Is Silas Marner One of the Good Books?

Although the George Eliot novel is missing from some iterations of John Senior’s list of 1,000 Good Books, Silas Marner appears in the list as it appears in Senior’s diagnostic book, The Death of Christian Culture. This is strange considering the secular and atheistic philosophies that informed the work. That this Victorian novel contains some material every Christian should find objectionable, however, is not necessarily sufficient for its exclusion from classical curricula. After all, Homer graphically describes an encounter between Ares and Aphrodite, and Shakespeare routinely employs double entendre to elicit laughter from his audience. But we all grant that no Western education could be adequate without these fathers of poetry who have so much to teach us about truth, goodness, and beauty. Is it so strange, then, that the non-Christian Eliot might have something to teach us?

There is certainly great truth to be found in Silas Marner, as Eliot was a keen observer of psychology. Especially in Silas Marner, the misanthropic weaver, and in his foil, the wealthy socialite Godfrey Cass, Eliot’s insight spurs her reader to recognize his own habits and motivations, and to improve himself consciously. This Delphic effect of the novel is a great good, and not one to be thoughtlessly discarded because of other faults the work may have. Another reason for its inclusion, and perhaps the more important reason for Senior, is the simple beauty of the story. Eliot’s realism teaches us to see nobility in what otherwise may be considered mundane, everyday occurrences and relationships. She reminds us to slow down, and to live deliberately.

A life of work for work’s sake is the product of a disordered soul, a soul that is missing something it ought to have. In the midpoint of the story, Eliot’s protagonist and titular character has lost his religion and all social relations. Silas’ loom never stops singing, and this ceaseless activity “tends … to become an end in itself and so to bridge over the loveless chasms of his life.” After a full day of work in solitude, Silas would also dine in solitude, gazing upon and caressing the coins earned by his labor, gold that for him served no purpose except as his sole companion and object of his love. One always becomes like that which one loves and, through years of purposeless labor, Silas’ heart becomes cold, hard, and empty of meaning. Happily for Silas, his life proves to have a purpose other than to serve as a cautionary tale for consumerists caught in the culture of total work.

The weaver’s life changes irrevocably in two nights of felicitous chance. In the first, he is robbed of all of his savings by an unseen intruder (whom the reader knows to be Dunstan Cass, son of the local squire). Thus, in a stroke, Silas loses everything he held dear. Upon hearing of this tragedy, his fellow villagers, who had heretofore treated him with suspicion and contempt, begin to develop curiosity about and sympathy for the misanthrope. They begin to visit him and to keep him company.

A few weeks later, Silas’ life again changes for the better. Another of the squire’s sons, Godfrey Cass, had secretly married a wretched, destitute, and opium-addicted alcoholic. She had borne him a daughter, but he refused to visit her, and pursued a love interest that was his social equal. Uninvited to the Cass family’s New Year’s Eve party, Godfrey’s wife made her way through a snowstorm with the intention to reveal herself as a member of the family. She would thus claim for herself and for her daughter those material and familial comforts which should have been hers. In an opium-induced trance, the woman collapsed and died in the snow. Godfrey’s daughter, then a toddler, wandered from her mother’s remains into Silas Marner’s cottage. When no one in the village could identify the woman, and no one claimed responsibility for the girl, Silas himself assumed the duties of a father. As his love for his “Eppie” developed into the love a father would have for his daughter, Silas became every day more human. He recognized for the first time the importance of relationships for man’s happiness, and, for Eppie’s sake, became a member of village society.

As for the weaver’s foil, Godfrey, who declined to claim relation to both wife and child, he would marry his love. The couple remained childless, and Godfrey yearned for that relationship he had knowingly discarded. The emptiness casts a pall over the house, so that both man and wife find life a disappointment. The juxtaposition of these respective fates of Godfrey and Silas reminds us of something we ought never forget: it is not good for man to be alone.

On its face, this story upholds many tenets of Christian morality. Eliot shows us the dangers of what Josef Pieper would later call the culture of total work and insists that happiness is contingent upon self-sacrificing love. Though there is little in the novel to which a Christian can object, the reason there is no place for it in the pantheon of Western literature is the story’s rather obvious function as a vehicle for the ideas of two of Eliot’s philosophical heroes, namely, Ludwig Feuerbach and Auguste Comte. Since the purpose of the work is to promote an untrue and anti-Christian doctrine, the beauty therein is soiled.

One specific example of this is Silas’ adolescent disenchantment with his religious community’s superstitious ritualism, when he discovers that God does not speak through such things after all. This pessimistic view of religion is balanced by Silas’ eventual discovery that religion is essential to man’s happiness, which epiphany occurs only because he begins to discard his old habits and take up new ones for the sake of another, namely, his adopted daughter. Silas begins to attend church and to socialize because he desires Eppie’s well-being. Through this apparently Christian love, Silas finds happiness for himself, too. Even for Eliot, religion is not empty, meaningless, or evil. On the contrary, it is a great good that helps man attain his final end; that is, to be happy.

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the virtue of religion is for the purpose of man’s happiness. After all, what does God gain by our act of worship, by the rendering of our hearts? He has established the Church wholly for our sake, and not for His own. The difference between Eliot’s idea of happiness and St. Thomas’ is betrayed in one passage of Silas Marner that has nothing to do with the bulk of its plot. In fact, the passage’s inclusion in the novel reveals that Eliot’s purpose for the work is more than simply to tell a beautiful story. After all, it was of George Eliot that Oscar Wilde once said, “she is the embodiment of philosophy in fiction.”

In the aforementioned scene, local men banter in the village pub. One of the older men recounts a strange wedding at which he had served as a witness, and for which the pastor had been slightly inebriated. In the profession of the intended’s intentions, the pastor had asked the groom whether he took “this man” as his wedded wife, and the bride whether she took “this woman” as her wedded husband. Our storyteller, later racked in conscience, had asked the pastor whether this inadvertent mix-up had invalidated the vows, or if the vow’s validity relied instead upon each spouse’s intentional consent. “‘Pooh, pooh, Macey, make yourself easy,’ he says; ‘it’s neither the meaning nor the words—it’s the regester [sic] does it—that’s the glue.’” In other words, neither the form nor the matter of the sacrament is necessary for its validity; it is the human convention that makes the deed efficacious. Religious actions, then, are human conventions promoting happiness, and are not encounters with a metaphysically real Being Who gives us grace.

If religious actions are essential to our happiness, but they are not encounters with a metaphysically real God, what kind of happiness do these religious actions tend towards? That happiness is not eternal beatitude with the Unmoved Mover, nor is it the contemplation of the Divine as a personal reality. Instead, Eliot’s happiness is universal peace, brotherhood, and communion; it is the attainment of the greatest good to which man can attain, and it is purely natural. In other words, the object of religion is man himself in his own perfection rather than God. And this is the crux of the matter. One of the primary lessons of Silas Marner is a perversion of the virtue of religion and the promotion of Feuerbach’s humanitarianism.

It would be simplistic to say that this was Eliot’s only intention in writing the book. After all, there is much simple beauty in the story, and there are important truths to be learned from that beauty. The problem is that that beauty and those truths serve as preambles and premises for a great error that Eliot is telling us. Am I arguing that this book is unreadable under pain of sin? No. I do not think, however, it deserves to be counted among the 1,000 good books we offer to our children. If and when our children do find such fare as this, it should only be after they have been well catechized. We should talk to them about the ideas they’ve digested and encourage them to discern the good from the other-than-good. In other words, we should teach our children to heed the Angelic Doctor’s advice that one should “…not consider who the person is you are listening to, but whatever good he says commit to memory.”


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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