Silas Marner by George Eliot [Book Thoughts]

Silas Marner was likely good for it’s time, but it’s aged more like a loaf of bread than a fine wine. Intelligent, but the moral fable may be obsolete.


Silas Marner by George Eliot

George Eliot is the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, a Victorian novelist from Victorian England who switched genders in the fictional world. She claims to have written under the male pen name in order to be taken seriously and her most famous novel, Middlemarch, is often heard when British literature is discussed. I haven’t read it however; Silas Marner is the first of her works that I have.

Silas Marner stars Silas Marner, a misanthropic weaver who settles near the backward village of Raveloe after his fake friend frames him at their Church, which costs him his fiance and has him exiled. Poor guy. Silas spends the next 15 of years his life trying to bury the past by amassing a vast fortune, which seems to be working out for him, until he gets robbed by Dunstan Cass, scumbag son of the village Squire. The Cass family has their own problems: Godfrey Cass is a ‘fine’ (?) young man in love with Ms. Nancy Lammeter… which would be great if not for the fact that Godfrey is secretly married to a woman of low birth addicted to opium and has a child with her. And his brother Dunstan is a drunkard and a swindler. So people have problems (and some people are the problems), and Silas Marner documents their problems as they develop over an extended period of time.

But the plot is less important than what else is at play. At heart, Silas Marner is a a social commentary: a sarcastic scrutiny of a small village and all the backward superstitions, prejudices and mentalities that go along with it. It’s hardly bitter but Eliot does write in an off-hand tongue-in-cheek style that’s mocking everything jovially. Beyond the mockery however, she does have a cognizance of what makes it all tick and she’s an intelligent woman; that is to say that there’s understanding in addition to ridicule.

So one might call Silas Marner a portrait of a working class English village wrapped in a moral fable. Oh yes, and it’s a moral fable: good guys suffer then win, bad guys gloat then lose, everybody gets their desserts and all that jazz. But is it worthwhile reading? Perhaps if you’re interested in this particular aspect of Victorian England, but this is another classic that hasn’t managed to age well. The commentary still seems relevant, but the moral fable in its entirety has perhaps gone obsolete (even one as realistic as this) and the language is uptight and even distant by today’s standards.

There are things on offer here: there are intelligent insights, but not on very interesting people. Perhaps my own prejudices shine through here but I find villages and their mentalities to be the opposite of fascinating (anti-fascinating?). Stupid people can only teach one so much.

Silas Marner was likely good for it’s time, but it’s aged more like a loaf of bread than a fine wine. Intelligent, but the moral fable may be obsolete.

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