Book Of A Lifetime: Silas Marner, By George Eliot

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The Independent Culture

One lifetime, many books. I write about Silas Marner because, reading it again this year, it felt like proof that a life going badly wrong can, by good fortune and an answering faith and determination, be put triumphantly right.

The Lantern Yard that Marner grew up in was more a dark prison than a place of light. His unjust expulsion from it was necessary: he could not otherwise make a life of his own. But then for 15 years, he goes wrong.

Coming to Raveloe, by no means an enlightened place, he advances further and further into solitariness and, by his addiction to work and gold, into lovelessness. Being robbed of his gold - an ironic mirroring of the theft he did not commit but was punished for in the Lantern Yard - he is expelled again, out of the prison of his own making, and for the benefits of this expulsion he does not have to wait long.

First he intrudes himself into the community of The Rainbow, bereft. Then soon after, at New Year, into that of the Red House, but now he has the child in his arms.

Most beautiful then is the moment when he knows. It is a moment like many in DH Lawrence, of coming into consciousness. It speaks up out of him. "No - no - I can't part with it, I can't let it go... It's come to me - I've a right to keep it."

He had not known and now he does. This, the living child, is what he cannot live his life without. He had thought the need of his life was the dead thing, gold.

Now he knows it is love - living love. That determination of his spirit to seize hold of the truly necessary thing utters itself again, 16 years later, man to man, breaking through class deference, when he answers Godfrey back.

He is strengthened in the courage to do that by the touch of love, the young woman, Eppie's hand, on his neck. She likewise answers back, against class ignorance and bullying. She and Silas both know what they need and have a right to. Nothing in this luminous novel is allegorical; but much is figurative.

Again and again, George Eliot reveals the figurative dimension in her characters' lives. All human beings live both really and figuratively, but it may take poems and fictions to reveal that dual truth. So Silas Marner often reminds us of other literary works, notably The Winter's Tale and Paulina's injunction: "It is required/ You do awake your faith."

Silas says: "Since the time the child was sent to me and I've come to love her as myself, I've had light enough to trusten by; and now she says she'll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die." ......... 

The awakening and redemption in Silas Marner are entirely earthly. They happen in this world, in the one lifetime at our disposal. "Our Perdita is found": here and now.

David Constantine's new collection of stories, 'The Shieling', is published by Comma Press