George Eliot. Silas Marner. 1861; Amazon Digital Services, 12 May 2012. Ebook.
I have been a high school English teacher for over 35 years, and I missed this one. Silas Marner is found in a number of high school anthologies and is often used to introduce students to Victorian Literature. For Eliot, it is short book, fewer than 200 printed pages. (I had read Middlemarch in college. It was worth reading, but to me not worth re-reading.)
I confess, I was somewhat prejudiced against Silas Marner. A college friend once told me that she had read the book in high school and hated it. She said it was one of the most boring books that she ever read. However, a few years ago a parent of a student mentioned the book and said it was a delightful story of redemption. Hmmm.
In a sense, both of these informal critics are correct. Other than a few key events, not much happens in Silas Marner. It is more like most people’s ordinary lives. After the first few chapters, much of the book is about people not directly related to Silas. We could say that Eliot’s chief means of characterization is reputation—what others say about Silas and a few other folks in his village. It gets a bit repetitive, and it seems that we will not see a lot of those people again.
On the other hand, the overall impact of the story is uplifting and even refreshing.
At times I felt like was reading something like Tristram Shandy. That is a humorous biography of the title character who is not even born until about a third of the way through the novel. Except, of course, Eliot is not writing for humor. Shandy is largely set in a tavern for the jokes and humorous caricatures. At least of third of Marner is set in a tavern or more upper class social gatherings. We hear gossip, testimony, and speculation, but no jokes.
As can be told by the bibliographical entry above, this was read on a Kindle. The Kindle tells the reader what percent of the book has been read. The main conflict of the story is not really established until 94% of the book has been read. I can see why a high schooler might grow impatient with it. However, the conflict and resolution make it a very sweet story.
The author is less critical of Christianity in this work than some of her others. However, Silas Marner becomes an outcast because of a dubious practice of the nonconforming “chapel” he attends in his home city. We discover what it was in that last, powerful six percent. Indeed, Silas discovers redemption partly through the state church in the village he adopts as his home. Today we might say Eliot is an establishment elitist. I would compare her outlook to Matthew Arnold’s.
Although I had never read the book, I had known its basic story line for many years. Silas Marner, a miserly outcast, becomes more tender and humane when he rescues and adopts an orphaned toddler, Hephzibah or Eppie. Still, Marner is no Scrooge. He is not cruel or especially selfish; he merely keeps to himself and appears melancholy because of a burden from his past that he will not share. Yes, if you can make it through that first 94% (and it is not all bad), everything comes together almost like the way Dickens does it.