George Eliot, Silas Marner, The Weaver of Raveloe, Capuchin Classics, 2009.
Paperback 250 pages
In Public Library System
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Reviewed by Ted Witham
George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans 1819-1880) wrote Silas Marner as her version of Pilgrim’s Progress. Like Bunyan’s masterpiece, Silas Marner also has the feel of a universal fable, the redemption of a man from desolation to love and riches.
Unlike Progress, however, the characters in Silas Marner are well-drawn and invite sympathy. Knowing how shabbily Silas has been treated and knowing the inner journey of Silas and the nasty young Squire, makes the reader care about the characters.
Eppie, the toddler who appears in Silas’ life after his precious gold has been taken, is less believable as an individual. She is beautiful in body and soul, humble in aspiration and devoted to Silas. But she is lovely because she is so deeply loved by Silas, her ‘Papa’.
The inner journey Silas makes is not like the ‘ascent’ of Pilgrim to the river and the City of Heaven. Nor is it in the tradition of the ‘ascent’ to God mapped by medieval mystics like Bonaventure and Richard of Saint Victor.
Silas’ journey to redemption stays in the gritty reality of Victorian poverty. Grace – in the form of the toddler he names Hephzibah (Eppie) – comes to Silas once and all at once. The name Hephzibah means ‘My delight is in her’, and it is used in the Hebrew Scriptures as the symbolic name for the restored Jerusalem (Isaiah 62:4). The redemption takes the miser, Silas, with his short-sight and propensity to fitting, and teaches him how to love deeply.
Eliot contrasts the emotional and spiritual poverty of his former state with the richness of loving and being loved: the gold is even returned to Silas and secrets, liberating once shared, are brought to light.
Names are important to Eliot: Silas is named for the companion of the Apostle Paul. The New Testament’s Silas and Paul are put in prison and God releases them. God also releases Silas Marner from the darkness of the cultish Lantern Yard and from his self-imposed prison and. Both the New Testament and the village of Raveloe rejoice greatly at Silas’ release.
Is the name ‘Marner’ a reference to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner published 90 years earlier?
Silas Marner is my introduction to George Eliot. I found the novel charming and satisfying. There is a central goodness in the novel which will be evident to readers whether or not they are Christian believers. But it is ultimately a Christian novel, an exploration of the journey we all in our own ways make in Christ.