These busy times have made it very hard for me to find the time and motivation to re-read a good book from the past. I somehow managed to pick up Silas Marner by George Eliot this weekend. From the very opening line of the book rolled in vivid memories from middle school! Our young and energetic new English teacher had chosen this book as our non-detailed textbook for the English class. If Alice in Wonderland was the first real book-length book I enjoyed, Silas Marner was the first prescribed book that captured my imagination. A good teacher can make any subject interesting, and our new teacher surely fit that bill. Was it those rapturous noon readings in class by a fantastic teacher or the biblical tale of a lonely forsaken creature, I cannot tell which. Silas ended up becoming a character so graphic and real that, even in middle school, I really thought I could feel his pain.
At its heart, Silas Marner is the story of redemption. Silas is a weaver who is cheated out of his wife and life by a close friend. Losing all interest in social ties, he settles down on the fringe of a hamlet called Raveloe. He focuses only on weaving and with his miserly ways soon collects a large amount of gold. Bereft of human contact, the gold becomes his life. He is completely shattered when his gold is stolen one night. Seeking the help of the villagers to find the thief, Silas slowly warms up to them. Soon after, a dying woman leaves a golden haired baby at his hearth. It is this gurgling baby that brings closure to Silas’s life. He soon loves her more than his previous gold and dedicates his life to bringing her up. The cute baby becomes the cord that binds Silas and the villagers.
Except for a few middle chapters which are quite prolix, Silas Marner is solid English prose and it is no surprise that it is a classic of English literature. It is a short, tight read, unlike the verbosity of Charles Dickens, who was also writing at the time of this book. While the secondary characters are used skillfully to complete the story, the book solely rests on the bent back of the lonely weaver. The murky image of Silas plodding slowly through misty late evening light on a lonely road is sure to haunt any reader for life! His story becomes our story and his pain ours. I found it hard not to empathize with his predicaments and the book has the power to leave one somber long after the last page has been turned.
As I learned from a recent In Our Time episode on this book, George Eliot is the male pen-name of Mary Anne Stevens. One of her other books that I hope to read sometime is Mill on the Floss. I read Silas Marner this time from an Everyman edition, edited by Anne Smith. The book has a good introduction to George Eliot, her life and times and the setting of Raveloe and its villagers. Special mention goes out to the beautiful cover of this edition, from a painting called The Cottage Home by William Snape, which I found to fit the story well. The yellowed pages of Silas Marner gave me a melancholic Sunday afternoon and I hope I can do it again in a few years.
A few memorable excerpts from the book:
The beautiful opening quote …
“A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.”
The villagers did not trust Silas because they believed he had secret powers …
[...] the rude mind with difficulty associates the ideas of power and benignity.
A shadowy conception of power that by much persuasion can be induced to refrain from inflicting harm, is the shape most easily taken by the sense of the Invisible in the minds of men who have always been pressed close by primitive wants, and to whom a life of hard toil has never been illuminated by any enthusiastic religious faith. To them pain and mishap present a far wider range of possibilities than gladness and enjoyment: their imagination is almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope, but is all overgrown by recollections that are a perpetual pasture to fear.
Silas would have episodes of the fits …
[...] there might be such a thing as a man’s soul being loose from his body, and going out and in, like a bird out of its nest and back.
George Eliot speaks out against religion sometimes in the book. Here is Silas when his friend cheats him …
“[...] there is no just God that governs the earth righteously, but a God of lies, that bears witness against the innocent.”
With his life stolen from him Silas becomes a shell of his former self …
[...] like a rivulet that has sunk far down from the grassy fringe of its old breadth into a little shivering thread, that cuts a groove for itself in the barren sand.
The loneliness of Silas in achingly beautiful words …
[...] as he sat in his loneliness by his dull fire, he leaned his elbows on his knees, and clasped his head with his hands, and moaned very low.
The child shows Silas a whole new life …
As the child’s mind was growing into knowledge, his mind was growing into memory: as her life unfolded, his soul, long stupefied in a cold narrow prison, was unfolding too, and trembling gradually into full consciousness.