STORRS, CT—A major contribution to the study of 19th-century literature was made Monday with the handing-in of "Silas Marner: Paper #1" by Lori Durst, a freshman at the University of Connecticut.
According to leading experts on Silas Marner, George Eliot's 1861 fable of cruelty and redemption in the rural English countryside, Durst's three-page work contains a revolutionary insight into a key piece of symbolism in the novel which had previously escaped scholars.
"It's a staggering observation, one that's certain to alter the way we approach this text forever," said Harold Bloom, Yale professor and author of The Western Canon. "On page two, Durst makes a connection between the golden hair of the child left on Marner's doorstep and the misplaced heap of gold coins with which he is obsessed. While it may take decades for the full significance of this 'chromatic objective correlative' to ripple through academia, in my mind it has already opened the door to a rich, fertile, and heretofore virgin soil of Eliotian structural analysis."
"Yeah, the girl's hair is gold, and then [Silas Marner] is also looking for his missing gold," Durst said. "So in my paper I said how that was symbolic of something."
"Stunning," is how Jay Kushner, 23, a teacher's assistant in "English 140: 19th Century British Fiction," described his pupil's double-spaced manifesto. "As a section leader, I am lucky enough to read dozens of breathtakingly insightful two- to three-page papers from undergraduates each week. But even in the rarefied world of first-year papers, Lori's towers above the rest."
Durst, a native of Holmdel, NJ, who plans to major in psychology, said the idea for the essay came to her approximately three weeks ago, when her professor instructed the students to "start thinking about which book we'd want to write our first papers on." Durst said she chose to focus on Silas Marner "because it looked pretty short."
"My friend Lisa did hers on Middlemarch," Durst said, "and I was like, 'Are you crazy?' That thing is like 10 times longer."
Professor Thomas Perkins, who teaches English 140, was unavailable to comment on the paper. But another University of Connecticut English professor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Perkins and his colleagues were "stunned and somewhat embarrassed" by Durst's 12-point, Chicago-fonted magnum opus.
"You have to understand, many of us have read Silas Marner 10, 20 times," the professor said. "Maybe we had a vague sense that this adorable, golden-tressed waif who comes along to redeem Silas' soul could have something to do with the gold coins that, prior to her arrival, had been the focus of Silas' life. But we, and apparently every reader before Ms. Durst, simply dropped the ball."
Word of Durst's groundbreaking observation has spread quickly through academic circles, sending Victorian scholars scrambling to their annotated Norton editions of the novel and prompting at least a dozen major academic conferences to extend invitations to her.
Widespread publication and dissemination of "Silas Marner Paper #1," however, will have to wait: Only one copy of the paper currently exists, and, despite the enormous demand, Durst has been unable to print more due to what she terms "some kind of total screw-up with my StyleWriter."
Though Durst's frequent absences from lecture and much-publicized May 1996 dismissal of Charles Dickens' Bleak House as "unbelievably boring" had previously earned her a reputation as a rebel in the field of literary criticism, her status as a rising star of academia now seems assured.
While Durst declined to reveal the exact direction she would take her scholarship in the near future, she did express a strong, long-term commitment to the study of English literature. "I still have to take three more English classes to fulfill my minimum distribution," Durst said, "so I guess I'll be stuck reading books for a while."
Indeed, Durst's far-reaching intellect may soon become a lodestar for an entirely different academic field. French linguists around the world breathlessly await the completion of her next project, "French 110: Essaie Mandatoire," due next Thursday.