Silas Marner

In Silas Marner by George Elliot (aka Mary Ann Evans), Silas is a weaver active in a small congregation. One morning, after helping take care of a sick deacon through the night, Silas is accused of stealing the congregation’s money that had been stored in the deacon’s house. He is suspect not only because he was there, but also because his pocket knife was where the money should be. But Silas distinctly remembers loaning his knife to his best friend, William Dane. The congregation decides to draw lots to determine Silas’ guilt or innocence, and Silas believes God will show that he’s innocent. However, the lot does just the opposite and finds him guilty.

Feeling betrayed by both God and man, Silas packs up and moves away to a rural area. He finds business weaving again, but he interacts with people as little as possible.

He hated the thought of the past; there was nothing that called out his love and fellowship toward the strangers he had come amongst; and the future was all dark, for there was no Unseen Love that cared for him. Thought was arrested by utter bewilderment, now its old narrow pathway was closed, and affection seemed to have died under the bruise that had fallen on its keenest nerves.

Because he’s such a loner and the folks are quite superstitious, rumors swirl about him. Because he doesn’t go anywhere—not even church—or do anything, the money he makes multiplies to the point of his idolizing it, counting it every night.

And then the unthinkable happens. One foggy night while out on a quick errand, he comes home to find his gold all gone. He’s completely undone, but the situation opens his neighbors’ hearts to him.

Then on another dark and snowy night, a little child wanders into Silas’ home, changing his life.

Intersecting several times with Silas’ story is that of the Cass family. The older Squire Cass, leading citizen of the area, has several sons. The oldest, Godfrey, has a secret that could ruin him and prevent his marriage to the woman he loves. His brother, Dunstan, knows the secret and uses his knowledge to manipulate Godfrey. Dunstan is a selfish cad. Godfrey is weak-willed and indecisive. He keeps turning his problems over in his mind but never doing anything about them, assuming somehow everything will come out all right in the end.

Silas Marner was first published in 1861 but set a few decades earlier. Elliot always delves deeply into the psychology of her characters, so the main action of the story deals with what they are thinking and why. But she also explores other themes: religion, change, class differences and parallels.

This book is much shorter than her others, so it’s a good one to give Elliot’s writing a try.

Hope has mentioned the Literary Life Podcast. When I looked it up, I saw they were discussing Silas Marner, so I decided to give them a try. I was a little put off during the first episode because it was an hour and twenty minutes just to cover the first three chapters, it took fifteen minutes before they started talking about the author, and another sixteen minutes to get to the book. The only other podcast I have listened to regularly is the Christian Publishing Show by Thomas Umstattd, Jr. He dives right in and puts all his “commercials” at the end—which I appreciate. But once the folks at the Literary Life Podcast got into the meat of the book, I enjoyed listening to them. They brought our several things that I missed and added insights from the times and Elliot’s life. The podcast doesn’t advertise itself as Christian, but from the discussions, the participants seem to be believers. I’ve listened to the first two podcasts on Silas and am in the midst of the third.

Some years ago I heard a Focus on the Family Radio Theater production of Silas Marner that was quite well done. From that, I knew the basic story but had forgotten many details. And the book is a richer, deeper experience.

I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive the Little House on the Prairie TV series for making me think this would be a boring book. ๐Ÿ™‚ In one episode, Albert mourns having to read it for school instead of doing something else he’s rather do. I had never heard of the book before that.

On the other hand, I’ve heard others say that they didn’t like it when they first read it, either. Maybe it’s one that doesn’t go over so well in high school? I don’t know. But I am glad I read it when I did, because I enjoyed it quite a lot. I listened to the audiobook very nicely read by Andrew Sachs but also looked up parts in the Kindle edition, which, at the time of this writing, is 60 cents.

I’m counting this book for the classic by a woman author for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

Have you read Silas Marner? What did you think?

(Sharing with Booknificent, Carole’s Books You Loved)

14 thoughts on “Silas Marner

  1. Yes, I read SM in high school. Did I like it? No, I hated it. Why? First, because I was forced to read it whether I wanted to or not. Also, the first page didn’t encourage me to continue. Third, I don’t recall anyone explaining to me why my life would be so much better by reading it (beyond passing a literature class). I think we make a mistake when we force our children to read certain books in school. Why not first whet their appetites, admit there may be some difficulties due to writing style, and perhaps offer an incentive for stickling to it? Perhaps following along with an audiobook might help too. Kids need more encouragement to get through novels that simply cannot compete with video games or their favorite TV show. Now that I’m older, I’m interested in reading SM again, but it’s difficult rising above my childhood-formed bias. When I peruse the first paragraph below, I’m reminded why it may be tough going (and why the novel turned me off in high school). No offense to Eliot, because I’m sure this was considered popular reading of the day, but this isn’t an easy read by any means. Simply my opinion. You are to be commended for getting through the whole novel. An audiobook would certainly help.

    “In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses– and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak–there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race. The shepherd’s dog barked fiercely when one of these alien-looking men appeared on the upland, dark against the early winter sunset; for what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag?–and these pale men rarely stirred abroad without that mysterious burden. The shepherd himself, though he had good reason to believe that the bag held nothing but flaxen thread, or else the long rolls of strong linen spun from that thread, was not quite sure that this trade of weaving, indispensable though it was, could be carried on entirely without the help of the Evil One. In that far-off time superstition clung easily round every person or thing that was at all unwonted, or even intermittent and occasional merely, like the visits of the pedlar or the knife-grinder. No one knew where wandering men had their homes or their origin; and how was a man to be explained unless you at least knew somebody who knew his father and mother? To the peasants of old times, the world outside their own direct experience was a region of vagueness and mystery: to their untravelled thought a state of wandering was a conception as dim as the winter life of the swallows that came back with the spring; and even a settler, if he came from distant parts, hardly ever ceased to be viewed with a remnant of distrust, which would have prevented any surprise if a long course of inoffensive conduct on his part had ended in the commission of a crime; especially if he had any reputation for knowledge, or showed any skill in handicraft. All cleverness, whether in the rapid use of that difficult instrument the tongue, or in some other art unfamiliar to villagers, was in itself suspicious: honest folk, born and bred in a visible manner, were mostly not overwise or clever–at least, not beyond such a matter as knowing the signs of the weather; and the process by which rapidity and dexterity of any kind were acquired was so wholly hidden, that they partook of the nature of conjuring. In this way it came to pass that those scattered linen-weavers–emigrants from the town into the country–were to the last regarded as aliens by their rustic neighbours, and usually contracted the eccentric habits which belong to a state of loneliness.”

    • Yes—writers in that day certainly weren’t taught to hook readers in right off the bat like we’re told to today. I’ve read so many classics, I’m used to having to wait a bit before getting to the meat of the story. But that’s a problem for kids who don’t like to read or who are used to more concise and dynamic stories.

      Too, I think you’ve mentioned before that you prefer plot-driven to character-driven novels. Eliot has some high drama and suspenseful moments and pivotal scenes, but she definitely specializes in characters over a lot of action.

      I’d love to hear from some of my English teacher friends how they help kids get interested in the old books. I look up classic books at shmoop.com sometimes—they’re a little irreverent and definitely worldly, but they often bring out some helpful insights. After an initial summary, they have a section called “Why should I care?” I think teachers would have to address that while teaching classic books if they want students to do more than just trudge through the assignments. The podcast I listened to was helpful, too, though I was dismayed at first by how long and chatty it was.

  2. I haven’t read it, and having just finished Daniel Deronda by the same author, I probably won’t soon. Maybe someday. The premise sounds interesting, as does the shorter length. I have to really get myself into the right frame of mind to handle Eliot’s long, complex, sometimes stream-of-consciousness sentences ๐Ÿ™‚

    • She does have some awfully long sentences! Somehow I can handle those better with an audiobook while I am doing something else with my hands. If I’m reading, I tend to skim through a lot til I get to a more interesting spot. I felt like that with Middlemarch—I had heard so many people say it was so good, but, wow, it was slow going in parts. I did end up enjoying it, though not as much as others.

  3. Love this post, Barbara! I’d forgotten all about this book — read it many moons ago, as an unbeliever, and of course the spiritual content was way over my head. Will have to give it another read one of these days. Thank you!

  4. this was my FAVE required Honors English literature book to read in high school. I was a junior and had a fun teacher and hardly ANY of my college bound friends in class liked this novel. I just loved it. My oldest daughter tolerated it and my youngest didn’t read it as she had different requirements when she took honors english lit. I should re-read it!! the movie I saw based on the book was ok. I usually think the books are way better!!

  5. To address the issue of getting students interested. First of all, MOST high school English lit teachers (at least here in our area of NYS) do NOT have the typical English student read the older classics like this one. These are reserved for the HONORS track kids. The kids who are exelling in the Language Arts and heading to colleges. For the regular English students, there is a list to choose from. They typically have to read 3-4 books per semester on that list. An Example of my daughters’ 9th grade Honors List was: To Kill a Mockingbird; Romeo and Juliet; A Tale of Two Cities; The Thirteenth Tale (by a comtemp author); My Sister’s Keeper (by Jodi Picoult, a comtemp author); The Secret Life of Bees. In their French and Russian Literature classes (senior year after taking the languages since 6th grade,) they read books in French and Russian. Our yougest read portions of Crime and Punishment. Also, Dr Zhivago for those students who didn’t want the old classics. These are just examples of course. Silas Marner was on both girls’ lists but only my oldest chose to read it. Of course I teach Special Ed PreK kids so my students are “reading” from children’s classics ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. It is difficult to get young people to read. I use the Focus on the Family audiobook of Silas Marner and we follow along in the book (jumping forward as the audiobook does not follow text exactly). But they get something out of it that way. The theme of that book is so beautiful that I do not like to just skip the book. Same with Dickens and other wordy 19th century authors.
    I wish someone could take those books with such great themes, and re-write them (NOT condense them) just enough to take out the wordiness.

  7. Barbara, I read Silas Marner in high school. I enjoyed it, but those years were a LONG time ago. Reading your review was a nice refresher about what the story is about. And, maybe it’s because I don’t read many classics, I didn’t realize George Eliot was a pseudonym.

  8. Pingback: March Reflections | Stray Thoughts

  9. Read this one on a summer reading list in high school. It appealed to me because I have always loved history and could not get enough of reading the origin of people and things. Subjects that I had no familiarity from my own experiences. I really enjoyed it though most of my friends who read it said they hated it.

  10. I’ve had this post saved to read for a while because I was in the middle of packing to move when it was published and I didn’t want to rush through your thoughts on Silas Marner. SM is one of my top all-time favorite books. I did not read it in school — I got to it about 15 years ago when I was on a kick to catch up on classic literature I’d missed in my less-than-remarkable high school and college English education. I was pleased to read your thoughts and then that pleasure was doubled when I followed the link to the LIterary Life Podcast and saw that it was a former teaching colleague who co-hosts it!

  11. What a great review of Silas Marner. The only George Eliot I have read is Middlemarch, which I enjoyed (but boy, was it long!) and have been thinking of reading Silas Marner. It is actually on my Classics Club list, so I am intrigued now that I know more about the plot and characterization. I think I have been hesitant because I prefer novels with female protagonists (I can relate to them more and they are just usually more fun to read about) and also heard this was a depressing book, but you have convinced me otherwise!! Thank you!

    George Eliot reminds me a bit of Elizabeth Gaskell. They both do a splendid job with characterization, which I love in a good novel. Here is my recent Gaskell review of Wives and Daughters, if interested: https://elle-alice.blogspot.com/2021/03/classics-club-wives-and-daughters.html

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