Sunday, January 16, 2011

Marner v. Bede

Have you ever gone into your local independent bookseller looking for a copy of George Eliot's Adam Bede but had to compromise by buying the only Eliot they had in stock: a flimsy, already-yellowing, $4.95 copy of Silas Marner? I know, right?

Silas Marner is kind of a wrench in my works for Eliot, I think. For one thing, it's short. For another, there are fewer than twenty characters to keep track of. You want Eliot to be long, you want it to dominate your waking thoughts, you want to have to make or scour the internet for maps that will help you remember who is who. Marner's book doesn't do any of this.

To make matters worse, every time you are seen reading it, someone is bound to quote the stern and motherly teacher in A Christmas Story ("When we last left Silas Marner . . ."). It's a great movie, and that scene will make me laugh more knowingly next time I see it, but still, Catherine could have noticed that I had stopped smiling after the fourth or fifth time (I exaggerate).

What bothers me the most about Marner's story is how moralizing it is. It has a happy ending uncomplicated by regret or loss. Not only is money unable to by happiness, but it turns out that crime cannot pay. sigh. Was Eliot cashing in here? Trying to write a slim, triumph of the spirit pamphlet to make a quick shilling? I have to wonder.

There are moments, though, that give me what I came for, usually isolated vignettes showing off Eliot's ear for language and eye for how our language comes between us as much as it helps. I love this scene, for example. It is set in the local drinking establishment, and describes the initiation of a reticent and grudging debate among the customers by the ale-house owner, who is anxious to break the silence and get something started.
At last Mr. Snell, the landlord, a man of a neutral disposition, accustomed to stand aloof from human differences as those of beings who were all alike in need of liquor, broke silence, by saying in a doubtful tone to his cousin the butcher--

"Some folks 'ud say that was a fine beast you druv in yesterday, Bob?"

The butcher, a jolly, smiling, red-haired man, was not disposedto answer rashly. He gave a few puffs before he spat and replied,"And they wouldn't be fur wrong, John."

After this feeble delusive thaw, the silence set in as severely as before.

This kind of exchange and dry narrator's commentary is the kind of thing that makes me laugh out loud and look around the room for people to read it to. The debate that follows is hilarious in its understatement. At least it is to me.

And so here I go into Adam Bede now. I don't know if it's a rut or a lack of imagination on my part, but I can't imaging reading anyone else right now. It's a long one, and sad, and will take me a long, long time to read, but that's exactly what I'm looking for.

1 comment:

Dawn Potter said...

I adore "Adam Bede." I think it's my favorite Eliot novel. However, "Silas Marner" is everything you say about it, which is why non-Eliot lovers like it. I think of it as Eliot's version of Dickens's "Hard Times," not thematically but in its disappointing lack of expansiveness.