After my terrible experience with The Book That Shall Not Be Named, I wanted a palate-cleanser. What (I said to myself) what better than George Eliot to soothe, to instruct, to delight? So I picked up Silas Marner, and lo, I was not disappointed. (As usual in this post, I give away plot as well as discussing it.)
The book starts out eerily like a Thomas Hardy novel. Silas Marner is a weaver, making his living in a small town, and worshiping as part of an earnest faith community. His world comes crashing down around his ears when some money goes missing, and he realizes that his dearest friend has framed him for the theft. Not only this, but when his church draws lots to find the guilty person, the lot falls on Silas. Betrayed by both man and God, his life empty of meaning, Silas leaves his town and goes to find work elsewhere.
In his new town, Raveloe, Silas is unable to make connections with anyone. He makes a good living, since weavers are rare, but he doesn’t find a new church and he doesn’t trust friendships. Since he’s so isolated, the only thing that gives him any pleasure is his gradually-amassing store of gold, which he keeps under his floor: he takes it out each night and plays with it, enjoying the look and feel of it as well as the security of having it.
In the same town live Squire Cass and his two dissolute sons, Godfrey and Dunstan. Dunstan is the bigger scoundrel of the two, but Godfrey is in trouble: he’s married a woman he doesn’t love, and has kept the marriage and the resulting child a secret from his father and the rest of his circle. Dunstan has found out, though, and is using the information to blackmail Godfrey into supplying him with money — and Godfrey’s at the end of his rope, both financially and emotionally.
A desperate rich man with no money. A poor man with gold. You can see where this is going, can’t you?
But George Eliot doesn’t simply repeat a theft, a betrayal, an isolation. Through the intersection of lives and past misdeeds she brings redemption, hope, love, and understanding to Silas Marner and his community, and — eventually — even to the rich man in his castle.
One of the interesting questions that presents itself in this book is how much our actions shape our characters. In Dickens, for instance, the answer is usually “completely.” If someone’s been a gambler (I just finished The Old Curiosity Shop a few months back) or a miser or an Angel, there isn’t much space for ambiguity, though there might be something as radical as ghosts or extreme illness or a terrible fire that could pull that character out of it. In Eliot? Silas Marner receives a terrible shock to his system when he’s betrayed by his best friend and (as near as he can figure) by God. He drifts aimlessly, unable to articulate his pain, and traumatized too badly by the experience to love anything but his inanimate gold. But when that gold is replaced by a tiny toddler girl, it takes no more than a few hours for him to begin to love again. Silas’s transformation from cold miser to protective father is just as rapid as his tumble into isolation at the beginning of the book, and Eliot shows his tender nurture of his adopted daughter just as if it didn’t rupture every gender expectation.
So what about the other side of the equation — the rich man, Godfrey Cass? George Eliot thinks carefully about class in this novel (as well as the effects of religion on the soul), and she knows there’s going to be some trouble shimmying Godfrey through the eye of that needle, partly because he doesn’t know he’s got to get there. His entire attitude about his botched marriage with a woman not of his class is “Hope I don’t get found out, because ugh.” When, later, he finds himself with an opportunity to take Silas’s child and finish raising her as his own (which, of course, she is), he’s ready to reach out as of personal right, despite the close and loving ties between Silas and his daughter.
This is, of course, a thinly-veiled version of the prophet Nathan’s little parable for King David. A rich man has flocks of sheep, but proposes to take the poor man’s one little ewe-lamb, which he’d raised since birth. What should happen to such a man? According to King David, death. According to George Eliot? Disappointment, openness between husband and wife, the possibility of a new life.
This is the surprise of Silas Marner. (All her novels so far have been surprising. I bet you couldn’t guess the ending of Middlemarch, or Adam Bede, even from halfway through.) People who seem too traumatized or hardened for repentance or reformation turn out to have sorrow and love left in them. Only in the case of death is it too late to learn. There’s hope and tenderness and patience here for almost everyone.
This is, as it turns out, a very short novel — only about 200 pages. (I read it on my Kindle, so I didn’t realize how short until I unexpectedly finished it.) If you’re looking for something complex and interesting about human relationships, something that’s thoughtful about religion and class and industrialization, something beautiful and warm, but that isn’t a typical 19th-century chunkster, this might be your only chance. I highly recommend it.