Tuesday, June 4, 2013
SILAS MARNER in the Mall, Part 2
Two of me are reading Silas Marner these days: my present self--and my imagined adolescent self, fifty years ago. Yes, as I'm reading today, in June 2013, I'm also trying to picture/remember how I would have reacted to it in 1961-1962, my senior year of high school, when I'd always thought I was going to read it before the teacher--Mrs. Davis, bless her!--told us we would not be reading that novel, perhaps the first Hiram class not to do so since the Civil War . (I exaggerate, but Eliot did publish the novel in 1861.)
I've read just one chapter, and the Today Me really sort of liked it. I've read a lot of Victorian novels in the half-century since high school--including all of Dickens, Trollope, and Thackeray. So the language is not narcotizing me now, not the way it would have at good old Hiram High. I'm used to the long sentences, the complicated syntax, the unfamiliar vocabulary. Just take a gander at this typical sentence from Chapter 1:
The questionable sound of Silas's loom, so unlike the natural cheerful trotting of the winnowing-machine, or the simpler rhythm of the flail, had a half-fearful fascination for the Raveloe boys, who would often leave off their nutting or birds'-nesting to peep in at the window of the stone cottage, counterbalancing a certain awe at the mysterious action of the loom, by a pleasant sense of scornful superiority, drawn from the mockery of its alternating noises, along with the bent, tread-mill attitude of the weaver.
It's eighty-four words long. In 1961, I would not have known what a winnowing-machine was--or a flail, and that description of Silas himself--the bent, tread-mill attitude of the weaver would have puzzled me--if, of course, I'd bothered to stop and try to figure it out. My naughty mind might have made something ... inappropriate ... out of boys who would often leave off their nutting. And birds'-nesting? (Just checked: The OED traces the expression back to 1772 and defines it this way: The action or occupation of searching for bird's-nests. Duh. Not all that useful. I can't tell if it means searching for curiosity's sake--or for food--or for the cruel playfulness characteristic of boys with the hunter rather than the gatherer gene.) Anyway, my general principle in those days was this: If I can't understand it right away, skip it. It must not be important.
In the first chapter we learn that Silas is a loner, that he's been in Raveloe for about fifteen years, that he's not very sociable--but he does have some social importance because of his linen-weaving. People need him. So they put up with him.
In a flashback, we learn that in his previous town, Silas had become friends with a young man named William Dane. Silas also was courting a young woman, Sarah, and William often liked to spend time with the young couple. Perhaps too much time ...
Then there was a theft at the church; they found Silas' pocket knife in a compromising location. Silas remembered he'd last used the knife to help William. But no one believed him. (William even suggested that Satan was somehow implicated!) Silas was disgraced. Soon, William himself married Sarah, and Silas quietly left town.
End of Chapter One.
Eliot consumes lots of words, telling this bit of an introduction--about 4500. And the simple events (a friendship, a love, a betrayal, disgrace, departure) probably would have escaped me in 1961 as I skimmed across the surface of her text, trying to finish the assignment (which, in those years, was my entire goal).
Our teachers--though I can't complain about my English teachers my first three years; we had two very good ones--were not all that interested in pointing out relationships between the stories and poems we were reading and the lives we were leading. It's too bad, for Silas Marner, even in Chapter One, dealt with issues I could relate to.
Betrayals of friends are common in adolescence--especially when the opposite sex is involved. I had made moves on girls who were dating my friends; some friends had returned the favor. When I was in college, it was common enough that we had an expression for it: When someone moved in on your girlfriend, we said he was cutting your grass. I'm not sure where that came from--or even
if it was a locution we invented--but all the guys in the dorm used the expression. If the grass-cutting were too egregious (either in high school or college), violence could ensue. In high school, I think we just said she broke up with me; now, of course, you get dumped--but there are probably other sayings I'm unaware of, especially since I'm not around high-schoolers any longer.
The other issue of interest to me then--false accusations. Having two brothers (one older, one younger), I was an authority on that topic, having been the liar and the victim on innumerable occasions. Blaming someone else--kids are good at that, practiced. It would have been another topic that could have connected us to Chapter One in Silas Marner.
So, Silas got betrayed, got his grass cut, but instead of exacting some revenge, he quietly moved on. Again, it would have been interesting to talk about all that in high-school English, but, as I said, we never had such conversations. Books were books; life was life; and ne'er the twain did meet. So any lying and grass-cutting on the page went unremarked.
TO BE CONTINUED ...