Silas Marner by George Eliot
Ah! A golden oldie from the shelves. Silas Marner has been on my shelves for so long that I don’t remember how I came to own a copy. Was it for an English class I eventually dropped? Was I browsing through the bookstore and suddenly overcome by the desire to run off with some George Eliot? It is true that I would like to work my way through some more of the classics. As a child, I enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo and A Tale of Two Cities (even though I have never been able to get into this as an adult). I loved Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. However, I had mixed feelings about good old Silas.
There are some classic books that can be easily understood outside the time period in which they were written; whether owing to simple and clear language or to the universality of their themes. For me, Silas Marner was not one of those books. On the surface, it would seem that it should be one of those books in that it offers the apparency of an obvious story line. Its plot basics can be related to and understood in contemporary times. A man lives apart from a society for which he has no use, but is rehabilitated and reintegrated into that society through circumstances that require him to take in an orphan and raise her as his own.
The long version of events is that as a young man Silas, who loves living in his small religious community, and is a devout follower of the faith, is framed by a friend for stealing. To make matters worse, that friend goes on to marry Silas’s fiancée. Having had faith that the truth would be found out, Silas is disappointed and bitter that no one believes his story. He moves to another town and essentially becomes a hermit, interacting with the town only in offering his services as a weaver and hoarding the money they pay him for his fine work. His money is stolen when he leaves his door open while wandering the countryside. The same night a baby is left at his fireside. You can guess the rest. He’s a changed man from the love of a small child.
This is a short book, but I did not make progress quickly. I liked the story, sort of. I mostly enjoyed the experience reading Silas Marner because it validates that I can read and have a basic understanding of a classic work on my own, and it wasn’t boring; which is exciting because I think it’s what I expect of some classics. But I hated that he lost his place in a community that he loved, that his friend framed him and married his fiancée and that he lost his money and was thus wronged a second time (even though he was being careless). I knew that this is all effecting his change and would make him a person more eager to engage other people and be a better person, but I still hoped that there would be some closure or comeuppance for the scoundrels. The scenery descriptions are lush and gorgeous, but ultimately I was a little overwhelmed by them. There were some sections where the landscape acted as the main character and that was tough for me.
Basic comprehension aside, I felt I missed the nuance and clarity that would have come with more knowledge of the time period. In fact, I hope that I missed a lot because I wouldn’t otherwise think that this story was as worthwhile to read. I felt for the character of Silas and knew that all of the events that he had gone through were leading to a greater transformation, but in that sense, it wasn’t particularly original and I found the construction to be rather heavy handed. I’m left thinking that mitigating factors at the time that might have made this radical storytelling or offer deeper insights than my assessment has gathered.
What do you think about classics? Do you think it’s helpful to read a little bit of the history going on at the time to understand what’s going on?