Silas Marner

Silas Marner by George Eliot

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Silas Marner (1861) is a story of a young man who is betrayed by his best friend, banned from his religious community, and rejected by his fiance after being wrongfully accused of stealing money from his church during a fit of unconsciousness from which he occasionally suffers. Forced to move from his urban home at Lantern Yard to the countryside far from all that is familiar, he lives the life of a hermit weaver for many years, working feverishly at his loom to make back the money that he was accused of stealing so he can repay it and make something of his life again. Silas hordes his money and becomes obsessed with his wealth until one evening, he is robbed of all his golden guineas. Around this time, an orphaned child with golden blonde hair shows up in his home. He adopts and raises the young girl, whom he names Eppie, to be a beautiful young woman. In his rediscovered sense of purpose and sacrifice for her happiness, he at last finds his own.

Some thoughts . . . Like Silas Marner, we are all weavers on life’s loom. And like Silas, we have been inflicted with fits that render us unconscious of our surroundings for extended periods of time. During these fits (call them what you may, I’ll call them ‘wake up, eat, go to work, read your emails, go to some meetings, get some work done, come home, eat, go to sleep, wake up, repeat’), life continues to happen all around us. And as our loom’s shuttle continues to be thrown, our life’s fabric reveals itself before our eyes. But who’s throwing the shuttle? Is that really our work, or is an unseen hand in control? And what do we make of those unwanted, unintentional blemishes that seem to ruin our fabric? Are we to blame for these flaws while we were “sleeping at the wheel?” Or was it God who was asleep at the wheel?

George Eliot attempts to answer some of these questions through one of Marner’s only friends, the peasant Dolly, who suggests to him that even when we can’t understand why bad things happen to us, God seems to be able to work with and weave the blemishes into the fabric of our lives, making the total composition beautiful and meaningful. She speaks deep wisdom.

“It’s the will o’ Them above as a many things should be dark to us; but there’s some things as I’ve never felt i’ the dark about, and they’re mostly what comes i’ the day’s work. You were hard done by that once, Master Marner, and it seems as you’ll never know the rights of it; but that doesn’t hinder there being a rights, Master Marner, for all it’s dark to you and me.”

By the end of Eliot’s story, she seems to suggest that wrongdoing, whether perpetrated by us or against us, is part of life’s learning process, and if we’re patient and go about our life’s work, there will come a time when light will be shone on the episodes of our lives that were once dark and mysterious and meaning will be found.

The story reminded me of something Steve Jobs once said in a commencement address: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” (It’s a nice quote, but having recently read his biography, something tells me he wouldn’t have really liked Silas Marner. He was talking more about how fortuitous it was that he had dropped in on typography classes at Reed College, which led to his idea for multiple typefaces on the first Macintosh. He was a black-or-white / all-good-or-all-bad kind of personality and I think he would have said, “This book is total crap!”)

A few more thoughts . . . Injustice and blame — the sense that we are right, others are wrong, and that our suffering is somehow a result of their unpunished wrongness — are plagues on the human mind. And the more I live, the more I feel that this sense of injustice is universal. Who feels he has not been wronged? Who has not uttered the words, “Life isn’t fair?” Why do we do this? I think we do it because it’s easy and it feels good. It feels good to point fingers, to lay blame for our unhappiness at the doorstep of others. We do this as a survival instinct or coping mechanism — to to cope with the pain from the hurt others have caused. But have they really caused the pain? The counterintuitive thing is that we blame in spite of the fact that in all instances of injustice, we would be better off to let it go. So why do we hang onto it so fiercely? Some of us are better at doing it than others, like some dogs are more willing to give up a chew toy than others. Some of us are like pitbulls who, once their jaws are locked down on it, will not give it up without our jaws being ripped out with it.

The more I live, the more I feel that one of the central lessons of this life is learning to deal with those who have wronged us. Blaming others for life’s unfairness is like a temporary balm, but it is not lasting. Stories throughout time seem to try to reconcile life’s injustices — what we wish it could or should be with what it actually is.

George Eliot does a nice job of painting a story with dots that form a coherent line in her story of Silas Marner. While Silas lost his faith and did not understand why he was falsely accused and cast out from his religious community, he later regained his faith, although of a different, less dogmatic kind, due to the orphan girl, Eppie, coming into his life, giving his life purpose and meaning. He could look back and see that things had happened for a reason. When he returned to Lantern Yard to find that everything that he once knew was gone, it sealed for him his happiness in knowing that things had worked out for the better. The pattern in his life’s cloth that seemed to have run amok was woven again into an ornate pattern, not wholly of his authorship, one not to be expected, but one that was beautiful.

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