Sunday, March 26, 2006

Book Report: Silas Marner by George Eliot

Silas Marner is another one of those classics which I should have read half a century ago, but only got around to recently. I won't condemn, too much, the high school English teachers whose job it was to teach literature to me, because this book is probably wasted on teenagers looking for more visceral thrills than reading about a miser who loses his gold and gains his life.

"George Eliot," as anyone with half an education (including me) should know is the psuedonymn for a 19th-century woman, Mary Ann Evans, (1819 - 1880) who used a male pen name so that her writings would be taken more seriously, a device that was not uncommon in her era.

Marner had been a member of an evangelical religious sect, not unlike the Amish (I don't really have to work the Amish reference into every post, but something has to distinguish this blog from the millions others out there in cyberspace.) When some money disappears from the room of a sick man with whom Marner is sitting up, he is naturally placed under suspicion, a suspicion which becomes a certainty when the congregation draws lots and the lot falls on Marner. The Amish connection came to mind not only from the description of the stark religion practiced by Marner's sect, but also in the use of the lot, which the Amish use to select their ministers.

Marner is, in effect, ex-communicated from the religious community and moves to another locale where he becomes a weaver (this is another point that connects with my background since one line of my ancestors were weavers in France before coming to America) who withdraws from society, except to pick up and deliver his orders. Since he spends no money, he gradually accumulates what becomes a big stash of gold, which he lovingly counts and fondles every night, until one night it mysteriously disappears while he is briefly out of his hut. Although the reader knows what has happened to the gold, I will not spoil it for the few people who might be reading this report who have not yet read the book.

Marner's life is changed when a baby girl crawls into his hut one cold winter night. Her mother is dying nearby, and although the reader knows who the father is, this secret is kept from Marner and the girl until the appropriate time.

I realize that this report makes the book seem overly-romantic and saccarine, and, probably, not very appealing. It is a book that is a product of 19th century romanticism, and the plot wouldn't make it in a 21st century book. But, bearing in mind the limitations of its era, it is well-written. Eliot has a deft humorous touch and manages to poke fun gently in much the same way as Jane Austen does in her books. I liked Silas Marner better than any of the Austen books, however. It has more "meat" than the Austen books, in my opinion. The other reason I prefer Silas Marner to the Austen books is that Austen depicts a leisure class England while Eliot is more realistic in describing the hard lives of ordinary English. (Although I am not an Austen hater, I am just not an Austen lover, I can't resist the Mark Twain joke about Austen. He supposedly said that any library with an Austen book is inferior to any library without an Austen book, including a library without any other book.)

I thought this was an above-average book and gave it four stars.


Patry Francis said...

I've read a couple of bios of George Eliot (fascinating woman), but I missed Silas Marner in high school, too. Thanks for reminding me that the classics aren't just for students.

PG said...

Nice review. I recently read Silas Marner, too, and wondered why it had taken me so long.

You know, Steve Martin wrote and starred in an adaptation of Silas Marner in 1994. The film is called "A Simple Twist of Fate."

I had not heard the anecdote from Mark Twain about Jane Austen, which, in my opinion, should be engraved in libraries and bookstores.

PG said...

I have a bit of a ramble about the last line in your report on my lastgoodname site.

rdl said...

I can't remember if I read the book or not(maybe just the cliff notes), but maybe i will now; I think I saw the movie. I remember the image of the goldenhaired girl.

smuggy said...

You gotta stop this, man! I still haven't got to East of Eden yet, and now here's another good one that I haven't read! And I thought I was so well-read! But seriously, it sounds like a great book and I'm going to put it on "the list".

Amishlaw said...

Well, Smuggy, you do it the same way you eat an elephant, one bite at a time. One of the most insightful comments about reading that I have ever read was by Larry McMurtry in "Duane Is Depressed," in which he said that if you read just 10 pages a day, you've got all of Proust read in a year. I read a little bit here and there -- while I'm on the toilet in the morning; while the water is getting hot for shaving; while the water is getting hot for showering; 20 minutes before I fall asleep. I listen to books on tape, and although my commute is only 10 minutes, I usually come home for lunch, so that's 40 minutes a day. It adds up.

Anonymous said...

I'm not very fan in reading books but when i started to read Silas Marner I felt different(something that doesn't happen to me when i read books) because to me Silas Marner is a story of loss, alienation, and redemption that combines elements of fairy tale and myth with realism and humor.