Friday, February 27, 2009

Silas Marner

Eliot, George. 1861. Silas Marner. Bantam Classics. (My edition was mid 1980s) 186 pages.

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 hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.

Shocker of all shockers: I liked this one. Quite a lot, in fact. Why is that shocking? When I read this little volume--and no, it's not the same copy--in tenth grade I absolutely hated it. Hate is really too kind a word for what I felt. Needless to say, it held the title of most-hated-book until my college days when Jude the Obscure took its place. (It still holds the honor, in case you're curious.) Which just goes to show you that almost without a doubt classics--at least some classics--fail to be appreciated by high schoolers. Maybe that's inaccurate. I'll rephrase, anytime a person--especially a teen person--is required to read a book, no matter how good or great that book is (sometimes they're really bad, I'm not saying all are good) then it's an uphill battle to have him/her have a positive response to it. It just goes against human nature to like something we're forced against our will to read. And its understandable to me. What could a fifteen year old have in common with Silas Marner, a middle-aged weaver obsessed with gold? He's old (relatively speaking at least!). He's strange. No one likes him in his village of Raveloe. He's an outsider, it's true, a loner. And arguably some teens could see themselves in that way. But is that enough?

Silas Marner, in case you've never been subjected to it, is the story of a man, a weaver, who takes refuge in Raveloe after escaping his unfortunate past. He is living only for himself. The money he makes from his trade, he hoards. He loves his gold. Treasures it. He's not the only one keeping secrets in the village. There's a man, Godfrey Cass, who has quite a secret. Something in his past that he's willing to do just about anything, pay just about anything to prevent from coming to light. His brother, Dunstan Cass, is blackmailing him. He'll tell all to their father--Squire Cass--if Godfrey doesn't do things his way. Why does Godfrey care? really really care? He wants to marry Nancy Lammeter. The secret? He already has a wife, a wife his father would never approve of, a wife he's ashamed of, a woman he'd never claim in a hundred million years. Dunstan (and Godfrey) are in need of money, Silas Marner has plenty. Put the two together and you've got a robbery destined to happen. But things don't always go according to plan, Dunstan disappears the same night as Silas' gold. But that's just the beginning. Silas doesn't know it then, but things are about to start looking up! His life is about to change for the better! Why? His "gold" will be returned to him--providentially according to Silas and his friends--in the form of a golden-haired baby girl whom he names Hepzibah (Eppie) whom he adopts and raises to the satisfaction of all but one....Godfrey Cass.

This one had themes that I couldn't even begin to grasp as a sophomore. And the language? the style? I didn't appreciate the little things. The phrases. But here's the thing. I can now. Everything that I missed then, I can appreciate now. Here is one of my favorite passages:

I suppose one reason why we are seldom able to comfort our neighbors with our words is, that our goodwill gets adulterated, in spite of ourselves, before it can pass our lips. We can send black puddings and pettitoes without giving them a flavour of our own egoism; but language is a stream that is almost sure to smack of a mingled soil. There was a fair proportion of kindness in Raveloe; but it was often of a beery and bungling sort, and took the shape least allied to the complimentary and hypocritical. (77)

I liked the characters--some more eccentric than others--too. I came to appreciate the flavor of this one.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews
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Wendy said...

Becky, I started laughing when I read this: tenth grade I absolutely hated it. Hate is really too kind a word for what I felt. This is EXACTLY how I felt in 10th grade when I was forced to read this book!! I guess I should pick it up and try it again given your experience :)

Anonymous said...

Gee, in 10th grade, I absolutely LOVED Silas Marner. For me, it was a real breakthrough to the kind of language in Hardy, Bronte, and other 19th Century English writers who were so off putting. Maybe we had some sort of watered down version; maybe I had a great teacher. Whatever! It sparked my interest in language, in literature and I went on to be an English major when I thought I was going to be a PE major. So don't put down these classics. There is a reason they are classics. Here's a good example: my 11 year old tonight picked up Little Women. She's read all the popular fiction, the Harry Potter, the Rick Riordan, the you name it. Something about the language spoke to her. Of course the story did too. I had read Little Women to her when she was in 4th or 5th grade, can't remember, and then we watched one of the MANY movies of it. She is completely enthralled by the story and the language. So, just because yhou hated something don't discount it for your children. There are many paths...

Becky said...

For the record, Anonymous, I don't hate it now. (I'm sorry if that didn't come across in the review.) I rather like it in fact. I enjoyed it--as an adult. I was ready for it--as an adult. I could appreciate the story, the characters, the themes, the language, the style. That doesn't mean that there aren't teens who would love it, who could get it. Many tweens and teens pick up adult books to choice.

I was just saying that I understand that most teens don't love required reading of classics in general. It's one thing for a reader--tween, teen, adult, whatever--to pick up a book voluntarily and enjoy it. Quite another to have a forced endurance of it.

Your experience loving it could have been in part a great teacher. I'm not discounting the success stories out there.

I was an English major--I have a bachelor's and master's degree in literature. I love many classics. I read many classics. Still reading them now. For fun. But that doesn't mean that I expect everyone to love a book just as much as I did. Or to hate a book just because I did.

Reading is too subjective for that.

I do agree with you that it is more accessible than Thomas Hardy certainly. (I'm not sure which Bronte sister you meant, one I've found more enjoyable than the other).

I believe that people should make up their own minds about books. You've got to accept--hypothetically speaking, not pointing fingers at all!--that there are teens out there who are going to hate reading classics. And that those responses are valid. That they're understandable. And that those responses can change. With time. Sometimes its a timing issue, you need the right book at the right time. Some people learn to appreciate classics. Some people never do. And that's okay. The world keeps spinning.

Ruth King said...

I read this as a sophomore as well, and was less than enthusiastic about it. Sounds like it's time to give it another shot. The book I really, really hated in high school was The Scarlet Letter. I realize now that I was just too young to appreciate it properly, and think I'll probably enjoy it much more when I re-read it.

chatty kathy said...

I'm a sophomore and am reading it too! I have a huge project where I had to select a random book and read it and do a bunch of junk on it. I have to find critical reviews as part of it, and I just might use this one! I liked the book but I feel like some of the great themes went over my head. I have another teacher who absolutely adores this book and rambled about all this stuff I didn't even remember. But thanks for the review!

Anonymous said...

i read it just before middle school started & absolutely LOVED it.