grow, gathered his power of loving together into a hard isolation like its own.” “Hard” is a key word here: it tells us that Marner is becoming robotic, his profession consisting of “monotonous” mechanical movements, and his life shared only with a metal whose hardness he has taken on (42-43). For Eliot, the isolation begun by the betrayal of Marner’s community is completed by his passion for gold until Marner is no longer human.
In spite of this, Eliot makes us see Marner’s lack of everything precious in the human emotional life as pitiable. We’re called on to understand that he is not the villain his neighbors think he is: 
In his truthful simple soul, not even the growing greed and worship of gold could beget any vice directly injurious to others. The light of his faith quite put out, and his affections made desolate, he had clung with all the force of his nature to his work and his money; and like all objects to which a man devotes himself, they had fashioned him into correspondence with themselves. (42). 

Marner clings to. Though he clings, it is to something, if not to someone: “it had been an eager life, filled with immediate purpose which fenced him in from the wide, cheerless unknown. It had been a clinging life; and though the object round which its fibres had clung was a dead disrupted thing, it satisfied the need for clinging.” (76). 
But Eliot also explicitly connects Marner’s love for gold in the first part of her novel to his love for a golden girl in the second. Into his empty hearth and heart walks a helpless, trusting, toddler. A blonde toddler: 
to his blurred vision, it seemed as if there were gold on the floor in front of the hearth. Gold!—his own gold—brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away! . . . The heap of gold seemed to glow and get larger beneath his agitated gaze. He leaned forward at last, and stretched forth his hand; but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered soft warm curls. . . . a sleeping child—a round, fair thing, with soft yellow rings all over its head. (110).

Only later will he think that “he could only have said that the child was come instead of the gold—that the gold had turned into the child.” (122). If she isn’t his gold, perhaps she is “his little sister come back to him in a dream—his little sister whom he had carried about in his arms for a year before she died, when he was a small boy.” He names her for that lost sister and their mother Hephzibah. Eppie Marner she is. Even if “Nobody in this world but himself knew that he was the same Silas Marner who had once loved his fellow with tender love, and trusted in an unseen goodness,” his life before Raveloe has still laid the foundation for a mutually beneficial exchange with those around him, a foundation to draw on when he suddenly becomes a father (86).
Eppie brings him to appeal to his neighbor Dolly Winthrop for assistance with the child, and Dolly leads him to church, and then there is schooling, and finally a family when Eppie grows up: “Something had come to replace his hoard which gave a growing purpose to the earnings, drawing his hope and joy continually onward beyond the money.” (131). Marner becomes a man Smith would recognize, part of a social context: “By seeking what was needful for Eppie, by sharing the effect that everything produced on her, he had himself come to appropriate the forms of custom and belief which were the mould of Raveloe life” (143). 
Even when his stolen gold is returned he does not return to his old, hard, life: “’If you hadn't been sent to save me, I should ha' gone to the grave in my misery. The money was taken away from me in time; and you see it's been kept—kept till it was wanted for you. It's wonderful—our life is wonderful.’” (166). He would not leave Eppie for his gold, and she would not leave him for her wealthy biological father. On her wedding day, “her hair looked like the dash of gold on a lily. One hand was on her husband's arm, and with the other she clasped the hand of her father Silas,” and she will never leave him (181). Eppie is the true gold.
What does Smith help us see beneath this happy tale of the replacement of cold hard gold with soft warm family affection? While Eliot suggests that Marner’s isolation increases while he is hoarding gold, and that only a child can bring someone into the human fold, Smith reminds us that every exchange of goods and services for money is a social exchange. In exchanging good for good, the desired for the desired, humans are bound into relationships of mutual benefit. Perhaps, then, what Eliot thinks of as love is a cousin to what Smith thinks of as trade: a constant giving and receiving of good. WoN would suggest that Marner’s fault is not that he is saving gold, but rather that he is not putting what he has saved into circulation, and TMS gives us the wisdom to see the parallel fault in hoarding himself away from the social life of his town. More importantly, Smith makes us see that the social interactions of trade actually gave Marner a place in his community that Eppie moves him into more fully. The exchange of wealth for wealth could, used properly, have made Marner a happy man with or without his angel Eppie.