Friday, February 14, 2014

Silas Marner by George Eliot

Turning towards the hearth, where the two logs had fallen apart, and sent forth only a red uncertain glimmer, he seated himself on his fireside chair, and was stooping to push his logs together, when, to his blurred vision, it seemed as if there were gold on the floor in front of the hearth.  Gold!--his own gold--brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away!  He felt his heart begin to beat violently, and for a few moments he was unable to stretch out his hand and grasp the restored treasure.  The heap of gold seemed to glow and get larger beneath his agitated gaze.  He leaned forward at last, and stretched forth his hand; but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered warm soft curls.  In utter amazement, Silas fell on his knees and bent his head low to examine the marvel: it was a sleeping child--a round, fair thing, with soft yellow rings all over its head.

The question that struck me before I picked up Silas Marner was: can George Eliot write a short book as well as a long book?  Some people seemed inclined to write one or the other, so it's strange to me that Eliot was able to pump out something as tome-like as Middlemarch as well as this little under-200 pp. book.  Silas Marner, as expected, doesn't have the complexity of Middlemarch, but it shares a concern in the vitality of communal living, and effectively gives the impression that its characters are only one glimpse of a larger story of the town in which they live, as in Middlemarch.

Silas Marner is a weaver and a miser who adores the pile of gold he keeps beneath his floorboards.  He was once a religious man, but an instance of betrayal--his closest friend blames on him a horrible crime--made him shun society, and horde the proceeds of his weaving.  One night, his gold is stolen and his world unravels.  But a few days later a young golden-haired child appears mysteriously in its place, as if the gold has been transformed.

We know the provenance of the child--a woman trekking through the snow has died and the child sought shelter in Marner's cabin--but to Marner and the other villagers, this is a mysterious occurrence.  Eliot is concerned with the nature of Providence: what is it, what does it mean to be given it and what does it mean to be denied it?  The young Marner's guilt is determined by drawing lots, and the result drives him away from God and church.  But the transformation of the gold into the girl, whom Marner names Eppie, is a different kind of Providence.  Eliot lets us see the human striving and action behind the mystery, and this way manages to suggest that we are the engines of God's beneficence--which Marner, cut off from his community, has long been starved of.  Eppie reconnects him to other people:

The disposition to hoard had been utterly crushed at the very first by the loss of his long-stored gold: the coins he earned afterwards seemed as irrelevant as stones brought to complete a house suddenly buried by an earthquake; the sense of bereavement was too heavy upon him for the old thrill of coin.  And now something had come to replace his hoard which gave a growing purpose to his earnings, drawing his hope and joy continually onward beyond the money.

There's a cloying cuteness to this story.  This "adorable-child-redeems-an-antisocial-lout" conceit is surprisingly popular these days, and most often is a sign of laziness.  (It even happens to Tim Riggins.)  But perhaps the idea was fresher in Eliot's day.  Even still, Silas Marner has the air of a fable, neatly packaged with a moral at the end.  It seems to owe a definite debt to the story of Rumpelstiltskin.  But Eliot is such a masterful writer--at times she reminds me of Hardy, but with a better sense of authorial control--that it never seems cheap or overly didactic.

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