I loved George Eliot’s Middlemarch (published 1874; thoughts), despite its 800 pages. I can’t say the same about Eliot’s Silas Marner (published 1861), despite its comparative brevity. Now, if you have been reading my blog in the past, you will know that I tend to read classics and I normally love them, especially Victorian novels.
I’ll tell you right up front, then, that Silas Marner is a strange exception to my love of the classics. I didn’t really like it, even after discussing it with a small group for my book club. I wonder if I would have enjoyed it more had I read it another time; I’m in a reading funk these days, and I did read about 3,000 pages worth of Victorian fiction this past summer. (Is there such a thing as too much Victorian literature?)
Nevertheless, for whatever reason, for the first 100 pages of the 210 page novel, I was bored with Silas Marner. I had to reread numerous passages. I found Eliot’s prose to be dense and the story stagnant and depressing: nothing much happened for the majority of the novel!
The titular character in Silas Marner has a rotten life and things just keep getting worse for him (although, granted, much of his misery is his own fault). Early in his life, his best friend betrayed him, and since they were friends through his religious fellowship group, Silas also feels God has betrayed him. Now, even fifteen years later, he lives a hermit-like existence in a stone cottage outside of town, and all about his life is dull and boring. He’s a weaver that spends every waking moment working. Yet, *something happens* (avoiding spoilers here) and his life is changed. He subsequently learns to be a part of the world again by serving someone else. His metamorphosis seemed to come far too late for me; the majority of the book seemed to describe the depressing aspects of Silas’ life.
The story is not only Silas’ story. In contrast to Silas’ dull and hermetic existence is that of Dunstan and Godfrey Cass, spoiled rich boys in the town living the life of apparent ease. Through the course of the novel, Godfrey also undergoes a transformation, parallel to Silas’s transformation. It’s interesting to compare their fates.
Yet, as I do so, it seems to me that George Eliot was writing with a heavy-handed underlying message. I’ve already indicated that I found the book to be dully written. It also seemed to have too many judgments against the decisions of the characters in the book. Eliot seemed to want to make sure the wicked received their comeuppance, and the fates seemed forced and stereotypical. Sure, most novels have plots of convenience; Silas Marner was satisfying and natural as it progressed. But I still felt I had to look for the “moral” of the story, and things like the epigram at the very beginning already point to the “moral.”
One comment I found on the internet referred to Silas Marner as a “fairy tale.” While I can’t call it that, I will say it has an “everyman” feel to it. Eliot seems to be giving warning throughout the story.
Despite all my negative comments, I don’t want to give the impression that Silas Marner is an awful book! On the contrary, in the end it is a sweet story of the power of humanity, and Eliot’s prose is much better than anything I could pull together (of course!) since she is a master of the English language. Some in my classics reading book club enjoyed it. Silas Marner provides an interesting perspective on religion, rural life in the early 1800s, and acceptance of those who are different. Yet, I felt something was missing, and having come from reading so many other classics, I found it to be far less enjoyable and cohesive than a number of others I’ve read.
I should note that I did read Silas Marner first as a teenager. Although I don’t remember any of the details, on this read, I found myself waiting for the event that I knew was coming. I wonder if not knowing what was coming would have made it more enjoyable? I think I liked it when I read it years ago, and I had been looking forward to this reread.
Finally, I have one more issue with Silas Marner. I read on a number of websites that Silas Marner is a perfect book for high school students. I strongly disagree. Although it is short, the text is dense to a fault and the plot too slow moving and disconnected to be an easily enjoyable and accessible read. The symbolism is blatant and the characters stereotypical. I, who read constantly, found it difficult to get into: sixteen-year-old students who have five other subjects to study for seem like the least likely audience for Silas Marner. I can think of a number of classics that would be a better introduction to high school students. I suspect this is one that would turn people off from classics for the rest of their lives.
If you are one for whom reading this book in a school setting has “spoiled” the idea of classics in your mind, please give something else a try! I could list some of my favorites here, but obviously, everyone has different tastes in books. I think it’s important to realize that disliking one classic doesn’t mean you dislike them all. “Classics” includes the popular literature of the past, and I think it’s too bad that schools (at least those I know about) don’t encourage those “fun” classics as well as the more symbolism-filled literary classics.
Which Victorian (or other) classics would you suggest for high school? Did you like Silas Marner?
My high school suggestion is Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, which is also short. Yet, each chapter is almost like a short story so it’s easily accessible. It has plenty of humor and dialogue (if I recall correctly), and yet it still teaches about the Victorian era, social class, and so forth.