Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Silas Marner by George Eliot

Silas Marner by George Eliot was written in 1861 but is set in the early 1800s.  It is the story of the title character.  This novel is a tale of redemption and hope. As such, I think that it has had a great influence on similar stories down through the years. Despite a few flaws, I also found it to be an outstanding book.

Silas is a member of a socially isolated Calvinist Congregation. Early on, he is framed by his best friend for a theft that he did not commit. Silas loses his social standing in his congregation, his fiancé and his reputation. Due to this terrible unfairness and misfortune, he also loses his faith and he flees to the far-off village of Raveloe. There, he establishes himself as a weaver. Silas lives the life of a hermit and is looked on with a strange mix of suspicion and distrust, but also with a grudging acceptance by the community. Years go by. Over these years, as his weaving business is fairly lucrative and he lives extremely frugally, Silas accumulates a fortune, which he hoards in his cottage. He also becomes a miser who worships money. 

Another character, Dunstan Cass, is a young and immoral member of the local gentry. His brother, Godfrey Cass is good natured but morally weak and is bullied and manipulated by Dunstan. When Dunstan steals Silas’s hoard, the miser is devastated. However, this event is a turning point in Silas’s life. The local community begins to feel pity for him. More importantly, he begins to connect with his neighbors. 

One night, a young child wanders into Silas’s cottage. The body of her mother is found nearby. The reader is aware that this is Godfrey’s clandestine wife and child. Godfrey had secretly married when he had gotten the lower-class woman pregnant. Silas connects to the young girl and adopts her. This act of charity further endears him to the community. As more years go by, he becomes a respected member of society as he raises his adopted daughter who he names Eppie. There are additional developments as Eppie’s real father eventually tries to assert himself.  

Though many have described this as a simple story, there is a lot going on in this book. My understanding of Eliot was that she was a nonbeliever who nonetheless admired some religiou ideas. There seems to be a lot of comparison between different versions of Christianity in this tale. The Calvinists, who believe in predestination but are not portrayed as very forgiving or rational, are treated harshly in the text. In contrast, the Anglicans are shown to be easy going, committed to charity and generally portrayed in a positive light. This reminds me a little of Charles Dickens’s or Charlotte Brontë’s depictions of harder, less charitable manifestations of Christianity versus more charitable and forgiving versions.

One thing that stands out here is how common this kind of a story has become. Over the years, in both books and film, we see a lot of cynical or grouchy single individuals who end up taking a child into their custody. After some rough patches, the child subsequently brings great joy and improvement to the previously alienated adult. These stories are often overly sentimental. Eliot’s tale is very well balanced between real and poignant emotions and some serious philosophy and ideas.

There are so many meaningful and well written parts to this short book. One example is how Eppie comes to displace the gold that Silas has lost.  The fact that she has golden hair fits in so well with this concept. Eliot’s wonderful prose also helps to highlight this idea. Early in the narrative, Silas’s love of his hoard is portrayed as a great character deficiency. This deficiency reaches a crisis when the gold is stolen. However, Silas’s love and devotion for Eppie heals him.  The moment when Silas first finds Eppie sleeping in his cottage exemplifies this and is so well written,

“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.”

This work is not perfect. It seemed a bit too short. I thought that some of the ideas seemed too undeveloped. I would have liked to have move philosophy and more character development. Nevertheless, I found the plot and the characters interesting.  At times Eliot's prose style soars into greatness. I liked this book better then Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, but I did not like it as much as Middlemarch. In the end however, I found this novel enjoyable, meaningful and, thus, well worth the read. 

43 comments:

R. T. Davis said...

Well, you’ve done it again with another first rate review: you’ve reminded me of another book I ought to have read but ignored. So, I guess I should remedy my ignorance by reading SM someday soon (along with Middlemarch which collects dust on my TBR pile). Again, bravo on a fine posting.

Mudpuddle said...

informative and inspiring... i've read most of Eliot, i think, and have not had a great opinion of her writing. now i believe i may have been too intimidated by the length of her novels... this one sounds quite manageable... i'll get a copy... tx, Brian...

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks RT. I think that you would like this one. Middlemarch is another great book.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Muddpuddle- This one is fairly short. But it is charachteristic of Eliot’s writing.

Stephen said...

Regarding your comment about old misers and sudden children -- having recently seen the musical, "Annie", I can't help but think of the rich-but-worried Warbucks suddenly finding joy in his life when he hosts an orphan for Christmas and grows to love her as a daughter.

Suko said...

BRain Joseph,
I was happy to see the title of your post, as I've been interested in reading this "tale of redemption and hope" for several years. I actually like that it's a shorter work, which will be easier to fit into my present schedule. Excellent commentary!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen - Indeed it is a common story found in this book. I

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. This is a short book. If you read it I would love to know what you thought.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I tried to read this in high school and failed. It was so slow. I think I could tackle it now, however. I have not read any George Eliot so this would be good start.

Thanks for the review!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I think that this would be a good book to start with Eliot. It is short and has an enjoyable plot.

Kathy's Corner said...

Great review Brian. Agree that the theme of this book a lonely recluse being brought back to life by a young child has been done over and over since Silas Marner. Would be curious to learn if it was Elliot who made this plot idea so popular or was she also just continuing in a long tradition of this popular theme. I would like to read Silas Marner but I am thinking best when trying out a new author to begin with their Masterpiece which in Elliot's case is Middlemarch.

Violet said...

It made me laugh when you said it was a bit too short. Clearly, you're used to reading very very long books. :) It's not one of my favourite novels. Eliot could be a brilliant writer, but she could also be overly didactic and layer on the mawkish sentimentality, which I don't like. Have you read Daniel Deronda? That's the best and worst of Eliot in one book, if you ask me.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - This one was sentimental. I found that OK as I rarely read things like that so it was a change of pace. I really do read long books. Especially lately. I must give Daniel Deronda a try,

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - I would also like to know if this story was done before. I cannot think of any examples. I agree, I also try to start with an author's best. Middlemarch was, in my opinion, a masterpiece.

Carol said...

Hi Brian, I remember thinking the ending came too quickly or was unsatisfying?? Eliot was an unusual person. She rejected the faith she’d grown up with but it’s influence stuck and comes through in her writing. I really enjoyed Adam Bede & when I was reading it a couple of times I thought I was reading Thomas Hardy as it had a very similar style.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - I thought that the ending did come too fast and that the story could have gone on. I can relate to Eliot’s views on religion. Like her I am also a non believer. Like her I also try to see the good and the bad things that religion drives people to do.

James said...

This is another great review of a novel by one of my favorite novelists. Eliot was not always a favorite, in fact this novel was one of those I did not like (or understand) in high school where it was assigned reading. I buried myself in Hardy and Dreiser on my own and only returned to Eliot as an adult. With Middlemarch, Adam Bede, and, yes, Silas Marner she has become a favorite of mine. Middlemarch is one of the greatest novels by any author while all of Eliot's are excellent. My personal favorite that I believe is underrated is Felix Holt, The Radical.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. I agree that Eliot is one of the great all tine novelists. Middlemarch was indeed phenomenal. As I have previously written, the books and the writers that I like have expanded so much since high school also.

thecuecard said...

Well done. It seems to have quite the moral about the worthiness of the love of a child and not the monetary hoard. The commentary on Christianity is also quite interesting -- about which kinds are more charitable etc. Did this novel come before or after Middlemarch?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Eliot, though a non believer seemed to favor certain versions of Christianity over others. This was published before Middlemarch. Though I liked it a lot, it seems less developed then Middlemarch.,

Rachel said...

I read this book a long time ago, so I only remember it in parts. As for Christianity, I certainly find some groups more palatable than others - and so I can see where George Elliot is coming from. Though I'm not a huge fan of stereotyping religions in books. That, unfortunately, ends in judging a whole group by their religion rather than by individual actions. And it often exacerbates ignorance of the readers, who often take such things at face value.

There's a reason for stereotypes, of course, but having been on the receiving end of a lot of wrong assumptions about Catholicism (once by someone who claimed to know more about my religion than myself on grounds that he was "well read"), I try to be careful about other religions.

I also know nothing of Calvinists, so all of this probably soared over my head when I read this book.

I just finished a book about Scientology and had a hard time reviewing it because I am often skeptical of the opinions of people who left their religion in disenchanted states - they are sometimes the worst about judging entire groups by their religion. (I think that review is still upcoming.)

Was George Elliot a disenchanted Christian?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - You raise some fascinating and timely points. Religions are sets of ideas. I think thaf it is important that we examine the ideas while not stereotyping people. Your comment is making me think that doing this can get tricky in some situations. Stereotyping large groups like Catholics, Jews, etc makes little sense because these groups are so big and diverse. But what about smaller groups whose members tend to adhere to fairly strict codes of conduct? What happens when folks write about them in fiction? These are not easy questions. I myself do not have the anwers to all of them.

Marian H said...

The religious/social commentary must have gone over my head when I last read this (time to re-read it!). I grew up watching the 1985 Ben Kingsley movie on VHS...haunting film. Glad to hear you liked Middlemarch, too - that's one I've watched but still need to read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Marian- I must see that Ben Kingsley version. As much as I liked this book, I liked Middlemarch better. It was also very different.

baili said...

i truly missed your marvelous commentaries dear Brain!

this one fulfilled my thrust for good review!

i always adored George Eliot for her incredible way of writings and she seems on peak in this particular work of her's ,seems truly my kind of book!

loved the main character and movement of story with such elegance of uplifting emotions ,yes love can bring magical changes in life

The Bookworm said...

Hi Brian, it does sound like there is alot going on in this classic even though you found it a little bit too short. Interesting about your observation on how the theme of a grouchy single person taking in a child who ends up bringing happiness into their lives. That is a common plot-line in so many films and books too. Great commentary as usual.

So many books, so little time said...

Thoughtful commentary as always Brian, a book I have never heard of but will check out both it and the author xxx

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili. This book really does emphasize positive human emotions. I see why it appeals to you so much.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - This plot has indeed become popular to the point of cliche. However, it is so well done here.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lainy - I would love to know what you thought of this if you read it.

Whispering Gums said...

Whoever called a Victorian novel too short!! Haha. I haven't read Silas Marner - though it's one I've had on my radar for a long time. One day.

I notice that you say it was written in 1861 but set 60 years earlier, which makes it an historical fiction in a way (like A tale of two cities). Is there a reason why she set it several decades earlier?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WP - Ha! This was not a long one. It was a historicall novel. I cannot say for certain why it was set in the past. I read somewhere online that Eliot wanted to highlight old ideas and that it should dawn on the reader thaf such old ideas were still present in Eliot’s time. This sounds plausible.

Richard said...

I read this in high school and was not impressed with it, which doesn't mean much given that I can't even remember what was unimpressive to my teenage self about it. I do have a nice copy of Middlemarch waiting for me the next time I have several hundred pages of free time to spare, and I am looking to renewing my acquaintance with Eliot.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - Though I liked this, Middlemarch was such an impressive novel. On the other hand, this one was fairly short.

R. T. Davis said...

FYI
https://miscellaneousinformalinquiries.blogspot.com/2018/08/percy-bysshe-shelleys-birthday.html
Please forgive me for my blogging problems. Write it up to my insanity. I hope my focus on poetry will help me regain some sanity

Maria Behar said...

OUTSTANDING analysis as usual, Brian!!

Eliot is one author whose works I've never read. For some reason, I have always had the impression that her books tend to be dull. How I got such an impression, I'm not quite sure. But, having read your interesting review of this book, I now think I should rethink my rather arbitrary and dismissive opinion of Eliot's work, and read this novel. I would also like to read "Middlemarch", since you mention that it's your favorite Eliot novel. I have just checked out the Wikipedia article about it. The article states, in one part, that "Middlemarch" is "...now widely regarded as her best work and one of the greatest novels written in English." WOW. That's a very strong statement! This novel also has a fascinating array of themes. To quote from the Wikipedia article again: "....the status of women, the nature of marriage, idealism, self-interest, religion, hypocrisy, political reform, and education."

As for "Silas Marner", it does seem, from your analysis, that it should have been a longer work, with more character and theme development. However, the simplicity of the story, and the way it stirs the emotions, although not in an overly sentimental way, are certainly appealing. So are the philosophical underpinnings.

And here's another Wikipedia quote, this time about "Silas Marner": "Fred C Thomson has examined the multiple levels of the idea of alienation in the novel. Joseph Wiesenfarth has noted undercurrents of myth and legend, incorporated into a 'realistic' context...." So it does seem that there's much more to this book than meets the eye, at first.

As for your statement that this type of story has become very common throughout the years since its publication, I am immediately reminded of Little Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks. It is indeed a universally appealing story!

So I will definitely acquire both "Silas Marner" and "Middlemarch" some time soon! I really need to make time to read both!

Thanks for your always interesting insights!

Hope you're having a WONDERFUL Sunday!! <3 :)

Maria Behar said...

P.S. I did not comment on the religious aspects of "Silas Marner" because, of course, I haven't read the novel, but on the surface of it, I have to confess that Calvinism has never held much appeal to me because of its emphasis on predestination. As you know, I was brought up Catholic, but have read about other religions. There are SO many belief systems out there, not to mention the major ones. I have an open mind, and like to explore different takes on the meaning of life. Some religious ideas simply do not appeal to me at all, though, and predestination is certainly one of them. Without having read this novel, I can only wonder how Eliot's perceptions of Calvinism come across. Gotta read the book and find out! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks RT. I have added your new address to my Blog reader.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

It is interesting that at one point in my life I may have found Eliot dull. It is funny how things change. Middlemarch indeed had all sorts of interesting things going on.

The shortness of Silas Marner at least keeps it interesting.

Little Orphan Annie is a great example of the adoption of a child bringing redemption.

The Calvinists in this book are unquestioning and unfair. They are ultimately unable to deal with changes in the world. I agree, predestination seems like a very strange concept.

Have a great week!

JaneGS said...

I really love this book, but disagree that it should have been longer. I thought it worked perfectly as a novella--was tight and powerful, and you're right, Eliot's prose soars.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - It is a book, that due to its plot, can easily be loved. Eliot was such a skilled wordsmith.

Caroline said...

This has a lot of similarities to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Interesting. They were published one year apart. I’m pretty sure it’s just a coincidence.
I would like to finally read Middlemarch but I can’t decide which edition. I can defiantly see myself read Silas Marner in the future too.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I did not think of the Les Miserables similarities but there are many. Though Silas does suffer, he has an easier time then Jean Valjean does.