Silas Marner by George Eliot

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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.

Reviewed on November 23, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I read this about six months before I started blogging, and I had a lot of the same complaints as you mention here (which surprises me, because we often have very different thoughts on Victorian books!). I was reading it for my book club and eventually I had to get the audio version off librivox to get through the first half. Once through, the rest of the book picked up and I was able to read like normal, but without librivox, I doubt I would have gotten through the book.

    Ultimately, I ended up enjoying Silas Marner, though like you say, it definitely was heavy handed. There are scenes that stick with me all through these years (most particularly I remember the coal room and the scene with the drug bottle flung out into the snow). Our group had a wonderful discussion about it. But I admit, I’ve been relunctant to read anything else by Eliot because of Silas Marner. Perhaps I should give Middlemarch a try. I felt the same way about Hardy after Tess, but ended up loving Return of the Native earlier this year and now I want to read everything he’s ever written! Maybe I’ll end up feeling the same with Eliot?

    • Amanda, I think I may have enjoyed it a few months ago. I just found it so dry for right now that I was disappointed at the heavy-handedness. We didn’t have a very exciting discussion. I’m the leader and I was a bit….blah about this book so it affects the group. Which is too bad. Bad me.

      I haven’t read any Hardy yet. Will have to try. I did love MIDDLEMARCH. It’s so EPIC. But that also means it’s quite long…

  • I read this before I started blogging. And since then I have read a lot of positive reviews of this book on blogs. And I have to admit that I didn’t remember most of the book and anyway did not find it that special. I started wondering if I had read it wrong.. I still feel sometimes that I might have wanted to read it too fast. However, I am relieved to find that there are others who did not love this like they did Middlemarch.

    • Chris@bookarama, What do you love about it? What makes the book for you? I’m always very curious to know what people love about the books I dislike. Also, did you have to read it in high school? I haven’t read Fahrenheit 451, although I’ve seen the movie. Sounds like I should!

      • I never had to read it for high school. I picked it up on my own in my twenties and then again a couple of years ago. I loved the relationship between Silas and Eppie. How she connects him to the rest of the world. Yes, it’s sentimental but that’s what I like about it.

        • Chris@bookarama, Sorry for the late response. I think I just wasn’t in the mood for SILAS MARNER when I read it. Maybe when I’m feeling sentimental I’ll give it another chance 🙂

    • Word Lily, Apologies for my late response. I’m glad you loved it in high school! I worried that it would turn people off of the classics…since it didn’t do much for me right now…

  • I have to agree; Silas Marner isn’t my favorite Eliot by a long shot; a bit overly sentimental for my tastes.

    I’m not sure why high school teachers tend to choose the most hit-you-over-the-head-with-an-anvil selections for high schoolers, even if they’re also the least interesting. Why A Tale of Two Cities instead of Great Expectations, for example? The latter is funny and engaging and features non-cardboard characters, unlike the former. And it has plenty of (slightly subtler) “symbolism” and “metaphor” and whatever else they like to point out to the kids these days. I don’t know; I don’t really get it.

    • Emily, Apologies for the late response. I’d agree that Great Expectations which I loved would be a better pick than Tale of Two Cities which I found painful reading….but I do know some bloggers that prefer the later — talk to Eva from A Striped Armchair about how many teachers made her read GREAT EXPECTATIONS. apparently it did her in.

  • I haven’t read George Eliot, but I have to agree that there are so many classics that are forced upon a high school student, but without an incredibly passionate teacher to help guide a student along the way, it’s inevitable that the student will absolutely dread and hate the classics, particularly Victorian novels. It’s a shame really. I feel confident that if I had had a different teacher, Great Expectations, for example may have been a much different experience for me.

    I’m very much in love with the classics that I’m reading now, of a variety of time periods. I’m sort of wrapped up in Daphne du Maurier at this point.

    • Coffee and a Book Chick, Sorry for the late response. I do think teachers can make a difference, but some classics really can speak for themselves, and I dislike how it seems high schools make classics into “homework” instead of novel reading time. Maybe that goes back to teacher attitude again, though. It’s too bad…I really need to read more Du Maurier!

  • I’ve been trying to decide which of Eliot’s books I’d like to begin with, and I think you’ve just settled the matter for me! After reading your two reviews, I think I’d like Middlemarch far more than Silas Marner, though I could end up being wrong. Thanks!

  • I adore Eliot, and while I do like this one, The Mill on the Floss is by far my favorite. It has been a couple years since I have given this one a go, but I am looking forward to a re-read. The only other time I have read this one was a few years ago. I would say, from what I know of Eliot, that I would prefer to teach something else to high school students. I find that Eliot can be a little heavy at times, and I read a lot of her!

    For high school students I can think of many other classics that are far more accessible, but I am having a hard time finding a Victorian novel that I would willingly teach. I have an intense hatred for Dickens, and resent my high school English teacher for shoving Great Expectations down my throat. I think that my feelings towards that one book have prevented me from enjoying any of his other work I have tried. Sad, isn’t it?

    I do love Cranford, but I wonder how male students would approach it.

    • Allie, Sorry for the late response. I’ll have to find THE MILL ON THE FLOSS for my next Eliot read. I really did enjoy MIDDLEMARCH a lot! I’m always sad to hear of people’s hatred for Dickens. 🙁 I guess it happens.

  • I had to read Silas Marner for 10th grade English class, and I absolutely hated it. I think I made it a little more than halfway through before I gave up and resorted to cheating for the quizzes (Sparknotes, I think?). I had to read a lot of dreck for school– well, okay, probably most of it wasn’t dreck, but I don’t remember enjoying ANY book I was forced to read for school until I got to college, and even that took a few years. Possibly it has to do with being “forced” into reading it; I rebel against people telling me what to do, mostly, and that colored my readings.

    But also I think Silas Marner is heaps boring, and I think even my teacher hated it, and of course that didn’t help with anything. It took me AGES to finally pick up a classic of my own free will, and that was only after having a few really good college classes to erase the horror that was middle school/high school reading. Haha! 😀

  • I agree, I probably would have hated Silas Marner if I’d read it in high school (I did read The Mill on the Floss, and ended up hating that; it put me off Eliot for about 20 years). Despite the length, I found Middlemarch to be so much more engrossing and enjoyable. I finally listened to an audio of Silas Marner last summer, I did bits of it every day while I walked the dog. If it hadn’t been on audio I probably never would have finished it.

    I’m racking my brain trying to think of a good classic for high school students. The first one that sprang to mind was Animal Farm, which I did read for fun when I was in about 10th grade. It’s short and there are animals, which are pretty accessible, and I think it’s a good introduction to metaphors. I also read Candide by Voltaire as a World Lit assignment and really liked it — I actually liked it much better in high school than I did as an adult!

    I think it’s tough to find good classics for teens. It seems like a lot of students end up reading Ethan Frome or Of Mice and Men, and I suspect they’re chosen because they’re fairly short. Just because I book is short doesn’t make it a good classic.

    • Karenlibrarian, sorry for the belated response. I should try SILAS MARNER on audio, I think it would be more bearable. I’m going to reread CANDIDE this year with my classics group! I hope we enjoy it. I agree, though, that just because a classic is short doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good.

  • I do know exactly what you mean. This is one of the last Eliot novels I read. I began with Daniel Deronda, then read Middlemarch, then Mill on the Floss, then Romola. I also had read Adam Bede at some point but can’t remember when. All in all I loved them all, although I was less thrilled with Adam Bede . So when I decided to teach Silas Marner one year in my intro to world lit course I was shocked at how little I liked it, and regretted putting it on my syllabus. I almost changed the book, but I figured most of my students had probably already bought the book. (I always put one book I haven’t read on my syllabus so that I don’t die of boredom.) How the person who created Mill and the floss and Middlemarch also wrote this, I don’t know. I mean it’s sweet, and I’m all for symbolism but the novel just seemed a bit blah to me. I am going to reread it soon to see if I can redeem it, but usually if teaching it to my students doesn’t do so nothing will.

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