Silas Marner by George Eliot
First published in 1861, Silas Marner is a book about transformation and redemption. When we first meet Silas, he is a solitary and withdrawn character who hoards his gold and whose only pleasure is in counting it nightly. We learn that he used to be a member of a religious sect at Lantern Yard, but moved away to Raveloe after he was framed for robbery. Through the scandal, he lost his fiancée. His life in Raveloe is reclusive and misunderstood at first by the community. His only pleasure is in counting his gold which is stolen. Circumstances conspire that a baby girl is orphaned and finds her way into Silas’ cottage and his care. Through his love for the child, his life is turned around. The community of Raveloe comes to accept him and he learns the true value of love and life. Interwoven are the tales of others’ guilt and secrecy which cannot be hidden for ever, set against the context of rural life.
I thoroughly enjoyed re- reading this book, although I found the style quite hard to get accustomed to at first. The writing felt quite dense and complicated but I was soon won over by the rawness of Silas’ position. You could really understand how he came to be the recluse he was and the story carried you along as his life was totally transformed. I loved the little details of the villagers’ lives, from Dolly Winthrop’s baking and baby clothes, so lovingly preserved though patched and darned, to the villagers’ investigations into the whereabouts of a suspect in the theft of the precious gold.
Through Silas’ back story and the position he finds himself in, George Eliot manages to enable the reader to have empathy for him at the same time, showing us, that to the villagers, he was an enigma. His ‘absences’ which were not understood serve both as a plot device to enable Eppie, the abandoned child, to wander unseen into his cottage and also to emphasise Silas’ apartness from his community. We know that he has been badly treated by the chapel going community of Lantern Yard and been the victim of someone he took for a friend. The villagers of Raveloe do not know or understand his betrayal. They see him as they find him and his lack of interest in joining the church, makes him seem even more of a stranger to them.
All through the book, the reader is privy to all sides of the story. We know who Eppie’s real parents are. We know how she came to appear in Silas’ cottage. We know that Squire’s Cass’ sons are keeping information from him and why. We see the Cass brothers’ relationship and motivations. George Eliot manages to keep some surprises from the reader, but largely, we suspect that one day, the truth will out. The reader can anticipate the devastating effect it will have on the lives of the people we have come to know. The fun is in seeing how they react and then it becomes clear that it is not only Silas whose life has been transformed.
In short: an elegant examination of the power of love to transcend human frailty without affectation or sermonising.