Silas Marner by George Eliot

Ah! A golden oldy from the shelves. I have had Silas Marner for so long that I don’t even remember how I first came to pick it up. Was it for an English class that I dropped? Was I browsing around a bookstore and suddenly overcome by the desire to run home with some George Eliot? It is true that I would like to work my way through some more of the classics. As a child I enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo and A Tale of Two Cities (even though I have never been able to get into this as an adult).  I loved Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. However, I had mixed feelings about good old Silas.

There are some classic books that can be easily understood outside the time period in which they were written; some owing to simple and clear language and others to universality of their themes. For me, Silas Marner is not one of those books. On the surface it seems that it should be one of those books.  It appears to be a clear-cut story. Its  basics can be related to and understood in contemporary times. Man lives apart from society and has no use for it and is rehabilitated and finds love after circumstances require him to take in and raise a child on his own.

The longer version of events is that as a young man Silas, who loves living in his small religious community and is a devout follower of the faith, is framed by a friend for stealing.  To make matters worse, that friend goes on to marry Silas’s fiancée.  Having had faith that the truth would be found out, Silas is disappointed that and bitter that no one believes his story. He moves to another town and essentially becomes a hermit, only interacting with the town in offering his services as a weaver and collecting and hoarding the money they pay him for his fine work. All his money is stolen when he carelessly leaves his door open while wandering the countryside.  The same night a baby is left at his fireside.  You can guess the rest.  He becomes a changed man through the love of a small child.

Silas Marner is a short book, but I did not make progress quickly. I enjoyed reading it mostly because it validates that I can read and have a basic understanding of a classic work, and it wasn’t boring; which is exciting because  it’s what I expect of some classics. I hated that he lost his place in a community that he loved, that his friend framed him and married his fiancée and that he lost his money and was thus wronged a second time (even though he was being careless). I knew that this was effecting his change and would make him a person who is more eager to engage other people and a better person, but I still hoped that there would be some closure or comeuppance for the scoundrels in his life at a later point in the book. The scenery description are lush and gorgeous but ultimately I was a little overwhelmed by them. There were some sections where the scenery was the main character and that was tough for me.

I felt that I missed a lot that I would have known about if I had more of a history of the time period. In fact I hope that I missed a lot because I wouldn’t otherwise think that this story was as worthwhile to read. I definitely felt for the character of Silas and knew that all of the events that he had gone through were leading to a greater transformation, but in that sense it wasn’t that original and the construction rather heavy handed. I am sure there must have been other issues at the time that might have made this radical storytelling or offer deeper insights than my assessment has gathered.

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