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Book Review: Silas Marner

The only gold that our hearts require.


When I was twenty years old, my oldest brother gave me two books for Christmas: Pride and Prejudice and Silas Marner. Apart from reading A Christmas Carol, these were my first foray into 19th Century literature.


What surprised me about Pride and Prejudice was that it was funny. I never expected there to be humor in it. I assumed that anything involving fancy dress balls, carriages, and landed gentry would also have to be stodgy. Instead, Jane Austen’s wit leavened a tale of awkward attraction and ultimate romance.


Then there was Silas Marner, by George Eliot. A boxed, hardbound edition (1954) which featured a cursory introduction into Marian Evans’ life and her common-law marriage to George Henry Lewes. Not knowing at the time (until I read this intro) that George Eliot was Marian Evans’ pen name, I was a bit perplexed by the bio; clearly it was written under the assumption that the reader knew all about George Eliot.


The other feature of the edition was the illustrations by Lynton Lamb. Given the slimness of the volume, style of font, and the prevalence of pictures, I was expecting a cheery sort of adolescent tale, something along the lines of Oliver Twist (which I had not read yet, by the way).


What I got was a moralistic tale of a weaver who is unjustly accused of a crime, banished from his town, and takes up a lonely residence in the village of Raveloe. Having lost his faith in God, he keeps himself isolated from his neighbors, other than to perform his work, and over the next fifteen years, quietly amasses a modicum of wealth.


One night his stash of coins is stolen, and bereft, Silas must plead with his neighbors for assistance. His loss does generate a bit of sympathy among the townspeople, but Silas has not yet learned how to interact with them.


On another lonely night, a two-year-old girl toddles into his cottage to escape from a snowstorm. Her poor mother having died in the storm, the little girl finds comfort in Silas’s fire. When Silas, awakening from a cataleptic trance, discovers her on his hearth, at first he imagines that his gold coins have been returned to him. When he realizes it is a tiny child, his compassion is awakened, and thus begins his redemption back to humanity.


As I have mentioned in earlier posts, George Eliot was an immensely important writer to me when I was in my twenties. I devoured all her books, finding in them a curious mixture of intellectualism and passion. Her characters felt things very deeply, and they longed to find their true place in the world – always with the purpose of making things better for humankind. And the authorial voice examined all the internal conflicts, the crises, and the drives of these characters, often delving deep into the minutia of a single incident as though it encapsulated what it means to be wholly human.


Over the last few years, I have been revisiting George Eliot’s novels. The funny thing is that I now feel mature enough to understand more deeply the themes she examines. On the other hand, I am finding her prose a bit too thick for my taste. She is so intellectual, she analyzes to such an extensive degree that her prose takes on a didactic flavor. When I read her work, I feel I must sit upright and pay attention, because all of this will be included in the final exam.


So far, I’ve reread Daniel Deronda (which I enjoyed more this time than on other occasions). Romola was interesting and made more sense once I skimmed a Wikipedia page about the time period. The Mill on the Floss ... well, I’ve read it three times and have no desire to ever read it again; it just doesn’t appeal to me.


And then there is Silas Marner, my first introduction to George Eliot’s work. On my previous readings, I tried getting through it too quickly and so didn’t give myself time to enjoy the tale. This time, however, I read it at a more relaxed pace and let the story come to me. It proved to be the solution for how to engage with it.


Certainly, the language is dense and analytical, but there is a sweet charm throughout. Maybe I can relate to Silas, in that he seeks comfort from familiar things. He sticks close to home, he has his routine; he indulges in his rich reward of coins, but doesn’t think to look beyond them for something more. Having lost his faith in God, he has nowhere else to look, other than to his tiny store of gold.


It is a sublime moment when Silas discovers Eppie on his hearth – a transcendent experience where one set of riches is replaced by another:


“Turning towards the hearth ... he seated himself on his fireside chair, and was stooping to push his logs together, when, 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! He felt his heart begin to beat violently, and for a few moments he was unable to stretch out his hand and grasp the restored treasure. 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. In utter amazement, Silas fell on his knees and bent his head low to examine the marvel: it was a sleeping child – a round, fair thing, with soft yellow rings all over its head. Could this be 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 without shoes or stockings? ...

“The thoughts were strange to him now, like old friendships impossible to revive; and yet he had a dreamy feeling that this child was somehow a message come to him from that far-off life: it stirred fibres that had never been moved in Raveloe – old quiverings of tenderness – old impressions of awe at the presentiment of some Power presiding over his life; for his imagination had not yet extricated itself from the sense of mystery in the child’s sudden presence, and had formed no conjectures of ordinary natural means by which the event could have been brought about.”

I’m grateful to rediscover this story -- one that I had often dismissed as rather bland. Instead, I find it a sweet story of redemption and recovery, of discovering the importance of empathy and the absolute need for connection. The promise that what counts most in life is not material things but the ones that we love.

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