Silas Marner

This month, let’s take a look at  Silas Marner, by George Eliot.  Silas Marner’s backstory is a somewhat tragic one, beginning with the fact that his name sounds so much like an old man’s name that I can’t picture him as a young person.  But he was, once upon a time, and used to live in northern England.  One day, he had an epileptic fit at a prayer meeting and his fishy-looking best friend William Dane spread the rumor that he was plagued by the devil, which presumably had nothing to do with the fact that Silas had picked up a cute fiancée named Sarah.  After this event, Silas asked Sarah if she wanted to break off the engagement but she declined, thinking the community wouldn’t approve of such a scandalous thing. (This is weird reasoning – I thought Silas only wanted to break off the engagement in the first place because people thought he was in league with the devil.  Seems like Sarah would have been caught up in scandal either way.)

To make matters worse, the senior church deacon was dying and while all the locals took turns looking after him, the deacon decided to up and die on Silas’s watch. Things went downhill from there, as William accused Silas of ditching the deacon as soon as he was dead to steal the church money.  The accusation worked, thanks to a careful planting of Silas’s knife in the money’s location, and the money in Silas’s room.   The congregation, for its part, seemed more concerned about the money than the dead man.  Silas announced that William was the real perpetrator, repudiated his Christianity, and left town.  Sarah married William instead.

Silas moved to the quaint farming town of Raveloe, where he was locally considered to be one of those suspicious sorts of people – you know, the kind who just wanders into town and isn’t related to anyone that you’ve met, so he’s obviously in league with the devil, what with his near-sightedness and hermit-like tendencies and rumored arcane knowledge of herb lore. It turns out he was really just a guy who liked to weave things on his loom.  He did make the mistake of using foxglove to concoct a remedy to help relieve a woman’s heart disease once, so everyone assumed that he was capable of improving their lives with charms and spells.  Instead, he just secluded himself further from society and became obsessed with all the money he made on his loom. He started to hoard it and count it and talk to it, hiding his precious gold from those nosy neighbors and their nasty childrenses. (Don’t worry, he hides the precious under the floor where no one will sees it.)

This goes on for fifteen years until one fateful Christmas. The two sons of Squire Cass (the lord of the town) – Godfrey the good-looking guy and Dunsey the dour despicable dude – are arguing over rent money that Godfrey lent Dunsey and hasn’t gotten back yet. Things get ugly – Godfrey threatens to tell their dad about Dunsey’s lost money and Dunsey threatens to tell their dad about Godfrey’s secret drug addict wife.  Things escalate and Godfrey threatens to tell their dad about both so they can get thrown out of the house together. Yikes. To obtain more money, Dunsey offers to sell Godfrey’s horse for him.  In a move of complete stupidity, Godfrey thinks this is a good idea and lets him.

The next morning, Dunsey passes by Silas’s place on his way to sell the horse and realizes that his brother could have tried to borrow money from Silas. (I’m sure that would go over well with the man who has probably named every one of his coin by now.) Dunsey eventually manages to find a buyer for the horse, but before he can deliver it, he joins a hunt and accidentally skewers his brother’s horse. On his walk home and in need of money, he rather desperately passes Silas’s house and goes inside, finding no one at home. He finds the bags of gold almost right away (Silas isn’t very good at hiding things, apparently), steals them, and flees into the night.

Silas, meanwhile, is coming home, excited to eat pork for supper and count his money. He decides to do both at the same time, but flips out when he realizes it’s gone. His first suspect is Jim Rodney, mainly because that guy is crazy enough to visit more often than most people.  Silas runs out in the rain to tell the clergyman, the constable, and Squire Cass to make the dude give it back. He runs to the parlor at the tavern (called the Rainbow, like any respectable establishment), but it’s empty because everyone is celebrating a birthday party. The dudes drinking at the bar aren’t paying attention to him while they quietly accuse each other of stealing cows and retell stories that everyone has heard before about misspoken wedding vows and haunted stables.

Then, of course, they realize they are haunted by Silas, who starts wailing about being robbed and demanding his money from Jem, who has no idea what’s going on. Everyone decides he’s nuts until he finishes his story. Then they agree to help him. The next day they find a tinder-box, presumably connected with the crime, and they get distracted remembering a peddler who came by last month selling tinderboxes and try to recall if he wore earrings or not. Others assume that occult forces must have Silas’s gold. I hope Silas doesn’t have high expectations for the townspeople to solve this case quickly.

Godfrey, meanwhile, is looking for his brother. He passes the man who was supposed to buy the horse, and the man tells him about its gruesome death. Finally Godfrey realizes he’s kind of an idiot and decides to tell his father the truth about everything. When he does tell his father about the dead horse at breakfast, he puts part of the blame on himself and his father calls him an idiot, which is pretty spot-on. He evades the question of marrying the girl he likes and doesn’t bring up his other secret wife.

Weeks pass and various earring-clad peddlers are interrogated while Dunsey’s disappearance is pretty much ignored. Silas mourns the loss of his precious gold – the thought of earning more money is odious, because it reminds him of the friends he may never see again. Still, people stop by and give him pork and puddings while trying to advise him that greed isn’t good for anyone.  They try to trick him into going to church, but to no avail.

At the New Year’s Dance, Nancy Lammeter (the woman Godfrey wishes he were married to) is paying her respects to various relatives and worrying about her outfit matching her sister’s and whatnot. We learn that not only does Nancy not intend to get married, but she also doesn’t want to marry Godfrey. She still manages to get suckered into a dance with him, thanks to Godfrey’s drunken father. Godfrey’s drunken father also manages to step on the train of her dress and rip it at the waist, forcing her to sit down early and wait for her sister’s help. Godfrey takes her into another room and makes the kind of “You’re the best thing in the whole world speech” that makes Nancy cringe a little to hear it.  Of course you can guess who she’ll end up with now.

Meanwhile, Molly (the woman Godfrey is actually married to) is upset that her husband refuses to acknowledge her and their child in public. She decides to crash the party and announce the truth. Before she can do anything interesting, however, she collapses in the snow and promptly dies of literary plot device syndrome (and, presumably, opium overdose). The child she’s still holding is a little upset at this turn of events, and starts to toddle off through the snow into Silas’s open cottage door. This is strange – one would assume he’d want to keep that thing closed and locked on a cold New Year’s Eve, whether he had recently been burgled or not. It turns out that he actually has the habit of sticking his head out of the door from time to time to see if his money has come running home, and is in the middle of this, as well as an epileptic fit, when the little girl comes crawling in. When he comes to, he gets excited to see gold on the floor by the fire, but it turns out to be only hair attached to a baby.  I realize that nearsightedness can be pretty bad, but mistaking a girl for a bag of gold is stretching it a bit, don’t you think?

Silas slips immediately into mommy mode and starts to feed and cuddle the baby.  After a while, he shows up at the New Year’s party with the little girl in his arms and demands to see the doctor because he’s found the dead woman nearby. Godfrey is more than a little unsettled by this fact. When someone offers to take the girl off his hands, it becomes clear that Silas has found his gold replacement: “It’s come to me—I’ve a right to keep it.”

Godfrey uses the opportunity to slip out and see whether his wife is actually dead. Fortunately for him (and his plans for Nancy), she is. He returns and studies his child, who doesn’t recognize him at all. Instead, he offers Silas a guinea to buy her some new clothes.

Everyone thinks it’s a little weird that a single man might actually want to raise a daughter, but no one actually feels like they can drag Silas away from the little girl. Instead, he becomes the focal point of all the doting local mothers, who have plenty of advice and hand-me-down clothes. Dolly (not Molly, mind you) in particular wants to help him with everything. He accepts the advice and lessons, but wants to do everything for the little girl himself. When asked what he’s going to do as she gets older and wants to start wandering around when he’s working, he has the genius idea of tying her to the leg of his loom like a puppy.

Dolly tells him to have the little girl christened and then as an afterthought, realizes he should probably give her a name. He decides to name her Hephzibah after his mother and sister, with a nickname of Eppie. I guess it could have been worse…

As Eppie grows up, she starts to act like an actual toddler and not a perfect angel. Dolly recommends punishing her either by smacking her or locking her up in the coal hole for a little while. (Ah yes, the days of deciding whether to abuse our children physically or mentally were difficult indeed.)

Eppie eventually does, of course, escape her puppy leash by cutting the rope with a pair of Silas’s scissors and he finds her in a mud puddle in the next field over. After rejoicing that she isn’t hurt, he follows through in putting her in the coal hole, but to his dismay, she really kind of enjoys it. So he raises her without punishment and she does, alas, become a perfect angel and not an actual child. Wherever they go, people are either amazed at the sight of a single father or are full of advice to offer him. In either event, he is no longer touted as the local witch doctor. Godfrey, meanwhile, tries to become a better person in order to win Nancy’s hand. I have already lost interest in him.

We jump forward in time sixteen years. Godfrey and Nancy are married, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Instead we follow Silas, who now looks ancient at the ripe old age of 55, and Eppie, who is now properly 18 so we can obsess over her lovely blond curls without feeling creepy.  So can Aaron (one of Dolly’s kids), who is following them for some reason. Eppie wants a garden and Aaron offers to dig her one. They get back to the cottage and reunite with their puppies and kitties and remodeling jobs (paid for as a gift from Godfrey). It’s almost too idyllic.

Eppie has, of course, been told the whole gruesome tale of her adoption. Silas even saved her mother’s wedding ring for her, and she asks if she might be married with it. This is a nice segue for her to inform her father that Aaron has proposed and that she figures she’ll marry him because hey, why not, most people get married sometime. She doesn’t want to leave her father all by himself, however.  He feels that she’s too young to be thinking about such things just yet.

Meanwhile, Nancy walks with her sister and laments over how upset Godfrey is at their not having any children, aside from one who died in childbirth. Godfrey had tried to adopt Eppie when she was 12, but Silas wasn’t having any of that.  (At the time, Nancy wasn’t very fond of the idea, either).

When Nancy returns from her walk, Godfrey tells her that upon draining the stone pit recently, they found the skeleton of Dunsey (remember him?), who had drowned sixteen years ago with all of Silas’s gold. Since it’s truth time, he also tells her about his dead wife and still-living child. Instead of getting upset over the deception like a normal person, Nancy just wishes he’d told her sooner so they could have raised her as their own. Godfrey thinks it’d be a great idea to adopt her now, never mind the fact that she’s 18 and he already tried that once before.

Eppie and Silas are chatting about how fortunate it was that the gold had been taken from Silas before he found Eppie as a replacement. Godfrey and Nancy pay their visit, and Godfrey expresses his regrets for having a thief for a brother. He goes on to compliment Silas’s raising of Eppie, but thinks she’s better off being made a lady, and offers to take her in.

Silas does a pretty impressive thing and lets Eppie make her own decision. Eppie thanks them for the offer, but doesn’t want to leave her father and would rather not be a lady anyway, thank you very much. Godfrey is annoyed at this turn of events (why he didn’t expect them, I don’t know) and pulls out his trump card – he is totally her real dad. Silas is angry and feels that Godfrey has no right to Eppie after turning his back on her, whether it’s for her own good or not. Silas again tells Eppie it’s her decision, and again she declines Godfrey’s offer.

Later that week, Silas and Eppie make the journey to Silas’s old hometown, only to find that the place is gone and replaced by a big factory. There is no one from his old life to be found, leaving me to wonder what the point of the trip was.

Eppie and Aaron are soon married, and Aaron moves in with Eppie and Silas. Now, I’m all for filial piety, but couldn’t they just move next door or something?  This codependency seems a little unhealthy, but how it plays out, we’ll never know.

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