Meet your new favorite book.
The story of a crabby old miser who raises an orphan with honest-to-goodness dimples and "auburn hair" with "little ringlets" (2.16.4), George Eliot's Silas Marner (1861) starts off by laying on the tragedy. Young Silas is betrayed, exiled, isolated, and then robbed. A baby is born to an opium-addled mom and a deadbeat dad and then abandoned at the side of the road. But by the last page, everyone's living happily together in a quaint little cottage with a quaint little garden in a quaint little village full of quaint local characters. It even ends with a wedding. Broadway, are you listening?
Not so fast. "George Eliot" is actually the pen name of radical chick Mary Ann Evans, who rejected Christianity, ran off with a married man, edited one of the most important literary journals of the day, and capped it all off by marrying a man twenty years her junior. Along the way, she wrote some of the most important works of English literature.
This woman—who translated philosopher Spinoza's Ethics and wrote an essay condemning "silly lady novelists"—wouldn't have had much patience for that kind of treacle-y book we just described. Sure, you can read Silas Marner for the warm fuzzies. But Eliot raises a lot of Big Issues about religion, history, industrialization, community, and even the nature of literature. (No wonder it became an opera instead of a musical.)
At the beginning of the 1860s, England was smack in the middle of a series of cultural and technological changes that had taken the tiny island kingdom from rustic backwater to an imperial force (minor loss of the United States aside). The British Empire stretched across the globe, shipping home goods from India to Japan. At home, great manufacturing towns poured soot into the air. Telegraphs crisscrossed the countryside. Railroads connected London to small country villages, creating the first suburbs.
Over the previous half-century, these changes had wreaked havoc on the traditional British countryside. Agriculture lost ground (ha!) to industry, and people cleared out of the villages to find work in the cities. Traditional crafts, like weaving, died out as factories produced more cloth in less time. Families separated.
But as local communities died out, a larger community—the nation—gained strength. Silas Marner explores this question (among others) of Britishness, but it does so by going back in time before the villages had lost their local identities.
Why? Partly so Eliot could play with her theories about realism, working out ways to represent, in the words of one novel critic, "particular people in particular circumstances" (and at particular times). But more, maybe, so she could explore exactly this big issue: what did communities look like before Britain went global?
Eliot is known for writing long books about major moral questions: who deserves political representation (Felix Holt)? what's the right balance between self-denial and self-actualization (Middlemarch)? Who am I, and what am I doing here (Daniel Deronda)? Silas Marner is comparatively gentle. It's not terribly long, the characters aren't terribly complex, and, except for the country dialect, it's not very hard to read.
But the questions that Silas Marner asks are just as important and, frankly, just as difficult as those that Eliot asks elsewhere. What's the relationship between the individual and the community? What keeps communities together? Am I really missing out on something if I hole up in my cottage posting on the Battlestar Galactica forums rather than going to church with my neighbors?
Jokes about Battlestar Galactica aside, technology is a key issue in Silas Marner, because it destroys the community of Raveloe. The novel begins with the decidedly low-fi technology of spinning wheels, as the narrator tells us that the novel takes place "In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses—and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak" (1.1.1). But that fairytale world is not going to last: "the fall of prices had not yet come to carry the race of small squires and yeomen down that road to ruin for which extravagant habits and bad husbandry were plentifully anointing their wheels" (1.3.2). Change is, as they say, a-comin'.
And when it comes it's going to look a lot like factories, telegraphs, and trains, and it's going to steam-roll over the English countryside. Silas's profession is particularly hard hit. Mechanical looms that develop over the first few decades of the 19th century are going to destroy the weaving profession, and Silas's initial success, the hoard of gold that he builds up as a weaver, will not be possible a few decades later.
Writing in 1861, Eliot gets in her wayback machine to set Silas Marner at the cusp of all these changes. Like a kid moving to a small town with a cell phone in the 1990s, Silas is a harbinger of change, and people aren't sure whether to be afraid or envious. What happens to local identity when we have a global culture? And—pertinently—what happens to local economies when outsourcing moves production to big factories in distant cities?