Silas Marner. Eternal guest of the library book sale. Tattered old novel of tattered old novels. Known as much by its mustiness as by its ubiquitous faint recognition among older readers. The only contact I ever had with this book before I finally sat down and rocketed through its pages was, surprisingly or not, a fleeting reference made to it in A Christmas Story. Ralphie Parker’s just been blindsided by a C+ (cue overdramatic horn section) on his theme about a Red Ryder BB gun, his head spiraling into a waking nightmare of his mother and teacher transformed into jesters conspiring to build up and dash his hopes cyclically as part of some sick existential joke. He rests his head on his desk, settling in for a gloomy afternoon of meaningless toil, and Miss Shields, one of thousands of teachers who have quietly handed out searing insults only to proceed with class under the protection of classroom decorum, leads off with an English lecture on Silas Marner with the sing-song quality of long familiarity and matronly encouragement. The scene cuts short here, of course, leading into a fateful encounter with yellow-eyed, so help me God, yellow-eyed Scut Farkus, but as the world moves on with a recycled lesson on ethics from a one hundred year old novel, Jean Shepherd adds another authentic obstacle to Ralphie’s craving for adventure.
If Shepherd is to be believed, Silas Marner was 1940’s America’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, or The Things They Carried. A novel so straightforward in its narrative, so upright in its morals, and so helpful with its literary devices that it floats into the hands of educators everywhere as a perfect rubric for storytelling. I hold a measure of surprise believing that it would be taught to fourth graders (that’s what Ralphie is, right?). It’s short and sweet, but given all we’re told about the average reading level for kids, I think it’s asking a little much from ones that young. Then again, as sociology has it, adolescent America hadn’t become a reality until the Baby Boomers boomed, so even up through the 40’s kids were expected to grow up, quit their hollerin’, and work. Telling them to read their Eliot was the same as strapping them into the plow or sending them out for buffalo chips. Perhaps what we need today are some instructors brave or insane enough to subject their students to Tolstoy, Pynchon, or Palahniuk. If kids are staring at walls all day anyway, they may as well be staring a thousand yards. But you know, it’s a movie, and I’m thinking too hard about something I haven’t paid enough attention to. Digressions aside, I read Silas Marner.
At the risk of making generations of middle school educators roll in their graves, I’m going to take a swing at what Silas Marner is all about. For one thing, Silas Marner the man is not the center of Eliot’s story. That honor belongs to Godfrey Cass. The spoilt eldest son of a local landlord in early 19th century England, he and his brother make up the core of the novel, and a rotten one at that. Before we’re introduced to them, however, we’re given a sort of fairytale-like telling of Marner’s early life, beginning with a productive young adulthood, his betrayal by his best friend, and his subsequent banishment into the woods to eke out a living as a weaver. Right off the bat he’s treated like a local legend, the injured loner who loses himself in his work, rumors swirling about his growing hoard of gold. Next thing we know, he’s tossed into the background, just another part of the local folklore like bridge trolls, the Jersey devil, or, if you lived in the Indian Village part of Grand Rapids, the nudist cannibal of the Shawnee Park ravine.
Godfrey and Marner are both haunted men, but for very different reasons. It’s clear to the reader that Marner has been victimized by a nasty lie and shunned by a cowardly community that would rather sweep ugliness under the rug instead of confront it. He makes his new home on the outskirts of Raveloe, from which he keeps a careful distance, suspecting it to harbor the same sort of folks as his previous village. Once introduced to the Casses, it’s obvious that he isn’t wrong. Godfrey rests on the other side of sin’s divide, nursing as much guilt as Marner does resentment, for he is a wrongdoer of the highest order, having fathered a child by and abandoned a secret wife to maintain his family’s reputation. Even without Marner toiling on the outskirts of town he knows the consequences of revealing his secret, no matter how much he truly cares about his wife, Molly. He isn’t entirely heartless. His brooding provides the strongest emotional current throughout the story. Marner is a victim of another’s lies, but Godfrey is a victim of his own, and the pain is that much more excruciating for it. His struggle to atone for his mistakes is his character’s through line, and it’s eminently more relatable and heartbreaking than Marner’s. Marner is characterized exclusively by his withdrawal from society, to the point that he nearly becomes a paranoid wreck. His driving ambition is to work himself to death, without ever crossing paths with anyone ever again, shrinking away from the sight and thoughts of others. Clearly Marner is ripe to be shaken up a bit, and when Eliot does just that, she tragically bestows upon Marner the only thing that could save Godfrey.
Marner is given the second biggest surprise of his lonely life when a small child appears on his hearth during a snowstorm, her mother freezing to death out in the cold. This comes some time after the first surprise, when he is robbed of his life savings, a cache of gold coins that proves too tempting to a burglar who heard too many stories about Marner’s wealth. For all the effort Marner has made to avoid human contact, he quite coincidentally keeps running into trouble with the Casses. Because it’s Dunsey Cass, Godfrey’s prodigal brother and Raveloe’s answer to Marner’s first backstabbing best friend, who decides to pilfer Marner’s coins and vanish into thin air. And it’s Godfrey’s estranged wife Molly who trudges through the woods and meets her death in a snowdrift outside his cabin, leaving the tiny moppet in his custody. Neither he nor anyone else knows that Dunsey is the culprit, and upon the child’s discovery, only Godfrey knows the horrible truth about its mother.
With that, Godfrey’s dilemma seems only to worsen. He at first dealt regularly with the threat of blackmail over his secret marriage from Dunsey, but now Dunsey is substituted by a greater obstacle – beyond the inability to seek forgiveness from his wife, that is – and that’s the possibility that his daughter (called Eppie by Marner) may have found a better home. After having mustered up the courage to come clean, he’s had his one shot at redemption taken out from under him.
Marner’s role increases as the flaxen haired Eppie grows older. She symbolically takes the place of his gold coins, and he raises her with the same painstaking attention and gentle cautiousness that he once maintained over his treasure. He’s never painted as a miser in Eliot’s writing, but his relationship with Eppie goes to show that he can recover from his past and find love with another person again. Though he’s still wracked by insecurity, Eppie’s presence is a new treasure, and it can give something back to him. Though it’s never really addressed this way, Marner’s affection for Eppie comes off selfishly, but never coldly, in that he never feels like he can trust her to the outside world. With the emphasis always going back to her blonde hair, it’s enough to wonder if Marner still sees a sack of gold every time he looks at her.
Eliot has provided, somewhat deviously I think, the simple example of Silas Marner as an ideal of familial love to the likes of Godfrey Cass. The sad part is that behind his adoration for his daughter is a scarred psyche that lost all sense of pride and ambition. Marner is motivated primarily by fear. This punishes Godfrey – and the reader – even more, showing how much suffering has gone into the proper raising of Godfrey’s daughter. In crafting a supposedly sinless hero in Marner, she shows the backdrop of pain and persecution that led to his emotionally feeble state, and she explores the longing for acceptance and forgiveness that is so terrifying to pursue. Unfortunately, with Godfrey living in guilt and Marner living in fear, it proves once and for all that no matter what the individual thinks, it’s the world at large that will judge him as right or wrong.
I’m happy to report that I have plenty of other books under my belt since the time of my last writing. This long break was unintentional and aggravating, to say the least. Classes start for me in a couple weeks, so I’ll see how well I can keep up with my reading. Like this time two years ago, I’m also waiting on another Ben Wheatley instant classic (A Field in England) to be released in the US, so come on Alamo Drafthouse, get it out already.