Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Silas Marner by George Eliot

Gets you in the end
The first two chapters of Silas Marner are excellent. We are introduced to the title character, a mild-mannered, hardworking weaver who occasionally suffers from spells of catalepsy. Silas is active in his church and has plans to marry his sweetheart, but his simple, pleasant life is taken away from him when his best friend frames him for the theft of some church funds. Silas is forced to leave his hometown in disgrace. He settles in the village of Raveloe, where he takes up a reclusive existence that inspires suspicion in his neighbors. With no friends, no love, and no church, Silas concentrates solely on his occupation, and begins to fixate on the compensation he receives for operating his loom. He becomes a miser, adoringly hoarding every bit of gold that comes into his hands.

From there the book takes a sharp downturn, as from that point on Silas becomes a supporting character in his own book. Author George Eliot never delves very deeply into Silas’s miserliness. His avarice is not as finely drawn as Charles Dickens’ Ebeneezer Scrooge or Honoré de Balzac’s Gobseck. Rather than thoroughly investigate the psychological causes and effects of Silas’s affliction, Eliot treats the fact that he’s a miser as almost an afterthought, a plot element to be dispensed with in favor of other storylines. We are introduced to the local Squire’s two sons, Godfrey and Dunstan. The former is an inveterate gambler and the latter has a weakness for the ladies. While each of these sinners has some atoning to do, their personal dramas aren’t nearly as interesting as the weaver’s, and the reader finds himself eagerly anticipating the return of Silas. There are plenty of other distractions as well. Entire chapters are devoted to the irrelevant chatter and ignorant superstitions of the townspeople. Such banter may provide atmosphere, but does little to advance the story. Thankfully the book improves in its second half.

For much of its length, Silas Marner, originally published in 1861, is simply a bore. However, it is largely redeemed by its skillful and satisfying ending. At about the three-quarters mark, there’s a major surprise. From that point on, everything comes full circle and each character learns his or her life lesson. You’d have to be carved out of ice not to be moved by the conclusion. Silas’s story is truly heartwarming, and not in a cloying or syrupy way. This novel has some valuable lessons to teach about love and redemption. Too bad it takes such a roundabout way to get there.

Although Silas Marner ends up being a pretty good book, I’m not sure it merits 150 years worth of admiration. If it didn’t have author George Eliot’s name attached to it, allowing it to ride on the coattails of Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, this novel might just have faded into obscurity like so many other romantic morality tales. Fans of Victorian literature will surely enjoy it, but the general reader of classic books can take it or leave it.

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