1861 Silas Marner

21 July 2011

The first book on our literature list for the year was Silas Marner by George Eliot; (George Eliot was actually the pen name for Mary Ann Evans).  I found an excellent children’s adaptation (published by Globe Fearon) that sticks as much as possible to Eliot’s original words and phrases, only simplifying the sentences.  (In fact, the quote I will share below has only a phrase and one other word left out in the adaptation.)  It also has questions at the end for each chapter, a feature that my kids appreciate at any rate.  For myself, I love the Signet Classic because the picture on the cover is just beautiful and fits the story so well.

Silas Marner is a weaver, born and raised in the village of Lantern Yard.  He has a well-rounded life there, including a best friend, a fiance, work and money to fit his needs, and a religious community that he enjoys and loves.  But when he is falsely accused of a crime, he is ostracized from all he loves and knows.  His ‘proven guilt’ comes as a shock to him, and he feels as though he has been deserted by not only his friends and family, but by God as well.  Soon he leaves the town to settle on the outskirts of Ravaloe.  At this time, many people did not leave their home towns unless for reasons of running away from something, so Marner is looked upon with suspicion at first.  His manner toward people does nothing to abate this.  His faith in God and people has been utterly destroyed, and he has no dealings outside of business with anyone in the town.  He lives there for 15 years, frugally and very alone.  All of the passion and feeling in his heart that once found joy in serving God and man has now been transferred to a love of gold.  He works 16 hour days to earn more and more, and he hoards it away, counting it every night, never spending more than absolutely necessary to survive.  Then one night, he returns to his cottage, everything the same as he left it.  He goes to the floor, pries up the stones under which he keeps his money, ready to rest from the day’s labor and find solace in his gold.  It is gone.  Silas Marner is for the second time in his life ostracized from all the love and companionship he knows.

This book explores the all-too-common human experiences of disappointment, regret, and brokenness, as well as the more joyful parts of human existence: love, loyalty, faith, and hope.  Eliot fills the town of Raveloe with amazing but very human characters, a few of which the reader will love and feel for just as much as ‘Old Master Marner’.  She also has quite a bit to say (through the story of course, Eliot never stops to preach to the reader) about gossipy and suspicious public attitudes, and how this can be destructive and hurtful to individuals.  The book has such universal themes; it touches on feelings and experiences that we have all been party to.  I especially like the way Kathryn Hughes opens her afterword:

Silas Marner doesn’t so much come to you as come back to you, like a half-remembered dream.  For it seems as if you have always known the story of the weaver who loses a fortune and gains a treasure, and that reading Eliot’s novel is simply a way of enjoying its familiar pleasures all over again.” 

It was a wonderful experience to read the children’s adaptation with my own kids, especially possible because it was such a well-done adaptation.  To see the themes of the book not only cause them to think, but also touch their hearts was such a gratifying thing for me.  The kids loved the book and were so excited and drawn in to the story.  They felt sorry for some characters, appreciated the efforts of others, and loved still more.  This is one reason why I love classic literature and want to teach my children at home so they are not robbed of these experiences.  A child can be taught the  principles of virtue in an intellectual way, which is of course very important, but when the child walks into that experience in life that calls him to act on that virtue, the feelings he has felt, even for fictional characters, will be carried with him, and help him to be a light to those around him, showing compassion when it is not popular, standing for the truth, and seeing loyalty and virtue as a strength rather than a weakness.  The story that causes your heart to expand is one to be held on to.

I’ll end with my favorite quote from the book:

“In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction.  We see no white-winged angels now.  But yet men are led away from threatening destruction; a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they may look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.”