Updated on 01.06.10

Silas Marner and You

Trent Hamm

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a Simple Dollar reader named Kip, who brought up the classic novel Silas Marner by George Eliot (if you’d like to read it, here’s the entire text, or if you’d just like a summary, here are the Sparknotes). I was so inspired by the conversation that I dug my copy of Silas Marner out and re-read most of the novel in a single sitting.

Silas Marner is a tale of the ups and downs of the life of the titular character, Silas, over the course of his adult life.

The middle part of the book is the part that consistently sticks in my head. After being falsely accused of theft and basically run out of his town, Silas becomes a miser, hoarding every dime that he earns. He keeps the money under his bed and counts it every night and, because he has become a social outcast by a mix of fortune and choice, the money is the center of his life.

One night, the money is stolen – all fifteen years’ worth of it. Silas is completely shaken by this, as you can well imagine. He doesn’t deal with it well and eventually becomes completely hysterical, having a breakdown in his home. As he is passed out from this episode, a woman and her small child are walking in the snow near his home. The woman takes a draught of opium, passes out, and dies in the snow. The child, looking for warmth, finds her way into Silas’s cottage and falls asleep near the fire, almost exactly in the spot where Silas last left his money before it was stolen.

Silas awakens to find that his gold has been replaced by a golden haired child. Eventually, he adopts her and takes on the role of her father, which gives him an entirely new lease on life.

On the surface, Silas, in his miser years, is following good financial practice. He’s completely financially independent, he saves his money, he is an independent businessman (he’s a weaver), and he spends much less than he earns. This is often the very goal that many of us strive for.

Yet his life is so single-focused that one unfortunate event sent his entire life off of the rails, resulting in him having a breakdown in his home. In his pursuit of money, he failed to pursue a well-rounded life. It took the replacement of his money with the child for him to rediscover the beauty of life.

Never let the single-minded pursuit of wealth stand in the way of your life. The pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake is an empty pursuit, one that will leave you without the things you most need when the time comes.

Instead, seek wealth with a purpose. Why are you making the choice to succeed financially? Are you seeking to provide a stable home for your family? Perhaps you have a passion that you’d like to chase that doesn’t earn a large income. Perhaps you’ve got a philanthropic bent.

Whatever that purpose is in your life, that purpose should be in the lead, not the money. Money is merely a tool to help you do the things you want to do.

What do you want to do today?

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  1. BJD says:

    One of my all time favorite Steve Martin movies is based on this book. The movie is and I highly recommend it. Thanks for the link to the book.

  2. Kris says:

    What an excellent post. I am going to spend some time today thinking of the ‘why’ and hope to come to some sort of answer. I don’t think I’ve ever questioned same, except to think I’m saving for retirement (as I have been made to think I ‘should’).

  3. T'Pol says:

    Great post. It also brought back a funny memory. Silas Marner was a book we studied at 7th grade. Each week we had oral exams on a chapter of it and the teacher gave us pluses or minuses which would add up to a real grade. A lot of my friends started calling the book Silas Minus because they would usually get minuses due to being ill-prepared for the weekly exams:)

  4. Russ says:

    Of course, another way of looking at it would be that Silas should have diversified his investments and used better security. IIRC he wasn’t unhappy when he had the money, he was unhappy (and later redeemed) when he *lost* the money. Given that the child’s mother would have died whether or not Silas’ money was stolen, it’s quite possible that had Silas protected his wealth a little better he would have ended up with the money *and* the redeeming relationship.

  5. George says:

    Ha-ha… Russ beat me to the same comment!

  6. the Dad says:

    Ah yes, the pursuit of happiness and what matters… thanks for the reminder.

  7. Little House says:

    Thanks for reminding me of this story, I’ve always liked it. Yes, a well-rounded life is much more enjoyable than one that is solely focused on monetary needs.

  8. Cambo says:

    All things in moderation, including moderation.

  9. Kathleen says:

    I’m trying to get “Steve Martin” and “Silas Marner” to exist in the same place in my head, and failing and so will have to go watch that movie!

  10. Lenore says:

    As an English major, it shames me to admit I remember almost nothing about poor Silas. Maybe I had catalepsy during that class, but I think the real problem was a crush on the guy sitting next to me. Thanks for the trip down (lack of) memory lane.

    Tonight my boyfriend and I spent 10% of our monthly incomes to fulfill a dream: seeing LADY GAGA live. It was a major splurge, and it’s bitter cold here in St. Louis with lots of slippery snow on the roads. Was it worth it? YES!!! We made this night our only Christmas gift to each other, and we’ll remember it the rest of our lives.

    What would Silas make of that? I’m sure a true miser would berate us for wasting money, but my father gave me some wise advice. He said to always allow some spending for entertainment and always try to have something to look forward to. Anticipation of this concert has brightened many a dreary autumn and winter day, and that’s important when both people in your household struggle with clinical depression.

    We’ll need to find something new to look forward to for the rest of winter. I think Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” will be out this spring, so that might do the trick when better weather seems an eternity away.

  11. michael bash says:

    I read SM in school in the 10th grade I think. That you can put the entire novel at a click of mine is amazing. What is the capacity of the internet? Is it ever going to fill up? I think not.

  12. deRuiter says:

    I like the comment on diversification of assests. It reminds me of Trent’s story about saving truckloads of cans and then telling his nefarious relatives about all the cans and having them steal the cans. Both Trent and Silas knew how to save, but they didn’t put their money in several baskets!

  13. Amy B. says:

    This reminded me of something a friend of a friend once said, which was to live for your dream, but if you didn’t have a dream right now work for money, because when you find your dream, you’ll probably need money to make it happen. ;-)

  14. It is not much different from putting one’s entire income or life purpose (having children, collecting stamps, …) into one basket and then suddenly losing it. This is a story about resilience, maybe. Imagine being a successful dentist and due to some freak accident losing one’s eyesight. Exactly the same thing.

  15. Jude says:

    Weird. I realize now that I remembered nothing about that novel except the dread I felt at being required to read it.

  16. SLCCOM says:

    I never read it, but did see a comment by someone that it is a book that “would remain dry even if it was submerged in a tub of water.”

    I’ll have to get it from the library. Thanks, Trent!

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