George Eliot – Silas Marner

Silas Marner is so different from Adam Bede. I wonder if I had read them blind (not knowing the author, I mean) whether I would have been able to say they were written by the same person. My hunch is no. What’s interesting is that there was only two years between the publication of Adam Bede (1859) and Silas Marner (1861). In between George Eliot published The Mill on the Floss, so her stylistic change is remarkable.

Thematically, Silas Marner does something similar to Adam Bede in that it exposes the hypocrisy and moral weakness of a country squire. Like Arthur Donnithorne, Godfrey Cass is a gutless rich boy with too much free time and not enough real conviction.  Both men are portrayed as inherently good-natured, just spineless. I think this says a lot about Eliot’s view of character. It isn’t really enough to be kindhearted – being a good person requires courage and self-control.

And in both novels, Eliot pits her two male characters against each other (a bit less directly in Silas Marner) to highlight their strengths and failings. In the Adam vs. Arthur comparison, Adam is nearly superhuman – a truly exceptional character (minus his inability to see Hetty for who she really is). This seems fitting for a first novel. Eliot exaggerates a bit with Adam (and Dinah for that matter, can a woman be more angelic?) and I can only assume she was maybe overexcited about her first large-scale literary offering.

But in Silas Marner the two men – Silas and Godfrey – are much more nuanced, a bit fragile and both have significant faults. Silas’ faults, however, are a result of an earlier misfortune, and Godfrey’s because of a weak character. In that sense, Silas is easily forgiven.

But enough about theme, I really wanted to talk about style here, because this is where the two books were markedly dissimilar. Adam Bede, as I mentioned before, has a few too many tangents and what I would call an intrusive narrator. But in Silas Marner, the narrator rarely steps off the page to signal her presence. There is no, “dear reader”, no pointed asides, no overdone explanation. Just a smoothly-told story.

And yet Eliot does manage to fit in plenty of omniscient narrator discourse. What I mean by that are the moments within or following a scene, when the narrator “exposes” something about human nature, or “reveals” the greater significance of a particular moment. In Eliot’s case, this tends toward generally-applicable revelation. A good example is right after Marner is robbed and the narrator explains that his being forced to interact with his neighbors began to work some positive changes on his character, and then she goes on to make this statement:

Our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us anymore than without us; there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud.

Now that is a subtle, incisive narrator. In Adam Bede this reflection would have gone on just a line too long.

Looking at tangents, I did think the chapter where the old men are sitting around discussing ghosts could qualify as unnecessary, but since it’s the only one in the book (and quite enjoyable) I wouldn’t have even noticed it if I hadn’t just experienced a raft of similar departures in Adam Bede.

Moving forward, The Mill on the Floss should arrive any day now and I’m looking forward to seeing how it sits between these other two.

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

9 thoughts on “George Eliot – Silas Marner”

  1. I think George Eliot makes some of the best observations of human nature of anyone whose fiction I’ve read. I agree about Silas Marner, which I think is just wonderful. I’ll be interested to see what you think about The Mill on the Floss which I haven’t read in a long time.

  2. Interesting contrasts! I am happy that you are reading these books back to back and can make really specific comparisons. Maybe I missed this, but do you plan on reading all the major Eliot novels in this way?

  3. Great post. Takes me back–I don’t remember much about the story of SM, just the broadest strokes. Reading through GE like this must be great fun for you. Thinking about SM and theme, I wonder how you reacted to the central (isn’t it?) issue of miserliness. Is it interesting that GE makes a distinction between greed and being a miser, or does she? How do you find Silas stacks up against Scrooge, SM vs. Christmas Carol? Just the quick thoughts/questions that occur to me after reading your excellent post.

  4. Excellent. I’m about 100 pages into The Mill on the Floss, and I’m seeing the same kinds of improvements.

    Here’s one you’ll appreciate: the “kitten” thing is back, the young woman repeatedly compared to an animal. But this time Eliot varies the animal, the details of the comparison, varies everything she can think of. The clunkiness is gone. A reader not on “kitten” patrol might not even notice it.

  5. Colleen – I definitely enjoyed her human nature observations in Silas Marner, they were there in Adam Bede but maybe a little heavy-handed. And I’m really looking forward to The Mill on the Floss.

    Dorothy – Yes, it seems I sortof fell into an Eliot project without meaning to. I know I’ll go through the first three novels, and then maybe reread Middlemarch. I’m not sure I’ll do all of them…but we’ll see. It might get addicting.

    Zhiv – I wanted to write about the miserliness as well but ran out of time – definitely a huge theme in Silas Marner, although she resolves it in an interesting way by having Marner replace his love of money with love of a real person. Which is, I suppose, what Dickens does although Scrooge has to learn to love himself again…good question!

    Amateur Reader – Ha, the kitten thing. Now Î can’t wait for The Mill on the Floss to show up!

  6. I’ve only read Middlemarch so am very interested in hearing how you get on with her entire oeuvre. Lovely observations – you are very good at making your sensitive considerations accessible to your readers.

  7. As dorothy said, interesting contrasts! I read Silas Marner in high school and loved it. I should read it again one of these days. I enjoyed Mill on the Floss in college. The professor made a big deal of the ending so I will be curious to hear what you think.

  8. I read Silas Marner when I was young so I don’t remember much–but your stylistic comparison is interesting I liked Middlemarch very much, read it the summer I finished The River Midnight and it influenced my decision to set my next novel in London

  9. I appreciate this blog entry by Michelle Bailat-Jones, learned a lot from it. This posting is very nice, authentic way to learn a bit, become more sophisticated about, this George Eliot literature.

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