Silas Marner is the most compressed of George Eliot’s novels. At times it reads like a fairy tale, albeit one in which the magical elements are revealed to be the workings of chance. This chance, however, is not the one typically associated with nihilism, altogether blind and indifferent. No, this is chance with one eye, not entirely blighted, mostly dim, but with enough sensitivity to the light that it leans fate in the direction of goodness. The same nearly invisible universal tilt that favors matter over anti-matter, that gives rise to stars and their occasionally sentient children, nudges humankind towards its “growing good.” Of course, Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot’s her nom de pleume) doesn’t actually mention matter, anti-matter, or the elemental composition of stars, but if she were around today, you can bet she would. She was a science buff in her day, peppering her magnum opus–Middlemarch–with the cutting-edge medical insights of her time.
The eponymous story of Silas Marner is a simple one. Silas begins the novel a gullible rube. Unable to see the treachery of his closest friend, he is cast from his home on suspicion of murder and the recommendation of his village’s cleromantic justice system–they threw dice, and he lost. Traveling far from his village in bitter disgrace, eventually he becomes the nearsighted and covetous Weaver of Raveloe.
In his new home, Silas is a stranger–alien, with an odd religion and unfamiliar habits. He is tolerated only because of his skill, and the odd bits of foreign knowledge he occasionally conjures to the benefit of his neighbors. Shut in his small, dimly lit home, he secrets the gold earned by his weaving in the earth like some hunched gnome, removing it from its hiding place every even to finger and count. Eventually, Silas’s gold is stolen by the profligate son of the local Squire, and Silas is forced out of his hole, forced to find sympathy and aid with those he has shunned for more than a decade.
The bane of his financial loss, however, becomes his boon when an orphaned girl wanders into his home out of the snow. Barely two-year’s old, the girl, whose opiate addicted mother freezes to death in the same snow storm, proves Silas’s godsend. Silas believes the girl to be the mysterious recompense for his stolen gold, as if girl and gold were commodities in a great universal exchange of which he is the happy beneficiary. Indeed, upon initially finding her in his home, his myopic eyes take her to be his beloved gold returned to him. Upon reflection, however, he finds the girl to be an even greater thing. He decides to keep her and raise her as his own. “The mother’s dead, and I reckon it’s got no father: it’s a lone thing–and I’m a lone thing. My money’s gone I don’t know where–and this is come from I don’t know where. I know nothing–I’m partly mazed.” Things disappear, and they reappear. “To every season, turn, turn, turn.” Marner’s sentiment reminds one of The Byrds or the Bible, depending on your disposition.
As the readers, we know where the gold has gone to, and by what means the girl has arrived at Marner’s door, and we know that each appears and disappears without connection–tethered only by chance. But this is George Eliot’s chance. This is chance that over the long arc of time “bends towards justice,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. said.
Silas Marner reads like a fable, because it is. It is the fable of moral progress–that the present, properly attended and stoically born, will bear fruit. Contrary to all evidence, even though the universe appears cruel, even though it seems deaf to our finer hopes, an oaf in the china shop of our cherished sensibilities, in the universe of Mary Ann Evans, it isn’t. It’s just slow in its turning towards justice, so slow the turn is barely seen, the way the earth appears flat over its long curve.
It’s a pleasing, if difficult, idea to hold firmly–the moral universe. It’s a hard thing to get any real perspective on, and so we tend to rely on the day-to-day feelings about our fellows to tincture our philosophies. However, we are rarely the readers of our own lives, so buried in their minutia; things appear and disappear to us as mysteriously as they did to Silas. But there are gaps to be filled, and purpose is as valid a choice as none. Reading ourselves by Eliot’s light, the 21st century of chaos vs. atomic clocks and global poverty vs. footprints on the moon, the narrow pursuit of material gain looks a bit like the winged feet of Hermes bearing the message of progress into the future.
It’s a pleasing light to read by.
Top Ten Notable Quotables:
1. “For the parson meant right, and the bride and bridgroom meant right. But then, when I come to think on it, meanin’ goes but a little way i’ most things, for you may mean to stick things together and your glue may be bad, and then where are you? And so I says to mysen, “It isn’t the meanin’, it’s the glue.”” –Chapter VI
2. “Favourable Chance, I fancy, is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in… Let him forsake a decent craft that he may pursue the gentilities of a profession to which nature never called him, and his religion will infallibly be the worship of blessed Chance, which he will believe in as the mighty creator of success. The evil principle deprecated in that religion is the orderly sequence by which the seed brings forth a crop after its kind.” –Chapter VIII
3. “…for I wouldn’t speak ill o’ this world, seeing as Them put us in it as knows best–but what wi’ the drink, and the quarrelling, and the bad illnesses, and the hard dying, as I’ve seen times and times, one’s thankful to hear of a better.” –Chapter X
4. “It is seldom that the miserable can help regarding their misery as a wrong inflicted by those who are less miserable.” Chapter XII
5. “Just and self-reproving do not come to us too thickly, even in the purest air, and with the best lessons of heaven and earth; how should those white-winged delicate messengers make their way to Molly’s poisoned chamber, inhabited by no higher memories than those of a barmaid’s paradise of pink ribbons and gentleman’s jokes?” –Chapter XII
6. “”Ah,” said Dolly, with soothing gravity, “it’s like the night and the morning, and the sleeping and the waking, and the rain and the harvest–one goes and the other comes, and we know nothing how nor where. We may strive and scrag and fend, but it’s little we can do arter all–the big things come and go wi’ no striving o’ our’n–they do, that they do…” –Chapter XIV
7. “The gods of the hearth exist for us still; and let all new faith be tolerant of that fetishism, lest it bruise its own roots.” –Chapter XVI
8. “And that’s all as ever I can be sure on, and everything else is a big puzzle to me when I think on it. For there was a the fever come and took off them as were full-growed, and left the helpless children; and there’s the breaking o’ limbs; and them as ‘ud do right and be sober have to suffer by them as are contrary–eh, there’s trouble i’ this world, and there’s things as we can niver make out the rights on. And all as we’ve got to do is trusten, Master Marner–to do the right thing as fur as we know, and to trusten. For if us as knows so little can see a bit o’ good and rights, we may be sure as there’s a good and a rights bigger nor what we can know–I feel it i’ my own inside as it must be so.” –Chapter XVI
9. “…human beliefs, like all other natural growths, elude the barriers of system.” –Chapter XVII
10. “Nothing is so good as it seems beforehand…” –Chapter XVIII