I’m re-reading George Eliot’s “Silas Marner,” almost forty years since first reading it in grade-school.
I’ve just started, so this post won’t be a full review. I’m going to share some of the reading experience I’ve had thus far, both by myself and with my kids, who’ve shocked me a bit by asking me to read it to them at bedtime.
If you’d enjoy some full reviews of “Silas Marner”, here are a few from the blogosphere that I’ve enjoyed reading (all open in new tabs):
English Plus Language Blog – Review of Silas Marner
Bev Spicer – Review: Silas Marner by George Eliot
Christian Children’s Book Review – Silas Marner
So I first read “Silas Marner” back in grade school, possibly the first year of high school. It was on our list of required summer-reading.
I’ve found the same edition I used back then, and that’s what I’m using for my re-read. It’s a 1961 Dell, with this lovely cover that I’ve never forgotten:
My kids are 11 and 9. After reading the “Birchbark House” series to them, they wanted me to read them something else, but we’d exhausted all the YA material in our house. My son noticed I was reading a new book, and out of desperation he asked me to read him “Silas Marner,” from the beginning. His sister joined us. And not only do they understand and follow it, they’re liking it.
This has to count as the most pleasant shock of 2022 for me so far.
The opening chapters of “Silas Marner” have been reminding me of many books and movies I’ve taken in recently: Tolkien, the Book of Job, Little House, etc.
This declaration by Silas reads like something straight out of Job’s mouth:
“You stole the money, and you have woven a plot to lay the sin at my door. But you may prosper, for all that: there is no just God that governs the earth righteously, but a God of lies, that bears witness against the innocent.”
There was a general shudder at this blasphemy.
This line from the opening paragraph of “Silas Marner” called hobbits to mind:
… 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 country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race
… and Bilbo in particular:
… it was [said], that Master Marner had laid by a fine sight of money somewhere
Silas begins to physically wither in his hoarding years. I recalled reading about a similar deformation in a character in the Völsunga Saga (which I have not read) – Fafnir the dwarf, whose lust for gold turns him into a dragon:
Strangely 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. The prominent eyes that used to look trusting and dreamy, now looked as if they had been made to see only one kind of thing that was very small, like tiny grain, for which they hunted everywhere: and he was so withered and yellow, that, though he was not yet forty, the children always called him ‘Old Master Marner’.
Yet even in this stage of withering a little incident happened…
I thought also of Edward Casaubon, the old and misanthropic scholar from “Middlemarch”, one of my alltime favorite novels:
[Marner’s] life had reduced itself to the functions of weaving and hoarding, without any contemplation of an end towards which the functions tended. The same sort of process has perhaps been undergone by wiser men, when they have been cut off from faith and love—only, instead of a loom and a heap of guineas, they have had some erudite research, some ingenious project, or some well-knit theory.
Ebenezer Scrooge also dropped into the party in my head:
But sometimes it happened that Marner, pausing to adjust an irregularity in his thread, became aware of the small scoundrels, and, though chary of his time, he liked their intrusion so ill that he would descend from his loom, and, opening the door, would fix on them a gaze that was always enough to make them take to their legs in terror.
I think of Silas first as someone whose loneliness causes him to hoard, but the reverse should be just as true. Protecting his gold makes him into a bit of a monster and hardens his loneliness.
Finally, our old friend Ichabod Crane:
The expression of trusting simplicity in Marner’s face, heightened by that absence of special observation, that defenceless, deer-like gaze which belongs to large prominent eyes, was strongly contrasted by the self-complacent suppression of inward triumph that lurked in the narrow slanting eyes and compressed lips of William Dane [Silas’ best friend].
Now, Lionel Trilling famously remarked, “All prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote.” I don’t see any connection yet with our knight, in the first five chapters of “Silas Marner.”
But I’m going to copy Trilling here and say, with only minor exaggeration, that all episodes of the “Little House on the Prairie” television series were a variation on the theme of “Silas Marner”.
As I wrote up in an old post, the central plot of the “Silas Marner” — an old man is drawn out of his emotional shell by a little girl — happens to be the theme of many “Little House” episodes, though often with a twist:
- Laura and Ebenezer Sprague, the banker (“Ebenezer Sprague,” season 2)
- Laura and the old widower (“The Haunted House”, season 2)
- Laura and her paternal grandfather (“Journey In the Spring,” season 3)
- Laura and the blind old man whom she compels to help her (“The Hunters,” season 3)
- Laura and the old hermit Zechariah, a gold prospector who does not love gold, and who teaches Laura about greed (“Gold Country”, season 3)
- Jenny and Dr. Marvin, a man who is embittered about losing his practice but ends up helping Jenny out of her own depression (“Marvin’s Garden,” season 9)
In a second-season episode (“The Spring Dance”), Pa Ingalls reads “Silas Marner” before bed. And in an episode from season 6 (“Author, Author”), Albert Ingalls winghes about what a chore it is to read “Silas Marner”, which he has to do for school.
Neither the novel “Silas Marner” nor its central theme appear in the “Little House” books. “Silas Marner” was published in 1861, not long before Laura Ingalls Wilder was born, though I wonder whether children would have been reading it.
In any case, by the 1970s kids were being forced to read it, which is no doubt why Albert Ingalls is complaining about it on the TV show.
It was soon after the 1974-83 run of the “Little House” television series that my school assigned “Silas Marner”. I liked it and was surprised, because at least some of my classmates found it boring.
I watched the “Little House” show devotedly back then, though I don’t recall connecting it with “Silas Marner”. Looking back, I think that the show nevertheless must have, at least subconsciously, helped me enjoy the novel. I was not one of those students who read every book he was assigned — far from it.
However, I remember taking to this novel from the start, long before baby Eppie showed up on Silas’ hearth. The first few chapters don’t really resemble “Little House”, so what hooked me? Maybe in my natural introversion I already identified with Silas a little?
Re-reading it, I have to say that the first two chapters are just very fine work by George Eliot. Starting in chapter three, she draws her characters a little too broadly, for example with the hapless brothers, Dunstan and Godfrey Cass. But the first two chapters are thoroughly engrossing, because they focus on Silas himself and they take their time showing us his past, how he’s responded to misfortune, what kind of man he is.
And though he’s a weaver from a distant century, he’s completely familiar. He has friends and feels betrayal; he has an uncertain love, and loses it; he retreats into a shell, and comes to love money. Nothing alien here.
Maybe it’s the deliberate pace of Eliot’s sketch that turns off some young readers, but it works. How else can you sketch character deeply, except by taking your time with it?
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