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.