Monday, January 22, 2007

Geoge Eliot's Silas Marner

My #2 Review for the Winter Classics Challenge

My list of titles for this challenge appears here.

Title: Silas Marner

Author: George Eliot [ biographical info from Univ. of Virginia ]

Copyright: 1861 (Novel falls into the public domain); I used the Borders Classic hardcover edition, ISBN 1-58726-164-2, copyright 2005 Ann Arbor Media Group, LLC. Full text available here.

Genre: Fiction

Length: 172 pages

Summary: Falsely accused of theft and deeply shaken by the resulting distrust in his community, Silas Marner leaves his urban environment and moves to the rural village of Raveloe. Because of his slightly odd appearance and his intense sensitivity, he withdraws from community and approaches life from the perspective of a hoarder, a miser. He is however still an innately honest soul. Circumstances bring a daughter to him and in the interests of taking care of a child, he is forced to interact with his world in new ways.

Conversely, Godfrey Cass is the fortunate son of the local squire. Blessed with most of life's advantages, he makes bad choices. The consequential deceit that follows wreaks havoc on the lives of those around him and, in the long run, robs him of life's emotional treasures that he might have had.

Essentially, Silas Marner is a character study of two individuals whose paths in life direct them to different ends. Eliot contrasts the good and evil in choices made by two very human characters.

Extract: Silas himself was feeling the withering desolation of that bereavement about which his neighbours were arguing at their ease. To any one who had observed him before he lost his gold, it might have seemed that so withered and shrunken a life as his could hardly be susceptible of a bruise, could hardly endure any subtraction but such as would put an end to it altogether. But in reality 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. But now the fence was broken down -- the support was snatched away.

The above extract from Chapter 10 is actually a fair sample of Eliot's writing. Her sentences do tend to run long with lengthy clauses inserted into them. I can understand why the style is somewhat disconcerting to high school students. (In my day, this was a fairly standard high school assigned text, but I don't think that's true any more.) Those who speed-read may get the high points of the relatively simple plot but I suspect they will miss Eliot's intention in presenting the story. Casual readers may also want to be aware that Chapters 6 and 7 have a good deal of dialect in them which will also slow the pace (although you couldn't ask for a better text rendition of English lower-class existence in another century).

Also Relevant: Eliot is good, no doubt, but I must say that she doesn't speak to me across time the way other writers from the nineteenth century do. She's very realistic in the rendition of her characters which I liked. Silas Marner is the opposite of what many today demand of their chosen heroes; he's not physically attractive and he seems to be incapable of standing up for himself. On the other hand, we see him as a loving single parent which tends to make him more sympathetic as a character. Eliot's explanation of why he withdraws from society and the forces that drive his re-entry into Raveloe society struck me as entirely plausible and certainly, one roots for the underdog. Knowing that he's been badly treated by a number of people elicits some hope in the reader that Marner will somehow succeed against the odds. Having said that, he's not a particularly interesting person; he's basically taciturn by nature and too isolated and/or withdrawn to hold our attention.

Godfrey Cass, by contrast, is well-situated in life, but lacks an internal moral compass. Unsure of his father's approbation, he is deceitful because of his emotional insecurity. This causes him to wreck the lives of those women who have the misfortune of joining their lives to his.

I *think* there are a number of things going on in the background. Eliot may well be presenting the lower-classes and rural life as having a claim to inherent superiority over the life found in urban settings. Otherwise there's no purpose to the narrative framework she employs, showing Marner's life in Lantern Yard before he adopts Eppie and then offering the contrast in his view of Lantern Yard when he returns there late in life with Eppie. I am not sure that I buy any of these views by scholars and critics. There is a repeated theme of violated trust in the tale and the human need we have for that trust from those who we care for and who know us most intimately.