Silas Marner

It’s been nearly a year since I’ve posted and I cannot for the life of me explain why.  Best not to try, as it will only take precious time/energy.   So instead, moved by a fairly old novel, I will just endeavor to dive in.

I just finished Silas Marner, by George Elliot.   The book was published in 1861, which makes it over 150 years old.   And yet I found the discussion of various topics–some of those near and dear to me here–to be both current and perceptive.  Who knew?

I read the book because my library sponsors a summer reading challenge and one is asked to read a book over 100 years old.   I love Middlemarch but have little familiarity with the rest of George Elliot’s work, so I chose this, in part because it is slender and hence seemed doable summer reading.

Here’s where I’d best put a spoiler alert, though for classic literature that seems a little odd.   But since I’m cutting through the plot to get to some key points, that seems only fair.

Silas Marner is a weaver.   Relatively early on his is betrayed by one he thinks to be a friend.   He leaves his home and moves to a new place where he becomes a solitary and bitter man.   Also something of a miser.   Then he is robbed.  This does little to improve his outlook on life or his engagement with humanity.  It’s also rather beside the point for my purposes here.   Suffice it to say, when things are fairly dark and bleak for him, a two-year old child (who will be called “Eppie”) arrives on his doorstep.  The child’s mother has frozen to death near his door.   The genetic father (we know as readers) is the son of the wealthy landowner nearby.   This young man (Godfrey) knows he is the father of this child but, given the circumstances, has no particular interest in stepping forward.

Silas Marner determines that he will raise the child.  This is a somewhat mysterious choice–an older, single and isolated many electing to become a single parent.   But the child has touched him in significant ways.  And so, with the cooperation of those in his community, he does.

Most of the time he is raising the child passes in between segments of the book.  We see little of the upbringing.   But the climax of the book is the moment when Godfrey comes to claim the child (now 18 or so) as his own.  And there you have it–the confrontation of the social/psychological parent with the genetic parent.

As I said at the outset, what is really startling to me is how modern the arguments are.   Though the writing style itself is dated, the substance of the argument is just as you would have seen here a year or so ago.   I plan to talk about that a bit more tomorrow (see the casual pledge that I’ll be back?) but for now I want to note this.  It’s easy to think that the issues of our time are just that–of our time.  And that many of these issues are presented because of new technologies/markets.  But this just doesn’t seem to be true.   The issues are, I guess, the issues.   One hundred fifty years ago people could argue perfectly well about the importance of biology/genetics vs. the importance of social performance.

Perhaps I should have known better than to think we were special or exceptional.   We are not.   We are part of a long and on-going conversation.   The new technologies/markets  may mean the old familiar issues come up in different contexts, but the issues themselves remain the same.


7 responses to “Silas Marner

  1. Good to see you back!

  2. My parents donor is my father

    There is a big different in intention between this and today’s modern (intentionally disconnected) families.

    • I agree that there are big differences between the planned families of today and the families in Silas Marner, but the role of intention is a bit complicated. Godfrey made an intentional choice not to disclose his relationship to the child. Silas made a deliberate choice to raise a child he knew was not genetically related to him (and therefore knew was genetically related to someone else.) So in some sense, it seems to me the “disconnected” family in Silas Marner is intentionally created.

      I think what you mean (and I do not mean to assign this to you, so let me know if I’m wrong) is that today the disconnection is planned from the beginning–I might choose to use a sperm donor who will have no relationship with the child? And you might say that in Silas Marner the disconnection wasn’t planned in the same way? If that is what you mean, I’m not sure how far I agree. I cannot now recall this plot point, but my guess is that Godfrey–party to a marriage that was really below his station–didn’t really intend to have children in that context. (Even if that isn’t the plot, it easily could be.) So at the very least, there was no intention to create a nicely connected family.

      All of which leads me to think about why this point about intention matters. And that I’ll take up momentarily in a post. (Okay, so I meant “momentarily” when I said it, but I cannot do it, so now I’ll say “soon.” Sorry for the delay.)

      • Intention really only adds insult to injury here. If your mother never intended to have a child with a dead beat but she’s making the best of it attempting to raise her child or throws her hands up and gives over the reigns of child rearing to another person better prepared, you can have empathy for her and possibly forgiveness for a repentant father on down the line if he was too young, or too poor or too addicted or misguided to raise his child at the time of birth. But there is something disconnected and brutal about a situation where the parents have a cold written understanding and agreement that one of them will abandon their normal parental responsibilities. I don’t really know how they could ever expect their offspring to respect them or their irresponsible choices.

  3. My parents donor is my father

    “I think what you mean (and I do not mean to assign this to you, so let me know if I’m wrong) is that today the disconnection is planned from the beginning–I might choose to use a sperm donor who will have no relationship with the child? And you might say that in Silas Marner the disconnection wasn’t planned in the same way?”

    Did they have sex with the purpose to create a new life that would be intentionally disconnected from his father? There is no such thing as a sperm or egg ‘donor’ in relation to the child – regardless of who raises the child. The practice of ‘donation’ is in relation to the adults involved – an intentional social relationship disconnect to the child – yes, planned pre-conception to fill the desires of adults.

    If the child was conceived simply as a result of a sexual recreational activity, that wasn’t intentional but yes, later intentionally disconnected – probably for the child’s best interest.

    • I think I’d agree that in the case that of what I’ll call sperm donation for the moment (I do this for ease of reference–not to gloss over your point. I don’t really think the term captures the practice either, though for reasons different from yours) the desires of the adults are crucial. The adults involve choose this path for their reasons. This is not to say they are not concerned with the child (and perhaps here we disagree?) but they choice does reflect the desires of the adults.

      Could I say the same of adults (or quasi-adults–thinking here of teenagers?) who engage in recreational sex without any thought of conception that might result? (I’m sorry I cannot recall if this is the Silas Marner story.) In fact, it might even be more adult centered. There is no thought at all given to the possible resulting child. (The people using sperm donation obviously are thinking very much about the child.)

      There’s a fine distinction here that warrants more attention and I cannot do it just now in this response. But you’ve raised something quite interesting and I really will try and get back to it.

      I also want to make sure I understand your last comment. Are you saying that if the child is the result of recreational sex, let’s assume absent a substantial relationship between the adults, then the subsequent intentional disconnection of child from genetic parent might be in the child’s best interest?

  4. “…then the subsequent intentional disconnection of child from genetic parent might be in the child’s best interest?” Yes, if one or both show no interest in (or have resentment towards or prove lack of ability in) raising the child.

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