Monday, February 18, 2008

Book #7 - Silas Marner (George Eliot)


I have to admit, I'm a sentimental f@#k.  Always have been.  I can remember as a kid, sitting on the couch with my mom and watching "The Waltons" on Thursday nights, both of us crying at the end of every show.  And yes, I cried at the end of "Titanic" and "Sleepless in Seattle".  And, most embarrassingly of all, I cried at the end of "Air Bud II: Golden Receiver" (hey, I was drunk and stuck on a cross-country flight...surely that counts as some kind of excuse.  Back me up here).  So why am I admitting to all this?  Because (sigh) it happened again.  F&#king George Eliot and her "Silas Marner".  It's a weeper.  But in a good way.  In a "Sleepless in Seattle" way.

This is the first book by George Eliot I've ever read.  And after reading it, I have to conclude that she's a genius.  This book is almost perfect.  The good guys are rewarded and the bad guys get their due.  All the threads of the story prove to be interwoven, and all are neatly tied up at the end.  The tale is a ripping good one.  And the writing itself is frickin' amazing.  I mean, some sentences are so rich and creamy that reading them is like taking a big bite out of a stick of butter.  Check out the novel's first sentence:

"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."

Woah!  Now that's good writing.  Or check out this sentence, from page two:

"To the peasants of old times, the world outside their own direct experience was a region of vagueness and mystery: to their untraveled 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."

Wow!  I need to read a sentence like that a couple of times, just to suck all the nuance out of it.  And that whole thing is just ONE sentence!  Who writes like that anymore?  How many people ever did?  I could never write anything like that.  I am in awe.  Plus, hey, two semicolons and a colon IN THE SAME SENTENCE!  I remember in the sixth grade my English teacher, Miss Brand, had us diagramming sentences...well, it would have taken me two days to diagram that one.  The language is so beautiful, and complex, and yet it all fits.  Eliot is a master.  I raise my glass of fine, single-barrel bourbon in her direction.  You go girl!

This book's got it all...class conflict, love, betrayal, death, opium addiction.  I hate to go into plot details in case you haven't read this one, so I'll be brief.  Basically, Silas Marner is member of a dissenting Protestant sect in a small English village.  He's respected by the community and is in love with a woman he hopes to marry.  But his best friend frames him for a theft he didn't commit, and he is cast out of the town, conveniently allowing his friend to marry his now ex-girlfriend.  He moves to the isolated country town of Raveloe and becomes a weaver.  Flash-forward 16 years.  Silas lives in a backwoods cabin in Raveloe, leading a solitary life as a weaver.  He has minimal contact with the townsfolk.  His only joy is the money he has made from weaving, which he hoards beneath the floorboards and carefully counts at night when the weaving is done.  But then BAM, the delinquent son of the local rich man steals his money one night when Silas is out of the cabin.  Silas is inconsolable.  He seeks help from the townsfolk, but they're not much help.  Then one night, the secret wife of the brother of the son of the local rich guy (who stole Silas's money) dies in front of Silas's cabin in a snowstorm, and her two year old daughter wanders in to Silas's cabin and falls asleep by the fire, unbeknownst to Silas who's having one of his catatonic fits.  He awakens, sees the child's gold locks, and thinks his money has returned (he's got bad eyes due to all the weaving).  He quickly realizes it's not his gold, but a child!  His gold has mysteriously disappeared, and this child has mysteriously appeared!  Hmmm.  So he adopts the child, and through her he is forced out of his solitude and into the community.  He is redeemed.  The good guys are rewarded, and the bad guys (the sons of the local rich dude) are punished.  All is right in the world.  If the reader is of the sentimental type, (s)he cries.  The End.

One could easily compare this story to something like "Sleepless in Seattle".  All works out in the end despite terrible things that happen in the middle that convince one that maybe all is doomed.  This is not a tragedy.  It's not even real life.  It's almost like a fable.  Yet while "Sleepless in Seattle" is a fine movie, and is better written than most movies of it's genre, no one would claim it's a work of genius.  "Silas Marner" is, though.  The word "craft" comes to mind.  The plot may be highly improbable, and it all works out a bit too neatly, but the writing and the craft of the story make up for it.  Everything fits together.  This is a moral tale, a fable almost, and a hell of a good read.  If you've never read it, I strongly recommend you crack it open, and spend a couple of evenings with it.  Seriously.  Enjoy this brilliant piece of writing.  But make sure you have some tissues handy.

1 comment:

Tina said...

I'm off to order a copy right away. Thanks for the tip!