Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Silas Marner - George Eliot

Genre:Literature & Fiction
Tagline:A Tale Woven with Lessons in Faith, Love & Community

This is a beautiful moral tale. I think George Eliot must be one of my favourite authors from what I've read of her, and this book was apparently her own favourite among her works. It's certainly the shortest and so has often been assigned for children to study, though parts of it might not be appreciated by children, especially the sections of adult conversation which though they set the scene are thoroughly boring even for an adult. Their purpose is atmospheric, to give a feel for village life, a canvas for the beautiful and simple plot as well as acting as a pause to hold the reader wrapped in suspense. As well as canvas and painting, there are also beautiful moments when the author steps back to look at what she has drawn and surveys the deeper themes, helping the reader empathize with the state of mind of her characters and it is these philosophical sections which I loved most about her work. 

The book is set in the village of Raveloe in pre-industrial Britain and centres around the short-sighted solitary weaver Silas Marner who goes about his daily work with methodical efficiency earning plenty of gold for his labour, but living a frugal life as an outsider in his community and figure of suspicion. We learn immediately that he had chosen to leave the town where he grew up having been accused wrongly of a crime he did not commit, abandoned by his betrothed and lost his faith. The chasm of emptiness within is filled with the accumulation of gold which he earns. Repetition breeds a want and want becomes a habit. "The same sort of process," the author muses, "has perhaps been undergone by wiser men when they have been cut off from faith and love - only instead of a loom and a heap of guineas, they have had some erudite research, some ingenious project, or some well-knit theory."

It is a clinging life. The gold serves no purpose beyond it except as the object of his clinging. What if the gold were suddenly taken away? The emptiness this time would be replaced by grief and the love of money irretrievably broken, but it would also create a receptive state. Could anything replace the loss? "We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backwards; and the hand may be a little child's." Or as the frontispiece reads, quoting lines of Wordsworth, 

"...a child more than all other gifts 
That earth can offer to declining man, 
Brings hope with it and forward-looking thoughts".

The other main character of the book is the indecisive eldest son Godfrey of the wealthy Squire Cass. He is desperately in love with the beautiful Nancy Lammeter, but some terrible mistake in his past, a Damocles sword that hangs over his head, prevents him from pursuing his affection. He stands at the crossroads between good and evil, and having been tempted by the latter, tries to tread water, delaying the inevitable revelation of his secret, hoping with all his heart for some miracle of Chance that can save him so that Nancy's smiling love may draw him safe to the green banks of paradise. In the meantime though, he is in an unreceptive state and terribly unhappy. But blessed Chance can bear fruit in a way quite contrary to the karmic principle of an "orderly sequence by which the seed brings forth a crop after its kind". 

Despite the hand of fate working in mysterious ways, Eliot's story is very karmic. As well as Silas Marner's miserliness and Godfrey's indecisiveness, Nancy too, though an epitome of goodness, has what Eliot no doubt perceived as a terrible flaw, namely a conformity to principles of what is "right" and a religious fatalism that for example three days of rain preventing her purpose would act for her as a sign of God's will against it, but this was a flaw more generally of her times. As the good but uneducated Dolly says with soothing gravity in reassuring Silas Marner, "it's like the night and the morning, and the sleeping and the waking, and the rain and the harvest - one goes and the other comes and we know nothing how nor where. We may strive and scrat and fend, but it's little we can do arter all - the big things come and go wi' no striving o' our 'n - they do, that they do". 

Eliot was a humanist, believing in faith and love, without believing in God. Godfrey is literally free of God, and Silas Marner too, which leads both men astray, but through the power of love they are redeemed.

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