Sunday, March 15, 2009

Silas Marner

George Eliot (1819-1880)

I can't decide whether Silas Marner was too short or just right. It is a beautifully written study of a time, place and character. Ultimately I wanted to know more about Silas, the hard-working, loner, who weaves for a living. Duncie, the cocksure son of Ravaloe's leading citizen who seems to ruin everything for everyone, flashes in and out of the novel in the blink of an eye. Eppie, the daughter of Duncie's more stable brother only enters the last third of the book. George Eliot could have fleshed more out, but there is a certain realism to characters flitting in and out of life, providing the causes and effects of life without the context. 
We find Silas working as a weaver and living as an upstanding member of a church in the north country. He leads a humble life but is singled out for his strange looks and fear-inducing fits. A conspiracy is successfully carried out against him by his best friend when Silas is framed for stealing church money. He is persuaded to leave the village, and then learns his buddy ended up marrying his former fiance. 
All these crappy happenings lead Silas to Ravaloe. He weaves for a living, more solitary then ever. He earns an almost mystical reputation as a healer, garnering admiration and fear among the townspeople. His only comfort is the gold he's accumulated over the years. He counts it religiously, in fact it is his religion since he has abandoned the church. He continues on this lonely path until his life intersects with those of the leading men in town. 
Godfrey and Duncie are brothers who are in trouble. Duncie is a jerk who screws with everybody and fritters away money. Godfrey is a coward who won't stand up to his brother because he was goaded into a loveless marriage and only Duncie knows about it. When Godfrey demands repayment of a loan from Duncie things go awry. Duncie goes to sell Godfrey's horse, but impales it on a stake instead. To get the money Duncie decides to ask Silas for a loan, but when he finds the weaver out of home, Duncie goes ahead and steals the money. He decides to walk home and jauntily begins his journey through the night. 
Problem is Duncie never went home. Godfrey figures that he skipped town and life goes on except for with Silas, who's devastated by the loss of his gold. One night, during a big party, Silas is depressed in his house. In walks a toddler from the snowy night. A woman is dead outside and Silas finds himself with a blond-haired little girl staring at him for help. An alarm is raised and we find that the dead woman is Godfrey's wife. Godfrey decides to keep his mouth shut and let Silas raise the child, He doesn't want anyone to know about the marriage so he can get married to a new belle. 
We get some comical scenes where we see Silas trying to raise the precocious Eppie and then we flash forward sixteen years. Eppie is beautiful, Silas is happy, and the small pond by their house is being drained. Lo and behold old Duncie is down at the bottom in skeleton form clutching bags of gold. The revelation leads Godfrey to reveal that he had a secret marriage and that Eppie is his daughter. He and his wife decide to try and get Eppie to come live with them and become a lady. This penultimate meeting is the climax of the novel. 
Everything that Eliot has developed in the characters is on display. Silas loves Eppie with all his heart and she is unspoiled by gentry life. Godfrey regrets his past actions and assumes he can get Eppie back with promises of wealth and care for Silas. Godfrey's wife Nancy finally sees a socially acceptable way to have a child. The showdown shocks Eppie and Silas. Godfrey's words about a better life infuriate Silas. His anger builds and he finally berates Godfrey for shunning a blessing like Eppie from his house when she was a baby, and now trying to take her away from her true father. Eventually, however, Nancy and Godfrey make Silas realize the opportunities that lay open to Eppie if she moved in with them. Silas leaves that decision to Eppie. In a touching scene she commits herself to her fiance Aaron and her father Silas. 
The novel ends here. We don't see the repercussions of Eppie's decision. 

Rating 7.5/10: The landscape is beautifully rendered and the character of Silas is complex and contradictory. There are major temporal and location shifts with little narrative description. The plot points are jarring, but the story is exciting. 

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